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The Superman story that set the Ku Klux Klan back years is now a comic

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Oct. 15, 2019

Superman Smashes the Klan is a three-part graphic novel about a young Superman battling racists, helping an immigrant family, and wrestling with his own status as an alien outsider. It’s extremely charming.
The book comes from the award-winning cartooning team of Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru, who were inspired by the 1946 Superman story “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” That story wasn’t a comic, but rather an arc of the immensely popular Adventures of Superman radio serial. In the audio adventure, Superman battled the racist machinations of the Ku Klux Klan. Excoriated and embarrassed by one of the country’s most popular radio shows, the white supremacist group actually saw a drop in membership.
Superman Smashes the Klan is the first time “Clan of the Fiery Cross” has been adapted to comics. And Yang and Gurihiru’s Superman is a classic 1946 Superman. He hasn’t figured out how to fly yet and he’s never seen kryptonite before, a nod to how many core aspects of the character originated in that very series. Writers on the The Adventures of Superman serial went on to introduce those elements, along with Jimmy Olsen, and Daily Planet editor Perry White, and the endlessly quotable “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
Polygon sat down with Yang to talk about all things Superman, and courtesy of DC Comics, you can check out an exclusive preview of 16 pages from Superman Smashes the Klan at the bottom of this post.
Polygon: When did you first find out about “The Clan of the Fiery Cross?”
Gene Luen Yang: I read the book Freakonomics . They actually dedicate a chapter to it, about how this one storyline, in 1946, on the Superman radio show really dealt a huge publicity blow to the Ku Klux Klan; making a point about how stories matter. I read that, I don’t know, 10 years ago, and it’s just been in the back of my mind ever since. The most intriguing part of that, for me personally, is that the impetus for Superman getting involved is that a Chinese-American family moves into Metropolis. I was just not used to seeing Chinese people in Superman stories.
You had a whole arc in Justice League of China about Chin Lun, a very stereotypical Fu Manchu-style villain who was on the cover of the very first issue of Detective Comics . You seem to often process American comics’ long relationship with orientalism through your work.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, to be honest, I think a lot of people in comics, we’re, like, broken people, you know what I mean? [laughs] And a lot of art comes out of a brokenness and trying to figure out what the roots of those brokennesses are. And I do think that my relationship with both American culture and with Chinese culture, from when I was a kid, is a little bit broken. There’s something weird about it. And a lot of the stuff that I do is trying to figure that out.
So one of the things that was intriguing to me was “Why was it a Chinese American family [in the original Superman Smashes the Klan story]? Why did those writers choose to do that?” We don’t have any notes from the writers room or anything, but I did end up doing a lot of research in order to do this. I think it’s just intriguing, I think that World War II was a very interesting time for Chinese-Americans.
We saw this huge change in our public perception from before the war to after the war. Also, I think in American history there’s always been these two streams, right? There’s been All people are created equal . That’s been one stream from the very beginning. And then there’s also this other stream This certain category of people are only three fifths people , right? So those have been competing, and in my reading and my research for this book, it feels like World War II was this inflection point where America definitively said, “We’re going to go the way of All people are created equal . We’re going to try to push in that direction.” And it does seem like we’re kind of losing that now.
Is there a resonance to a story about Superman directly and literally combating white supremacy right now?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it is white supremacy, but it isn’t just white supremacy. It’s also this really evil version of Nationalism that we’re not just seeing in America, but all over the world. I think right now there is this question of whether or not human beings of different groups can live together peacefully.
I felt like after World War II, all the world had just gone through this horrific thing. And we were saying, “Yes, it’s possible.” And this storyline is about saying, “Yes, it’s possible.” And now it does seem like if you look at what’s happening here in America and in India and in Europe and the Philippines, it seems like people are starting to reject that idea. So a lot of the writing behind this is about exploring that. Can people who are different live together peacefully?
There was some recent fan discourse around the idea of casting a black actor as Superman, and part of the discussion was that one of the things we should acknowledge about Superman is that his alienness gets a pass because he looks like a white guy. Is that idea present in Superman Smashes the Klan ?
I’m a Superman fan. I think Superman speaks to every pocket of American society, but he especially speaks to immigrants because he himself is an immigrant. And I do think that the closest analog to him in the real world is the Jewish-American experience, especially in the time that he was created. In the late 1930s, early 1940s, many American Jews could pass if they wanted. So really if they wanted to claim their own cultural heritage, it was sort of a choice, and that wasn’t necessarily true for Asian Americans or other minority groups.
I think that the overlap between the Superman mythos and the African-American experience so far has been best explored by Icon . Did you ever read Icon ? It’s so good. It’s so good. I don’t think I’ve seen something as good as that yet. I think all of that stuff is totally valid. But I also think that the best version of that is Dwayne McDuffie’s Icon.
One of the theories that I have about the Superman character is that he presents himself as a boy scout, he presents himself as this perfect citizen. And the reason why I think he does that is because he knows deep inside that he’s this foreigner, that he’s actually an immigrant. And that’s something that I saw with my own parents.
My own parents were immigrants. They came when they were in their early twenties, and all the way through I think they were very conscious of being as good citizens as possible, not breaking any laws, always following the rules, trying to make a quote unquote respectable life for themselves. I think one of the reasons why Superman dresses in bright colors is because he is actually legitimately scary. I think his motivations are the exact opposite of Batman.
So Batman’s like this WASP and he fits in, he’s not scary at all. [ laughs ] So he has to dress up to be scary. Superman is a foreigner who is legitimately scary, and in order for him to be accepted by the people around him, he has to dress in a way that seems a little bit less threatening.
You are a cartoonist, an award-winning one, and you’ve written and illustrated your own books. Why did you choose to do this one with Gurihiru?
Uh, because I can’t draw as well as him [ laughs ]. That’s the short answer. Gurihiru is amazing! [The character designs] are so good. We did 15 volumes of the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels together. So, we’re kind of in a rhythm, even though I’ve only met him in person a couple of times. From the very beginning I wanted this book to be a blend between Manga and those old Fleischer Superman cartoons . And I knew that they could do it just because I’ve seen their stuff before. I knew that they could do it and they totally did. It’s gorgeous.
Tell me more about the characters in this concept art.
We actually kept the bones of the original story. We made some modifications, but the major characters are all there. The major story beats are all there. This is a character, his name is Chuck Riggs. He’s actually one of the characters from that original radio show and he’s the nephew of a Klan leader. In the original radio show he has this change of heart, so we have that same change of heart in our storyline. But the main main character, besides Superman, is a young woman named Roberta Lee. She was in the original radio show, but she didn’t have any lines, and she didn’t even have a name. She has a dad and an older brother named Tommy who did have lines in the original show and in one line in the original radio show, the father says I also have a daughter , but she never shows up. So we wanted to center her in our version.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the experience of bringing the radio play to the page?
It’s been a lot of fun! I went in wanting to learn something and I felt like I really did. I got to read all these awesome books; there’s a book called Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by a guy named Richard Bower who talks about the place of the original radio show. One of the things that excites me most about this project is this storyline from 1946 is actually one of the most important and one of the most famous storylines in all the Superman mythos. Superman is a comic book character, and we’ve never actually seen that story adapted to the comics. So I’m really thrilled to be able to do that, to bring this storyline back to his native media.
Enjoy even more exclusive pages from Superman Smashes the Klan below! Just know that this excerpt, like the full book, contains some ethnic slurs.
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