Superman gets a lot of flak from people who aren’t familiar with the character, and it largely comes down to him to being an all-powerful alien we can’t relate to. This may be a cliché, but never judge a book by its cover, as the best writers to tackle the Man of Steel – such as Grant Morrison writing All-Star Superman – have proven that he is a beacon of light that represents the positive side of humanity as he determines to save everyone, no matter what corners of the world they’re from. That determination is very apparent in Superman Smashes the Klan.
Loosely based on the 1946 The Adventures of Superman radio show’s story-arc “Clan of the Fiery Cross”, Superman Smashes the Klan focuses on the Lees, a Chinese-American family who moves to a suburban neighborhood in Metropolis. As the family become the targets of the Klan of the Fiery Kross, the two children, Roberta and Tommy, try to adjust to their new home with the hope of making new friends despite this local hateful hate group lurking in the streets. Meanwhile, Daily Bugle reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane investigate the whereabouts of the Klan, whilst befriending the Lee family.
Taking place in the year the radio story-arc was recorded, writer Gene Luen Yang embraces the 1940s era of the Superman mythos, in which the character was more of a social crusader that was inspired by pulp science-fiction adventures and Greek archetypes like Samson. In a meta context, Yang deliberately evokes these influences in his retelling of Superman’s origin story, including a childhood memory where Clark attends a circus where a strong man theatrically dresses up as Samson — the Flying Graysons also perform in one page.
Yes, this is yet another retelling of Supes’ origin. Following standout titles like Birthright and American Alien, there will be longtime readers who will not be bothered with this graphic novel, which is aiming for younger readership who have no pre-existing knowledge of Superman. Considering that Yang is telling a personal story about a Chinese-American family coping with the racism in their new home, he is able to contrast this with Clark’s own journey, in which he wrestles with his self-identity and learns about his alien heritage and the more powers he unveils, despite worries about the people he’s protecting fearing him.
Despite being named Superman Smashes the Klan, the story never actually mentions the Ku Klux Klan, though the idea is definitely there based on the iconography and beliefs of the villains. There may not be lots of foul language, due to the younger demographic that the book is aiming for, but there are enough racial slurs to get the message across. The two Lee children are the true the heroes of the book, and they butt heads with one another in typical sibling fashion, but there will always be that sense of loving companionship.
In terms of their individual arcs, Tommy is trying to fit in with the other kids in the neighborhood, even if they don’t have a full understanding of their ethnicity, whilst Roberta has always felt like an outsider and searches for her place in Metropolis, allowing characters like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane to give friendly advice.
Having collaborated with Gene Luen Yang on the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics for Dark Horse, the illustration team Gurihiru brings a visual simplicity that feels appropriate for the child-centric narrative. This isn’t going for grand spectacle to rival the likes of Jim Lee, though the book opens with a fight between Supes and the Atom Man. Instead, much of the storytelling is told through the cutesy character designs. Some of the visual gags don’t land, such as Roberta’s recurring “throwing up” issue, but Gurihiru make good use of Superman’s powers, whilst rocking the red and black “S” shield, evoking the Fleischer cartoons from the 1940s.
As an introduction to the world’s iconic superhero for young readers, Superman Smashes the Klan succeeds as a positive and somewhat educational adventure about the acceptance of others, no matter what background they come from.
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