Why SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN is the Most Important Superman Story You’ll Ever Read

By David A. Skelton

There have been many brilliant and relevant Superman stories that “get the character right” in the eyes of many Superman fans. All-Star Superman brings together diverse aspects of Superman’s history, Birthright and Secret Origins compellingly modernize his origin story, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way? gets at the heart of Superman’s philosophy, and Superman: Rebirth tugs at your heartstrings by making Superman into a father.[1] As “must-read” as all these stories are, if there was one single Superman story I could hand to a friend, I would pick none of these. The gold standard is now Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Smashes the Klan. Yang gets at the heart of why people have been enamored with Superman since two children of Jewish immigrants first invented him in 1938 while also giving us a master class on how to make a story both morally and politically relevant.SMSK_242-001_HD_5eb4a7e1e957c3.11199463

Superman Smashes the Klan is part of the DC Zoom imprint aimed at young readers, and given how much my kids devoured it, I would say it’s a hit.[2] The story takes place in 1946 and loosely follows the plotline of the episode of the Adventures of Superman radio show from that same year entitled the “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”[3] While the comic story originally starts with Superman fighting the Atom Man—a Nazi villain created on the radio show and utilized in a Kirk Alyn Superman serial[4]—we are quickly introduced to Roberta Lee who is the actual main character of the story. This is a major change from the radio show in which the Lees are the recipients of the Klan’s violence but only Tommy and his father, Wan, are given a voice. Most of the narrative goes back and forth between Roberta and Superman’s perspective albeit with occasional interruptions for Lois’s investigation or interactions between Chuck and Matt Riggs to flesh out the Klan’s backstory. Pairing Roberta and Superman together is a genius move on Yang’s part. In the backmatter, Yang accentuates Superman’s original creators making him an alien who was forced to take another name different from the one he was given at birth. Yang notes the parallel between the bland American name, Clark Kent and Siegel and Shuster’s family giving themselves less Jewish sounding last names. Changing or “Americanizing” their names is something their parents felt compelled to do and is something many American immigrants still do in order to blend-in. Being an immigrant from the stars is something that separates Superman quite poignantly from his big blue counterpart over at Marvel[5] and is spotlighted brilliantly when viewed through the eyes of Roberta. They are each other’s foils in the best possible ways. Like Superman, she also struggles with having a “dual identity” or “double consciousness”[6] and feels alienated and alone in her struggle to figure out who she is. As they fight the Klan together, they both help each other fully embrace their true selves. She can be American without forsaking her Chinese family and Superman can be Kryptonian—heat vision and all—without disavowing the Kents, who raised him.[7]

As for the Klan, Yang also does an excellent job of humanizing them without taking away the atrociousness of their actions. Chuck Riggs calls Roberta and Tommy racist names, but is mostly afraid of losing his spot on the baseball team. He also sticks up for his Klansman uncle on several occasions because Uncle Matt was “there for my Mom and me ever since we lost my. . . ever since we needed him.” Even when Matt has kidnapped Tommy and sets a bomb in the Unity House, Chuck has a hard time believing his “family’s not evil” and opines to Tommy, “Is it really all that bad to want to live around people who look like you?” The question of what is America built on if it’s not shared blood or history is at the heart of the book with Superman suggesting a people can be “bound together by the Future.”  As much as Matt Riggs buys into the Klan’s ideology, we’re also shown that other members have their own motives, which makes them a difficult villain to punch-away with super strength. When neighbors, co-workers, and police officers can all be part of the Klan, as they are in this story, it is hard to tell who the real villains are.

As for the rest of the cast of characters, each one gets a moment in the spotlight. Lois is the first to uncover the connection between the Klan and Metropolis Health Department and becomes a role-model for Roberta, who has her own penchant for sleuthing. Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen, takes an active role in rescuing Tommy and welcoming the Lee kids into the Unity House. Perry White challenges the Klan by uncovering their dastardly deeds in the paper, which gets him into trouble later in the book. Yang borrows some of this from the radio show, but he always gives it just enough of a twist to make it feel original. He also gives Mama Lee quite a few endearing moments. One in particular involves Superman’s cape (I won’t spoil for you!), but I will say my favorite line of hers in the book is when she looks straight at Dr. Lee and says, “To hell with your English!” Finally, Inspector Henderson calms the Lees initially when they first discover the burning cross in their yard, and he takes an active part in helping take down members of the Klan later in the book. Making Henderson African-American (similar to CW’s Black Lightning) allows Yang to place black and Asian Americans in solidarity as they struggle with the Klan, which is an aspect of the real-life history he mentions in the backmatter.

