It’s been a minute now, or maybe more like a decade and a half, but I remember stumbling onto the story of how Superman actually helped take down the KKK in real life. I can’t remember for sure if I heard it first through Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt or through Brian Cronin’s excellent Comic Book Legends Revealed column on CBR,
Either way, both Freakonomics and CBLR still live on to this day in various forms, and I recommend both highly—but they both shared the fascination real life story of how Superman helped take down the KKK. The basic gist of the story is that activist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK and took their secrets to…the producers of the Superman radio show?
It turned out to be a solid move, believe it or not. Nobody knew how deep the Klan’s influence in the local authorities went, so that option was out. And once the Superman radio drama got ahold of it, they were able to create a 16 episode storyline that exposed the Klan’s secrets and hypocrisy and basically shamed those in their ranks. The show was so popular it basically crippled the Klan. Using Superman as the torch bearer for “truth, justice, and the American way,” the Klan of the Fiery Kross as the obvious stand-in for the KKK, and the Klan’s real-world secrets, code words, and methodology, the Klan turned into a laughing stock and its membership soon withered. It’s almost as though Superman was a warrior for social justice or something like that.
Anyway, fast forward to this year, and Gene Luen Yang (author of American Born Chinese) and Gurihiru released a modernized version of the original radio story, Superman Smashes the Klan. Intended for a young adult audience, but really accessible to all, the story was originally released in three $7.99 mini-digests and recently collected in a slightly larger trade paperback form for $16.99. It’s slightly smaller dimension-wise than your standard comic, losing an inch on top and most of an inch on the sides as well. Because …kids like things slightly smaller? I don’t know.
Don’t let its diminutive size fool you, as the story still packs a punch.
Much like the best Superman stories, this is an out-of-continuity tale that features the 1940’s era Superman, complete with Fleischer cartoon black with red S and yellow trim chest emblem. This Superman doesn’t fly, but he still leaps tall buildings in a single bound.
He travels via running on telephone wires, and hasn’t quite started utilizing all of his abilities that he has today. The essence of the character is still the same, however. He’s still Clark Kent, reporter at the Daily Planet alongside Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen. He’s still wobbly-woozy around the green stuff. The ‘S’ still stands for hope. And his story is still one of an outsider finding out how he fits in a strange and different world.
It starts with Supes fighting Nazis, because that was always a thing, too. The story then shifts to the Lees, a Chinese family making the move from Chinatown to the bigger city portion of Metropolis. Mom, Dad, Roberta and Tommy are moving because of Dad’s work at the Metropolis Health Department.
Roberta and Tommy are both younger and face the struggle that everybody faces at that age, regardless of whatever factors you want to consider: finding yourself in a new place and trying to fit in. Tommy is more confident, athletic, and brash, whereas Roberta is more introspective, shy, and suffers from a very sensitive stomach. Tommy almost immediately finds himself a way to connect by joining up with the baseball team at the Unity House, a type of boys and girls club. There, he meets Jimmy Olsen and gets to show off his killer fastball. Unfortunately, he also gets the first taste of the hate yet to come when a kid on the team, Chuck Riggs, almost immediately comes at him aggressively. First by crowding the plate and calling Tommy afraid and “ya yellow banana,” and then after Tommy knocks him down degrades even further to calling Tommy things like “China boy” and “Ching Chong.” It turns out that Chuck’s uncle isn’t a very decent person, either! Chuck’s Uncle Matt is the Grand Scorpion of the local chapter of the Klan of the Fiery Kross.
It just struck me why they spell cross with a C. Chicken places have a bad enough reputation when it comes to acceptance as-is!
Moving on, the story progresses pretty intensely from there. The KFK goes on to launch an attack with Chuck in tow against the Lee house. A number of black men driving by see what’s going on and stop to help, only to get shooed away by Mr. Lee just to show that prejudice is everywhere.
