Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru’s Superman Smashes the Klan begins as Roberta Lee, her brother Tommy, and her parents Mrs. and Dr. Lee move into a new house so that Dr. Lee can start a job as the Chief Bacteriologist of the Metropolis Health Department. The Lees had previously lived in Chinatown, and now that they are moving into Metropolis proper, Dr. Lee urges Mrs. Lee and the rest of the family to speak in English, even when they’re alone. Just as they begin to meet some of the people in the neighborhood (including Jimmy Olsen, who lives across the street), they see a bright streak of color zooming over the telephone wires. It’s Superman.
Superman Smashes the Klan is a complex story, dealing with themes of racism and identity on many different levels. The book follows Roberta as she manages the complicated process of being herself in a new environment that’s not very welcoming to those who are different. However, Roberta is not alone in this struggle. As Clark Kent spends more time with the Lees, we see that he’s fighting a similar battle, as memories of his past come back to make him question the parts of himself that he has hidden to blend in.
As the Lees settle into their new home, they’re greeted with plenty of microaggressions from one of Dr. Lee’s soon-to-be coworkers. Roberta also runs into some uncomfortable moments at the local Unity house when she meets some other kids. Racism is a complicated foe. It can’t always be punched in the face like a Nazi. Sometimes, it has to be lived through. It has to be survived. These earlier small bouts of racism are quickly outshone by something more violent when the local chapter of the Klan of the Fiery Cross burns a cross on the Lee family’s front lawn and attempts to set the house on fire.
When Clark Kent and Lois Lane appear on the scene of the hate crime to interview the Lees for The Daily Planet, Roberta confides that, “Y’know, I always kind of suspected that I don’t belong. Last night, we got proof.” For Roberta, it seems clear that Metropolis doesn’t want her and that she doesn’t fit in. She briefly considers leaving the city before deciding that she wants to stay and give Metropolis another go. Still, Roberta’s words stick in Clark’s mind, and he begins to remember an experience that he’s forgotten– or maybe forced himself to forget.
In a flashback, we see a very young Clark Kent hanging out with his friend Pete who is reading a pulp magazine with an alien on the cover. The violent alien imagery on the magazine’s cover makes Clark feel uncomfortable, but he doesn’t say anything about it. Clark and Pete are interrupted by bullies who tear up the magazine and are about to attack Pete, when Clark loses control and begins to levitate. He shoots lasers down at the feet of the bullies who run away, quickly followed by his friend Pete.
The incident causes a hubbub as the bullies’ mother ends up accusing Clark of being possessed. The sheriff, who knows that Clark is a good kid, takes Clark’s side, but Clark wonders if the bullies were right. As Clark processes this troubling thought, he overhears Ma and Pa talking about him. Pa Kent worries about what might happen if the world finds out about his son being extraordinary and comes to the conclusion that “From now on, Clark must be ordinary. No more incidents. No more unwanted attention. We’ll raise him to be the most perfectly ordinary boy in all of Smallville.” Ma Kent agrees.
It’s a powerful memory— one that clearly has had an effect on Clark, though he doesn’t really recall the entire memory until now. It adds to the complexity of the experiences that Clark and Roberta are facing, reminding us that sometimes the things that affect people become a part of them even when they don’t remember why.
Pa and Ma Kent are clearly looking out for Clark. They want what is best for him, but that doesn’t mean that what they decide is best isn’t harmful. In a similar vein, when Dr. Lee continues to push his family to speak only in English and wants Roberta to get a new more “modern” (read: less Chinese) jacket, he really only wants to belong to the new part of town and leave the past behind. There are many different ways to respond to marginalization, but there are ways of surviving that are more harmful than others.
Clark, for one, has kept himself safe from too much scrutiny by holding himself back. At the beginning of the book, he doesn’t fly– he doesn’t even know how to use his X-Ray vision. It takes Tommy’s kidnapping and two mysterious green aliens to urge him to really look before he begins to see through things. After using his X-Ray vision, Clark thinks, “Seeing through rocks—I shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“Should” is a strange word in cases like these. What does should mean? Clark already shows the world his superhuman strength, his superhuman speed—why stop there? What is it about seeing through rocks (and flying) that he shouldn’t be able to do? The two aliens, who reveal themselves as Clark’s birth parents, ask him, “why are you willing to use some of your powers, but not others?”
