Following Superman Smashes the Klan: Part One and Part Two, Part Three delivers on the promise of the series title: Superman, finally, smashes the Klan. With the help of series protagonist Roberta Lee, Superman not only beats up the bad guys but also accepts himself for who he is.
Superman Smashes the Klan: Part Three
Janice Chiang (letterer), Gurihiru (interior and main cover artists), Gene Luen Yang (writer)
February 19th, 2020
Unlike Part One or Part Two, Part Three begins with a flashback. In the same unrefined edges as the flashbacks of the previous two issues, the reader is taken back to Smallville, although not the Smallville of Clark Kent’s circa 1926 childhood. Ten years later, in 1936, Clark and his friend Lana Lang are not on a double date with his parents at the circus that is passing through town. If the present day scenes are neutral, often bright, then the flashbacks are warmer and muted, tinted to a not-quite sepia effect by Gurihiru. This intro turns into a parable about double identities, as the grouchy man who took their tickets turns out to be the Yiddish-speaking strongman who inspires Clark to wear his own costume.
By the time the flashback ends, the book picks up at a place where it feels like Part Two could have ended: in 1946, at the Daily Planet, with Superman on his way to rescue the newspaper’s employees. There, he, Roberta, and his pal, Jimmy Olsen, discover that Lois Lane, Perry White, and Inspector Henderson have been kidnapped by the Klan of the Fiery Kross. Scenes involving the Klan are warmer and darker when compared to others: Gurihiru’s colors suggest that the Klan is a thing of the past or out of time. When Superman enters the Klan’s hideaway, he is framed in blue, in contrast to the reds used to frame the Klan members. The Klan members who had taken Lois, White, and Henderson hostage very quickly end up a punchline, easily defeated by a Superman who is pulling his punches.
When Roberta realizes Superman is doing that and, moreover, limiting himself by leaping instead of flying, she confronts him. “You want everybody to believe that you’re just a better version of a normal human… / But the truth is… you can do things that are entirely different from what humans can do… right? / Like fly! And you hold back because you’re afraid that if people find out, they’ll stop calling you Superman. Instead, they’ll call you super… Super something else.” That fear, she worries, will prevent him from helping people in trouble. Gurihiru situates the reader in the place of Superman by centering Roberta and having the back of his head turned to the reader while she speaks to him, all of which makes it clear that Superman takes what she has to say seriously.
Her speech prompts Superman to return to Smallville. There, he tells Ma and Pa Kent that — whatever happens next — they’ll always be a family. What happens next is that he’s reunited with his birth parents, not in person but through projection. No longer aliens with mottled green skin, Superman’s human-looking Kryptonian parents recount the story of how he ended up on Earth, raised not with the name they gave him, Kal-El, but as Clark Kent. They sent him with a blessing, “– May you find a home with them. May you find trust and hope and love. May you be bound together with them, dear son. / May your tomorrow and theirs be one.” Across the three issues, this is one of my favorite sequences. Like the flashbacks on Earth, there are flashbacks to Krypton, colored in a warm, but muted, pallette. As his rocket arrives in Kansas, the colors shift, becoming cooler in anticipation of the page turn, which reveals Roberta. Thereafter, panels with Roberta are intercut with panels of the Klan, blue and red operating in stark contrast to one another. Those panels lead up to the big fight, during which Yang returns to the last line, “may your tomorrow and theirs be one.” He uses it again in the final part of his “Superman and Me” essay.
Meanwhile, Lois Lane delivers a pen, “the most powerful instrument in the world,” to Roberta Lee. A speech balloon cleverly hides the initials inscribed on the pen’s case. They are revealed to be “L.L.” when Roberta attempts to return the pen to Lois near the end of the book, claiming that it is too expensive a gift for her to be able to accept and that the pen has Lois’s initials on it, anyway. Lois refuses to take back her gift, then calls Roberta by her name: not Roberta, but Lan-shin Lee. Lois being the person to do this, to call her Lan-shin, was, for me, a misstep. The character was unnamed in the original radio series and so this is original to Superman Smashes the Klan. Rather than have one of her family members affirm Roberta/Lan-shin’s name, as was done with Clark Kent/Kal-El, or have her claim it as her own, it is, effectively, given to her by a white woman. In a series that is otherwise close to perfectly executed, this ending left me feeling unsettled.
Before that, however, comes the big fight, during which Superman reveals himself as an alien and a citizen. To the Klan’s Grand Scorpion, he says, “We are bound together by the future. We all share the same tomorrow.” The refrain plays off well, and it brings together the different, now seamlessly interconnected, narratives being told by Yang, Gurihiru, and Chiang as it transitions back to Lan-shin Lee, running ahead of Lois, Jimmy, and Superman on the last page of the book.
What follows is the last part of Yang’s “Superman and Me” essay and its bibliography (as an academic, I really wish this was properly footnoted, but I’m glad he cited his sources). “Part 3” dives deeper into the history of the radio show and its role in depopularizing the Ku Klux Klan. The final line is a refrain of the Kryptonian blessing from earlier in the book, “After all, though our yesterdays may be different, we all share the same tomorrow.” The line is poetic, but it, like Lois giving Lan-shin her name, leaves me feeling unsettled. It is, undoubtedly, meant to be hopeful, but it doesn’t work on a systemic level in the same way it does on the personal level for Clark and his parents. One of the best things about this series is that it recognizes — and celebrates — strength in difference, but I can’t help but feel like the sentiment of a shared tomorrow undermines that. That all being said, I loved this book. I loved Yang’s writing, Gurihiru’s art, and Chiang’s lettering. I hope it paves the way for more comics like it.