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Superman Smashes The Klan explores history through a superhero lens

All images: DC Comics; art by Gurihiru and letterer Janice Chang
All images: DC Comics; art by Gurihiru and letterer Janice Chang
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

With almost 100 years under his yellow belt, Superman is a major part of American cultural history. As superhero comics continue to influence pop culture globally, it’s increasingly important to consider how those comics inform and shape our understanding of the past and present. Heroism and moral behavior as modeled by fictional characters can be nuanced and telling about the culture that both spawned and read those characters’ stories, especially with a character who has the catchphrase of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Superman faces off against the bigotry and xenophobia of post-WWII 1940s America in Superman Smashes The Klan, and our comic writers dive into the new graphic novel to explore how superheroes can be used to illuminate the past for modern readers.

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Caitlin Rosberg: Superman Smashes The Klan is a perfect storm of a book, bringing together a format, a creative team, a main character, historical information, and current events into a remarkable and much-needed story. Based on a 1946 The Adventures Of Superman radio drama, “Clan Of The Fiery Cross,” Superman Smashes The Klan expands and adapts the narrative for modern audiences while maintaining the heart of the original message.

Writer Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to historical comics. His Boxers & Saints duology recounts two perspectives of the Boxer Uprising in China at the turn of the previous century, and both are critically acclaimed and beloved by fans. Yang’s experience with telling stories founded in history is a huge part of what makes Superman Smashes The Klan so successful as a book. In the back of each of the three issues and the collected edition, Yang offers insights into his personal experiences with racism but also broader American history, the context of what brought about the original radio drama, and the history of Superman himself, weaving these disparate stories together to offer real insight into how the book came to be and why it’s so important. One of the things Yang points out is that radio was one of, if not the, most popular form of entertainment of the day, which helped it to reach the widest possible audience.

Oliver, we’ve talked in the past about how YA and middle-grade graphic novels have changed the comics landscape. Do you think that played a part in the choices for the medium and format of Superman Smashes The Klan?

Oliver Sava: No doubt. Establishing a strong foothold in the book market involves securing the support of schools and libraries, and Superman Smashes The Klan features a big-name hero tackling serious subject matter that has both a strong moral message and plenty of teaching opportunities. And it’s all presented with a very animated, kid-friendly art style courtesy of Gurihiru, who previously worked with Yang on Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels. DC’s YA and middle-grade graphic novels have a lot of creators working in comics or with superheroes for the first time, but Superman Smashes The Klan comes with a proven track record and a lot of prestige.

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Superman may have been fighting the Klan on the radio in 1946, but just a few years earlier, Max and Dave Fleischer were perpetuating racist stereotypes in their Superman animated shorts, which significantly boosted the hero’s pop culture profile. One of the things I admire most about Yang as a superhero creator is his eagerness to address the genre’s racist history. He used New Super-Man to look at how Asian representation in DC Comics has changed since the Yellow Peril caricatures of its early comics, and with Superman Smashes The Klan, he celebrates the titular hero’s history of fighting hate while introducing new characters of color with their own personalities and struggles that reflect reality at that time. There’s a moment in Superman Smashes The Klan where the Chinese-American protagonist Lan-Shin Lee joins some white friends at the movie theater, where they watch a blockbuster pitting a white hero against a villain rooted in Yellow Peril imagery. This scene highlights how popular culture validates racist thinking with dehumanizing portrayals of those considered “other” by the white majority, and Superman is part of that history.

In the past, the Elseworlds comics imprint would have been the place for historical reimaginings of DC characters, and in a lot of ways, these new graphic novels are carrying on the Elseworlds torch with their continuity-free interpretations. Green Lantern: Legacy introduces a new Green Lantern, a Vietnamese refugee who started a new life for herself and her family in the United States. I really enjoyed Minh Lê and Andie Tong’s work on that book, but wanted to spend even more time in the woman’s past, exploring what it means to be a superhero in circumstances that are far from the white American male norm. Caitlin, I know you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about superheroes as tools for exploring history. How do the conventions of the genre enrich stories about the past?

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CR: When it’s just a list of dates and events, history can feel not just boring but irrelevant. Robbing history lessons of larger context and divorcing them from the very personal stories of the people who lived through it is far too common, but a good superhero book like Superman Smashes The Klan can combat a lot of that. The titular hero is easy to identify and acts as an avatar for the reader to enter this world. Especially given the title, it shouldn’t shock anyone that Superman is opposed to racist bigots and their violent deeds, so readers already know the core of what’s going to happen. That leaves so much space for readers to pick up other details and lessons, which Yang leverages to powerful effect.

The book features racist terrorism from the Klan itself, but also the more insidious people who wonder if those Klansmen have a point, even if their tactics are wrong. There are microaggressions and two Chinese siblings who disagree on what is okay for their white friends to say. Lan-Shin Lee, the young girl who serves as the story’s catalyst, goes by Roberta for much of the book for the ease of the white people around her. Language barriers are discussed frankly and at one point Lan-Shin’s father tries to distance his Chinese family from the black men who helped them in the aftermath of a Klan attack for fear of being grouped in with them.

That’s a lot to tackle for a middle-grade book, from the capitalist roots of the Klan to immigration, but the creative team does it all with grace and careful intention. Even the character design feels thoughtful, as antagonists are drawn without many of the classic markers of villainy, making it clear that physical appearance has nothing to do with risks people pose. If readers didn’t already have the foundation of Superman, they might be overwhelmed by all that, but because they enter Superman Smashes The Klan with clear expectations of who is right and what is wrong, they have more emotional and intellectual energy to absorb and process all of it. That’s not just true for children, of course, though the book is aimed at them.

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As you mentioned, the DC young adult and middle-grade graphic novels have been tackling well-loved characters and franchises with fresh new ideas and creating some real magic. I’m especially excited for Nubia: Real One, which just had its cover revealed. But Superman Smashes The Klan is the first one that delves into history like this. Are there other arcs or time periods you’d like to see in one of these books?

OS: I admire how Superman Smashes The Klan uses its historical setting to right the cultural wrongs committed against people from marginalized groups, and I would love to see that continue. There’s a lot that could be explored in the eras of the ’60s and ’70s about the civil rights movement or women’s liberation using the language of superheroes. And those books should be created by the people who didn’t have the opportunity to tell those kinds of stories in the past.

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Superhero comics have been dominated by straight white men since they began, which is why it’s been so refreshing to see DC take a more inclusive approach to its YA and middle-grade graphic novels. The majority of the creators on these books are women; just this year, we’ve had three DC graphic novels by Asian-American writers: Sarah Kuhn on Shadow Of The Batgirl, Minh Lê on Green Lantern: Legacy, and Gene Luen Yang on Superman Smashes The Klan. And as these lines expand, we’re seeing more people of color and queer creators brought on to offer their unique perspectives, unburdened by continuity.

There’s no shortage of existing characters who can be modified for different time periods, and by having big themes baked into their concepts, these established characters provide a clear emotional perspective for engaging with history. Superman Smashes The Klan takes advantage of the inherent Superman themes of social alienation and immigrant identity, using them to deepen the hero’s connection to the book’s protagonists and bring out his human side. But there’s also an exciting opportunity here to introduce original characters, as DC recently debuted a new superhero in Anti/Hero and has another one coming next month in Primer. Going to a specific time and place in history gives creators a different set of tools for designing visuals and developing narrative, and spending more time in the past could deepen DC’s roster with heroes created by people who gain more freedom by operating outside of the main superhero line.