Throughout the 1940s comics were used as various types of propaganda. DC was no exception to this rule with our top heroes taking on the likes of the Japanese and Hitler. A particular story from a 1940s radio serial was the inspiration for Gene Luen Yang’s new story Superman Smashes the Klan. In the summer of 1946, the Man of Steel dealt with the Clan of the Fiery Cross on his popular radio show. The Clan stood in for the real-world Ku Klux Klan. Using information from activist Stetson Kennedy, the show would reveal KKK code words and hidden details for the audience. Reports revealed that the show negatively impacted Kolan membership and recruitment during the time period.
Starting this fall, Superman is returning to that popular series, Superman Smashes the Klan, a three-part series created by Gene Luen Yang, the author of American Born Chinese and a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Heat Vision caught up with Yang to talk about the series and this is what he had to say:
I’m really curious: How did this get started? Obviously, there’s a history to the Klan of the Fiery Kross and the Superman radio show, but how did you get your in on this particular story?
I first heard about it through the book Freakonomics; they actually devote an entire chapter to the whole thing, how this one storyline in the Superman 1940s radio show dealt a huge public relations hit to the Ku Klux Klan.
I remember reading about it and learning that the incident that set the whole thing off in the original show was a Chinese American family moving into Metropolis. So, I’ve been a superhero fan since I was in the fifth grade — the very first comic I bought was a Superman comic — and I’ve been reading Superman comics since I was a little kid, and I can’t really remember any other Chinese, or Chinese American characters showing up in any of the comics that I’d read. So, it kind of piqued my interest.
Then, I started working for DC in early 2015; I did a 10-issue run on the monthly Superman comic, and after that I’ve been part of the DC comics family. I had the opportunity to have lunch with Marie Javins, who is one of the legendary editors at DC, and this came up as an idea of what to do.
I’m super excited to be working with the artists Gurihiru. I don’t know if you’re familiar with their work, but they’re so good; they’re a Japanese art studio, but it’s really just two women — one does all the pencils and the other does all the inks. Early on, the editor and I talked about going for an art style that’s just like the old Fleischer Superman cartoons but mixed with a manga influence, and I feel like they totally delivered on that. That’s exactly what they did.
The acting is so good. It looks so simple, but what they’re doing on the page is so clear.
The acting is what puts them over the top. It’s what makes them masters.
One of the things that I like about the first issue is that you show Superman as an inspirational figure not only to the “good guys,” but also to Chuck, who’s the child who doesn’t necessarily understand what Superman stands for. The iconography of Superman is shown to be this nuanced thing.
One of the things about the Superman radio show, and the original version of this story, is that it actually comes relatively early in Superman’s career. He was first published in 1938, and the story was broadcast around 1946, so that’s just eight years, and he was already a worldwide phenomenon. And especially in America, he was wildly popular. But I do feel that the Superman that we all know and love today, he wasn’t quite formed yet [at that time].
There were still pieces of him that were being solidified. And as much as the radio show impacted the real world in terms of bigotry and racism, it also helped shape Superman’s character. It was at this point where Superman really did become a symbol of American tolerance, American justice and American hope.
The subject of Superman not being a fully formed character is something you play with in the text of this book, as well as the subtext; Clark is still learning who he is — his power set, his abilities and his cultural heritage. He’s literally a character in flux, just as he was at the time when the original radio show was broadcast.
The more I read about the radio show, the more fascinated I was. When Superman first appeared in 1938, he was essentially a glorified strongman, you know? He couldn’t fly. He was superfast, superstrong, he could jump high, but even then, there was a limit put on how high he could jump. It was specifically said that he could jump 20 stories.
A lot of his development actually happened in the radio show. He actually flew for the first time in the radio show; the radio show was where Kryptonite showed up for the first time. A lot of that comes from the fact that the radio show got so popular that it became a daily thing, whereas the comic was still monthly; they really needed to develop Superman — his mythology, his world — really quickly.
So, when I learned about that, I thought, this is a comic book adaptation of this old radio show — we should play with some of those elements. We should play with the fact that he doesn’t fly, or that Kryptonite is a brand-new thing.
But despite that, he remains Superman as we know him. There’s this essential Superman-ness that comes through on every page. You talked about reading Superman when you were a kid; is this something that you just inherently “get”?
My parents were born overseas, and growing up, I went through this period of time when I had a hard time vacillating between two identities. I had a Chinese identity at home, I had an American identity at school, I had two different names! When I was a kid, I did gravitate toward Superman, but when I got into my teenage years, I started getting into characters I thought were more “cool” — cool in quotes! [laughs] — but one of the things that drew me back to Superman was realizing that he was an immigrant from Krypton.
Like, all of those things: vacillating between two different identities, having two different names, having two different sets of cultural expectations. All of the realities of my childhood, all of it was encoded in Superman.
