Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Gurihiru
Published by DC Ink /
Who was Superman when you first met him?
Was he George Reeves, perhaps? Dean Cain? Mort Weisinger’s Silver Age hero with his Fortress and his robots? The Mego Superman? The Super Friends Superman? The trunks-free New 52 Superman?
The point is that we’re closing in on a century for the Man of Steel and there have been many different versions during that time, every single one of which was somebody’s first. And your first Superman becomes YOUR Superman.
It’s not just about the art style or the acting style or the overall trappings, either. Your version of Superman likely depends just as much on your version of truth, justice, and the American way.
If you’re like me, your version of Superman actually influenced your version of those three things…and many more.
To be honest, I haven’t seen MY Superman around all that much in decades now, but the hero of Superman Smashes the Klan surprised me by turning out to be very recognizable as MY Superman!
Technically, this is a kids’ graphic novel. Says so in its fine print. But at his best, wasn’t Superman always an all-ages favorite?
The art and coloring offer the reader a very pleasing mix of Fleischer and Bruce Timm, lightly filtered through an anime/manga lens by the Japanese art team of Gurihiru.
The story itself, inspired by a famous sequence on the 1940s Superman radio series with Bud Collyer, is opened up quite a bit by writer Gene Luen Yang. In his long closing essay, he writes of HIS Superman and how, as an American of Chinese descent, he grew up quite familiar with the prejudices found in the story.
The book’s story deals with a Chinese-American family moving to Metropolis not that long after World War II and experiencing both subtle and blatant racism. This being a kids’ graphic novel, our POV character is the young girl of the family.
Superman here is seen as someone still learning, someone not yet as self-assured as he will become. He’s determined to do the right thing but he’s not always sure of his own abilities. Sometimes he feels like he’s two different people…much like our young heroine, whose birth name, Lan-Shin, has been supplanted by her American name, Roberta. You know, in the same way a certain alien’s background has been supplanted by his becoming an ordinary Earthman named Clark Kent.
The villain of the piece is hatred itself, as personified in the Klan members and their anti-American arguments and rationalizations that coincidentally (?) reflect so much we’ve seen in the daily news in recent years. There’s even a bit of a real-world twist as we find out near the end who’s at the top of the evil bedsheet ladder, and why.
Although the book reads to a large extent like an old-fashioned Superman story, the deeper characterizations are quite a welcome addition. From the start, it was clear to me that this was a Superman I knew and admired and, by the end, even though hatred is not as easy to defeat in real life, I admired him even more.
For a story that gives us familiar variants of classic versions of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and a not quite familiar Inspector Henderson, Lan-Shin remains the focus throughout, bringing us to not only a satisfying surface-level conclusion, but also allowing for various underlying commentaries on the importance of being not just who you are, but who you are meant to be.
Uplifting, well-done, and unexpectedly subversive, this will, undoubtedly be somebody’s first Superman. I envy them.