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Fleen Book Corner: Superman Smashes The Klan

Okay, it’s not a book, or at least not yet — it’s about 75 pages in a square-bound format, part 1 of 3, that will undoubtedly be collected into a 200+ page proper book in the future. Doesn’t matter, we’re talking about it today.

And for once, I’m not sure that a spoiler warning is necessary, as Superman Smashes The Klan (words by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, letters by Janice Chiang) is an adaptation of a radio serial that’s nearly 75 years old at this point. Heck, you can listen to the whole thing right now if you want to, and even the basic outline is well-known Superman lore. I’m pretty sure we’re past the statute of limitations on spoilers.

So: family moves from the Chinatown section of Metropolis to a white section, adults object to Dr Lee’s new position as a bacteriologist in the health department, kid objects to son Tommy’s success as a pitcher on the neighborhood baseball team, Klansmen burn crosses, plan tar-and-featherings, Superman saves the day. It’s what Yang adds to this well-known story that makes it stand out.

Firstly, he introduces a new POV character — Roberta, Tommy’s younger sister, who is upset and fearful about leaving the familiar environs of Chinatown, and who must overcome her fear to help Superman save her brother and everybody else threatened by white supremacist CHUDs. Tommy’s mother/Dr Lee’s wife is also given more to do, still more comfortable in Cantonese and using Chinese names, a more reluctant immigrant that her aggressively assimilated husband. He introduces a story arc that involves Superman’s first exposure to kryptonite¹ and allows him to reflect on his own immigrant experience and doubts about his own place in American society.

But the most important thing? The small, almost fleeting racism that the Lees face in passing. It’s easy to see the evil in the hearts of the robe-sporting klansmen, but what of everyday, ordinary people that wouldn’t consider themselves to be racist?

  • Dr Jennings, one of Dr Lee’s colleagues, at a housewarming attributes all of Lee’s success to luck, mocks Mrs Lee’s English ability, and assures that the pie he brought is apple, not dog².
  • A cop on duty in front of the Lee’s home, insisting to Roberta: This city is very, very safe, especially for people like you. Metropolis goes out of its way for you, giving you houses and jobs and promotions you don’t even have to earn.
  • Dr Lee attempting to chase off three black men that stop to put of the fire, afraid that attracting more attention will make it worse: You! Nobody asked you to come here! We don’t want any more trouble! Get out of here!, prompting one of the men to exclaim: They don’t want us around, not even when their house is on fire!

    One of the three is Metropolis PD inspector Henderson who has to bring it back into perspective: They got a burning cross on their lawn, don’t they? For tonight, at least, they are us. Even if they don’t want to admit it.

  • But the one that really sticks? Tommy, recounting to his new friends that he wasn’t scared: Then they lit that fire! But believe me, these wontons don’t fry up that easy!

See, Tommy’s the one that makes friends easily. But Tommy’s even further along than his father in trying to prove to the world that he’s just another American, yessiree, and that takes the form of denying who he is.

We’ve seen Tommy before, only then he was called Jin and there were no klansman, just the everyday, low-level racism that acted like background noise to be overcome. Jin (uhhh, spoilers ahead for a different book) denied himself so hard, he became Danny — blonde, all-American, definitely not Chinese and especially not anything like Cousin Chin-Kee. Tommy’s not there yet, but he could be if he doesn’t learn the dark side of the lesson Jin learned: It’s easy to become anything you wish … so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.

When I wrote about American Born Chinese, I described Jin’s story as not quite autobiographical, and not quite fictional; it was a good deal less than fictional than I’d realized. Yang’s afterword, about what Superman means to him, tells the story of seventh-grade Gene, and the white kid that refused to high-five him while casually dropping a slur. Yang attempted to transform himself like Jin did, wearing the clothes and adopting the style that he hoped would protect him from the disdain of the broad-shouldered, the hazel-eyed, the athletic.

I do not believe it is coincidence that Yang chooses, in this story, to refer to his classmate as Danny.

There’s a lot for Superman to do in the two forthcoming volumes; there’s a Klan to smash³, kids indoctrinated into the Klan’s ways to deprogram, and a brother and sister to help navigate their way into their new home. Roberta needs to not be afraid of who she is, Tommy needs to not deny who he is.

I suspect that he’ll do that less by means of an inspiring heart-to-heart, and more by example; he needs to figure out what the green crystal was, figure out why he feels strangely affected and is having visions of alien creatures speaking in a different language. At this point in his heroic journey, nobody knows where he came from, and especially the public doesn’t know he’s an alien.

I guarantee that the klansmen regard Superman as one of them; by revealing his own immigrant story, I think a lot of prejudices and self-misconceptions will have to be confronted. And because Yang is the opposite of a trite storyteller, I suspect it won’t be a magically smooth journey for any of the characters involved. Some of those in the robes will stop chanting One race! One color! One religion! and others will start chanting One species! One planet!

And five bucks says Dr Jennings spends the rest of his life snidely talking behind Dr Lee’s back and muttering that Superman’s not a real hero.

Yang knows — and trusts his readers enough to realize — that those small, everyday, background noises require just as much work to disrupt as knocking klansmen’s heads together (work that is ultimately almost as satisfying as the head-knocking; Superman not only would punch a Nazi, he spends the opening pages doing just that).

Superman Smashes The Klan is available in comic shops and bookstores everywhere. It’s full of old-school radio serial-style goodness, and is gorgeous to look at4. If you give it to a kid, make sure they read Yang’s essay at the back.

Spam of the day:

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This appears to actually be from the person list in the return address, and it includes a link (that I went to by roundabout means because no way I’m clicking a link in a cold-call email) to a portfolio that actually has some good work. But this is not the way to drum up work. If you want to sell your skills, you have to know who you’re selling to and what they might want.

¹ Introduced in the radio serial across two stories in 1945 and early 1946, six months prior to Clan Of The Fiery Cross. And since I didn’t mention it, this is the original Superman — black background on the shield, can leap but can’t fly, changes in phone booths (there are phone booths everywhere in 1946), and runs along power lines to get around town so as not to disrupt traffic.

² Roberta thinks Dr Jennings is a creep and he’s sneering like he’ll be back as a more clear-cut villain. I think that he won’t, though. I think he’s there to show that even the well-it’s-not-like-he’s-a-real-racist types are just as poisonous as the ones that wear stupid robes and burn crosses. I thoroughly hate him.

³ It’s right there in the title!

4 I mean, it’s Gurihiru. Obviously, their work is heavily tilted to the slightly cartoony, cute/adorable end of the scale, but it’s more than that. Gurihiru’s work is effortless to read.

Each page layout, each character pose (or sense of motion, really, because nobody’s ever stiff or static), each use of color is designed to focus your eye exactly where it needs to be to convey the thoughts and mood of whoever’s on the page, and to move the story in the direction it needs to go. It’s not just that their art is beautiful, it’s that it’s perfectly suited to storytelling.

And hoo boy do the colors pop. Superman’s baby blues have been waiting all this time for their definitive depiction.

Chiang’s lettering is exactly the same sort of effortless, disappearing until it’s time to make itself known. But with 30+ years of experience, that’s to be expected.

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