06th May2020

‘Superman Smashes the Klan’ Graphic Novel Review

by Dean Fuller

Written by Gene Luen Yang | Art by Gurihiru | Published by DC Comics (YA Imprint)

The thing that I like the most about DC’s concerted push into the High School and Young Adult markets is that there’s nothing half-hearted about it. They’ve been happy to take chances, even at the risk of alienating some long term change averse fans (we all know one of them I’m sure). They’ve changed genders, sexuality, race, whatever changes the editor feels are justified in telling a good story. This has meant that DC has managed to coax some top YA writers into writing for them, which is a smart move on two levels. One, certain writers already have a huge YA fan base you gain access to and , secondly, you get to expose those characters to a wider, primarily female demographic. While the Catwoman from the big screen may not interest the average 14 year old girl, the young Selina Kyle from an abusive home trying to work out her place in the world, featured in DC’s YA book Under the Moon, certainly would.

This particular book, Superman Smashes the Klan, is perhaps braver than most of the previous volumes. It is based in 1946, so the element of familiarity is lost with YA readers, and features Superman, an alien from another planet. Not an easy person to identify with on the face of it. For me, though, and I’m guessing for writer Gene Luen Yang, Superman personifies optimism, and that certainly is timeless. A lot of the book also centres around two teenagers, Roberta and Tommy Lee, so although the time period is unfamiliar the themes and characters are certainly not. Let’s take a look.

Although set in 1946, we start with a classic Superman set up. Superman taking down a super powered enemy, with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen on hand to witness. For this Superman, out of continuity as all these books are of course, this is also his first, painful encounter with kryptonite. More on that later. We also meet the newest family to move to Metropolis, the Lee’s. Dr. Lee is bringing his Chinese-American family to Metropolis to take up the post of Chief Bacteriologist for the Health Department. Two of his new colleagues have come to visit, Dr Wilson and Dr Jennings, although good will from Jennings seems a little …strained. Tommy and Roberta are the teenage kids, and find their across the street neighbour is none other than Jimmy Olsen himself. Great first day.

Or not. The undercurrents of both intentional and casual racism are never far from the surface. Tommy tries out for a baseball team, does great, and is accused of taking a white kid’s place. That kid’s uncle comments that as Tommy’s dad has taken the Health Dept. job over ‘people like him’, the on-whites are pushing them out. Post-war America isn’t the land of the free for everyone it seems. Chuck’s uncle, though, isn’t really representative, in the sense that he reveals to Chuck he is in fact the Grand Scorpion, head of the local Metropolis chapter of the Klan of the Fiery Kross (any similarity to any real racist organisations is of course completely coincidental). Chuck is dragged along to their next meeting, which ends with fiery crosses being erected on the Lee’s lawn. Lovely.
At this point Clark’s story, and the Lee’s come together, as Clark Kent, Daily Planet reporter, visits to check out the story. Clark is still struggling with the after effects of his exposure to kryptonite, though hiding it, and we get some lovingly written flashbacks to Clark’s younger days. Superman ,though, is called into action when Tommy is kidnapped by the Klan, and is in a race against time to save him. Clark and the kids, including a somewhat repentant Chuck, find and save Tommy, though Clark’s visions of strange alien creatures now seem to be of his birth parents. The flashbacks continue, helping us to see Superman was once also an outsider, as a boy his abilities scared people who became aware of them. Superman is, of course, the classic immigrant. Yang writes a lovely few pages showing a young Clark wishing he was different, wanting to be just like everyone else so he could fit in.

The mingling of storylines continue as Lois Lane meets Dr Lee, and finds out that his bosses are up to something not entirely kosher, that involves the kryptonite from earlier. Clark wrestles with his alien heritage resurfacing, and Roberta and Tommy continue to try and fit in while trying to be themselves. Oh, and Chuck’s uncle is plotting bombing attacks. Superman manages to save people in a building that is blown up by the Klan, but things are clearly escalating. Defacing the Daily Planet globe? That’s a step too far in anyone’s book. Oh, and the Klan kidnapped Lois, Perry White, and Inspector Henderson of the Metropolis Police. But the globe… Superman rescues everyone, which is ok, but most importantly fixes the globe. I’m very big on the Daily Planet globe. So, job done.

Not quite. The Grand Scorpion is the not the big boss after all, that honour falls to the Grand Imperial Mogul. Also known as Dr Wilson, who we met at the beginning. Turns out though Wilson isn’t a racist at all. He just wants to harness people’s hatred and turn it into money. His hatred is of threats, and he has always regarded Superman as the threat. Matt, the Grand Skorpion, can’t accept this, gets rid of Wilson and steals the kryptonite powered weapons Wilson had been working on. The Skorpion then confronts Superman in a baseball stadium, forcing him to reveal his true heritage as an alien, hoping to ignite racism and fear in the crowd. Which he does, for a second. Essentially, though, most people are decent enough to know when they are being played, which is both the point the book ends on and essentially its message.

I can happily say Superman Smashes the Klan was excellent, from start to finish. Although the basic theme of the book is about fear of people different from you, this is delivered in a way completely organically entwined in the story. Never forced, or preachy. Yang writes some fantastic flashback sequences for Clark, really getting at the essence of his character, and the ongoing pull on his nature from his being raised in two different, but equally valid, cultures. Rather like the Lee family, and many like them. This is a Fleisher cartoon idealistic Superman dealing with serious issues, and it works beautifully. The manga-esque art by Gurihiru is simplistic at first glance, but far more detailed and cleverly coloured than you realise. The style also suits the pacing wonderfully.

Do read the fantastic text piece at the end by the author, which gives you some good background to the story and a real life taste of some of the themes in the book, some good and some bad. Powerfully done.

Hands down a five star book. Iconic Superman and a powerful message.

***** 5/5

Superman Smashes the Klan is released on May 12th, pre-order your copy now.


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