I've been wanting to read this for a while, I've heard lots of good things so I'm glad I finally read it, the usual spiel etc etc.
On a serious note though, there's a reason why this has entered the realm of most acclaimed (and many people's favourite) Superman stories since it came out a few years ago, and after finally reading this that reason is easy to see.
The main element that struck me about this book is how effectively it's constructed, from the many layers of the story and characters involved, to the gorgeous dynamic animation of the artwork and colors by Gurihiru. It's reminiscent of a high quality special of a classic, beloved Superman cartoon that never actually existed. Which I suppose is fitting considering the original 1940s radio serial inspiration for this.
There's a lot being balanced here by writer Gene Luen Yang, and it makes for such a compelling reading experience. The Lee family (the children, mainly) have their moments of heroism to shine, Superman has some very relatable, human moments, and vice versa. The timeframe of the story doesn't just allow for a clear, effective yet not quite heavy handed study of the KKK in Metropolis in the 1940s centred through the eyes of one Chinese family, but also positions it conveniently in Superman's history to set him up as another effective layer of comparison for the story to unpack. I hope that all makes sense, but if not I'll explain the details of what I mean by all that in a moment.
First of all, it might seem counterintuitive to some that one of the best parts of a Superman story isn't Superman at all, but Roberta and Tommy Lee are absolutely the heart of this book. I mentioned before how it has a lot of layers, and their presence in the book is the most important one only besides Superman himself, as the three protagonists, I would say.
Almost all of Superman Smashes the Klan is told from the perspective of Roberta and Tommy as they navigate their new lives in Metropolis, coming into conflict with racism, the Klan, and each other. Every layer of this story was equally compelling to me, because they all have some layer of conflict about them. Obviously the racism is going to be more serious than the sibling conflict, but both are balanced so well.
This means that, no matter the scale, the themes of identity, "otherness", being different and the possible consequences of that run through the whole experience here. As I keep saying, every layer both stands on its own and interweaves together for the larger whole, and those themes seep through every one, tying the whole book together thematically.
Now, how does this all tie back to Superman? Well, like the solicit says, Tommy fits in much easier than Roberta. That's not to say that Tommy has no problems at all, but I digress. Plus, this book is set in the very early days of Superman's career, which means a much more limited power set then you might be used to these days. Without spoiling anything how this is developed over the story, and where Clark ends up at the end is a fascinating parallel to Roberta's struggle to fit in, and the struggles and racism that the Lee family face in general after their move.
Even within specific Klan characters, as the story goes on they are slightly different from one another, which makes you reflect as the story goes on. They might seem over the top as villains to some, but for one this is a graphic novel for young adults so that feels warranted, and two I thought the handling of them was impressive. This whole story feels clear and blunt, but still with lots of depth and nuance and without feeling bland or heavy handed, which again is an incredible feat to achieve. Under another writer (I have one in mind I'm thinking of but I won't say) it would be too easy to cross the line from "somewhat necessarily over the top because it's very clear" to "heavy handed" and the difference is absolutely that careful nuance.
Finally, the back matter contains a fascinating, informative and impactful essay, supplemented with images by Gene Luen Yang. It provided lots of context both wider, historical and relating to the story, plus relevant stories from Yang's life, Superman's history, and Yang's history with Superman, which was such a perfect way to finish this book. I know not everyone will look through the back matter, but I highly recommend reading through it here for how it enhances the experience of this book.
In conclusion I can't recommend this book enough, a must read if you haven't already!
If you want more of Joe's comic thoughts and reviews, you can find him on Twitter @JoeLovesComics and on the League of Comic Geeks also @JoeLovesComics.
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