Spotlight Sunday 10.20.19
A modern adaptation of a classic radio adventure that helped promote real-world justice means that the Spotlight has been turned on once again to reveal some spoilers for…
The emblem on his chest looked like a badge, or maybe a shield. It told everyone that he was Superman, and that was awesome.
In 1946, as part of an effort to counter the recruitment efforts of the Ku Klux Klan and bring that terrorist organization’s crimes to light, the radio serial The Adventures of Superman featured a sixteen-part story entitled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”
Much has been written about the story and its real-world impact on the popularity and growth of the Klan, but while the radio serial introduced many new characters, such as Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and police Inspector Bill Henderson, who eventually made their way into the comics, this story had never been adapted to comics.
Until now. And now, of course, is a very good time to do it.
As with the original story, the focus in this out-of-continuity story, set in 1946, is on a Chinese-American family named the Lees who has moved out of the Chinatown area of Metropolis into the city proper after the family patriarch Dr. Lee gets a new job. Unfortunately, not everyone in the city is prepared to give the Lees a warm welcome, or rather, as we’ll see some are prepared to give them a welcome that is too warm.
Our story opens outside the city, as a flying, masked man attacks a dam, hoping to flood the city. The would-be dam smasher calls himself Atom Man – a name borrowed from another episode of the radio show – and he’s out to avenge the defeat of the Nazis the previous year.
Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the still-dry Metropolitans below, Superman shows up to make short work of the threat.
However, once the Atom Man is down for the count, Superman takes a closer look at he source of the Atom Man’s strength and has his first encounter with Kryptonite, another concept that was first introduced on the radio show.
Experiencing real pain for the first time in his life, Superman is certain that if this hunk of radioactive rock can cause him this much trouble, it would likely be even worse for Lois and Jimmy, and he motions for them to stay back.
Along with the pain, Superman also notices a strange smell, and he looks down to see that his hand has…changed. It looks monstrous, inhuman.
Inspector Henderson shows up and takes the Atom Man’s rocky heart into his possession, seemingly unaffected by the radiation, and not appearing to notice the change to Superman’s hand, or the strange smell.
After some mildly-flirtatious banter with Lois, who, noting that Superman looks unwell, offers to make him some chicken soup, Superman takes his leave, and we meet the Lees as they’re driving to their new home.
Our POV character is young Roberta – as her father insists her mother call her, rather than Lan-Shin – whose stomach is “gurgly,” in part do to car sickness, and in part due to her anxiety about making the move.
Her older brother Tommy thinks her nervousness is silly, as he’s excited to begin this new adventure, which leads to some standard sibling arguments.
It doesn’t help matters any that Roberta’s anxiety makes its way to the surface, leaving a mess in the car, getting on her hands, and ruining her beloved jacket, one she’s worn for the past two years, and without which she feels like a weirdo.
A weirdo who loudly yells, “No – no handshake – throw up!” when one of Dr. Lee’s new work colleagues, who stopped by to welcome them to their new home, attempts to introduce himself.
The Lees have there first encounter with some casual racism right off the bat, as Dr. Jennings, one of Dr. Lee’s new colleagues at the Metropolis Health Department, makes some passive-aggressive comments about how nice the Lees’ home is – implying that it’s undeserved – mocking Mrs. Lee’s lack of fluency in English, and getting in a dig about eating dogs for good measure.
Meanwhile, Roberta gets a message from Tommy.
With the family squabble out of the way, Roberta and Tommy head back outside and get their first glimpse the most famous citizen of Metropolis as Superman runs past along the telephone lines.
This is still a “leaps tall buildings in a single bound” Superman who has not yet mastered flight, and so when he travels, he runs along the wires to stay out of traffic.
This is explained to them by one of their new neighbors, one James Bartholomew Olsen, who invites the Lees to the local park where the Unity House baseball team he manages is practicing.
Tommy joins in with the practice, and when he demonstrates that he can bring the heat with his pitching arm, he’s invited to join the team. This doesn’t sit well with Chuck Riggs, the team’s current starting pitcher, and he challenges Tommy to try to strike him out.
(Chuck, Roberta notices, is wearing red boots, which seems like an odd wardrobe choice for baseball practice.)
