A New Vietnamese Superhero

Book Review of Green Lantern Legacy by Minh Lê
September 8, 2020

While the mention of jade can conjure up Chinese jewelry and figurines, the award-winning writer and graphic novelist Minh Lé transposes this cultural artifact into the realm of science fiction. A jade ring passed down from family generations serves as an antique object that inspires a reimagining of a longstanding icon in the DC Comics universe. In his first graphic novel, Green Lantern Legacy, Lé takes a new cultural spin on Green Lantern — a superhero who draws incredible powers from the aid of a magical ring.

As Vietnamese immigrants, 13-year old Tai Pham and his family must endure recurring acts of violence and racial discrimination, including a brick that smashes their storefront window at the story’s inception. One night, Tai’s grandmother passes away, and he discovers a jade ring she left behind for him. This heirloom magically leads him to a storage closet where he finds a note scrawled on a scrap of paper that reads: “In brightest day, in blackest night … No evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil’s might beware my power … Green Lantern’s Light!”

Upon reciting this incantation, Tai is thrust into an extraordinary world where he learns that his late grandmother once served on an elite team of space cops known as the Green Lantern Corps. They are governed by a race of immortals known as the Guardians, an intergalactic organization of sentient beings imbued with superpowers to enforce law and justice in the universe. From there, the story of Bà Nôi, Tai’s grandmother, unfolds as Tai learns of her sacrifices to secure a better life for her children when she immigrated to America. Thus begins the tale of Tai’s heritage. Lé weaves the cultural richness and history of the Vietnamese American experience with superhero myths, all set against the prototypical immigrant theme of preserving a family legacy.

Young Tai plays a major role at the forefront of the narrative action, occupying many of the panel sequences. As he learns to harness newfound powers, sinister forces threaten to seize his power. Green Lantern Legacy represents one of several burgeoning titles geared toward adolescent readers by DC Zoom, an imprint of DC Comics for middle school readers. Lé has created a strong character out of Tai whose creative mind and imagination integrates naturally with the essence of Green Lantern’s abilities — contained in the form of a jade ring whose powers are activated and strengthened by one’s singular will and imagination. This ring channels its energy through whatever tangible thoughts its wearer conjures up, and from there these thoughts come to life, energized by Tai’s vibrant imagination. As the classic adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and Tai, along with a diverse group of friends, grapples with using his superpowers for the public good, whether it be stopping a lone kid from being bullied or protecting his family’s store from vandals.

Phosphorescent colors of the different Green Lanterns throughout time and space complement Lé’s storytelling, accentuating their supernatural powers captured in animated panels by illustrator Andie Tong and colorist Sarah Stern. From full page, action-packed scenes to the warm, lush summer hues of flashbacks signifying the boat journey of Tai’s grandmother, the Green Lantern mythos parallels cultural values instilled within Tai’s family in their struggle to adapt to American society amidst blatant acts of bigotry. Just as the Green Lantern Corps is charged with upholding law and order in the universe, so must Tai’s family fight for social justice to secure their place in American society.

Alongside an increasing cadre of Asian American superheroes like Batgirl (Cassandra Cain), Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), and Silk (Cindy Moon), Green Lantern Legacy packs action and heart into this reimagined rendering of a classic superhero. Not only do these characters of Asian descent possess agency in the plotlines, but Asian American writers are reinventing and shaping their stories with a renewed cultural lens. By integrating thematic elements of self-identity, love, fear, power and justice, Lé sets the stage for further exploration into Tai’s adventures. Moreover, he handles heartfelt depictions of Vietnamese American culture and history with care and even includes a handy glossary of Vietnamese terms. In addition to superhero elements that deliver a healthy dose of action tempered by loving scenes of Tai and his grandmother, the enduring legacy of family generations linked by a jade ring grounds the story in an affectionate way, one that will inspire both young and old readers alike.