Day 6

Why the Green Turtle might be the world's first Asian-American superhero

As Marvel fans attend theatres this long weekend to watch Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang joins Day 6 to help shed light on a character who might just be the world's first Asian-American superhero.

Cartoonist Gene Luen Yang helps shed light on a forgotten chapter of American comics history

Cover image from Blazing Comics #2, published July 1944. Following the massive success of characters like Batman and Superman, artists during the Golden Age of Comic Books attempted to capitalize by releasing their own crime-fighting superheroes. The Green Turtle, created by Chu F. Hing, was one such hero. (Chu F. Hing/Rural Home)

This story contains images from comic books published in the 1940s, which include racially insensitive material.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Marvel's first blockbuster film with an Asian character in the lead role. While the character also happens to be one of Marvel Comics' first Asian superheroes — debuting in 1973 — cartoonist Gene Luen Yang is helping shed light on a character who might be the world's first Asian-American superhero: The Green Turtle. 

"It's totally debatable, but from my perspective, yes, yes, I think he [is]," said Yang. 

Admittedly, the acclaimed author of American Born Chinese wasn't immediately impressed when he learned about the character.

"He's kind of a Batman ripoff," Yang told Day 6 guest host Faith Fundal. "He dresses up in this green turtle cape, he flies around in a turtle plane, he operates out of a turtle cave."

American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang is the acclaimed author of American Born Chinese. In 2014, he collaborated with Singaporean illustrator Sonny Liew to release a soft reboot of Chu F. Hing's Green Turtle character. Yang is also working on a Shang-Chi series for Marvel Comics, alongside a team of Chinese diaspora artists. (Albert Law)

"But the one thing that did catch my imagination was the fact that he might be the very first Asian-American superhero."

Who was the Green Turtle? 

Debuting in the short-lived Blazing Comics publication in 1944 — less than a decade after the first appearances of Superman and Batman — the Green Turtle was created by Chinese-American artist Chu F. Hing.

Like many American superhero characters published during the Golden Age of Comic Books from 1938 to 1956, the Green Turtle fought against the Axis powers during the Second World War.

"He was an emblem fighting to preserve China against Japanese invaders," said Jeff Yang, a columnist for CNN, cultural critic and author of the upcoming book ​​Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.

The Green Turtle's identity was obscured in Chu F. Hing's original five-issue run. The character was rarely depicted from the front. If he was, like in this cover of Blazing Comics #3, the character's face was hidden from readers. (Chu F. Hing/Rural Home)

Unlike other superheroes of the time, however, readers never learned the Green Turtle's secret identity.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that the story would have been both easier to tell and frankly more comprehensible to read if it had been clearer and more obvious that the hero behind the mask was Chinese," Yang said.

Artistic workarounds, editorial interference

Rumours suggest that Chu F. Hing's decision to hide the Green Turtle's identity was in response to editorial oversight. 

"Supposedly, Chu wanted [the Green Turtle] to be a Chinese-American superhero," Gene Luen Yang said. "He wanted to create the Green Turtle as a Chinese-American, like he himself was, but his publishers wouldn't let him do it."

So Hing reacted in "this really passive-aggressive way," according to Yang, by repeatedly obscuring the Green Turtle's face. 

Like other Golden Age heroes, the Green Turtle fought against the Axis forces during the Second World War. While Captain America fought in the European theatre, the Green Turtle fought alongside the Chinese against the Imperial Japanese Army. (Chu F. Hing/Rural Home)

"[The Green Turtle] almost always has his back towards us, so all we see is his cape," Yang said. "Or when he is turned around, something is blocking his face."

"Supposedly, [Hing] did this so that he and his readers could imagine the Green Turtle as he originally intended — as a Chinese-American."

Who was Chu F. Hing? 

Hing worked for Marvel when it was known as Timely Comics, said Yang. But there are very few biographical details that could shed light on his personal life, or the creative decisions in his work.

"He had a career in comics, but he wasn't one of the more famous creators," said Yang.

According to research published by graphic designer Alex Jay, who runs the Chinese American Eyes blog, Hing was born in Hawaii in 1897 and attended art school in Chicago, where he eventually met his future wife Helga Marie Jensen. Hing died in 1967. 

Few biographical details remain about Green Turtle creator Chu F. Hing. Records indicate he was born in Hawaii in 1897 and died in 1967. (Chinese American Eyes)

Most modern readers have likely never heard of the Green Turtle because there were at the time "hundreds and hundreds of these really obscure characters that nobody ever talks about anymore," according to Yang.

"Everybody saw the success of Superman and Batman, and they wanted a piece of that success for themselves," said Yang, adding that the Green Turtle only appeared in five issues of Blazing Comics, while the series itself only lasted "six or seven issues."

The Shadow Hero returns 

The Green Turtle would have likely faded into obscurity, if not for enthusiast blogs and a key collaboration between Yang and Singaporean illustrator Sonny Liew in 2014. 

That year, the two published a six-issue miniseries featuring a reboot of the Green Turtle character. The character's name remained the same, but the miniseries was released as a single volume titled The Shadow Hero

Yang explained that he saw Hing's Green Turtle run as "this hole in American comics history that I really wanted to fill."

In addition to giving the Green Turtle an alter-ego — Hank Chu — Yang and Liew also developed a new backstory cementing the Green Turtle as the son of two Chinese-American immigrants.

In 2014, Yang and Liew collaborated on a reboot of the Green Turtle, released as a six-issue miniseries titled The Shadow Hero. (Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew)

"I really wanted to use the Green Turtle as a way of talking about the Asian-American experience," Yang said. 

Hank Chu is a reluctant hero, pushed into superheroics by his mother who "really wants him to be the ideal American."

"Eventually, he has to figure out his own way of being a superhero in the same way we immigrant kids have to figure out our own way of being American."

The Shang-Chi of it all

Yang isn't directly connected with the Shang-Chi film, but he's currently working on Marvel's latest Shang-Chi comic series in collaboration with a team of Chinese diaspora creators. 

Despite few connections between the two characters, Yang says "the tension at the root of each of their characters is the same."

"The Green Turtle, the way Sonny and I interpreted him, is a superhero who lives in-between East and West," Yang said.

Mississauga, Ont.'s Simu Liu as the eponymous protagonist in Marvel Studios' Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Jasin Boland)

Yang says he sees Shang-Chi, a Chinese immigrant, in much the same way. 

"He has to express the best of what humanity is, but East and West have slightly different ideas about what that even means. And he has to navigate that."

Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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