- May 9, 2021
Superman Should Smash Racism
So originally I was gonna write a review about “Superman Smashes the Klan,” by Gene Luen Yang, with art from Guruhiru, and that book alone. But I’m not. I did make a video version of this piece though.
The book is amazing, it’s actually broken into my top five favorite comic book stories of all time. That may sound arbitrary. I mean like stories that are self contained, like story arcs, graphic novels, events. Essentially, I’m saying I hold this book to the same high level of regard as I do stories like Infinite Crisis, House of X, and Kingdom Come.
I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a million times, I’m not a Superman guy, or at least I wasn’t. Sure, I’m not gonna suddenly go back on the profound belief that Batman is superior, more entertaining, and would win in a fight. I’m saying that I think I’m done trashing Superman. For too long I judged him by stories I found boring, and a characterization that I couldn’t get behind. It was an especially angsty part of my life.
Suddenly, I feel like there’s room for hope. I’ve found the ability to truly give Superman an honest shot again.
Superman Smashes the Klan got me thinking about Superman in general. I came to realize something. The themes here, they’re not only in this Superman story, they’re apart of Superman, always and forever, but it’s always subtle, rarely stated.
The Ku Klux Klan is one of the most famous racist, terrorist groups in American history, maybe even world history. They are the pinnacle of a group that deserves to get knocked out by Superman, with the way they’ve hanged, burned, tarred and feathered people through history.
And Superman, the first superhero, the oldest superhero, the quintessential superhero, is something racists organizations like the KKK, hate. He’s an immigrant, and illegal at that.
Superman: The American Alien
Kal-El came from an alien planet, not by choice but by that of his parents. He grew up with a name different from what he was born with to blend in. He traded Kal-El for Clark Kent. The man even knew two languages, one he couldn’t speak to hide his true heritage and fit in.
I bet a lot of people can relate to that description. At the same time, save for a few instances like Superman Smashes the Klan, its been a while since it was at the forefront of Superman stories. If you weren’t told, you’d never know that Superman was written by the child of Jewish immigrants. Personally, and honestly, I think Superman should go back to being steeped in this heritage.
I’m saying, that the Lees, the side characters in Superman Smashes the Klan, should become side characters as prominent as Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen. I’ll explain what I mean by this in a moment, I need to talk about Superman’s heritage first.
And no, I don’t mean he needs to fight off Zod every week, or go try to bring back Krypton. I mean now and then, not just once a generation, a writer should look at Superman like his creator did.
Superman is a defender of the downtrodden and oppressed. He isn’t some privileged savior either. Once Superman takes off the cape, he is one of the oppressed. That was Superman in this book. For anyone adverse to change, guess what, Superman was able to stand by the downtrodden, with and without his cape. The whole time he was always Superman.
Other characters, like Black Lightning, Midnighter, Black Panther, and Batwoman, they’re not always about the aspect of their character that makes them oppressed or targeted. At the same time, their stories never pretend they aren’t a part of a targeted group. Nor do they ignore it for extended periods of time. DC shouldn’t do this with Superman either.
Introducing the Lees to DC cannon and Superman’s main roster is the perfect way for Superman to do the same.
Superman: Meet the Lees
Superhero stories aren’t solely about the superheroes. Maybe in team books they are, but in solos there’s always a cast of characters who are and aren’t superheroes. Superman is no exception. this book makes the most of its characters to facilitate a story that remembers and flaunts Superman’s roots and his mission for a better world.
If Superman just comes out of nowhere and starts hunting down the Ku Klux Klan, that would be pandering at best and blatantly boring at worst. Not to say I wouldn’t read that.
Superman stories should incorporate what Gene Luen Yang does so well with his book. Side characters who add to more than plot points about being all-powerful or a journalist. Not that those stories aren’t good but we have been getting them for over 80 years. They don’t have leave a lot open for diversity in the lessons they’re teaching us. It’s why fans were overjoyed to see Superman experience something new with having a son.
How many times can an alien supervillain kidnap Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane? How often are they just bystanders to a fight between Superman and a big dumb alien monster? It’s cool when it’s a mission against corrupt politicians and companies like Lex Luthor and Cadmus, but again, that’s all we keep getting.
The Words Behind Superman Smashes the Klan
It’s powerful in Superman Smashes the Klan, when Perry White hears that Chinese immigrants who had moved to town had been terrorized and threatened by the Klan. His words, “Is this really my city?” are so powerful compared to hearing about Krypton’s destruction, or Superman struggling with how he should use his powers.
Perry’s simple but telling reaction to a Klan attack comes from not knowing what really goes on around him. Sometimes people really just don’t know. It’s a question people need to ask to protect themselves and their neighbors. That question can help you figure out how to help.
Perry White answers the call by doing something about it. He specifically uses the paper to find the Klu Klux Klan’s leader. That’s powerful, its a lesson that everyone should hear. Having it in a comic book is just another way for more people to find it.
But it means so much coming from a Superman book.
The Side Characters of Superman Smashes the Klan
And this story has so many moments like that. It became possible because Luen Yang frames the story around different side characters. Perry White may have had the reaction, but if it weren’t for the new side characters Yang writes about, the Lees, that conversation between Perry White never would have happened.
