Superman has faced villains from across the universe, but his next graphic novel is pitting him against an enemy from America's own history: the Ku Klux Klan. The same enemy he fought over the radio seventy years ago, in living rooms across the country.
Arriving October 16th, Superman Smashes The Klan brings the 1940s Superman radio serial "Clan of the Fiery Cross" to a whole new generation. And for the first time, in comic book form. It was 1946 when the makers of the radio program began Superman's battle against prejudice, white supremacy, and anti-immigrant sentiment following the end of World War II--and using a thinly veiled version of the KKK to do it. Now writer Gene Luen Yang (New Super-Man) is updating that story for Middle Grade readers, teaching the lessons some have forgotten in the decades since. Screen Rant had the chance to discuss Superman Smashes The Klan with Yang ahead of the first issue's release, and the full interview can be found below.
How did you first learn about this almost unbelievable chapter of comic book history? I think no Superman fan could forget this story once you hear it, and understand the impact in American history. What was it that stuck with you?
I learned about it through the Freakonomics book. A whole chapter is dedicated to this thing, it's kind of crazy. They're making a point about how important stories are, and how stories can change society. I think what hooked me in, just on a very personal level, was finding out that the inciting incident was a Chinese American family moving into Metropolis in 1946. I found it on YouTube and listened to it--I don't know if it's legal, but it's there. Then there's a book about it, like a YA non-fiction book called Superman Man vs. The Ku Klux Klan by Richard Bowers that covers the whole history, all the details about it. I thought it was super intriguing. It's always been in the back of my mind. A couple of Comic-Cons ago I had a meeting with Marie Javins, who ended up being the editor of the book, and we talked about it. She asked me to give a formal proposal, and I did, and we were able to do it.
It seems like a no-brainer when you describe it, because there are timeless parts of it, despite being more than 70 years old now. It was at a time when the Klan involved could have been saying, 'Who is this Superman guy blowing up our spot?'
Yeah that's right. Superman wasn't very old. When this happened he was maybe 8 years old--he came out in 1938, this happened in 1946. I think it was just a very interesting time in American history. The Klan had actually collapsed before the war, membership was down. There was this guy named Samuel Green who was a grand wizard of the KKK. In May of 1946 right after the war ended, as these veterans were coming back demanding equal rights through the GI bill, he goes up Stone Mountain right outside of Atlanta Georgia. And he does this Klan ceremony that's covered by Life Magazine. So he's basically announcing to the world, 'the Klan is back and we're not happy about all of these veterans of color demanding equal rights.' Then two months later, Superman fights them on a radio show. It was really a response to this threat of White Supremacy rearing its head again.
The setting is the same? Because I'm sure the first thing many people will think is that you're updating this story for today. But you can and can not do that in different ways, I suppose.
Yes, the setting is the same. That was a very deliberate choice. There are certain things in the original that would just not work with the modern audience. There are literally these cliffhangers where the Klan kidnaps Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, and they're about to tar and feather them--and it cuts to the next episode, and the beginning of the next episode the Klan is like, 'We forgot the tar! Who forgot the tar?' You're not going to be able to do that. So we definitely updated stuff like that.But we wanted to keep the timeline in 1946.
It's an old Chinese tradition, a Chinese way of doing things where you use the past to talk about the present. The reason why you do that is because sometimes you can talk about the past in a clear way, because people's emotions aren't as involved. That's sort of what we want to do here, too. The Klan is not a big deal now. The Klan membership is just not big. But Klan-ish ideas are a really big deal right now. So we're dressing those ideas up in their traditional costume in order to talk about them clearly, in a story set in 1946.
It's one thing to listen to it on the radio show, which relegates it to the past, in a way. But these are very powerful images when you put them into a new medium. Where did you find the line there? Because there are different tellings of this story that you could give depending on the audience.
Very early on we decided to make it Middle Grade, because the original radio show was targeted at kids. There were cereal commercials, it was definitely targeted at kids. We wanted to keep that. But we also wanted to tell it in a way where adults could also find something out of it. There are some references in the story that your average kid is not going to pick up, but if you're an adult Superman fan who's been following Superman all your life, you'll be able to pick that stuff up.
This isn't a complete facsimile of the original radio show. So what were the changes that you wanted to make, while still keeping the main idea of the story intact?
We wanted to push the immigrant narrative more. It's there in the original, with the Chinese American family. The father is an immigrant and it's implied that the mother is an immigrant, but the mother never has a speaking role so you never know for sure. Then the son has a speaking role who is a child of immigrants. He doesn't allude to it directly but it's sort of there. It's in the undercurrent of his character. There's a daughter there who also doesn't have a speaking role, but it's definitely secondary to everything else that happens.
We wanted to bring that to the forefront and also highlight Superman's immigrant status. Him finding peace between his two cultures, between American and Kryptonian culture is a huge part of this story. The radio show also centers around Superman, Jimmy Olsen, and Chuck Briggs, who is the nephew of a Klan leader. The Chinese Americans are more like side characters. So we're refocusing it on Superman and the Chinese American family.
How is Chuck treated in the original story vs. this new version? How do you want to tell his story to young readers?
In the original story he has a change of heart, that's his big character arc. He actually goes from supporting white supremacy to a place where he embraces the idea of a multicultural America. He has the same arc in our story. But we wanted to keep that same arc. To fill that out for a modern audience I did read up on Derek Black. Do you know who he is?
That's David Duke's godson, right?
