(w) Gene Luen Yang (a) Gurihiru
Tolerance and acceptance. These are traits many Americans claim to possess but prove to time and again to be sorely lacking. There’s a supposed pride in being considered a “nation of immigrants” and reverence towards iconography like the Statue of Liberty, but cheers when the current government administration presses hard to curtail all avenues for individuals to emigrate – especially if they don’t hail from Europe. Racism, bigotry, and hate have always been an ugly truth of American culture, especially for those that claim to be “good Christians.” Unfortunately, while those individuals may have their weekly ritual of attending a service, but they do not practice what the preach, in extreme cases engaging in violent, hateful activities. Back in 1946, the Adventures of Superman radio show aired a special called “Clan of the Fiery Cross” that struck a major blow to these types of people. Now, with a resurgence in hate crimes and white supremacy buoyed by a rise of hateful, right wing politicians across the world, that same story is being revived by award-winning writer Gene Luen Yang in Superman Smashes the Klan #1.
Set in a post-World War II Metropolis, Yang and artist Gurihiru’s Superman is a combination of the original Siegel and Shuster comics and the still-amazing Max Fleischer animated shorts. That means “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” should be taken literally with regard to his abilities. Though he is, to quote Lois Lane, “Metropolis’ most famous resident,” this Superman has yet to discover the full extent of his powers and his potential weaknesses. This issue opens with a battle against a villain named Atom Man, who ends up giving Superman his first exposure to Kryptonite. This would be a catalyst for Superman’s personal journey throughout the issue (and presumably, the whole miniseries).
It is worth noting that Atom Man is a Nazi. While supporting characters like Lois Lane and Perry White mock this antagonist for his maintaining his views and beliefs in the post-war world, events such as the 2017 Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, VA prove that this is ultimately not to be taken lightly. This carries forward to later in the issue as the Clan of the Fiery Cross, better known as the Klu Klux Klan, take actions to sow fear in the community and eventually make a turn towards violence. Yang does not shy away from the uncomfortable and disturbing material, including the indoctrination of younger generations into this despicable subculture.
Following his confrontation with Atom Man – and Kryptonite exposure – Superman experiences an identity crisis. After all, Superman is himself an immigrant. If you want to get technical, he’s an illegal immigrant. Throughout the issue, is fixated on the pain he felt from the Kryptonite, curious as to why it harmed him and no one else. He also begins to recount childhood memories, such as overhearing Ma and Pa Kent talk about how they found him. He also experiences visions of himself and family members as classic, green-skinned and antenna-bearing aliens, which is a great visualization of his turmoil while also reaffirming the late 1940s setting of this story.
While this is a Superman comic, the backbone of this issue is the Lee family, who has relocated from an urban, Chinatown neighborhood to the Metropolis suburbs. Given the setting, Yang’s script includes several period-specific peculiarities that add authenticity to the story. There is an emphasis on the part of the parents that English is spoken, in order to better assimilate into society. Assimilation and abandoning cultural identity was a major part of the immigration story for many during the late 19th and well into the 20th century, and to see this reflected here is a reminder of what people sacrifice in order to make a life for themselves in this country.
Yang’s script also lays out how a young person may be corrupted into a hateful and intolerant mindset, as a local kid – Chuck Riggs – sees his spot on the Unity House baseball team taken by Tommy. As the scene plays out, it is portrayed as a disagreement between kids. However, when Chuck is explaining what happened to his uncle, the seeds of bigotry are planted. As the issue progresses, it’s clear that the opinions of Chuck’s uncle haven’t fully taken hold. However, there is enough where Chuck will have to truly grapple with what it truly means to be a fan of Superman.
Superman Smashes the Klan #1 might very well be the most impressive release of this week. Yang’s script tackles difficult, relevant subject matter and makes it approachable to all readers. Being a Superman comic, it has a broad appeal and wide reach, reinforcing that no matter where one stands on the political spectrum, there is no excuse for the fringe behavior that has been emboldened in recent years. Beautifully crafted artwork by Gurihiru makes this issue stand out even more. While there may be technically better comics available, Superman Smashes the Klan makes the case for being the most important comic of 2019.