Tommy doesn’t want to throw a pitch because Chuck is crowding the plate and might get beaned, but finally throws an angry curveball in response to Chuck throwing out an angry slur, and, predictably, Chuck gets hit, which leads to more angry words, which nearly leads to a fight, until Roberta inserts herself and offers to beat Chuck’s ass herself, which leads to Chuck getting cut from the team.
When he gets home and tells this to his uncle, he learns that his uncle is a “Grand Scorpion” in the Clan of the Fiery Cross, and he takes young Chuck to a meeting that night to initiate him into the Clan and get to work on a plan to deal with these outsiders who have come to Metropolis to replace the city’s rightful owners.
Superman, meanwhile, in his disguise as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, hasn’t been able to shake that strange smell, and keeps having visions of himself as some inhuman monster.
Waking from troubled dreams, Superman, still not feeling quite himself, decides to see if he has any chicken soup in his kitchen, and is greeted by the sight of Ma and Pa Kent. Sort of. They share the same inhuman appearance that he keeps seeing in his visions of himself.
He recalls a time, twenty years earlier, when the real Pa Kent was examining a strange object with odd markings on it, and told young Clark that the object was in the ship with him. While Clark sits in the barn and examines it, he overhears Pa talking to Ma about his suspicion that maybe Clark wasn’t put in that rocket by scientists in some other country, though Ma is reluctant to try to break that news to Clark, and though they were whispering…
That same night, the Grand Scorpion – who has explained that the Clan “doesn’t hate anyone,” but just believes that certain groups shouldn’t mingle with other groups – Chuck, and the rest of the members of the Clan burn a cross on the Lees’ lawn, and Chuck is tasked with tossing a Molotov Cocktail into their living room. Despite being a good pitcher, his heart just isn’t in it, and so the bottle bounces off the house and ignites on the lawn, and the hooded and robed men (and one boy who, Roberta notes, is wearing red boots) scatter.
Demonstrating that even the victims of bigotry can hold bigoted views of their own, Dr. Lee tries to shoo away the black men who arrive and offer to help put out the fire, until one of them – Inspector Henderson – identifies himself as a member of the police, and offers to ensure that there will be a squad car stationed outside the Lees’ home until this gets resolved.
In the morning, Jimmy tells Perry about the events of the previous night, and Perry sends Lois and Clark over to the Lee residence to get the story. Clark and Lois both have interactions with Roberta, and Roberta gets some inspiration from her hero, Lois Lane, the world’s greatest reporter, and Clark gets some inspiration from Roberta as she talks about how she never feels like she belongs, which leads Clark to resolve to get the answers to the questions he’s been too afraid to ask for too long.
Though no one would blame them if they decided not to, the Lees decide to stay where they are, refusing to be driven away by small-minded bigots.
As Clark writes up his part of the story and thinks about Roberta’s talk about never feeling like she fits in, he has a memory of a time when some bullies attacked him and a friend when they were kids and he got so angry that he floated in the air and shot fires out of his eyes, scaring away foe and friend alike.
Though Roberta wants to stay home, Tommy insists they go to Unity House, and Roberta gets angry as Tommy, who, unlike her, seems to be at ease in all settings, is willing to be the butt of some “good-natured” racist jokes, even telling one himself. The two part company after an argument, and Roberta returns home alone.
At Chuck’s house, we see that Chuck is a Superman fan (though not the kind who really takes Superman’s message to heart), and that the Grand Scorpion has plans for some even more direct action to drive the Lees away.
The Grand Scorpion and some others nab Tommy off the street, and explain that they’re planning to tar and feather him, but Tommy jumps out of the car, injuring his arm in the process, and falling into a raging river.
Concerned that Tommy hasn’t returned home, Roberta heads to The Daily Planet to tell Jimmy, explaining that she thinks Chuck was involved, and the cub reporter and the girl head off to try to find some answers.
Noting that the girl Jimmy left with was Roberta Lee, Perry tells Clark to follow them, as he assumes it’s a story. Clark does follow…as Superman.
Roberta and Jimmy confront Chuck, who won’t admit to anything, and takes a swing at them with a baseball bat, losing a good bat in the process.
