Superman Smashes the Klan #2 – Gene Luen Yang, Writer; Gurihiru, Artist
Ray – 10/10
Corrina: The Personal and Political
Ray: The first issue of Superman Smashes the Klan, an all-ages Golden Age adventure was one of the best single issues of 2019, and with Superman Smashes the Klan #2, an oversized issue, the story hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, it feels like if it sticks the landing a few months from now, it could go down as one of the best Superman stories of all time.
Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru’s 40’s-set adventure focuses on a story intersecting Superman’s battle against white supremacists with a Chinese-American family’s struggle to fit into Metropolis. It draws its young characters with nuance – both the Lee siblings and troubled son-of-the-Klan Chuck – and handles Superman’s complex heritage far better than most comics geared towards adults.
When we last left off, star pitcher Tommy Lee had been ambushed by the Klan and was in danger of drowning. Roberta and Superman had teamed up and convinced Chuck to give away his whereabouts, and a tense chase to rescue the boy was on. Yang’s decision to keep Superman with his golden age power set is smart, because it adds an extra sense of danger – he’s strong, but not all-powerful. It also ties brilliantly into the ongoing subplot about Superman seeing a pair of aliens that turn out are his vision of Jor-El and Lara. Most comics show Superman settled into his identity, but this younger and more insecure Superman has many anxieties about being seen as other in a world where xenophobia is strong.
There are extended sequences set in Smallville in the 1920s, showing Clark growing up in a town where the unusual is feared. Former Superman nemesis Kenny Braverman is reinvented as a bully with a bigoted mother who is convinced Clark is a demon, Lana Lang as a pint-sized fireball who becomes Clark’s fiercest defender, and we’ve rarely seen versions of the Kents this nuanced and human. These segments go a long way to explaining why Clark is afraid to embrace his dual nature and the full extent of his powers – something that kneecaps him throughout the book at key times when he could have stopped the villains with powers like x-ray vision.
Despite the all-ages trappings, this is a book with seriously evil villains. The Klan here isn’t a kiddy-book version – they’re unafraid to bomb a building with three men of God tied up inside, or attack a newspaper office and a black police officer. I’m reminded of the famous story of Jack Kirby’s office being assaulted by Nazis – and how he responded by charging downstairs with a bat. A storyarc involving the son/nephew of white supremacists redeeming himself could have been cringe-worthy, but Yang makes sure we’re seeing his story equally through the eyes of Tommy and Roberta. This story is over seventy pages long, and that gives Yang a lot of opportunities to delve into smaller elements of the immigrant and minority experience – meeting with old friends from the old neighborhood, or seeing yourself represented on screen as a caricature.
This is ultimately going to be over 200 pages of a stand-alone graphic novel that represents Superman better than any comic in almost a decade. It feels destined to become the first full-on masterpiece to come out of the DC Zoom/DC Kids line.
Corrina: There is a ton of story to unpack in Superman Smashes the Klan #2, all of it wonderful, but some of it unexpected.
First, however, I have to note that Gurihiru’s art is so well-suited to this story. It’s an all-ages story, so the panels are not complicated. That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective: the one view of Tommy at the bottom of the stream, close to drowning, is chilling, and it doesn’t need any embellishment. (And you can sense the worry and menace in the page before that, pictured above.)
The art also has a warmth to it with each character, with this Superman exuding empathy, especially to the kids. That warmth is needed in a story with such serious themes.
On the kids, they were the center of the story in #1, and they’re still at the center of the story in the second issue, only now Superman himself is one of them, via flashback. The kids, especially the Lees, are struggling with fitting in in their new home, and it’s not so simple as acceptance from others, even when they’re known as friends of Superman. There’s a particular revelation by Roberta as she encounters some of her old “friends” near the movie theater, that really spoke to me, about fitting in, and about how it’s not easy, wherever you are.
Meanwhile, young Clark Kent has his own problems with bullies and fitting in. Of all the things I expected from this series, an origin-style story of the Golden Age Superman wasn’t one. But it makes sense, as Clark’s growth, even as an adult, will parallel the kids’ emotional journey to acceptance.
Incredible book. Should be a classic for years.
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Disclaimer: GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.