When Gene Luen Yang first started creating graphic novels, I wonder if he thought, “Someday I going to write one that has Superman fighting the Klan that is based on the 1940’s radio program.” And in 2020 out comes Superman Smashes the Klan with its connection to that past and all too relevance today.
While this is not my favorite Yang graphic novel (mostly because, while I like Superman, he is not my favorite DC character and honestly have less interest in his stories), it was good. Better than good really. To be honest, I did not expect to be “wowed” but to be entertained. I was actually both. The current events related issue tie-in and its very interesting history of how it came about (Yang’s story is based on a series of radio episodes of Superman from the mid-late 1940’s where not only do they deal with a KKK-like group, but deals with a Chinese family) kept me reading (after a little slow going at the start). I knew Superman would win, but due to some alternative facts about the Man of Steele, I was wondering where it was going. There is also an eye-opening interaction between the main character and her old friends that was unexpected.
But perhaps my favorite part was not the classic comic format with its modern but old-school feeling illustrations by Gurihiru, but the afterwards. This gives an interesting introduction to the history of the Klan itself, Yang’s personal and family history and the history of Superman’s evolution to the version we know today. The main story is about a Chinese family, the Lee’s. They move to a white neighborhood and have the issues one expects from the community and Mr. Lee’s work. Roberta, their daughter, is trying to find her place in this new world. But when she has one foot still in Chinatown, one in her new community and dealing with dangerous bullies she does not know how to do that. It is not until her dealings with a Klan-like group (for legal reasons, the original radio show could not come out and say it was the Ku Klux Klan, but there is no question it is. And the same goes for Yang’s book), a boy on her brother’s baseball team, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and Superman, does she know where she belongs and how to do it. It is a familiar story, fun to read, but you know that Superman saves the day and Roberta will learn who she is. It is the evolution of Superman (before he flew, before Jimmy, before The Daily Planet, the teens who made him and so much more) that grabbed my attention. As the history of the Klan. Going from a hate group, to a money-making scheme to a hate group once again; learning how and where footholds have taken place, and more is a look at the history of our country. It is a good story on its own, as it gives historical context to the graphic novel itself.
The targeted audience is most likely ages 10 to 14, but of course, older readers would find elements to enjoy and relate to. And while under 10-years-old could read, there “psychological violence”. Nothing “bad happens” (as I said you know Superman will save the day) you do see a burning cross, Robert’s brother in the river, and the atmosphere of someone could be hurt or killed in other situations. Plus, two themes the younger reader might not appreciate or understand as easily as an older reader. Therefore, a sensitive reader might not be the best for this book. Yes, it is a comic book, but I would give it a TV-Y10 rating.