Face-to-face with his hero – hence the red boots – Chuck tells them what they need to know, and the issue ends with Superman running to where Tommy is likely to be with Roberta and Chuck tucked neatly under each arm.
I’ve enjoyed Yang’s previous work on New Super-Man and his current work on The Terrifics, and I really enjoyed this. Even though we’re only a third of the way through the story, I can confidently state that I would love to see this adapted into an animated movie.
The artistic style is already ideally-suited to animation, as a perfect blend of the classic Fleisher Studios style of the era in which the story with some clearly non-Western artistic elements.
Yang is the perfect writer to tell this story, as is evidenced by the personal essay included in the back – the source of the opening quote – in which he discusses his own history with Superman, the history of the Klan, and the story of the radio serial that inspired this comic.
One of the claims about that original radio serial was that it revealed secret code words within the Klan, though there are others who dispute that claim. However, here, with the frequent references to “replacement,” there certainly is a great deal revealed about the code words and dog whistles of the modern inheritors of the Klan’s shameful legacy.
“You will not replace us!” was the cry of the tiki-torch-bearing men who gathered the night before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, where one of those “very fine people” murdered activist Heather Heyer.
The entire purpose of the “Alt-Right” is to sanitize and repackage the same, tired old white supremacist nonsense that has been at the beating heart of this nation since its founding, to couch things in terms that are more palatable to the better angels of our nature, the better angels that added the contradictory and too-often hypocritical noble ideals that have also been at the beating heart our nation since its founding.
The people who call themselves “Race Realists” say, “We don’t hate anyone, we just think that some people should just stay where they belong.” They argue that “some people” just can’t assimilate, that they have values that are incompatible with “our” values.
They take supremacist and racist, bigoted language and twist it around and make it abstract, and tie it to legitimate concerns – or at least concerns that some might reasonably view as legitimate – and make it all of a piece, using it as a wedge, as a means of shifting the conversation.
They link themselves with the various -gate “movements,” saying it’s about ethics in gaming journalism, or just wanting comics to be good “like they used to be.”
But the key, in this story, as in life, is to focus not just on what they say – though you can learn a lot about what they’re really saying if you pay attention – but on what they do. The “Grand Scorpion” says he doesn’t hate anyone, but his actions say otherwise.
I like that the story also addresses some of the subtle – though not that subtle – elements of racism, such as the underlying assumptions about what people have actually earned, and the “Aw, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” kind of “jokes” that people make, and the ways in which that racism gets internalized by the very people it’s directed against.
Superman is the perfect character to build a story like this around, as his own issues with his identity and assimilation and literal alienation, mirror the struggles of the Lees in many ways. (And he’s also the perfect character for it because he was created by two men who were from one of the groups targeted for hatred by the Klan and their brethren – the Charlottesville chant alternated between “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” – and because in his appearance and his power he perfectly represents how white supremacists see themselves while in his actions and beliefs he rebukes that supremacist ideal. And also he’s the perfect character for it because, well, he’s Superman. The best of the best.)
As he considers the too-long-ignored evidence that he is not of this world, he begins to view himself as inhuman, resembling the image of an alien monster from some old pulp magazine, as being exactly what others would see – as what others did see – if they learned the truth about him. As the Clan views the Lees as alien invader who are out to replace “regular” people, so too would people view him as an invader.
And just as Dr. Lee is hyper-focused on assimilating, insisting that Mrs. Lee speaking English, even in their own home, Superman has limited himself in an effort to fit in, realizing, even if unconsciously, that exercising his demonstrated ability to fly would be pushing things too far. Yes, he can do things that are much more amazing than any human could do, but they are at least explicable. People can be strong, but he’s just stronger. People can be fast, but he’s just faster. People are tough. He’s tougher.
But flying, unaided? That’s just taking things too far. It’s too…alien.
It’s a perfect illustration of the damage that the attitudes and beliefs of supremacist movements cause, of a violent, lethally-enforced sameness causes not only to the victims of that violence, but to humanity as a whole.
It keeps us from being able to fly.
That does it for this special Spotlight post. Long-time readers know that these aren’t really reviews, and that I don’t do ratings or whatever, but if I did, this book would get the highest rating possible, and I very highly recommend picking it up, as well as the two issues that are still-to-come.
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