Book: “Superman Smashes the Klan” by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru (Ill.)
Publishing Info: DC Zoom, May 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: The year is 1946, and the Lee family has moved from Chinatown to Downtown Metropolis. While Dr. Lee is eager to begin his new position at the Metropolis Health Department, his two kids, Roberta and Tommy, are more excited about being closer to the famous superhero Superman!
Tommy adjusts quickly to the fast pace of their new neighborhood, befriending Jimmy Olsen and joining the club baseball team, while his younger sister Roberta feels out of place when she fails to fit in with the neighborhood kids. She’s awkward, quiet, and self-conscious of how she looks different from the kids around her, so she sticks to watching people instead of talking to them.
While the Lees try to adjust to their new lives, an evil is stirring in Metropolis: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan targets the Lee family, beginning a string of terrorist attacks. They kidnap Tommy, attack the Daily Planet, and even threaten the local YMCA. But with the help of Roberta’s keen skills of observation, Superman is able to fight the Klan’s terror, while exposing those in power who support them–and Roberta and Superman learn to embrace their own unique features that set them apart. From multi-award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang comes an exciting middle grade tale featuring Superman.
Review: Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to Superman. He’s written for Superman before, as well as creating an offshoot character Super-Man that is based in China (and that I have reviewed here on the blog). But I think that “Superman Smashes the Klan” is the Superman story of his that almost immediately caught my eye when I heard it was a thing. I had seen this bouncing around various book and comics circles, and bought it for myself as I love Yang’s work, and I am always in the mood to see a good smashing of racists and fascists. Especially these days.
“Superman Smashes the Klan” follows both Superman as he tries to come to terms with his own identity, as well as the Lee Family, a Chinese-American family that is moving from Chinatown to downtown Metropolis. Our main focuses are on charismatic and popular Tommy and his younger sister Roberta, who is a little more reserved and unsure of herself. While Tommy can seemingly easily code switch with the white kids in their new community, Roberta has a harder time reconciling her Chinese-American identity with this new environment. When the Lees become a target of the hate group The Klan of the Fiery Cross (more on this name in a bit), both Tommy and Roberta want to fight back in their own ways, while their parents are just trying to not make waves to keep themselves and their children safe. I liked how Yang not only addressed the full blown bigotry and violent racism of the Klan, but also the more subtle and systemic racism of society, mostly through Tommy and Roberta’s parents. Dr. Lee, their father, has taken a new job at the health department, and encourages his children and wife to assimilate (many a time does he tell his wife to speak English instead of Chinese), as well as wanting to fit in with his white colleagues and superiors and not be associated with other minorities. We also see Tommy playing down his Chinese identity by being self deprecating in hopes of fitting in too.
And as I mentioned earlier, Superman himself is dealing with his own identity crisis in this story, as he has been downplaying some of his powers that make it more clear that he isn’t just a very strong or gifted human. Specifically, he hasn’t allowed himself to really fly after an incident in his childhood where he lost control of that ability for a moment, and some people in Smallville nearly turned on him because they thought he was possessed. I LOVED this for two reasons. The first is that initially in the comics Superman couldn’t fly, he just could jump really, really high and far. It was genius for Yang to incorporate this character change into the story in this way. But the other reason is that it’s a great way to show kids who are reading this book that Superman, a strong, nearly perfect, ideal of a superhero, ALSO has struggles with his own identity, and that he too is from a group that could easily be Othered and discriminated against because he’s different.
I do want to talk about The Klan of the Fiery Cross as well. What I didn’t realize until we got to the super helpful author’s note at the end is that this is based on a story arc from the Superman Radio Show from the 1940s! That story was pretty similar, a Chinese-American family moves into a white neighborhood, and the Klan of the Fiery Cross (at the time the KKK was a powerful group after its second wave post “Birth of a Nation” with many members, and the radio show didn’t want to get sued for using their actual name) targets them, and Superman saves the day. Yang, of course, expands upon this within this new story, and it works very, very well. We see the Klan for the hate filled racists that they are, but he also touches on how some people who are really just looking for power and money will latch on to racist and fascist movements in hopes of getting the power and clout they crave (sounds familiar). You’d think that it would be hard to break this down in a kids book, but Yang does it and makes it super understandable for the audience the book has been written for.
And finally, the art work. Gurihiru has some clear manga influences and styles, and it works for the story. I also loved the use of colors and the character designs, be it body designs or period appropriate clothing.
“Superman Smashes the Klan” is a fast paced and charming story that has a lot to say without getting heavy handed or too bogged down. Yang’s story telling talents match perfectly with the story at hand, and fans of Superman should definitely read it!
Rating 9: An action-filled screed against racism that is filled with empathy and hope, “Superman Smashes The Klan” is no doubt an exciting read for children and adults alike.
“Superman Smashes the Klan” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle School Social Justice”, and “Paper Lantern Writers: Best Own Voices Historical Fiction”.