Gene Luen Yang discusses Superman's battle against the KKK in new graphic novel
Superman has overcome more than his fair share of villains over the course of his adventures, from down-to-Earth schemers like Lex Luthor to out-there galactic tyrants like Darkseid. But his most important battle might be one that took place outside the pages of a comic book. In 1946, the Adventures of Superman radio serial tackled a story line called "Clan of the Fiery Cross," pitting the Man of Steel against barely disguised stand-ins for the Ku Klux Klan. By referencing real-life Klan rituals and customs, the show's producers were able to strip away the racist organization's aura of mystery and reveal them as silly bigots; the Klan's recruitment numbers suffered grievously as a result. The whole fascinating saga of a fictional superhero defeating real-life villains has been discussed in the pages of Freakonomics and on an episode of Drunk History, but it never graced the pages of an actual comic book until now.
Superman Smashes the Klan is an adaptation of the original story line written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by the Japanese art team Gurihiru. Yang, the author of such acclaimed graphic novels as American Born Chinese and Dragon Hoops, tells EW that he was fascinated by how the original radio story had a Chinese-American family at its center. Superman Smashes the Klan keeps that element intact, focusing on young Roberta Lee and her brother Tommy as they deal with their family moving to a mostly white Metropolis suburb and receiving a not-completely-warm welcome.
"I think the reason they made that choice on radio was because Chinese-American families were making that move from Chinatown to previously all-white suburbs after World War II. This was a move that by and large other people of color weren’t able to make," Yang says. "The reason there was an exception for Chinese-Americans was because of the way Pearl Harbor was talked about. Before World War II, Chinese-Americans were seen as criminals; you’d go to Chinatown if you wanted to buy drugs, get mugged, or order a prostitute. But Pearl Harbor does this strange thing to Chinese Americans. After Pearl Harbor, America realizes China is America’s greatest ally against the Empire of Japan, so then the Chinese-American script completely flips. That’s where the 'model minority' myth starts."
Yang continues, "I feel ambivalent about a Chinese-American family being the center of the original story because the circumstances around that aren’t super-awesome. But this retelling gave me a way of exploring all of that."
Each member of the Lee family has a different reaction to their move, which captures some of these ambivalent anxieties. Tommy immediately becomes popular among his new classmates, but to Roberta's dismay he tries to maintain that popularity through self-deprecation and laughing off cultural misunderstandings. Their father is eager to fit in with his fellow scientists at his new research job, while their mother still avoids speaking English when she can. That leaves Roberta struggling to figure out how she feels about these life changes. As a child of immigrants who went on to teach high school for years, Yang says he's seen all these different responses "in my own family, in myself, and in the people around me."
Most people understand the KKK to be villainous, and no one does a better job of stopping villains than Superman. But there's another level to the Man of Steel's involvement in this story — after all, he is something of an immigrant himself. Superman Smashes the Klan shows the titular hero holding things back from both himself and the public; at the beginning of the story, he doesn't even fly, instead relying on super-fast running to get around. As Superman helps Roberta and her family stand up to the Clan of the Fiery Cross, he also learns to embrace the full extent of his own identity.
"When I was a kid I was not a huge Superman fan. But as I got older and learned that his creators were children of immigrants just like me, I began to wonder about some of the stuff that was put into Superman," Yang says. "For example, there's that dorkiness where he’s a rule follower who always does the right thing. That kind of reminded me of my parents. As a kid, I thought my parents were dorks. I guess most kids think that, but I think there’s an added level when your parents are immigrants. My parents were rule followers. They would always try to not make waves and be good citizens."
Yang adds, "As I got older, I realized there was a little fear behind that. The reason they acted that way is because deep inside they were worried that if they weren’t perfect citizens, then people would question their citizenship. We’re seeing that now with all the anti-Asian stuff that’s popping up in the news. I think that there’s that dynamic with Superman as well. He’s an immigrant too, but he comes from somewhere way farther away than Asia. Deep inside, I think he has the same fears."
Superman Smashes the Klan is available from booksellers now.