Review: ‘Superman Smashes The Klan Part One’
Superman Smashes The Klan Part One
Writer: Gene Luen Yang
DC Comics; $7.99
Rated E for Everyone
The 1940-1951 radio serial Adventures of Superman was both hugely successful and hugely influential, introducing not only many of the iconic turns of phrase used to talk about the character, but also significant narrative elements like Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s one weakness, kryptonite. Of the many radio adventures of the Man of Steel, none is more famous than the 16-part 1946 story, “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.”
The story of that story is a powerful one, chronicling as it does an instance of the comic book superhero reaching beyond the confines of his fictional status to strike a blow for truth and justice in the real world. Often told and retold—in fact, it was the subject of an entire 2012 book—the story of the story is likely familiar to anyone with a passing interest in 20th century superhero comics.
Activist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, and, finding local law enforcement reluctant to do anything about the resurgent hate group, he approached the producers of the Superman radio show, supposedly passing along real-life passwords and secret codes which were revealed in the episodes to thwart the Klan. Regardless of whether or not that last bit was true, the storyline had the intended effect: Demystifying and demonizing the Klan to a generation of American children.
But while the story of that story has been repeatedly told, the story itself has never been re-told, at least not until cartoonist Gene Luen Yang joined with the art team Gurihiru to adapt it into a three-issue comic book series, Superman Smashes The Klan.
Yang is perhaps the ideal cartoonist to tackle such an adaptation, and not simply because, as he writes in his “Superman and Me” essay that follows the first chapter of the comic, the Chinese-American family in “Clan of The Fiery Cross” was a rare example of people who looked like him showing up in a Superman story.
Yang launched what quickly became a quite prolific career with a compelling original graphic novel meditation on race and ethnicity with American Born Chinese, and he has often returned to subjects related to racial identity, sometimes through the prism of myth and religion as in his Boxers and Saints and other times through the prism of the superhero, as in The Shadow Hero.
There’s also the fact that Yang has been writing Superman off and on for DC Comics for years now, including a short stint on Superman and his introduction of a new teenage, Chinese answer to Superman in his New Super-Man comics.
As for Gurihiru, they have spent about 15 years producing great-looking superhero comics aimed at younger readers for Marvel, and their cartoony simplicity and animation-inspired sense of dynamism couldn’t be a more perfect fit for the Superman of the 1940s, the Superman of Joe Shuster-drawn comics, Fleischer cartoons and, of course, The Adventures of Superman.
If one has the interest in it and the patience for it, one can listen to “Clan of The Fiery Cross” today on YouTube and elsewhere online. Yang’s script for the first of the three books in the series actually tracks pretty closely to the plot, with some notable changes. Here, the action opens with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen interrupting a would-be super-villain named “The Atom Man” from his villainous business by requesting an interview, at which point Superman makes his appearance to punch-out the bad guy…and discover a strange green, glowing mineral powering Atom Man’s high-tech apparatus, a mineral that makes Superman weak and sick like never before. (The reminder that America just got done fighting a war against a bunch of guys obsessed with racial purity is an important one, as it clearly positions the KKK-types as the enemies of America).
From there, we meet the Lee family, a Chinese-American family moving from Metropolis’ Chinatown to a new house in a nicer, whiter part of town, as Mr. Lee has just gotten a job with the city’s health department. Mr. and Mrs. Lee and their children, Tommy and Roberta, are immediately confronted by a variety of reactions, from nice and welcoming to well-meaning but offensive cluelessness to out-and-out racism .
Tommy makes quite an impression when he tries out for the Unity House baseball team, managed by Jimmy Olsen, and he inadvertently makes an enemy of young Chuck Riggs…whose uncle Matt happens to be a colleague of Mr. Lee’s…and who also just so happens to be the “Grand Scorpion” in the comic’s KKK-like Klan of the Fiery Kross.
Roberta, an addition of Yang’s to the story, narrates her portion of the story, while Superman serves as co-narrator, and several of his scenes are rather dramatic departures from the source story as well. Yang uses the introduction of kryptonite into the story as a springboard for Superman’s dwelling on his alien origins, as after he’s first exposed to it, he starts to have visions of himself as a green-skinned, red-eyed alien with antennae and has dreams from his childhood, wherein Ma and Pa Kent are replaced by aliens, speaking to him in an alien language (Kryptonian, obviously; if you have a copy of the last Superman comic I discussed here, Art Baltazar and Franco’s Superman of Smallville, there’s a Kryptonian alphabet in the back that you can use to translate the dialogue in this comic, if you’re so inclined).
These sequences serve to tie Superman directly and personally into the experiences of the Lees and other victims of the sorts of prejudices that reach their fullest, ugliest expression in the Klan. Superman’s not just there to provide an example of how we should treat people, nor is he involved simply because the Lee children are friends with Jimmy. No, Superman, as excellent as he might be at “passing,” is really the ultimate “other.” It’s not something so insignificant as skin color, ethnicity, or national origin that separates Superman from others; he’s literally a different species. No immigrant to America has come here from quite so far away as Superman has. (Yang toyed with this idea of Superman as the ultimate immigrant in the conclusion of The Shadow Hero, where the Superman-like analogue hero revealed to The Green Turtle that “my parents aren’t from around here, either”)
Stylistically, Yang and Gurihiru have created something that is about as close to a perfect Superman comic as one is likely to find, particularly one featuring the Golden Age version of the character. But it’s not just a great superhero comic. It is also, and quite unfortunately, a relevant one.
The message of the original “The Clan of The Fiery Cross,” that groups that play dress-up and talk about racial purity, rail against immigrants, and decide who is and who isn’t “really” American are bad guys to be reviled is perhaps as important and as necessary today as it was during Superman’s radio career.
It’s just too bad that Superman’s comics of today, no matter how well-made, don’t have nearly the same reach as his radio show did.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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