In mid-1944, arguably the first Chinese, or generally East Asian, superhero was introduced in Blazing Comics (published by the Chicago-based Rural Home Publishing Co.). He was called the Green Turtle, and for the next five issues he fought to help the Chinese overthrow the conquering army of Imperial Japan. The Green Turtle (also referred to by the Chinese version of his name, Ching Quai) was created, and all stories were written and drawn, by Chu Hing, a Chinese-American who didn’t have many other credits in the field.
The Green Turtle had a secret HQ somewhere “in the Tibetan mountains.” He wore a costume that consisted only of a cowl, the typical superhero short shorts, gloves, boots and a voluminous cape bearing an image of a giant tortoise. He was exceptionally adept at hand-to-hand combat, but otherwise didn’t seem to have any superpowers. Except, maybe, his shadow, which resembled a a giant turtle, and had a face of its own, or rather glowing eyes and a big grimacing mouth. This was never addressed in the stories.
From his base, the Green Turtle flew into occupied China in a powerful fighter jet to foil plots and punish other misdeeds perpetrated by the Japanese military. His supporting cast consisted of his trusty servant, Wun Too, a young war orphan only called Burma Boy, and Ra Tin, the daughter of a Chinese dignitary who was slain by Japanese soldiers (the story of how the latter two joined the Turtle is told in the first issue).
An interesting detail is that the big introductory splash panel in each story had a vertical bar that contains a phrase rendered in Chinese characters with a translation, like this one from the second issue:
So, I said above that the Green Turtle was “arguably” the first Chinese (or Chinese-American) superhero. This is because his ethnicity is not entirely clear in the original stories. First, the vast amount of skin he showed in that skimpy costume was colored in the conventional pinkish tone used in comics to denote Caucasians. Furthermore, he never says he’s Chinese, nor does any other character in the stories. Apparently – and most of this is based on speculation by later writers and comics historians – Chu fully intended for the Green Turtle to be Chinese, while the publishers/editors were leery about a non-white hero. And so, again according to later speculation, Chu protested this editorial interference by never providing a clear look at the Green Turtle’s face, masked as it is, in any of the stories. He’s always depicted either from the back, or there’s something obscuring at least half of his face, like his own arm.
Apart from these intriguing general aspects, though, the actual stories are pretty standard Golden Age fare. The basic plot of each is pretty similar: a dastardly Japanese commander is up to no good, the Green Turtle gets wind of it, comes in, busts some heads and saves the day. And not surprisingly, the stories are also marred by the racial attitudes of the time, which included very liberal use of racist slurs for Japanese people (something that I also found quite noticeable in Golden Age Wonder Woman stories) and the typical horribly caricatured depictions of all Japanese characters. Even though Chu’s hostility to Japan may have been understandable given wartime events in China, the ugly portrayals of the Japanese are still quite troubling, given that at that time and later the same or similar depictions were aimed at Chinese and pretty much all other East Asian peoples.
As noted at the start, after only five issues of Blazing Comics (with the Turtle even losing his place as the cover feature in the fifth issue), the Green Turtle disappeared and was apparently forgotten by almost everyone but the most dedicated fans of obscure Golden Age characters and a few comic book historians (e.g., he gets a brief write-up in the otherwise magisterial 1940s edition of American Comic Book Chronicles by Kurt Mitchell).
Something that’s teased through the brief run of original Green Turtle stories is who, in fact, he is and his origin. He keeps promising to tell his sidekick, Burma Boy, but it never happens. And the blurb on the last panel of the last Green Turtle story in Blazing reads: “But who is the Green Turtle?”
Seven decades later, comics writer and artist extraordinaire Gene Luen Yang decided to furnish an answer to that question. Working with artist Sonny Liew, he tells the complete origin story of the Green Turtle in the wonderful graphic novel, The Shadow Hero.
Here we learn how the Green Turtle got his start, the secret behind his mysterious smiling (or smirking) shadow, and even why his skin had that pinkish hew. According to Yang, the Green Turtle is Henry ‘Hank’ Chu, the son of two Chinese immigrants living in the bustling California coastal city of San Incendio (a thinly disguised San Francisco) in the 1930s. His mother works as a housekeeper and occasional chauffeur for a well-to-do white family, while his mild-mannered father owns and operates a small grocery store in the city’s Chinese quarter.
Hank grew up helping his dad run the shop and is perfectly content with the idea of simply taking over the business. However, his rather ambitious mother – after being rescued from a carjacking by a powerful local superhero known as Anchor of Justice – gets it into her head that her son should become a superhero, so he can, among other things, take on organized crime in their neighborhood. She even makes a costume for him…
…and initially makes some simultaneously hilarious and horrifying attempts to get him superpowers. Then she decides it might be best to have him undergo rigorous physical training, a la Batman. So she enlists the aid of a former childhood sweetheart who’s apparently some kind of expert in martial arts. Hank, naturally, is adamant in his refusal to go along with his mother’s outlandish schemes. But as the story progresses, he gets sucked into the superheroing (due in part to a tragic event) and reluctantly begins to accept the idea.
Of course, this is more than just an origin story for an obscure Golden Age character. Yang – as usual if you’ve read anything else he’s done – explores so many other themes here, such as, for example, the immigrant experience and families dancing on the edge of dysfunction. It’s all told with light touches of humor and so much heart, and Sonny Liew’s art is absolutely delightful.
I can’t praise this book enough, and it’s a really nice overall package. Yang writes an afterward that briefly covers the background of the original Green Turtle stories and explains his motive for writing this book. The first Green Turtle story from Blazing Comics #1 is also reprinted (if you’re interested in reading the rest, they can easily be found online at either the Digital Comics Museum or Comic Book Plus).
Needless to say, once I got to the end of Yang and Liew’s story, I found myself wanting to read more of this Green Turtle’s adventures, as they set up a really fun and fascinating world and supporting cast for him. I’d love to see Yang and Liew tackle the Green Turtle’s transition from the street-level champion of justice in Chinatown to the guerilla fighter who flies around in a rocket plane in occupied China. It’ll probably never happen, but a guy can dream, can’t he?