On Spider-Man, Puppet Monkeys, and Saturday Morning Chinese School

I’ve loved superheroes ever since the first episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. Remember that show? If you’re a child of the 80s like me, I’m sure you do. It was my favorite. Spider-Man was just okay, but his friends? Iceman made his costume out of a giant ice cube! And Firestar made hers from a giant ball of microwave radiation! Amazing!

I could never watch the show during its actual broadcast time because of “weekend cultural commitments”—Saturday morning Chinese school, in other words. Chinese school was a nonnegotiable with my parents. “Pay attention to your teacher or you’ll regret it later,” my parents would tell me. “Chinese will be very useful in the future.”

I didn’t believe them. After all, neither Spider-Man nor his amazing friends spoke Chinese, and who’s more futuristic than human beings who can manipulate elements like fire and ice and… uh… webbing?

Every Saturday, I’d wake up early and set up the family VCR to record my show. I don’t think the concept of “user interface” had been invented yet, because VCRs back then were utterly incomprehensible. You would push a few buttons, watch a few digits flash on the LED display, and hope for the best. Half the time it’d work.

The other half, I’d accidentally record some kids’ show with a puppet monkey. I don’t remember the name of it, and I’m sure it was a fine show, but seeing that monkey appear on the screen after a morning’s worth of reciting Chinese was like getting punched in the stomach by the Universe. Man, I hated that monkey.

But like I said, half the time it worked. Half the time, I’d watch Spider-Man, Iceman, and Firestar take down the Green Goblin or Loki or Dr. Doom, and I was in heaven.

I began collecting comic books a few years later, in part because Chinese school couldn’t get in the way of my comics-reading experience. I would never open a Spider-Man comic to find a puppet monkey waiting for me.

The Shadow Hero Gene Luen Yang Sonny Liew The Green Turtle Chronicles I’ve been working in comics for the better part of two decades now, and I’ve finally completed my first superhero comic book. The Shadow Hero, written by me and illustrated by my amazing friend Sonny Liew, is being released by First Second Books as six digital issues, the first of which is available right now. First Second plans to release the trade paperback collection in the summer, just in time for Comic-Con.

Sonny and I tell the story of Hank Chu, a teenager living in a fictional 1930’s Chinatown. He struggles with his parents’ expectations, especially his mother’s. Instead of forcing him to go to Chinese school, she forces him to become a superhero.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to indulge my childhood love of the genre. For a while, I’d tell myself that the other corners of the American comics industry were more interesting, that Frank Miller and Alan Moore had told all the superhero stories worth telling two decades ago. But then Mark Waid, Greg Pak, Gail Simone, Cliff Chiang, and their ilk would prove me wrong time and time again. Superheroes are as vital as they ever were.

I have to confess, writing The Shadow Hero was downright cathartic. Maybe telling the story of a Chinese kid who puts on a cape is my inner eight-year-old’s way of making up for all those episodes of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends that I missed.

Sonny and I start off every issue of The Shadow Hero with a giant banner of the issue’s title, written in both English and Chinese. I had to ask Sonny to take care of the Chinese because, regretfully, I hadn’t paid attention to my Chinese school teacher.

So my parents were right after all.

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 adaptation 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.


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