Comic historians will also be enamored with how much attention Yang has paid to various aspects of Superman’s and DC Comics’ history. Along with the old radio show enemy, Atom Man, Yang acknowledges the change in Superman’s powers from the Golden Age to the Silver Age and the connection between the Superman suit and circus performers in Shuster’s original design for Action #1 (1938). These are not simply passing nods or Easter eggs either. They have distinctive episodes that are integral to the story’s immigrant theme. During the climactic battle, Matt Briggs tells Superman he is “one of us” which acknowledges that Superman passes as white and benefits from white privilege as do many immigrants. Furthermore, when Briggs tells Superman, “You are the true superior race!” one cannot help but think of the problematic nature of Superman representing the “American Way,” which is something he tackles in Action #900 (2011) by renouncing his American citizenship. A moment that may go unnoticed is the movie the Unity House children attend halfway through the book. It is called “Captain Desmo vs Gengis Ahkim.” This is a real, Flash Gordon-esque story from Adventure Comics #27 (1938) but the Ahkim’s design in Smashes the Klan does not mirror that one. Instead, Yang and Gurihiru make Ahkim look like the Chinese caricature on the cover of Detective Comics #1 (1937). While Roberta never acknowledges this stereotype, Yang does in the backmatter.[8] He holds no punches regarding racist blights in DC Comic’s past history, which he has covered more extensively elsewhere.[9]

The religion scholar in me would be remiss if I did not mention some of these elements in the book as well. The Unity House is called such because it is founded by Rabbi Stone, Father Shain, and Reverend Leeds. Yang introduces them by stating, “and this sounds like the setup of a joke,” which may be a slight jab at those who superficially try to bring about unity by making all religions appear the same.[x] Much of the Klan’s language is also couched in the language of religion. This is also true with the real life Klan and among other white supremist groups today.[xi] In one scene, the “Grand Scorpion” speaks of the “storied past of their rituals” before Lois reveals the $2.79 price tag on the sword he is carrying. They also frequently chant the same creedal statement, “One race! One color! One religion!” While Yang adapts this from the radio show, ideas such as this have been used throughout history to support slavery, genocide, and colonization, all in the name of “burning out impurity.”[xii] The Klan’s Grand Imperial Mogul’s interest in monetary gain over doctrinal purity is often a critique directed at religion in general and is another plot point Yang borrowed from the radio show.[xiii]

Because I am not trained as an artist, I have not said much about the art in the book. Like the writing, it is brilliant and stunning. Yang works here with the female-led Japanese art studio, Gurihiru and Janice Chiang, a long-time letterer in the business. Gurihiru gives the characters an anime style that feels appropriate to the book and allows them to makes the character’s feelings and facial expressions larger than life. Their Metropolis looks like a city from the future while also evoking a Golden Age of the past. Giving Superman an adapted version of his costume from the 1940s Max Fleischer cartoon shorts also makes the story feel classic. This is, again, a nod to Superman’s history that Yang mentions in the backmatter. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the backmatter is quite important in this book. Besides the nods to comic history, you also get a mini-history on the development of the Klan, particularly as it affected Chinese citizens, racial relations in America, and even echoes of Yang’s personal struggles.

Yang has said in past interviews that Superman was the first comic he ever read.[xiv] In Superman Smashes the Klan, he has made his own mark on Superman. The best Superman stories are not a punch-out with a monster he beats to death (sorry Doomsday). Instead, they are character studies that challenge his ideals. His limitations are not the different types of Kryptonite, but his struggle to inspire and encourage change even in the most dire of circumstances. To re-appropriate a line from Superman: The Movie (1978) Superman may “have all those powers,” but if someone is a diehard racist he’ll never be able to “save him.” While Matt Briggs is a casualty of his own hate, Superman does break down the bigotry of others, and receives strength and inspiration from ordinary people like Roberta. This strength enables him to stand up to white supremacy and embrace his full identity along the way. Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Smashes the Klan not only “gets the character right,” he adds something compelling to the Superman mythos, which is hard to do when a character has been around for 80 years. Its social significance, character study, and nods to history, place Superman Smashes the Klan among the upper echelon of Superman stories and makes it the most important Superman story you’ll ever read. I challenge anyone to read it and not shed a tear by the final page!