Roberta struggles with Tommy trying to fit in with the kids around him and joking at the expense of his heritage. Chuck struggles with wanting to not be a terrible person when his Uncle is practically the district manager of hate in Metropolis. And then Tommy struggles when he gets kidnapped and the KFK tries to drown him. We’ve all got struggles! Some are more metaphorical, and some require super heroic efforts to save the day. And some are both at the same time!
Even Superman has been struggling since the open of the story, when he was exposed to some Kryptonite. Since then, he’s been feeling more alien, to the point that when he looks in the mirror one time, he sees a green-skinned, antennaed bug-man from space staring back at him! It doesn’t help that his green skinned birth parents keep popping up places uninvited to offer him advice, either.
From there, everyone finds ways to confront those ties that are binding them in some way, shape, or form. Not just the kids, but the adults in the community in their various roles find ways to rise up—for the most part. Characters find a way to stand up for what they believe in—or in some cases show the depths of depravity that they’ve fallen for.
Superman stands up to the “bedsheet bigots” for sure, but the actions and the motivations of the Klan do even worse damage to their reputation. When it’s all said and done, the audience gets an inspirational story that makes Superman relatable and can leave you feeling proud to be one of the good guys. It’s all about embracing who we are and working together to make a better tomorrow to the fullest extent that we can—or not and looking like a hateful doof.
I’m not going too much further story-wise so there’s enough left on the bone to make a satisfying meal if you pick it up. Still, there are a few points worthy of discussion in my mind:
The choice to re-imagine the radio serial is interesting to me. It’s a cool story either way. You could tell the real life story and frame it in some unique context or go this route, which they obviously did. Of course, it helps that the writer Gene Luen Yang is not only gifted in the ways of putting a comic together, he’s also a Chinese American with his own sense of history about this. The back matter in the trade describes his own family in between bits of historical reporting on the klan and the way that minorities have been held back by widely accepted systems. There’s quite a bit that I never knew. You can tell this project truly mattered to the creators, nonetheless. So don’t skip the essay in the back!
I’m a big proponent of not talking about the terrorists. Letting them get their faces on the news or names in the paper and giving them the fame and notoriety lets them win a bit in my mind—and it makes the news unbearable. With that said, stories like this are vital from time to time so we can avoid the mistakes people made in the past—even if they are fictional. I can’t think of a more timely book with our culture being the way that it is—-sometimes people need to be reminded to step back and think about what they’re buying into. What I’m getting at is not every hateful idiot is actually a hateful idiot, I guess. Some are just along for the ride. Stories like this might help them to get off that ride before it’s too late. It’s fictional, but it’s accessible and powerful enough to do the job.
The art by Gurihiru is pretty solid when it comes to storytelling. Visually, it’s not my usual flavor, but I recognize this style appeals to the younger readers. Craft-wise, i don’t have many nitpicks. I do wish there was more of a visual difference between Clark Kent and Superman, but with that said, you can feel the power and gravitas when Superman does come into the page.
The choice to make Superman and his birth parents look like green aliens was interesting, although a little jarring at first. It makes sense in the story, especially when you get to the young Clark flashbacks. Just don’t think too hard about how Kryptonian technology works. It’s like how people view Galactus. You see him how you want to see him. To some, Galactus wears a weird hat, and to others he’s a cloud of bees or whatever. Sometimes when you think about your Kryptonian birthright, it’s all greenies, and sometimes it’s just people in super hero costumes with lots of crystals everywhere.
I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories, so this tale of a not-fully-formed Superman had a much greater chance of landing with me than it might have otherwise done. It’s hard to tell good Superman stories. This had both the visual and storytelling craftwork to tell a good story whose simplicity can be deceptive. We all know Superman is good, and the Klan is bad, but it was a fun tale that helped readers to understand why Superman is the way he is in the process.
In conclusion, this is a solid Superman story to keep on the bookshelf for young readers and seasoned vets alike. You don’t need to worry about continuity or canon. However, if you feel like taking the time to dig a little bit, the backstory about how this came to be is fascinating, too. I definitely give it an A+ and recommend you look for it the next time you’re out at your local comic shop.
Until next time, I’ll be bugging Andy to see if he ever actually listened to the radio serials and if they still hold up.