The Lees are this Chinese family who just moved into Metropolis. If the Lees, particularly Roberta and Tommy Lee weren’t side characters in Superman’s story, so many lessons and moments would have gone untold. This book properly challenges Superman to explore why it took so long for him to learn how to fly and use the rest of his powers, other than, ‘Huh, I didn’t know I could do that, I’m so afraid I could hurt someone.’
Instead, we learn that Superman is trying to pass as human. He’s trying to look like he’s doing things a human can do but just better. It immediately makes him relatable to anyone who’s hid who they are so they don’t look like a freak.
And Roberta Lee, someone who’s had to change her name, and pretend to be something other than Chinese, figures it out because she sees her brother do the same thing to fit in.
Superman jumps like a man but only higher, and runs like a man but only faster. He never does anything humans can’t do. Tommy, in his own way of fitting in, plays up stereotypes. He calls his family wontons, right in front of his sister so he can fit in with some white kids. It’s tame, but this is a kids book.
These side characters truly capture how people of color, especially kids, will change their personality and make fun of their own heritage and race to make white people laugh, hurting themselves and their family in process. That’s not even mentioning how it teaches the white kids how its okay to make fun of other races. That’s not to say those kids are jerks. If a black kid tells a white kid a racist joke, he has every reason to think it’s okay to say to another. You’ve just had one black kid teach a white kid how to hurt another black kid’s feelings. That’s basically the problem Roberta has with her brother.
Superman Smashes the Klan spends just as much time on Superman’s growth as it does the Lees. Superman, throughout the whole book is fighting these abilities that make him Kryptonian. He denies them and his full potential because he’s so afraid of not fitting in. In that moment, Superman becomes as relatable as Spiderman, maybe even more so.
It adds a layer and depth to his character by having these side characters. Superman and the Lees together, learn to struggle and find a balance with themselves. They balance assimilating to a new place and culture without giving up a piece of themselves to achieve it.
Superman: Metropolis Isn’t So White
Having the Lees there as well, on a base level, adds diversity to Superman’s cast of characters. That’s going to sound eye-rolling, but it immediately changed the dynamic and the challenges Superman’s side characters faced when they were trying to help him and live up to the standard he sets.
For instance, when Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane go to a cop about a missing person, that cop wouldn’t bat an eye. When Roberta Lee goes up to the cop, it’d be far from unrealistic for him to blow her off, in a modern comic or this novel’s period piece.
After telling him her brother is missing, the cop makes the decision to gaslight her rather than help her. He says “This city is very, very safe, especially for people like you. Metropolis goes out of its way for you, giving you houses and jobs and promotions you don’t even have to earn all because it wants to be the blasted League of Nations or something.”
I’ve experienced conversations and dickheads like this my life. They would refuse to think I deserve anything because of some imaginary aid from the government, or society, or whatever. This book just made it a cop and the victim a young girl, in what feels like a universal experience for POC.
That whole interaction is just a page, and it had the depth of a sea behind it. That’s ultimately a small but striking thing to add to the story. This is what the Lees or characters like them can add to Superman.
The Character Development of Superman Smashes the Klan
Then again, it must seem like I’m only talking about what those characters bring to the book when they’re not with Superman. I said before that Roberta is the one who realizes that he’s holding back, hiding a part of himself. That’s more than the page that was the interaction between Roberta and the cop. Roberta has Superman rethinking himself, his childhood, and who he can be. Other characters either won’t bring things like that up to him, or can’t because it would never occur to them.
It makes more sense for Superman to be asking himself, “Why some of the powers, but not others? It’s as if you only want to be half of who you actually are,” after talking to Roberta. Roberta goes on for days languishing over feelings of not belonging and how it isn’t okay to be her. Of course she would tell Superman that she’s sorry it isn’t okay for to him to fly.
Superman only has a flashback of the time kids mistook his alien powers for that of demons because of Roberta. She reminds him of why he holds back. Other characters in his line-up don’t do that. Other characters don’t remind Superman of the times he felt alone and out of place in the world. He could use characters who do in his permanent cast.
Right now, Superman is constantly being reminded of how normal he is. He has a wife, a kid, and neighbors who know who he is and what he does during the day. Superman has recently become the most open book imaginable, and that’s taken a bit of his depth from him.
Superman Should Smash Racism Again
I think the thing that hurts Superman nowadays is that all he seems do do is fight aliens and mega-monsters. Some of them are symbolic and well-written; some of them are used for drama; and some are just lame-os who apparently want to claim responsibility for destroying Krypton. His conflicts are getting same-y.
When you think of the best Superman stories, his conflicts aren’t purely physical. You think of All-Star Superman, when he’s coming to terms with how he can help as many people as possible before he dies. In “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” his fight was proving that pure violence and getting down to the same level as the criminals doesn’t help anyone. They all mean more than Superman punching Brainiac in the face. Those stories are fun, when that’s not all that’s happening. Sometimes Superman needs to get real. Introducing some more, different characters who would bring out different villains and conflicts will help with that.
Superman used to spend his time fighting the KKK and Nazis. He used to fight real villains and teach us how to protect ourselves and each other. Add Roberta Lee, at the very least, with all the elements that Gene Luen Yang has attached to her. She’ll give Superman a reason to inspire and teach in a way we can actually replicate.
For lack of a better word, I want DC to add something to Superman. Something that makes it pretty common for him to smash racism again. If you want to know my opinions having to with race and representation in comic books, check out my article on my problem with Black Panther.