Yeah, who had a huge change of heart. I had read a biography on him and that influenced how I wrote that character.
New Super-Man was taking the idea of Superman and molding it into a different character. Because you're keeping the setting the same, is this Superman... before he was the Superman that we know? He looks more like the Fleischer Superman here. I assume you don't want to break too far from what fans know, but is this him figuring out who he is, too?
It really is. I think every child of immigrants, and every immigrant who grows up here too, regardless of where you're from you go through this period of time where you're trying to fit together being an American vs. being of the culture background that you're from. You have to kind of cobble it together. That's what Superman is doing here. Superman does that throughout the entire story. So we're taking pieces of the Superman mythos, regardless of when they were introduced, and fitting that into that theme.
I suppose that's what lets you have Superman in a style we all recognize, but fighting both the KKK and a villain with a Nazi swastika on his chest.
Yeah, Atom Man. He was the most prominent villain to come out of the radio show. He was like this Nazi agent, so his storyline actually aired in 1945 I believe, right before the Klan storyline aired. He was so popular they ended up using him for the film series. One of the most popular film serials was Superman vs. Atom Man. But he kind of fell into obscurity, I think because he had Nazi roots. And they kind of moved away from that. So he has a cameo in our story. If you do a search on 'Superman Atom Man,' he basically looks like this in the film series.
In the way that Superman is timeless, and his values are timeless, the flip side to that is that the antagonist of this story is just as timeless, just... lurking. I won't bother asking why the story is relevant now, but I have to imagine that writing this story now has a different pressure, or a pressing responsibility to it. There are a lot of Chucks out there.
Absolutely. We started this process maybe two or three years ago. Before Charlottesville, but already a lot of that stuff was in the air. It's not just in America, it's happening all over the world, in Europe, in India, in China, in The Philippines. I think there is some pushback against this idea that people of different cultures can live peacefully with eachother, you know? People of different cultural backgrounds. That's an idea I actually wanted to take seriously. To see it the way people who believe it see it. This idea that in order for you to have unity with someone else, you have to share blood or history. That was a very prominent idea in the early 1900s--why did America turn against that idea after World War II? That was my thinking going into the project.
That's such a strange thing too, because that is so core to the Superman mythology. That continuing line or legacy to a different culture.
Superman does not share blood or history with us. But he is still a part of us.
What else can you tell me about the Chinese American family that is being given the focus of this telling?
At the beginning of the story the family moves from Chinatown to Metropolis. To really the center of Metropolis. That was actually something that happened in 1946 when this was going on. So a lot of Chinese American GIs came back, and for the very first time they were allowed to move out of Chinatown. So before that through both written laws and conventions Chinese Americans were not allowed to live among white folks. So after World War II, in part because of serving as part of the American army, a lot of them were able to move back. In the late 1940s, Chinatowns all over American started disappearing because people were moving out. Now we think of Chinatown as this tourist trap, but back then they were basically these neighborhoods where Chinese had to live. It was very much of the time, it's all very historically accurate.
A lot of them, when they moved into new neighborhood, were met with a lot of animosity. People would throw garbage on the lawns, that sort of thing. So Superman coming to the defense back in `1946 was this way of saying, 'from now on America is going to embrace this idea that we don't all have to look alike to be one nation.' That was the whole point. I feel like we have to remind people of that now. So the main character's name is Roberta Lee, she is basically a very inquisitive young woman who is almost... Lois Lane plays a role in this story as her idol, so she's like a Lois in training.
The most facile reading of this story is that this is a comic about how the Klan is bad. But that doesn't seem to embrace the same idea of reconciliation at the heart of this idea. It's not about saying who is good or evil.
No it's about saying Superman is the man of tomorrow. What does it mean for us to move forward to tomorrow, right? What's tomorrow going to look like. So we're using the past to talk about tomorrow. We all kind of agreed on it after World War II, but now we're not agreeing. We're not agreeing!
Can you tell me about the artwork for this series, because this book has a really unique look.
It's amazing! It's done by Gurihiru, a Japanese studio. They call themselves a Japanese studio but it's really two women. One does all the pencils, the other does all the inks and colors. And they're phenomenal. I worked with them for 15 volumes of the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics for Dark Horse, and they also do a lot of work for Marvel, Unstoppable Wasp... they're stellar. They're shockingly good. Early on we talked about how we wanted it to be a blend of manga and Fleischer, and that's what they delivered, right? Manga to speak to a younger audience, and Fleischer to pay homage to a really important era of Superman's history.
So what would be your ideal takeaway for a younger reader to have after reading Superman Smashes The Klan? I guess both for the Middle Grade readers, and their parents?
The question we're hoping to introduce, we explicitly call out this idea of tomorrow in the book. What do you want tomorrow to look like? What's the tomorrow that you want your kids to live in? Or if you're a kid, what is the tomorrow you want to live in?
How do you feel about how it came together?
I'm really happy with it. Every time I've worked with Gurihiru, I throw them strips and they just make these gorgeous, gorgeous pages out of them. it's amazing. It was a thrill to work on.
I know you're prepared for the... noise that surrounds the release of any book like this. It's probably not healthy to focus on that too much, but how do you filter that out?
I think creators get a lot of hate in general, on the Internet. So it's not super new. There may be a different tinge to it, but I think it's fine. I think it's part of a discussion, if it has to happen, it happens. Hopefully it's a part of a discussion.
Superman Smashes The Klan #1 will be available from your local comic book shop Wednesday, October 16th.