Our Better Angels: Superman Smashes the Klan

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.

One Punch Man’s Japanese and American Superhero Lineage

One Punch Man has been a hit, both with the people who have long championed the manga, and with those discovering it through its animated adaptation. The story of Saitama, an invincible superhero who literally finishes most of his fights with “one punch,” the series puts a great deal of emphasis on humanizing its Superman figure. It handily deflects the classic criticism of invulnerable protagonists as “boring” while also drawing from both Japanese and American superhero traditions, and I think it’s worth exploring what it does to make Saitama a sympathetic figure.

To talk about a Superman-type character is to also naturally bring up the Man of Steel himself. Originally conceived with incredible strength and speed and gradually transformed into a being that could move planets and reverse time, much of the past three decades’ stories concerning Superman have been finding ways to make him human. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel film focused on the psychological and emotional struggle of having to hold back all the time, something shared with select episodes of the Justice League cartoon. Superman has been reduced to the point of being not quite so omnipotent, and also turned into a brooding teenager for Smallville. Numerous “what-if” scenarios have made him Soviet, nearing death, old and out of touch with the youth, and alternative takes on Superman-esque figures have dealt with mental problems, become amoral, and more. Even other superhero-themed series such as Tiger & Bunny and My Hero Academia will build in flaws into their Supermen, though the fact that they’re in the distance means that it’s more about how their image and reality compare.

One Punch Man ties Saitama’s ongoing turmoil to the fact that his astronomical power levels have made him unable to fulfill his heart’s desire, which is to be pushed by a powerful foe and go beyond his upper limits. He wants to feel like Son Goku being brought to the brink by Frieza. He wants to be Ryu from Street Fighter, constantly pursuing the next challenge. He draws from that popular tradition in manga and other Japanese media about the thrill of the journey, and yet while Akagi brushes with death before defying it, even that is denied when it comes to Saitama. Even if we’ll never as powerful as that, I think it’s easy to understand why this would be so painful.

Perhaps the more important element is that Saitama is kind of an idiot. The fact that Saitama doesn’t quite think through his position in the world (or perhaps choose to actively ignore it) brings a certain quality that reminds me of the earliest Superman comics and stories, back when he could only leap tall buildings in a single bound. If you look at the very first Action Comics, Superman spends a lot of it bullying the bullies. There’s a certain satisfaction in the fact that Superman’s personality and character aren’t so elaborate, that there isn’t almost a century of material exploring his psyche. One Punch Man achieves something similar by just having Saitama’s morality have good intentions but generally be kind of vague. He hasn’t thought too much about his role as a superhero other than that it’s “fun” (or at least should be), though at the same time it puts a twist on that basic desire to be so powerful that no one can stand in your way.

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Old Spice’s Isaiah Mustafa vs. Terry Crews is the Batman vs. Superman of This Generation

Commercials about deodorant are not a common topic on Ogiue Maniax, a blog dedicated to anime and manga discussion. However, one thing that anime, Old Spice in 2015, and superhero comics have in common is a love of crossovers in varying capacities. With Old Spice, this comes in the form of ads where its two biggest spokesmen, Isaiah “Hello Ladies” Mustafah and Terry “POWERRRRRRRRRRRR” Crews pit their respective deodorants against each other. It’s been a long time coming (and basically instant money for Old Spice), but what stands out to me about these commercials is just how much they actually pay attention to keeping their respective superhuman abilities consistent as they’re utilized to both entice the viewer and outdo each other.

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When placing characters into a crossover, especially one that involves a direct conflict, what’s important is maintaining the strengths and identities of the characters being brought together. Superman is immensely strong, unbelievably fast, and has a variety of astounding abilities, while Batman is extremely intelligent, excels at planning, and puts in more effort than anyone else. Detective Conan is a master of deduction and observation, while Lupin III is renowned for his deception and improvisation. When these characters meet, there is ideally a clever interaction that enhances their mutual reputations, and that’s what happens when Isaiah takes on Terry.

Both Isaiah Mustafa and Terry Crews exhibit reality-bending powers in Old Spice commercials, but they’re uniquely different when compared to each other. Isaiah’s “ability” is that he can quickly and seamlessly transition one environment or object to another without a moment’s notice, owing to his status as the ultimate ladies’ man. Terry essentially invades space through the sheer power of his intensely hyper-masculine personality for men, cloning himself, appearing where he shouldn’t, and even blowing himself up. What you see in these series of commercials is how the two try to one-up and counter each other with their specific skill sets, a battle of equals who realize that the other is just as potent and manly as the other, only in different ways.

Basically, while it’s always been clear that a lot of thought is put into Old Spice’s recent commercials, what we see here is an actual consideration for Isaiah and Terry as unique, superheroic characters. Isaiah can’t do what Terry can and vice-versa, and never is there a conflation of what the two are capable of. It’s the superhero duel the world has been waiting for, and in a way I hope it comes to define and influence all future crossovers in mainstream media and advertisement.

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