We currently live in a world where powerful bigots “fan the flames of a racial fire” instead of stoke violence with their savage racism. Where everything shy of uttering a racial slur in anger is merely “denounced by some as racist” or “racially charged.” So it’s easy to be concerned, when you hear about a new comic project about Superman taking on the Ku Kux Klan, that the story might be so slathered in euphemism as to be rendered entirely inert, even when it’s written by one of the sharpest minds in comics. So when we had a chance to talk with Gene Luen Yang about his new book, Superman Smashes the Klan, it was one of the first things we asked about. “I feel like we do go at it hard, but I also feel like modern storytelling sensibilities require more nuance than you can get away with in the 1940s,” Yang tells us. “You can’t set up cardboard villains anymore. And while I’m not presenting that ideology as a good thing, I do hope that there is a little bit of humanity in the bad guys in our version.”
“Their version” is this new project, with art duo Gurihiru, updating a story from the classic The Adventures of Superman radio show, “Superman vs. the Clan of the Fiery Cross.” The original radio drama, available through Archive.org, was groundbreaking. Everyone knows that it was the Superman radio show that introduced Jimmy Olsen and Perry White and Kryptonite, but this is also the adventure that helped expose the real Klan. Stetson Kennedy was an author and human rights activist who had infiltrated the Klan back in the ‘40s. He worked with Drew Pearson, an NBC radio host, to name names in the Georgia KKK, and he connected with the producer of The Adventures of Superman, pitching the storyline that became “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.”
They included secret information to break the mystique of the Klan, but most of the damage they did with Superman was through ridicule. The “Clan of the Fiery Cross” and its members were garbage. Superman called them garbage. Perry White called them garbage on the front page of the Daily Planet. Even the Klan’s own leader called his membership garbage at the end, mocking the members as rubes while he criticized the show’s villain for taking their racist schtick too seriously, instead of just fleecing the rank and file like he was supposed to. And the wild thing about this fearlessness from one of America’s greatest fictional heroes is that it worked. Klan recruiting actually dipped noticeably in the wake of “Clan of the Fiery Cross” broadcasts.
This was one of the first things that jumped to mind when Yang was meeting with Marie Javins, DC editor and all-time great comics colorist, about new projects. “This is one of the most important Superman stories and it’s never been told in his native medium. It’s never been told in comics,” he said to her. So he got to tell it.
Joining him on the book is Gurihiru. The art duo (Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano) have worked with Yang before, on the generally outstanding comic expansions of the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe. Their style is much cleaner and cartoonier than what’s common in superhero books today. One might even say they skew more all-ages in their artwork, but what is “all-ages” as a descriptor of comic art than a way of saying that the art is more in line with the target audience of Superman back when the radio show was on. “Marie and I talked early on about how we wanted the art to look like a blend of manga and those old Fleischer Superman cartoons,” Yang said, “and I feel like Gurihiru has absolutely nailed that.”
Part of their job was to punch up the action. The radio show was a lot of things, but one of the unfortunate descriptors might be “stationary.” Just by virtue of it being a radio program, there was a lot of time spent describing action to the listener, a lot of scenes that took place with dialogue and narration that worked well in radio, but would be a fundamental failure as a comic. “I think we give Superman a little bit more dynamism,” said Yang. “Gurihiru, they’re amazing artists. [I] want to give them amazing action to draw.” So the Superman of Superman Smashes the Klan races down power lines, blasts the ground with his heat vision so hard it pushes him into the air, and shatters a wooden baseball bat with his barrel chest, instead of the static “So Superman flew to the river” scene changes of the radio program. “[Gurihiru was] my top choice for this project. As soon as Marie and I began solidifying the details of the project, I mentioned that I wanted to work with them again,” Yang says. “Every time I would get an email from them, whether it was with thumbnails attached, or with inks attached, or with colors attached, I was just astounded.”
Better action isn’t the only change to the story Yang and Gurihiru introduce. While the comic is set in 1946 just like the radio show, the creators make a couple of tweaks that make this new version really sing. The most significant is how they expand the roles of the Lee women. Dr. Lee is still the new chief bacteriologist at the Metropolis Health Department, living in a new Metropolis neighborhood with the rest of his Chinese-American immigrant family. Tommy is still the new hot starting pitcher for Jimmy Olsen’s Unity House baseball team (displacing Chuck Riggs, who ends up getting roped into the Klan by his uncle). But new to the cast is Tommy’s sister, Roberta, and Roberta and Tommy’s mother sees her role much expanded from just scenery in the radio drama to a pivotal character in the comic. The men are much more the public face of the immigrant experience. They speak English, join baseball teams, and work in local government. By contrast, Roberta gets homesick. Her mom talks about how wonderful Metropolis’ Chinatown is. And it’s through the Lee women that we see our best connection with Superman.
Kal-El has always been a metaphor for the immigrant experience in America, and it’s Roberta who interacts with him the most in the first issue. She’s the one who finds Superman after her brother goes missing at the end of the issue, and she’s the one who tells Clark Kent her mother’s philosophy about new homes. It is the single best Clark Kent moment I’ve ever read in a comic, one that is so perfect I wouldn’t dare to spoil here, but it is simple and elegant in how it draws parallels between Superman’s experience and the Lee’s, and one that lampshades his secret identity as a reporter beautifully. This was no happy accident. “By playing Superman, who is an immigrant, against the daughter of immigrants, I felt like I was really able to bring that out,” Yang told us. “I was able to explore something that I’ve been wanting to explore since I started working on the character.”
And while these changes take an already great Superman story from the radio program and turn it into one of the best Superman comics of recent years, Yang tells us that the frame was always there. “I listened to parts of it with my 12 year old daughter, and I thought that she would be like, ‘Oh, can we please listen to something else?’ But she was really caught up by that story,” he says. “She would ask for the next episode, even when I wasn’t ready to listen to it. I’d be still taking notes on the first episode, and she’d be like, ‘Let’s listen to the next one.’ So I think the spine of the story, the bones of the story are all there, you know? That’s one of the reasons why we just kept all the bones.”
The end result, at least after the first issue, is a book Yang seems destined to have made. Superman Smashes the Klan brings Superman back to his immigrant roots, makes him a source of inspiration for working immigrant Metropolitans; their overwhelmed kids; and the scared but ultimately good kids of the rotten Klan adults as well. But Yang’s also bringing Superman back around – he’s had a go at the character once before. As the New 52 was winding down, DC tried some radical changes to their characters. Batman became Jim Gordon, Wonder Woman stopped being Diana, Robin turned into an Occupy flash mob, and Superman lost his powers and his cape and went back to a t-shirt and jeans. “Early on in that ten issue run on Superman in the Prime Universe, I wanted to explore his immigrant side,” Yang says. “The fact that he’s actually from this other culture and, in a lot of ways, he has to navigate between Kryptonian and American culture. I feel like I didn’t get to really do that there, and I get to do that now. I get to do that in Superman Smashes the Klan.”
He does it exceptionally well.
Superman Smashes the Klan is on sale now.