In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. Today we are looking at the recent release of Superman Smashes the Klan (issue #1)
The original radio play
This comic is actually based on a 16 part 1940s Superman radio drama. The episodes were entitled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” The Superman radio show was a massive hit, and even introduced elements into the comics (like kryptonite). In many ways, in the 1940s, the comic and the radio show were both equally important pieces of the Superman story. While the KKK was not directly mentioned the “clan” in the episodes were clearly a stand in for the “klan.” There is not much subtlety when your antagonists burn a cross on the front yard of a Chinese immigrant family. The bigger story is the circumstances surrounding the show itself. There have been stories that the radio show revealed KKK secrets and rituals. Now, there is some debate into how much the show exposed, but regardless it was a pop cultural hit. The Klan did go through a fall in popularity post WW2 for many reasons, and there is no doubt that Superman taking them on in fiction would have helped. If families were gathering around the radio and listening to an adventure of Superman standing up for a Chinese family, and taking out Nazis and “the clan,” it would have cemented that xenophobia and fascism as ideologies only fit for the truly evil. Who wants to take the position against Superman, who is clearly an icon of what American ideals should be. And while some people may see comics covering progressive politics some new phenomenon, I’ve mentioned before how Superman was always a socialist hero. People expected Superman to take on the evils of the world, and there are very few clear examples of pure evil that match white supremacy.
This story is told through three different perspectives. There is one that deals with the Chinese immigrant family, another that looks at the clan, and obviously one centred around Superman. The first two stories are the ones most closely connected, while Superman’s plot does not connect until the end of the first issue. The Chinese family has actually been in the United States for awhile, and are moving from Chinatown into a white Metropolis neighborhood. The children of the family (and the focus of the story) are named Roberta and Tommy Lee. Tommy is a baseball all star and makes starting pitcher of the local team, which enrages the old pitcher. This is where the clan comes in, as the removed player’s father is a member of the clan. They get back at the family by burning a cross on their lawn. Meanwhile Superman has his first exposure to kryptonite, thanks to a Nazi super villain. It works a little differently than it does in the comics currently. The kryptonite actually smells bad to Superman, and even after he is no longer exposed Superman suffers from hallucinations. It is through these visions Superman faces the fact that he is an alien from another planet (when this story took place his origin wasn’t 100% cemented). It is an interesting thematic way to connect Superman to the immigrant perspective. Superman is seen as a perfect example of “American” yet he is far more foreign than a Chinese immigrant family. The story ends with Superman teaching a lesson to the outed pitcher about acceptance, and going off to smash the clan (presumably in the same fashion he smashed the nazi at the start of the book).
How racism is shown in the book
Often, work that deals with racism in the United States tends to look at things from the black or latinx perspective. While those stories are still important and need to be told, racism and prejudice comes from all angles at many different groups of people. The Chinese American experience is forgotten about and ignored, and this work brings forward historical context that directly connects with contemporary issues. While Jim Crow laws are often understood, many forget that the Asian community faced a similar dehumanization from the white supremacist attitudes of America.Japanese internment was a recent memory at the time of the radio play, and many Chinese citizens found similar smear campaigns working against them. The coastal cities and railways were built on the backs of, essentially, Chinese slave labor and many people died. Those that did survive were often deported. The hate did not disappear overnight and is still evident in this story. Tommy and Roberta’s father is a high ranking bacteriologist. He has a great job, highly educated, and seems to be making a decent amount of money. However, even with everything going for him he still faces hate and resentment. One of his colleagues shows jealousy when he complains that the Lees must have all the “luck” in the world (even though he clearly worked hard to achieve where he is at). He even makes an off handed comment about dog-eating, purposely jabbing at the Chinese stereotype. The only thing that puts Dr. Lee in the good books is that he isn’t Japanese (showing a disgusting hierarchy of racist attitudes). When they are victims of a hate crime, the father wants to ignore the issue and just hope it goes away. This leads to another story of racism, this time with Dr. Lee being the one with hate in his eyes.
A group of black men come to help put out the burning cross, and Dr. Lee immediately decides they are looking for trouble. Unlike the other examples of prejudice, Lee does learn from his mistake when he sees that the men are police officers. He feels ashamed of his actions which shows he is willing to learn and change. There even seems to be some learned shame of his culture and heritage as Dr. Lee continuously reminds his wife to speak in English, even around family. This feeling of needing to assimilate and ignore the racism, is something many immigrants go through. As if being in America is “good enough” and they should be thankful for what they have, even when others are sneering and spitting at their backs. The children are far more progressive in their actions and want to push back. Not simply assimilating to their new home but actively trying to make it a better place for everyone. It is Tommy Lee who finds himself on a baseball team and has no problem taking out the white supremacist pitcher, and Roberta Lee who is more than willing to fight back against hate throughout the book.
Superman Smashes the Klan should be read by everyone. I will continue to analyze each issue. There is more to the book that I did not cover in depth this time (like Superman’s immigrant story) that hopefully we will get to as this series goes on.