Superheroes are about America. They were invented in America and they are most popular in America. Superheroes grew into a cultural force in the 1940’s, when America was growing into her role as a superpower. At their best, superheroes express America at our best. They embody our ideals of courage, justice, and sticking up for the little guy.
Superheroes are also about immigrants. Superman, the prototype of all superheroes, is a prototypical immigrant. His homeland was in crisis, so his parents sent him to America in search of a better life. He has two names, one American, Clark Kent, and the other foreign, Kal-El. He wears two sets of clothes and lives in between two cultures. He loves his new country, but a part of him still longs for his old one.
Superman’s negotiation of identities reflects a daily reality for immigrants and their children. It’s no coincidence that Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane—the creators behind the world’s most famous superheroes—were all children of immigrants.
And maybe that’s why I loved superheroes so much when I was a kid. My parents are immigrants. Like Superman, I had two names, one American and the other foreign. I, too, lived in between two cultures. When he travelled from America to the bottle city of Kandor, one of the few remnants of his home culture, I felt a kinship with him. It was a bit like the shift from public school to Chinese language school that I had to go through every Saturday.
I’m certainly not the first to notice the connection between superheroes and immigrants. Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma constructed two comics anthologies around the idea: Secret Identities and Shattered. Both feature stories of Asian American superheroes by Asian American writers and artists.
In our graphic novel The Shadow Hero, available from First Second Books later this year, illustrator Sonny Liew and I explore the immigrant experience through the genre of superheroes. We tell the story of Hank Chu, a Chinese American teenager in 1930’s, a child of two immigrants. He loves working in his family’s modest grocery store, but his mother has bigger plans for him. She wants him to become a superhero and embody the excitement of their new home. As Hank learns to be a superhero, he also learns to be an American.
The following comic strip is the first of seven, originally published in black-and-white in the aforementioned Shattered comics anthology. Sonny and I are presenting it here, in color for the first time. We show Hank a little further in his superhero career, a few months after the events of our graphic novel.
You can start reading it here. We hope you enjoy it.
Gene Luen Yang’s first book with First Second, American Born Chinese, is now in print in over ten languages and was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Printz Award. Yang’s other works include the popular comics adapation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the New York Times Best-Selling graphic novel diptych Boxers & Saints. The Shadow Hero, the story of the first Asian-American superhero is his most recent graphic novel. It will be published in six e-issues; the first ‘The Green Turtle Chronicles,’ will be on sale on February 18th.