I actually have a theory about this — the reason why Superman presents himself as “perfect” is because he’s an immigrant. I saw it with my own parents; they came here and people perceived them as “foreign,” [and] they were always cognizant of this. The way they dealt with that was by trying to be perfect citizens. I think Superman does the same thing; the reason he tries to be a perfect citizen is because he knows he’s an alien. As I built a connection with the character, that’s what it became. He really became an icon for me after I saw all of this — [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster knew all of this, they were children of immigrants. They put all of this in the character.
I think a lot of time, when we see him on cereal boxes, or whatever, we miss that, but it’s the core of the character. The core of Superman is that he’s an immigrant from Krypton.
That ties in with something else I enjoyed about the first issue — that there is so much about Superman being confused about his cultural identity. It plays against what’s going on with Tommy and Roberta’s family — it’s a connection that you’re not hitting people over the head with. You’re showing that Superman is an immigrant even as he passes as, as you said, this “perfect citizen.”
I hope so. All of that was in the character from the very beginning. His immigrant status has been there since the very beginning and is, I think, closely tied to his being an American icon. Those two things go hand-in-hand. The immigrant story and the American story are pretty much the same thing.
How much of that is present in the original story? Was the original radio serial as interested in Superman as an immigrant explicitly? Did Tommy and Roberta play such important roles, even though they were Chinese American characters?
For the radio show, I would say that the lead character was definitely Superman, and after that, the focus was on Chuck, then Tommy. Roberta, Tommy’s sister, didn’t even exist in the radio show. For me, I wanted to center the story on this Chinese American family. I really do think of this book as an Asian American book — maybe not just that, an immigrant book. By putting this Chinese American family center stage, it really highlighted the specific immigrant side of Superman.
Spinning off that, there’s the fact that this story is being published today. We’re at a point in history now where even the discussion of immigration in America is this impossibly charged topic. It feels important at this moment to have a story — specifically, to have a Superman comic — that pushes back so clearly against bigotry and racism, that does make the appeal for tolerance.
It’s not just America. You read the news about Europe, India, or the Philippines. I started this project because I thought it was something that I needed to understand. There’s a Chinese tradition that you use the events of the past as a way of talking about the present; I did come onto this project thinking about that, thinking, if I can understand the historical context that there was something about the present that I’d understand a little bit better.
One of the things that came out of this — we’re at the tail end of the third and final book right now, as we speak; I’m just about done with the revisions — and one of the things that I’ve learned is that the world learned something about tolerance after World War II. Not just America; all of us learned something about tolerance. World War II was the worst nationalistic instincts of the world come to a head — the worst instincts of our species had manifested themselves pretty much everywhere in the world. And then, this Superman story, which arrived a year after the war ended, was primed to convey the lessons the world had learned to a younger generation.
I just think that, maybe we’re so far removed from that period that we’re beginning to forget those lessons. That was the impression that I got.
Did you go into it with the idea that this was a lesson that needs to be retaught? This is, after all, a project aimed at younger readers? Were you thinking in terms of, lessons needing to be relearned in today’s culture?
To be honest, I was more going into it thinking that there were things that I personally wanted to understand better. The original storyline was very didactic, but I don’t think it was just about the lesson that was explicitly said in the story. It was also about the historical context in which that story came out. I wanted to go in to try and understand that a little bit better. I’m hoping that me wrestling with those issues comes across in the story.
You said that Chuck was one of the lead characters in the original version of the story, and one of the things that’s compelling about the first issue is Chuck’s story. He’s a character who’s leaning toward bigotry and hatred, and is pretty explicitly being taught that by his family, but you don’t write him off; there’s the implication that he can go another way, he can learn to be better.
Chuck’s a character in the original radio show, and in the comic adaptation, we kept all the big pieces of who he is. He begins as kind of a bigot, but he has an arc. To fill out that arc, I did read a book called Rising Out of Hatred, it’s written by a guy named Eli Saslow. It’s the biography of Derek Black, who is David Duke’s godson; he went from being the heir apparent of the American White Supremacy movement, and he’s the exact opposite now. When he’s not in hiding — he had to go into hiding — he’s speaking out against the views he was raised with. I read that book wanting to understand how someone could make that transition; I wanted to embed some of that in the character of Chuck.
Changing gears somewhat; you’re a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and comics specifically. When you’re working on a project like this, especially on a character as iconic as Superman, is this something that you can see as a tool for new readers to use to get into, not just Superman, not just comics, but stories about things that are happening in the real world? Stories that matter.
I actually feel really lucky to be working in comics today. I think over the last, maybe 10 to 20 years, we’ve seen this shift in the public perception of comics. More and more, people are open to the idea of comics dealing with serious topics, and I hope this project fits in with that. I do think that there is a growing wave of comics that want to tackle the very heart of what it means to — do you know the book Bitter Root? It’s an Image Comics title that’s coming out right now.
Yeah, Sanford Greene and David Walker’s book.
I think that book is one of the best examples of using genre to talk about very important and serious topics. I’m trying to do something similar with this Superman book.
Superman Smashes the Klan is released on October 16th with 3 80-page perfect bound issues. The collected edition will be released in 2020.