Graphic Novel Review: Superman Smashes the Klan

Superman Smashes the Klan is inspired by the 1946 Superman Radio serial: The Clan of the Fiery Cross. 

Teenagers Tommy and Roberta Lee move to Metropolis with their parents after their father gets a job as Metropolis’ chief bacteriologist. Tommy is a good pitcher and gets picked for the Unity House baseball team that Jimmy Olsen is a manager of.  Tommy displaces the team’s existing pitcher, Chuck Riggs, who is kicked off the team due to his bad sportsmanship. Chuck tells his Uncle Matt, who is a leader of the Ku Klux Klan stand-in, the Clan of the Fiery Cross.  The clan burns a cross on the Lee’s front yard and it’s up to Superman to protect the Lees and Unity House and bring the clan to heel.

This is not an exact adaptation of the radio story, but it captures the spirit of it. The book manages to be mostly true to the era the story is set in but also make changes to fit a modern audience. Superman was written as much more of a boy’s adventure story, and Tommy’s sister wasn’t even named.

In the novel, she’s a central character and provides a lot of emotional insight.  She’s sweet but awkward. She reflects that she felt out of place and like she didn’t belong even in China. She’s wonderfully relatable and interesting as a character and she has a superb bond with Superman. 

This also has a good portrayal of Superman, though it took me a while to see what he was doing. For example, in the earlier pages, he had Superman still “leaping tall buildings” rather than flying, even though by 1946, Superman had been flying in both the comics and the radio show. However, as I read the book, I saw exactly what writer Gene Yang was doing.

Yang incorporates more recent ideas about what it was like for Clark Kent growing up when he started to manifest his powers, which led to people becoming afraid of him, and him becoming an outsider, and having to hide who he is and what he can do in order to fit in and have a normal life. 

It’s a different take on Superman that’s still very true to the character. Even many of the writers who write Superman don’t get him and it’s popular for many fans to cast Superman as this distant unrelatable character. However, Yang succeeds in giving Superman a solid character arc.

The basic plot does follow along the lines of the radio serial, though it does try to enhance it. Like many modern Superman stories, the writer wants to have Superman face a real threat, and the thing I least like about that is how they do that. The Atom Man (the most dangerous villain Superman ever faced over radio) is introduced and dispatched in the first section of the novel, but his technology is used as a plot device in the hands of the Klan. It’s a clunky way to raise the threat level, but I can forgive it because I’m satisfied with how the book plays out in the end.

The overall tone is preachy, but keep in mind i’ts based on a radio serial that was far preachier.  This one fleshes out the characters and helps the readers empathize with them in a way that works for modern audiences and it has  good light moments. The art is clean and kid-friendly as well.

The book is great for kids if you want to introduce them them to the story of the 1946 radio series or if you want them to understand the history of the groups like the Klan and how they operated and were ultimately defeated. It’s also a well-done adaptation of a classic Superman radio story that does the original creative team behind the radio story proud.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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