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Review: Superman Smashes The Klan

Writer: Gene Luen Yang

Artist: Gurihiru

Letterer: Janice Chiang

Publisher: DC Comics

Running from February 1940 to February 1951, “The Adventures of Superman” (sponsored by cereal tycoon Kellogg’s Products) was America’s #1 serialized radio program at the time, having aired some 2,088 episodes – each 15-minutes long, and five times a week – over its decade-long life. It starred the voice talents of George Lowther (and later Jackson Beck and Ross Martin) as the Narrator; Bud Collyer (later Michael Fitzmaurice) as Clark Kent/Superman; Rolly Bester/Helen Choate/Joan Alexander as Lois Lane; Julian Noa as Perry White and Jackie Kelk/Jack Grimes as James “Jimmy” Olsen. The show also had guest appearances by Batman (voiced by Matt Crowley, then Stacy Harris and Gary Merrill) and Robin (voiced by Ronal Liss). It was also noteworthy for introducing lasting elements to the Superman mythos, like the aforementioned Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, as well as the Daily Planet, and the infamous Achilles heel McGuffin “kryptonite”. Still, no arc was as famous or as groundbreaking as the landmark 16-episode story entitled “Clan of the Fiery Cross”, which debuted on June 10th, 1946. In the encapsulating episodes, Superman – the most popular fictional character at the time – boldly takes down a gang of “robed, hooded white supremacists” who have attacked an immigrant Chinese-American family who has moved to Metropolis.

Characters from ‘Superman Smashes The Klan’. Art credit Gurihiru/ DC Comics.

It was obvious when the story premiered that the producers, writers and those involved with “The Adventures of Superman” radio show were emboldened to take a firm stance against the resurging popularity of the violent and bigoted organization known as the Ku Klux Klan. From the mannerisms, rhetoric and stanch beliefs of the fictional “Clan of the Fiery Cross” depicted in the audio-program, it was clearly an overt stand-in for the real-life organization who perpetrated heinous crimes and atrocities against not only African-Americans, but Jews, Mexicans and Asians. In fact, the difference in name only was a way of escaping legal backlash from the actual Klan – who still had strong political and social clout throughout the United States –  for defamation and slander.

Characters from ‘Superman Smashes The Klan’. Art credit Gurihiru/ DC Comics.

As expected, after the episodes aired, the reputation and perception of the Klan was tarnished by having the widely admired character of Superman – himself a paragon of virtue and the “American ideal” – take a stance against their beliefs and actions. Conversely, the Klan fired back, denouncing the show and retaliated with death threats and boycotting not just the show, but its sponsor’s products.  However, the positive feedback by listeners were overwhelming, and Kellogg’s continued to endorse the show.

But as time rolled on, and technology and the world advanced, the significant impact of that story faded from memory and the social consciousness.

Now, over seventy years later, that revolutionary arc is revitalized in (more permanent) comic book form thanks to writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Gurihiru. Gene Luen Yang himself is a Chinese-American, who has had his run-ins with racial prejudice; which made this story a personal one as well. In fact, as mentioned before, the catalyst of the story was Superman saving an immigrant Chinese-American family, which rung deeply for Yang. Re-christened “Superman Smashes the Klan”, it’s a faithful retelling and adaptation of that old 16-episode arc with much subtler nuances. It is a three-issue volume (each book over 70-pages long).

Characters from ‘Superman Smashes The Klan’. Art credit Gurihiru/ DC Comics.

Keeping the time period of 1946 when it originally aired, the story once again follows the Lee family, Chinese-Americans who move from Metropolis’ Chinatown to the suburbs. Whereas the radio show focused on the father Dr. Lee and son Tommy, Yang’s retelling focuses primarily on Roberta “Lan-Shin” Lee, and the challenges this monumental immigration poses. While little is explored of Roberta’s parents, her relationship with her older brother is phenomenally executed and makes up a significant part of the story. Roberta, who suffers from severe motion-sickness, is perpetually nervous and struggles with being awkward around people in general. Her brother Tommy is much more extroverted, being able to make friends virtually instantaneously. They’re sibling dynamic comes off quite genuinely, with neither “hating” the other, but finding it hard get along 100% of the time.

