Today we’re pleased to welcome Gene Luen Yang to the WNDB blog to discuss his graphic novel Superman Smashes the Klan, illustrated by Gurihiru and out May 12, 2020!
The year is 1946, and the Lee family has moved from Metropolis’ Chinatown to the center of the bustling city. While Dr. Lee is greeted warmly in his new position at the Metropolis Health Department, his two kids, Roberta and Tommy, are more excited about being closer to their famous hero, Superman!
Inspired by the 1940s Superman radio serial “Clan of the Fiery Cross” and drawn by Gurihiru, Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese, Boxers and Saints, The Terrifics, New Super-Man) brings us his personal retelling of the adventures of the Lee family as they team up with Superman to smash the Klan!
What kind of research did you do to write this story? Were you familiar with the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” radio serial prior to this? How did you infuse your own take on a well-known hero like Superman in this graphic novel?
I first learned about the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” storyline when I read the book Freakonomics. I was immediately fascinated. Here’s a story from 1946 that had a Chinese American family at the center of all the action.
The original plot went like this: The Lees, a Chinese American family, move to Metropolis. A group of hooded racists feels threatened, so they burn a cross on the family’s lawn. Superman, his friends at the Daily Planet, and the Chinese family team up to bring down the Klan.
This story impacted the real world. After the storyline aired, the membership of the real-life Klan dropped. It’s a concrete example of the power of fiction.
I did a lot of reading while I was working on Superman Smashes the Klan. I read books about hate organizations, Superman, and Chinese American history. The Second Coming of the KKK by Linda Gordon was particularly helpful.
We kept all the big pieces of the original story. All the major characters are there, as are many of the plot points. One of the big changes we did make, though, was introducing a different point of view. Much of the story is told from the perspective of Roberta Lee, the daughter of the Chinese American family. In the original, she’s mentioned only once and given neither a name nor a speaking role. In Superman Smashes the Klan, she and Superman are the two main protagonists.
Superman is from a different culture. I really wanted to dig into this idea. He has to navigate between American culture and this other, “foreign” part of himself. I definitely drew from my own experience as a child of immigrants to write his story.
This story takes place in the past but is there a connection between Superman combating the KKK and white supremacy in the real world today?
The actual Ku Klux Klan isn’t what it once was, but Klannish ideas are as strong as ever. Watching the news coming out of Charlottesville a couple of years ago really shocked me, as it did many other people.
I grew up during the ‘80s. Whenever a Saturday morning cartoon had a group of rascally kids, there’d be one white kid, one black kid, and one other kid, usually Latino or Asian. It was like the writers were working off of a checklist.
I believe that sort of ‘80s “checklist” diversity was well-intentioned, but it led to cynicism. The real world never looks like that. If you go to a high school cafeteria, that’s not how kids break up into groups. And even worse, the diversity being portrayed was skin deep. The characters looked different from one another, but they didn’t act or think differently. They didn’t have souls that were rooted in the cultures they were supposed to represent.
There’s a growing cynicism about diversity, and maybe it’s partly because of that old, shallow “checklist” diversity. There are other, more nefarious reasons, too, of course. The demographics of our country are changing. Some folks are deeply threatened by that change.
All that is to say, we seem to have lost faith in our ability to form a community with those who are not like us. I’m not saying we were ever great at it, but we at least held it up as an ideal. Now, some people have openly turned their backs on that ideal. It’s worrisome because diversity—living and working with folks who aren’t like us—is necessary for moving forward into the future.
With Superman Smashes the Klan, I wanted to use an old, classic story from 1946 to discuss a very real, very current issue.
What was it like working with Gurihiru on the illustrations for this story, given that you’re a cartoonist yourself? What was your collaborative process like?
Gurihiru are absolutely stellar. Even though I sometimes draw comics, there’s no way I could’ve pulled off the artwork for Superman Smashes the Klan.
We’ve worked together before. We did five volumes of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series for Dark Horse and Nickelodeon. I knew from that experience that they are world-class comic book artists. They’re among the best in the business today. I’m so thankful that they said yes to Superman Smashes the Klan.
Because Gurihiru and I had such a long history of working together, I felt like I could really trust them. We talked about how the art of this book should be a fusion between those old Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons and modern manga. They totally pulled it off.
It seems like a natural fit for a superhero story to be adapted into a graphic novel, but are there any other reasons you feel this particular Superman story is a good fit for the graphic novel format?
Superman is native to the medium of comics. That’s how he came into the world. I was shocked that this story, which was so important within the Superman mythos, had never been adapted to comics.
Also, because there is no sound, comics can encourage quiet and thoughtful engagement. I hope that happens for the readers of Superman Smashes the Klan.
What do you like most about working on graphic novels, both those you’ve illustrated and those you’ve worked with an illustrator on? What’s your favorite part about telling a story in a visual medium?
I love the balance between words and pictures. I’d say that I am a fairly mediocre writer and a fairly mediocre artist. When I’m writing and drawing my own comics, I can use one to balance out my weaknesses in the other.
I really love working with other artists, too. I send in the script, and then over the next several months, I get these beautiful pages in my email inbox every couple of days. It’s so fun.
What other graphic novels do you see Superman Smashes the Klan as being in conversation with? Do you have any reading recommendations for published or upcoming graphic novels?
Green Lantern: Legacy by Minh Lê and Andie Tong covers a lot of the same emotional realities, but from a much more modern viewpoint. Shadow of the Batgirl by Sara Kuhn and Nicole Goux also offers a take on the outsider’s experience.
One of my favorite comic book series of the last couple of years is Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene. It deals with America’s history of racism from a decidedly African American perspective.
All of these books use heroic fantasy traditions to talk about real-world issues. They’re also all wildly entertaining.
Gene Luen Yang began making comics and graphic novels more than 15 years ago. In 2006 his book American Born Chinese was published by First Second Books. It became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. It also won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New. In 2013, First Second Books released Boxers & Saints, his two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion. It was nominated for a National Book Award and won the L.A. Times Book Prize. He made his mainstream comics debut on Superman, with artists John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson. His other works include the comics continuation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. Currently he writes New Super-Man for DC Comics.