I’ll be blunt. The legendary serial Clan of the Fiery Cross isn’t that great. Yes it’s great the story took on the KKK but it’s really thin and hokey. The whole radio show is really. It’s a lot of serialized silliness with a good concept that bumps awkwardly against the gee whiz tone of the show. I respect it but it’s not great.
It’s a perfect choice for an adaptation in other words. There’s the raw material of a good story given a new telling and that’s what you get here. The book by frequent collaborators writer Gene Luen Yang and the art team of Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano aka Gurihiru takes the plot of the serial and fleshes it out immensely, even making a main character out of a nameless character in the original. The book, told by actual Asian creators unlike the impossibly white original, is as brilliant as comics get.
The book, set just post WWII, focus on the Lee family which recently moved from the Chinatown section of Metropolis to the main city when the father gets a new job. They’re trying hard to fit in, even taking new names. It doesn’t matter though. The family is viewed with suspicion and hatred by all they see. Things get bad when son Tommy hits a player during a baseball game, which sets off a chain of events that leads to the Clan of the Fiery Cross rising up to try to destroy them and any who would oppose them. At the same time Superman is wrestling with his alien nature, trying to decide who he is and where he fits.
This is a book with a lot on its mind. There aren’t a lot of books that are at once golden age homages, metacommentaries of the shift from the golden age to the silver age, stories about the immigrant experience, and all ages reads. This is a shockingly dense tome even at a full 200 pages. It’s a book that’s adult as it gets but also the best book you could hand to a young reader.
Yang’s smartest decision is to focus on Lan-Shin “Roberta” Lee. She gives the book its soul as a young woman trying desperately to find her identity. She’s no longer part of her old world but not yet part of this one. She’s not a bratty kid as a lesser writer would craft but a thoughtful youth. I cared about her and that gave me a reason to keep flipping the panels.
The Superman plot is a strong one too if a bit familiar. We’ve seen Superman question his identity before. It fits here though as a nice parallel. The book also uses it to do something I’ve never seen before, bridging the golden age and the silver age by explaining Superman operated at half strength because he was holding back out of anxiety over his existence. It’s an interesting concept.
The book actually works pretty strongly on a pulp level. The Atom Man is a fun villain and the Clan works nicely as a threat. I love that as in the original story, capitalism exploiting hatred is the real threat. It’s hard to miss the relevance of that now. The book is a fun knockabout read.
But of course I have to address the way the book handles racism. This book made me uncomfortable and that’s important. It’s not safe, soft black and white. The book avoids easy points. The heroes and villains are all strong, square jawed people. There are countless systems shown. There’s a never acknowledged scene at a movie theater underlining the racist coding of pulp. And there are slurs the book stares at unflinchingly. This is a hard read and it needs to be.
I have to note the power of the art by Gurihiru. They’ve done a lot of excellent all ages comics and are usually a sign of fluff. This is for them transformative even if it’s not really better than their norm. It forces me to look at their style in a new light with greater respect. They’re marvels and every panel here is something.
The hype was justified. Superman Smashes the Klan is the cathartic book we needed in 2020. A genius retelling of a flawed story. I loved every bit of it.