Book Review: Superman Smashes The Klan by Gene Luen Yang & Gurihiru (2020)

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Hero We Need

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Obvious trigger warning for racist violence.)

The year is 1946, and the Lee family – mom, dad, Roberta, and Tommy – has just moved from Chinatown to Metropolis, so that Mr. Lee can begin a new job as Chief Bacteriologist of the Health Department. Gregarious and handsome, Tommy fits right in, easily slipping into the spot of star pitcher at the Unity House. An aspiring journalist with a stomach made of jelly,* Roberta – birth name Lan-Shin – is immediately homesick for Chinatown, where she didn’t feel like such a “weirdo”.

And then her family is targeted by the local chapter of the Clan of the Fiery Red Cross, which lights a cross on the Lee’s front lawn and attempts to fire bomb their house. The Allies may have won World War II, and Superman literally just crushed the Nazi supersoldier Atom Man, but racism is still alive and thriving – and firmly entrenched in Metropolis’s social institutions.

Luckily, the Lees live right across the street from cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (who is obviously and adorably smitten with Roberta), and Superman and Lois Lane are pursuing the case, each in their own ways.

I’ve really been enjoying DC’s YA imprint, but Superman Smashes The Klan takes things to the next level. Based on a sixteen-part radio show that aired in 1946 called “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”**, the story expertly dovetails Roberta’s journey with that of her idol, Superman. At this point in his story, Clark Kent is thirty-something and has only been superheroing for ten years. As a kid growing up in Smallville, his differences were a source of shame: they marked him as different, a freak, nonhuman. Demonic, even. And so he learned to suppress and ignore his powers. It wasn’t until a circus tent that he, the Kents, and Lana Lang were sitting under caught fire that Clark used his super strength for good. After that, Mrs. Kent sewed Clark his iconic red cape and Superman was born.

Yet, even as Superman, Clark hides pieces of himself: he has super strength and super speed, yes, but he runs along phone lines rather than flying, because defying gravity would give him away as not entirely of this world. And his ruse works, a little too well: the story’s big bad, a grand Scorpion of the Klan, proudly claims Superman as the best of what the white race has to offer; irrefutable evidence of white superiority.

An honest-to-goodness alien from another world, created by two first-generation Jewish immigrants, Superman has always functioned as a stand-in for marginalized groups: refugees and immigrants of various races, religions, and ethnicities (depending on which group is currently being scapegoated). Superman is as American as apple pie and AK-47s, and he’s a legit alien. Yang masterfully underscores this aspect of Superman’s identity by enmeshing his story with Roberta’s. Both of these “weirdos” learn to embrace their differences, because it’s what makes them – and, indeed, the world – so damn special.

Yang’s story is also deeply steeped in history, in ways I wouldn’t have fully appreciated without reading his essay “Superman and Me” (it appears in pieces in the single issues, and as a whole in the TP). I especially loved the showdown between the scorpion and grand wizard, as the two clashed over the Clan’s true purpose.

This piece, in particular, seems especially relevant today.

* Roberta’s “gurgly stomach” is a mood.

** “To avoid getting sued by an organization that was legally recognized in several states, the show’s writers created a stand-in organization called The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” Yang explains in “Superman and Me.”

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When anthropocentrism meets androcentrism: KA-POW!

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Last week, while bored and browsing the Flickrs, I stumbled upon a collection of academia-themed photo sets, uploaded by a user in Germany. Most of the photos are of various conferences and lectures, hosted at the University of Heidelberg. One particular set caught my eye: “The Myth of Animal Rights,” with Professor Tibor R. Machan, Ph.D.

Now, I don’t know much about the man, nor do I care to. His Wiki page is rather sparse, and barely touches upon his animal rights views, except to say

Machan has also argued against animal rights (in his widely reprinted paper “Do Animals Have Rights?” [1991] and his book Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite [2004]). His full ethical position is developed in his book Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being (Routledge, 1998) and it is applied in, among other books, Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society (Cato Institute, 1998).

As if the shameless anthropocentrism evident in Machan’s book titles isn’t ridiculous enough, behold the flier which advertised his appearance on the University of Heidelberg campus:

For those who can’t view the image, a diminutive lil’ chimp sits – in a diaper!? – next to a towering Brandon Routh-as-Superman. Completely breaking with reality, Superman stands at least ten times taller than the “lowly” chimp – no doubt meant to represent MAN’S superiority to mere beasts. A bunch of text offers conference details, with the title of the lecture – “The Myth of Animal Rights” – front and center, in outlined font (lolcats styley, natch: seriousness, ur doin it rong!).

Clearly, this ad reeks of speciesism: though humans are just one of millions of animal species which inhabit the earth, Machan apparently thinks that we’re the only species that matters: we’re “nature’s favorite.” In terms of importance, we dwarf even the chimpanzee, our closest primate cousin. We – oh, hell, the speciesism is so over-the-top, need I continue?

Yet, Machan’s choice of Superman to represent the superiority of humankind is telling as well. Had he chosen to depict an anonymous man and/or woman, the concept would have worked just as well. Instead, he chose a superhero, and an iconic one at that. Think about it: Machan could have went with Wonder Woman, or Supergirl, or Storm, or, jeez, Jean Grey.* Predictably, though, he picked a dude to represent the awesomeness of humanity. A white dude. A heterosexual white dude. A manly man. A man so manly, that both his manliness and his supremacy are proclaimed in his very name: SUPER MAN. He is super, he is manly: he is super-manly!

(More below the fold…)