Superman Smashes the Klan: Part One
Kyle Baker (variant cover artist), Janice Chiang (letterer), Gurihiru (interior and main cover artists), Gene Luen Yang (writer)
October 16th, 2019
Set in 1946, Gene Luen Yang, Gurihiru, and Janice Chiang’s Superman Smashes the Klan is a loose adaptation of the sixteen-episode “Clan of the Fiery Cross” story of the same year from The Adventures of Superman, a radio series that finished airing more than half a century ago.
The comic opens with Atom Man, self-proclaimed “Avenger of the Master Race,” attacking the Metropolis Dam. A two-page spread follows the first set of panels, opening up in such a way as to make Atom Man appear to fly after Superman punches him. Nothing in this comic is particularly subtle, and it’s better for the absence of allegory. Superman punching a Nazi is the baseline.
As the comic progresses, the reader is introduced to Roberta, her brother Tommy, and their parents Dr. and Mrs. Lee. The family is relocating from Chinatown to Metropolis proper, as Dr. Lee has recently taken a job with the Metropolis Health Department. Dr. Lee’s white lab coat, gifted to him by his new, white boss, and Tommy’s baseball hat, given to him by Jimmy Olsen, represent their willingness to assimilate. Dr. Lee is comfortable putting on whiteness in order to assimilate into his new position and neighborhood, while Tommy is eager to adopt American traditions.
Roberta and her mother are not as willing to give up Chinese culture. Roberta laments the loss of a favorite coat made by her mother and is uncomfortable with its department store replacement. Mrs. Lee defaults to Cantonese despite her husband’s reminders to speak English. However, Dr. Lee’s attempts to affiliate himself and his family with whiteness don’t stop the Klan from burning a cross in their front yard.
This Klan, the Klan of the Fiery Kross, wears the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan and recites unmistakably white supremacist ideology. Led by the Grand Scorpion, the Klan is just one manifestation of racism in this comic. Roberta and Tommy are subjected to slurs and microaggressions by their white peers in Metropolis, and their father rejects aid offered by Black characters in the immediate wake of the Klan’s attack.
The next morning, Roberta meets Clark Kent.
Yang’s script is perfectly paired with Chiang’s lettering and Gurihiru’s artwork. Gurihiru’s Clark Kent isn’t necessarily weak, but he does look smaller than Superman, an effect that is achieved largely through medium shots concealing the lower half of his body and close-ups that focus in on his face (and those notorious glasses). Clark Kent is constrained by the panel, but Superman is not. Superman is illustrated more dynamically, in longer shots allowing the reader to see his whole body in a given panel or spread (and there are some really great one- and two-page spreads).
In contrast, Gurihiru’s Superman is strong, but soft around the edges. He’s tall, and his shoulders are broad but, like the rest of his body, not overly rendered with musculature. You don’t doubt that he’s faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, as Superman Smashes the Klan’s Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen remind us that this version of Superman (a welcome update of the 1940s Fleischer Studios cartoon hero) is—despite not being able to leap more than twenty stories in a single bound, let alone fly.
Superman and Clark Kent, however, are not two separate characters. Clark Kent isn’t a mask that Superman wears, nor is Superman a costume that Clark Kent puts on. Clark Kent is the name Superman takes in order to fit into American society, not unlike how Chinese-American protagonist Lan-Shin Lee takes the English name Roberta. Neither instance feels quite like assimilation, although Roberta (using the name she uses to introduce herself to both Clark Kent and Superman) is more readily denied that than the alien Superman who is, according to Lois Lane, “Metropolis’ most famous citizen.”
Without giving too much away, and while also recognizing that this is just part one of a three-part series (part two comes out December 18), Superman Smashes the Klan is a story about American racial politics not unique to the time period in which it is being told. It is also, stemming from Yang’s reading of Superman as an immigrant (with which I wholeheartedly concur), a story about American citizenship and how that citizenship is so often contrasted with alienation. I am eager to see how Superman’s B plot plays out alongside Roberta’s A plot. Superman Smashes the Klan closes on a distressing cliffhanger for both protagonists, yet I don’t doubt that it will be resolved.
What I’m left wondering is: did this story need to be set in the past? Yang contextualizes the comic beautifully in the backup essay “Superman and Me, Part 1,” detailing more than a century of American history and Superman’s place in it. However, I’m not sure this story has a place in contemporary comics. The Superman of 1946’s “Clan of the Fiery Cross” was fighting evil in real time. I can’t help but feel like 2019’s Superman should be doing the same.