When I was more actively into superhero comics, the prevailing sentiment about Superman was that he’s a “boring” character whose nigh-invulnerability and moral uprightness were far less interesting than the grim and gritty Batman or what Marvel Comics had been doing. But I think that was as much a reflection of the kinds of people who called themselves comics fans as well as a kind of blindness towards the very fact that Superman is a reflection of both the ideals and the shortcomings of the United States. It’s a country built upon both racism and opportunity, and Superman as the “ultimate immigrant” stands at that crossroads.
Plenty of works about Superman have helped to showcase his humanity, from All-Star Superman to Smallville to the 1990s’ Superman: The Animated Series to even the controversial Man of Steel, but Superman Smashes the Klan by writer Gene Luen Yang and artists Gurihiru that I think presents an especially poignant story about Superman’s internal conflict through his own status as an immigrant.
Superman Smashes the Klan is an adaptation/re-imagining of one of the most famous stories ever told in the old 1940s radio show, The Adventures of Superman, in which Superman faces off against a Ku Klux Klan analogue. The catch: the show had actual KKK secrets and code words, and helped to expose them to a greater American audience, weakening their ability to recruit new members. Where Yang makes his mark as the writer This particular arc also includes the Chinese Lee family as minor characters, and that’s where Yang—whose previous comics focus heavily on the Chinese experience in the US—makes his mark by giving them extra attention. The topics of racism and the immigrant experience are portrayed with an incredible amount of nuance that leads to far more than just a “racism is bad” moral lesson.
The Lee family, for example, is portrayed as each having different relationships with the concept of “Americanizing.” Tommy, the son, loves baseball and will even make jokes about his Chinese-ness as a way to befriend the white kids around him. Roberta, Tommy’s inquisitive sister, sees his behavior as incredibly fake, and doesn’t want to have to put on a show or play into stereotypes. Their father is so intent on presenting himself as a model minority that he tries to dress the part of the professional scientist even in dire emergencies. Their mother gets fed up with her husband’s insistence on speaking English instead of Cantonese even though it’s a much more comfortable language for her to express herself. Even though all four characters are Chinese and even related to one another, they’re shown to be influenced by the tension between their Chinese background and American life in different ways.
The white characters are given a similar treatment, where Tommy’s baseball rival, Chuck Riggs, is shown to have both good and ill within him. He worships Superman and the righteousness he embodies but also has a white supremacist upbringing that influences how he sees others. It’s the conflict between these two aspects of him that defines Chuck’s own development throughout.
Superman’s part in this story mirrors that of the Lees. He actively tries to portray himself as a Good American just like any other—albeit with superhuman strength and speed—but has to deal with knowing that he’s not human like everyone assumes he is. One antagonistic character even assumes that Superman is white, and asks how Superman could betray his own race, a scene that touches upon those with non-white backgrounds who are able to pass as “white” in American society, and reap the benefits as a result. There’s even an acknowledgement of Superman’s parallels to the Nazi idolization of Nietzche’s concept of the “Die Ubermensch” by having a Nazi villain constantly call him “The Superman.”
There’s one aspect of Yang’s writing of Asian characters that I must praise, and that’s his willingness to portray them as having their own problematic beliefs. After the Lee home is attacked by the Klan, a group of black men driving by stop to help them out. However, Roberta and Tommy’s father immediately sees them as a threat and treats them as such. Here, his racism and stereotypical assumptions of black people reveal themselves, even as he himself tries to fight racism towards himself and his family. As an Asian-American myself, the capacity for Asians to both bristle at the discrimination inflicted upon them while being complicit in racism against other peoples is one of my greatest frustrations in life, and I am glad to see Superman Smashes the Klan showing both the fact that this happens and the complexity it carries. It’s very much in line with the kind of well-rounded yet complicated depictions seen in Yang’s previous works such as American Born Chinese and The Shadow Hero.
While I focused mostly on the writing aspect for this review, I want to give credit to Gurihiru’s excellent art. As always, their work feels both approachable yet filled with a sense of quiet grandeur. The care they give to showing the differences between the characters through their body language ends up enhancing the greater themes and important points of the comic overall.
Superman Smashes the Klan feels ever more relevant as the United States is seeing the rise of hate groups and increased violence towards non-white groups of all stripes. It is an accessible book that is worth reading by kids and adults alike, and I think it would especially resonate with Asians living in the US. It’s worth not just a look, but also a close examination of how America succeeds and fails at the ideals it presents to the world.
Superman as portrayed in the 1940s is one of the sources of my idealism about the USA.
And his anti-racism was a prominent feature. Consider the creators who were probably
subject to antisemitism and could see the hypocrisy of the anti-immigrant and anti-black
feelings in the USA, Remember that black soldiers who won a great deal of medals were
murdered when they returned in uniform to the communities.
See the graphic novel “Harlem Hellfighters” and the PBS show about the black soldiers
in WW I and the Japanese -American soldiers in WW II.
Superman in the classics of the 1940s seldom got to the war because he accidentally used
his Xray vision during the eye test. But he sold lots of war bonds and had a good story
the ultimate immigrant patriot.
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