When people hear “Superman,” the words “truth, justice, and the American way” usually leap to mind. That phrase has not only been a key part of the hero’s lore since it was used as the intro for the immensely popular 1940s radio show The Adventures of Superman, but it also captures the look of Superman. He may be an all-powerful alien from the doomed planet Krypton, but he visually resembles what has long been posited as the archetypal American: a commanding white male.
In the new, three-issue miniseries Superman Smashes the Klan, from writer Gene Luen Yang and Japanese art collective Gurihiru, everyone assumes that Superman is an (above) average white American—even Superman himself. Set early in his career, Superman Smashes the Klan features a slightly less super Superman, one who doesn’t fly or use heat-vision.
Superman hides these abilities because of an incident from his youth, when he was just Clark Kent of Smallville, Kan. While reading pulp magazines with his best friend Pete, Clark gets embarrassed by a cover image of an extraterrestrial invader who razes cities with his laser eyes. That shame intensifies when neighborhood bullies mock him and Pete, involuntarily activating Clark’s nascent abilities. Clark scares away the bullies when he flies in the air and shoots beams from his eyes, but he terrifies Pete too.
At that moment, Clark learns that he can’t be himself if he wants to fit in.
As an adult, Superman recalls these events while defending a family of Chinese immigrants from the white supremacist group the Klan of the Fiery Kross. Like Clark, young Lan-Shin “Roberta” Lee wants to fit in, but is constantly reminded of her difference. A trip to the movies exposes her to scenes in which a white-skinned hero battles a yellow-peril caricature, complete with glowing eyes, claw-like fingernails, and alien abilities. Sitting alone in her theater row, Roberta thinks, “I’ve been a weirdo all along . . . always watching from the sidelines, always looking for some clue that might help me fit in.”
According to what Roberta sees on the screen, she can only fit in by accepting racist stereotypes. According to the pulp magazine Clark read as a kid, he can only fit in by erasing his alien heritage. Roberta doesn’t want to make that bargain, especially when she sees the cost of Superman’s decision. Not only does Superman unintentionally inspire white supremacists when he passes as a white American male, becoming an unwilling emblem of their hateful worldview, but he also rejects abilities that could help other people. After using her reporter’s skills to figure out that Superman is hiding his powers in order to blend in, Roberta tells him plainly, “Don’t you see, Superman? You holding back actually endangers people.”
Superman Smashes the Klan doesn’t only illustrate the beauty of diversity. It shows us how diversity makes us all better. On a plot level, Superman must embrace his identity as a foreigner to defeat the Klan. On a thematic level, the story suggests that we can only be ourselves when we’re allowed to be different.
Clark learns that he can’t be himself if he wants to fit in.
Reading Superman Smashes the Klan, Christians cannot miss the Klan’s rallying cry: “One race! One color! One religion!” Sadly, this is one of the most realistic parts of the story. As has been well-documented, Christianity has been used to justify all manner of white supremacy, including colonization and genocide. Readers with too little spiritual imagination have used the book of Philemon and Old Testament passages to justify the subjugation of people created in God’s image.
But theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim finds a different form of imagination at work in Scripture. Because “our theology proclaims that God is greater than what our minds can imagine,” Christians must seek out “a new revelation of God,” which we can add to “our various understandings of God” to make that understanding “more profound.” In her book Embracing the Other, Kim describes the Holy Spirit using the Asian concept of “Chi” (instead of the Germanic “geist” or “ghost”), a force that drives us toward connection with people in the margins. “While the Spirit is mysterious, it helps us overcome our deepest fears, enabling us to take the risk of opening ourselves to be intimate with the Other,” writes Kim. “Our openness to the Spirit is crucial in our step toward embracing the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast, the marginalized.”
While we certainly recognize the oppressive Christianity in Superman Smashes the Klan, Yang and his collaborators also imagine a more welcoming community. We see this in the Unity House, a multiethnic youth center operated by an ecumenical group of religious leaders. We see it when Clark’s adopted mother quotes Isaiah 5:20 to rebuke neighbors who condemn her super-powered son. We see it when letterer Janice Chiang presents all foreign languages in red, blue, and green fonts, visually portraying the beauty of mixed languages. We see it when the byline for Roberta’s first published article reads “Lan-Shin Lee.”
But as wonderful as these elements may be, Spirit-driven imagination does not exist for its own beauty. Rather, Kim tells us, it is pervaded by a love that is “emancipatory, liberating, and courageous,” a love that is “prophetic” and “compels us to act.”
That’s exactly what happened in the 1946 radio series arc that inspired Superman Smashes the Klan. The radio story not only featured Superman battling the “Clan of the Fiery Cross;” it also contained real information about the Ku Klux Klan gathered by human-rights activist Stetson Kennedy. The broadcast made public the Klan’s secret passwords and information. Between these revelations and the portrayal of Clansmen as bumbling fools, the real Klan’s enrollment numbers actually dropped.
Like its radio predecessor, the new Superman Smashes the Klan is a call to recognize and reject the still-present threat of white supremacy. For Christians, the comic is an act of Spirit-driven imagination that reminds us to renounce the white supremacy that has infected our faith, while also calling us to imagine ways to welcome others in all their God-ordained and God-celebrated difference.
Topics: Culture At Large