Throughout the series, Superman stands up for what’s right. He fights against discrimination whenever he sees it. But what he doesn’t do is look at what makes him different. In fact, he seems to be avoiding it. When Superman helps Roberta save Tommy from the Klan of the Fiery Cross, she notices that when Superman lands after his giant leaps, he lands softly, as if he can fly. Of course, we as readers know that Superman has a reason to hold back. The last time he flew, he was treated like a devil. It was only the support of community members that protected him, and they weren’t defending him for being able to fly. They were defending him because they didn’t think he could fly.
So it’s somewhat piercing when Roberta points out that Superman can probably fly, but also understands why he doesn’t. “… I wish it were okay for you to fly.” Roberta’s own experiences have led her to understand the nuances of the world that she and Superman live in and the power that it can have over someone’s decision to “fit in” or not. But while Roberta doesn’t accuse Superman of anything, she does point out that he could do more if he used all the powers that he has at his disposal.
“It’s as if you only want to be half of who you actually are,” Roberta says. Her observation reflects how she herself is told to behave in her new environment. Roberta understands Superman’s position because it’s her own, and her unique perspective allows her to see the position that he’s in.
The amazing thing about Superman being used as a metaphor for a marginalized person is that he is actually different from the people around him. The metaphor doesn’t imply that we are all the same or to ignore any differences that might exist. Clark is a person who has a history and abilities that don’t match up with those of the people around him, and in this way, he experiences life differently. Similarly, Roberta has a specific view of life, community, and her place in it. She notices things that others don’t.
Of course, there is a difference between Roberta’s situation and Superman’s situation; Superman can “pass,” and Roberta cannot. If Clark Kent chose not to ever use his powers, it’s likely that no one would find out that he’s not human, but Roberta’s Chinese and looks Chinese, and so she has to deal with discrimination in a more upfront way. That isn’t to say that Roberta can’t hide bits of her identity to attempt to fit in, or that passing means not being marginalized (Clark and Roberta had similar situations of feeling strange about their identity being villainized—Clark with the magazine cover and Roberta at the movies), but even if Roberta did try to hide bits of her identity, she would still have a very different experience than if Superman had pretended to be a normal human for his entire life. It’s hard to imagine a policeman ignoring Clark Kent’s insistence that someone has been kidnapped in the same way that a policeman ignores Roberta.
Still, we know Clark Kent isn’t one to pretend to be a normal human when he can help someone. In another flashback, we see an older Clark rescue a strong man at the circus. After Clark saves the day, Ma Kent gives him a costume that she made for him, but he balks at the symbol on it. The alien symbol. Still, Ma Kent tells him to let people think that it’s an S. To hide who he is in plain sight. And that’s what he chooses to do until the events of this book.
Clark’s fear of being feared and othered is not unfounded. As Roberta’s experiences have shown, the world can react poorly when they encounter something different. When, at the climax of the story, Superman reveals to a baseball field full of people that he is from another place and belongs to another species, many immediately turn against him, calling for the Klan’s Grand Scorpion to protect them from the man who has saved them so many times over.
Though some of the parents in the stadium call for the Grand Scorpion to take Superman down, Superman’s actions inspire the children, and the kids push back. In the end, it’s the kids who help Superman save the day, and it’s Superman’s ability to fly that helps him save everyone.
After the events at the baseball game, Roberta takes Lois Lane’s offer to become a Cub Reporter for The Daily Planet. In this way, Roberta has decided on her own that she doesn’t want to hide or move away. She wants to engage. Though she had felt awkward with the neighborhood kids earlier, she finally reaches out to make new friends and even gives baseball a go. The story finishes as she reclaims the name that her dad urged her mom to stop using—Lan-Shin and her new home—Metropolis.
What Superman Smashes the Klan does best is show that, at a certain point, Clark and Lan-Shin aren’t just making decisions that affect themselves. They’re making decisions that affect other people as well. Not only does Clark’s “coming out” moment show others that they can be different, but it also allows him to work to the full extent of his strength to do the good that he’s always wanted to do. When Lan-Shin embraces who she is, she’s able to save the day.
Throughout Superman Smashes the Klan, Lan-Shin and Clark face very similar struggles. We see how the struggle to fit in affects Lan-Shin at her age and how it affects Clark as an adult. While Clark is still battling with the thoughts that he has directed towards himself for his entire life, Lan-Shin’s epiphany happens early enough that she can just step into a new future, one in which she leans into what makes her different. A future in which the different is not destroyed or hidden away, but embraced. In this way, Lan-Shin’s growth represents the many ways that marginalized young people might change the world, if only they’re given the chance and the support they need to become themselves.