In short order, the Lee kids run afoul of “the Grand Scorpion”, and become the targets of “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”, a clandestine pseudo-religion radical group based on staunch white supremacy and homogenous nationalism. A “fiery cross” on Lee’s lawn, quickly escalates into more dangerous and bolder acts of domestic terrorism throughout the three books. Peppered throughout these harrowing events we find Roberta interacting with various people in the suburbs, and how she feels and can’t seem to fit in – unlike her brother. Roberta however displays a strong sense of justice, willing to stand up for what she believes is right, and even has the intellectual acumen of an investigative reporter; as her sleuthing and intuition drives much of the plot against the Clan of the Fiery Cross.

Characters from ‘Superman Smashes The Klan’. Art credit Gurihiru/ DC Comics.

Superman himself doesn’t directly get involved until Tommy is kidnapped near the end of Book 1. But that’s not to say Superman doesn’t have his own B-plot going on; and is a nice way of both comparing and contrasting the two protagonists. Superman’s struggle to is a psychological one, coming to grips with his extraterrestrial heritage and the fears of people if they knew he was “alien”. This leaves Superman “handicapped” in a sense, reluctant to use or expose his other extraordinary powers like flight, x-ray vision, and heat vision, simply because regular folk can’t do that. Accompanied by poignant flashbacks, it greatly humanizes the character of Clark Kent, which makes the drive to “fit in” all that more relatable for someone who is “different”. The B-plot is instigated by Superman’s first exposure to kryptonite, which leads to increasing hallucinations of his quite alien-looking parents “haunting” him throughout the story.

Another character worth noting is that of Chuck Riggs, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young boy living with his mom and uncle, raised on the teaching of the Clan of the Fiery Cross, but who is also a big fan of Superman (a white man with super powers). When he is exposed to the more extreme practices of his uncle’s organization, Chuck has a crisis of conscience. Despite his “affiliations” Chuck always does the right thing, showing an inherent goodness in a boy raised on hate and intolerance as being natural and preferred. While Roberta is unable to see any “good” in Chuck, Tommy is quick to point it out and forgive him; even to the point of seeing him as a friend. For what its worth, Chuck’s redemption arc is well established and offers a nice alternate perspective.

At the conclusion of the story, everything comes to ahead, as the Clan’s ulterior motives are discovered, leading to a mano-y-mano showdown between the Grand Scorpion and Superman for the “heart” of Metropolis. It realistically hammers home the point that bigotry in all of its forms cannot be “punched” or rooted out with “x-ray vision”. That ideals will always persevere, making Superman’s struggles against such strong beliefs a truly never-ending battle.

Given the subject matter, it could have easily gone extremely, overbearingly harsh and preachy or extremely inoffensive to the point of a dumbed down pantomime drowned in jovial “tomfoolery”. Yang finds a nice balance of avoiding those extreme; not sugar-coating the violent tendencies or beliefs of the Klan, while still having plenty of opportunities of lighthearted fun. On second reading, I noticed a running gag of Klansman getting burnt and kicked in the shin/knee. Conversely, there is plenty of racist rhetoric in the book, and people having genuine arguments on the topic of racism and the ideas behind it, and even the often ignored “subconscious” racism is highlighted; but it’s not heavy-handed or ham-fisted. It’s a nice, wholesome balance I think very few could have effectively executed.

Characters from ‘Superman Smashes The Klan’. Art credit Gurihiru/ DC Comics.

In terms of art-style, anyone familiar with Gurihiru’s work on X-Babies/A-Babies, Power Pack or the Nickelodeon Avatar comics knows what to expect. In other words, it’s like 2D Pixar animation; gorgeously amusing. That bright, clean and colorful unique take is a perfect fit for Yang’s story. The facial expressions and movements are very animated and a joy to take in. I especially like that Superman sports a Fleisher-esque design (taking cues from the 1940s Paramount produced animated serials where Superman’s insignia was a black diamond with a yellow border and stylish font red “S” – I myself am a big fan of those classic cartoon shorts). The volume of exquisite art alone is worth the purchase price.

I thoroughly enjoyed this wholesome 3-part graphic novel. Whether you are an optimistic adult or want a good, enjoyable, educational, and positive comic to introduce to your kids (especially daughters), Superman Smashes the Klan should be a must on your list. I must also emphasize that each book is bookended with brief, interesting, and informative historical vignettes about racism in American history, the history of the KKK and Yang’s own childhood experiences, and Superman in the 1940s, which adds tremendously to the overall package. It’s these types of stories I point to when people argue “Superman isn’t relatable”. At the end of the day, Superman Smashes the Klan is much more than Superman taking on elements of bigotry and hatred in the guise of hooded generic bad guys; it’s also about how a shy, little Chinese-American girl taught the Man of Steel how to fly.

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Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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