Superman Smashes the Klan is an incredible display of how powerful sequential art can be. Written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Gurihiru, Superman Smashes the Klan is a loose adaptation of the original Clan of the Fiery Cross radio serial that aired way back in 1946. It’s loose because Yang introduces two incredible elements to the story that are missing from its radio serial counterpart: Roberta, our main hero protagonist and Superman struggling with his own identity.
It’s easy to use Superman as a storytelling tool to display the polarities of good or bad. Or black and white. Especially in many of the early stories Superman served as an oversimplification. But here, Superman deals not only with bigotry and hatred but he must also look at his own actions. He has concealed himself from the outside world and chooses not to use his complete power set. It’s quite powerful to see him struggle internally and more or less compare himself to the two children he protects. Sure, his ‘alieness’ could be considered more extreme and different than these two kids from Hong Kong. But is it really that different?
In fact, what makes SStK so compelling is that the book lives in the grey. Again, Superman seems to have thrived in the black and white, good and bad spheres throughout his history. But here you have complex characters that Yang extends to the antagonists. By far the most interesting character is Chuck.
Chuck must deal with his Uncle Matt’s bigotry and determination to put Tommy down for size. I think for all children there comes a moment in our lives when we need to choose a side. It’s also a time when we learn that adults are not infallible. Nor are they purely good. Chuck struggles throughout SStK as he confronts the hate around him. And by Chuck wearing something as simple as that Superman t-shirt after his own first display of bigotry shows that Superman is a symbol that is attractive to a lot of different people. Even those that you don’t agree with.
I was forced to think if that hits a close to our real world at the moment. Where the mainstream and social media attempts to pull us in specific directions. Can we as individuals like and enjoy the same thing? Even when we are facing each other from opposite sides of the spectrum?
Even after the first periodical you can tell that this is one well designed book. One of my favorite cosmetic changes is the use of red word balloons to convey when the characters are speaking Cantonese. I found this incredibly effective, from a visual standpoint. Especially as we are dealing with matters related to identity and self-expression.
Gurihiru’s sequential art and character designs are incredibly effective. The almost childlike feel makes the story more shocking, especially when the adult themed and uglier moments appear. Guirihiru is a master of expression and you see that throughout. From the look of pure hatred, or anger and frustration from Roberta, Gurihiru’s masterful strokes enhance the story and turn its impact from a dent into a massive crater. I am not sure if this book would resonate as much as it does without it.
Also, as a Superman fan I must admit it was a lot of fun getting a Superman from the 1940’s. Furthermore, through this different power set, it was not only a cool nod to that part of Superman’s history as a character, but also it allows Yang to make the characters around Superman to have more of a sense of vulnerability. In this world Superman just can’t get to someone instantaneously anymore in order to help them. Now it takes time. And that brings a sense of danger to the story, especially when things are getting dicey for our characters.
Finally, I firmly believe that Superman Smashes the Klan should join the required readings across the United States. Because if one were to sum up this book in one word it would be balance. Yang balances the characters well. He depicts each character’s own unique struggle in belonging to a new world while not giving up their own identity. For anyone who has experienced being dropped or forced into an entirely new environment, you will have a lot to relate to here. Never does Yang go into the preachy side but simply allows the messages and themes to blossom on their own. And with the power of Gurihiru also on his side, Superman Smashes the Klan proves to be one of the most effective and powerful books to come out in the world of comic books in a very long time. Everyone should read it.
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