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Superman smashed the KKK once, and now he's doing it again
When Eisner Award-winning writer and cartoonist Gene Luen Yang first discovered the story of "The Adventures of Superman" radio show and how its host Stetson Kennedy went undercover to fight against the Ku Klux Klan, he was intrigued.
It wasn't just that Kennedy's weaving KKK secrets into his Superman radio show helped dismantle the hate group, though that's certainly what earned most of the headlines. But Yang was also drawn to the incident because it represented the first time he encountered someone who looked like him in a Superman story: In the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” storyline, Superman was called to step in when a family of Asian-Americans was harassed and attacked by a group of local bigots.
Next week, Yang (American Born Chinese, Secret Coders, New Super-man) and artists Gurihiru are set to release an 80-page hardcover Superman Smashes the Klan, which updates the famous radio serial from "The Adventures of Superman" program in 1946. Throughout that original 16-part serial, which ran from July to August of that year, Kennedy provided strange details including secret codewords and meeting rituals used by the Klan. As a result, the Klan’s mystique was stripped away, and by the following year the organization had become a joke.
Yang’s version is an updated take on the original program and is set to release on October 16 via DC Comics, with the first of three softcover issues. The collected edition of the story will be released in 2020. This week, Yang spoke with SYFY WIRE about revisiting the timely tale.
In DC Comics’ solicitation for Superman Smashes the Klan, Dr. Lee and his two kids, Roberta and Tommy, move from the Chinatown neighborhood in Metropolis to the center of the city so he can take a new job. While the family try to adjust to their new lives, the Ku Klux Klan makes things even more difficult, burning a cross in front of their home and generally being poor neighbors otherwise. The situation gets more untenable when Tommy is kidnapped and Superman must step in to save the day.
Yang always loved superheroes, and he says Superman started it all. Yang’s mother bought him his first comic book off the spinner rack at his local grocery store, a copy of DC Comics Presents #57 featuring Superman and the Atomic Knights.
“Early on, I kind of thought Superman was a bit of a dork. He was a Boy Scout with a cape. I thought all of the other superheroes, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Batman, they were all so much cooler,” Yang tells SYFY WIRE. “Eventually, though, I do feel like I found my connection with Superman after I realized embedded in his story is the immigrant narrative.”
That immigrant narrative struck a chord with Yang, whose mother grew up in mainland China and whose father immigrated from Taiwan. Yang says when he first read the story of “Clan of the Fiery Cross” in the pages of “Freakonomics," he was struck by the power of story to affect real life.
“I remember talking to my son about it after I read it, and the next time we were at the library we found a book on it, called 'Superman vs. the KKK.' It was fascinating," Yang says. “At the center of it was this Chinese-American family that moves into Metropolis. I'm Chinese-American, and I grew up in the 1980s and read Superman comics, but I don't really remember seeing a lot of folks who looked like me in those stories.”
Although it’s set almost 80 years in the past, Yang says the story has an enduring quality and is very relevant in our modern society, especially in America.
“When I was talking about the book with Marie Danvers, who is now an editor on the book, we kept coming back to that touchpoint,” Yang says. “It addresses a lot of what we're seeing in our world today. In Chinese culture, there's actually this convention of using history to talk about the present.”
Yang says when issues in the present are sometimes so emotionally wrought, it's easier to see them clearly when you talk about them through the lens of the past. That's part of the motivation of the project.
When Yang was growing up, he also thought his parents were a bit “dorky,” like his initial view of the Man of Steel. But, as an adult, he realized they acted so “by the book” because they desperately wanted to fit in. It’s a quality he came to identify in Superman in his later years, he says, and one he wanted to touch upon in Superman Smashes the Klan.
“Deep down inside, I think, my parents always worried that if they weren't perfect citizens, people might question their citizenship,” he says. “I feel like there's this same thing with Superman. One of the reasons he presents himself as the Boy Scout is because deep down, he knows people might question his citizenship. People might call him out for being a foreigner.”
Additionally, Yang says, Superman Smashes the Klan is very much a story about people in costumes.
“Superman is this hero who dresses up in a costume and the KKK are these villains who wear costumes for very different reasons,” he explains. “That's something I also wanted to explore.”
Yang says he was happy to learn Japanese art team Gurihiru (The Unbelievable Gwenpool, The Unstoppable Wasp) was brought on to produce the book. Yang traveled to Japan to meet with artists Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano (the team behind Gurihiru) about what kind of look the comic would have.
“They’re incredible women, super talented and super fast,” Yang says. “We talked for a while about the visual, and I suggested we go for something in between the Max Fleischer 'Superman' cartoons and something with a manga tinge. I think they totally nailed it. It looks new and old at the same time.”
While putting the project together over the past couple of years, Yang says he enjoyed digging into the old "Adventures of Superman" radio show because it came at a time when Superman was still developing as a character. He couldn’t yet fly, and Kryptonite hadn’t even been invented yet.
“A lot of what we know as standard Superman mythos came from the radio program,” he says. “Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, the Daily Planet, and much more stemmed from those radio shows.”
As a former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Yang spent 2016 and 2017 traveling across the country to show America’s youth how important reading is.
“Right now, kids in America are reading more comics than ever before," he says. “I found every kid in every class reads some form of comics. My hope is that this book will be like a bridge between the comics I read as a kid and the comics that kids are reading today.”