David A. Skelton received his Ph.D in Religions of Western Antiquity from Florida State University (2017) and most recently served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pepperdine University from 2017-2019. His expertise is in Second Temple Judaism. In that vein, he is currently working on a translation of the Syriac of Ben Sira  and a book called, Singers of Wisdom, that looks at sages as singers in early Jewish pedagogy. Comics wise, he has just signed a contract with Claremont Press to write on cults and comics and has an article coming out on the development of Rao in the Superman mythos for the volume Theology and the DC Universe. If you want to find him in a comic book store head over to Arsenal Comics and Games in Newbury Park, CA and say, “hi” to Timmy. Also, feel free to check out the Geek History Lesson podcast. Ashley and Jason have taught him a lot. Sometimes they’ll even give him a shout out.

[1] All-Star Superman (2011) is by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Birthright (2004) is by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, Secret Origins is by Geoff Johns and Gary Franks (2011), What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way? is by Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, and Lee Bermejo from Action #775 (March 2001), and Superman: Rebirth is by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason (2016-2018). I would also add to this list, Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s elseworld story, Secret Identity (2004), Marv Wolfman and Claudio Castellini’s, Man and Superman (2019), and Tom King and Andy Kubert’s (2020), Superman: Up in the Sky.

[2] My children (6, 8, 10) have read this story multiple times—the 6 year old with my help! They loved it so much, they even had its release schedule memorized. I don’t know if I can say that with any of the other Superman stories mentioned in this piece. It could also be my mean character voices. I do a great “This looks like a job (higher pitch) for Superman (lower pitch).”

[3] You can now listen to the radio show in several places, but a good summary of it and the history behind it is available in the book by Richard Bowers, Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate (2012).

[4] https://superman.fandom.com/wiki/The_Atom_Man

[5] Here, I’m talking about Captain America, who has a similar moral compass to Superman. His creators were also Jewish and changed their names.

[6] For the idea of double consciousness, see W. E. b. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1987). He talks about “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” and feeling a sense of “two-ness.” This dual identity makes it difficult to have a true sense of self. “DuBois two-ness language may have come from him reading Goethe during his studies in Berlin (“Two souls, alas, are dwelling within my breast,/And one desires to break off from the other” in Faust, 1112). See Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity (2014). Props to my friend, Khalfani Lawson for pointing these sources out to me.

[7] The struggle of having a dual identity and losing oneself trying to blend in is also the theme of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese (2006).

[8] The movie scene here reminds me of the moment in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) where Linda recognizes how truly insulting Mickey Rooney’s Japanese caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is to Bruce. Disgusted, they both walkout.

[9] Yang has done so more directly by making this person a character in the pages of his Chinese Superman book, New Superman #8. New Super-man, Kong Kenan, confronts and unmasks the “yellow peril” stereotype that led to Ching Lung being “the very beginning” of all DC Comics. There is some debate if the character is Ching Lung or Fui Onyui, both of which appear in Detective #1. If it’s the latter the character would be even more intertwined with Superman since Fui Onyui is also a Siegel and Shuster creation.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2017/02/07/why-is-the-chinese-superman-getting-a-villain-whos-a-chinese-stereotype-its-all-part-of-a-plan/

[x] There is a hilarious exchange regarding Co-Exist bumper stickers that demonstrates this critique in the 3d. episode of the Keeping It 101 podcast. It’s around the 28:27 mark https://keepingit101.com/e103

[xi] One of the best treatments of this topic is Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011) by Kelly J. Baker.

[xii] Yang treats religion more directly in his series, Boxers and Saints (2013).

[xiii] This is similar to the Marxist critique of religion that sees the bourgeoisie as using religion to exploit the proletariat who hopelessly buy into its doctrines as a salve to mask their exploitation.

[xiv] See, for example, https://geneyang.com/how-i-became-a-superman-fan

 

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