If you’re anything like me, you’re probably ready for a little break from comic book characters — even if you’re a fan of them. At the very least, it certainly feels like we’ve been oversaturated with Marvel and DC content in particular. (Just how many Spider-Man and Batman movies do we need in a ten-year period, folks?) So imagine my surprise when I cracked the spine of author Gene Luen Yang and illustrators Gurihiru’s Superman Smashes the Klan and discovered one of the most incredibly moving reading experiences of the year. Inspired by “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 1946 episode of the Adventures of Superman radio program, this graphic novel (which was originally published as a three-part comic book series) tells two immigrant stories simultaneously. In the first story, the Chinese-American Lee family moves from Metropolis’s Chinatown into a White suburb, drawing the ire of the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Precocious daughter Roberta and her brother Tommy not only develop a growing awareness of this danger but also find themselves pulled into the line of fire. In the second story, the planet Krypton’s favorite son comes out as his adopted city’s local hero, even though he hasn’t fully come into his power. (He can’t yet fly, for instance.) But some strange voices and visions have Kal-El reflecting on his past, trying to understand his origins and combat the imposter syndrome holding him back. Eventually, these two stories converge, and in ways both delightfully expected and wonderfully unexpected. In adapting “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” Yang, who is the U.S. Library of Congress’s Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has found a brilliant way to bring the immigrant experience into the spotlight for a contemporary comic book readership. What’s more, he never overplays the metaphor and is extremely careful in making comparisons between the fictional experiences of an extraterrestrial and the real-life experiences of Chinese-Americans in the 1940s; this is an exceptionally thoughtful and exquisitely calibrated morality tale. In addition — and this is not said lightly — Yang allows us to meet our most iconic superhero again for the first time. I’ve tended to agree with the popular sentiment that Superman is a far less interesting and accessible character than, say, Batman or Spider-Man, but the author has retold the Man of Steel’s story here in such an affecting way that I now think the opposite. And, amazingly, Yang’s writing is further elevated by Gurihiru’s distinctive artistic contributions. By way of example, the journey one of Superman’s capes takes from Ma Kent’s sewing machine to Mrs. Lee’s is plenty powerful as an idea, but it is their compassionate rendering of it that really brings tears to the eyes. Three cheers too for what this collaboration does for Lois Lane, who finally emerges from Superman’s shadow to become a hero in her own right — this Lois is no one’s girl Friday, both visually and in her characterization. It might be hard for those experiencing comic book fatigue to believe, but Superman Smashes the Klan is one of the best books of 2020. Take it from someone who’s very glad he did: fight through any resistance you might be feeling and read it. “You will believe a man can fly…”
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