Thursday, 22 March 2018
Superman VS The Ku Klux Klan
Kryptonian Kal-El Klan
Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan:
The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate
by Richard Bowers
National Geographic Kids
Okay, I’ll own up. When I was asked by a very good friend what I wanted for my Birthday this year, I already knew Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate was a book aimed at children. However, it’s not a subject I knew anything about from my readings of Superman comics over the years and I’m really not too proud of where any knowledge comes from, to be honest. As it happens, though, I’m wondering if National Geographic Kids got the target age correct because most of the review snippets I saw on Amazon said the kids couldn’t get through it but the adults loved it. I’d like to add my voice to the clamour saying that, as an adult, I loved it too but... the jury’s still out for many of my friends as to whether this 50 year old deserves adult status yet (doing my best not to get to that notch on the dial, folks).
Now, I knew nothing about the Ku Klux Klan and... why would I want to? However, a real life defeat by a much cherished fictional hero is the tale I wanted to hear and, it has to be said, I learned so much from this volume. Kids be damned, this stuff was more than interesting and I even... and I never thought I’d be saying this... learned stuff I didn’t know about the genetic make-up of the Man of Steel which I hadn’t read before in any publication. So, yeah, this one was definitely a very welcome birthday present, you can be sure of that. It’s only 160 pages so, it’s a quick read but... the amount of interesting, historical detail crammed into the pages really does the trick and gets the job done right.
So, we all know that Superman was the joint creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, making his much delayed debut as the first super powered comic book character in 1938. I didn’t realise the amount of Siegel and Shuster’s Jewish roots they’d injected into their character... which made later comparisons to the ‘perverted by the Nazis to their own ends’ version of Nietsche’s ‘Übermensch’ a completely ludicrous prospect. So as well as the obvious ‘cradle in the reeds’ Moses analogy of Kal-El’s space capsule turning up on Earth, we also had a lot of stuff I didn’t know, scattered about with some of the more familiar history of the two co-creators.
For example... and I’m quoting Bowers here, the Jewish principle of ‘tzedakah’, “a command to serve the less fortunate and stand up for the weak and exploited” was definitely a part of the Man Of Steel’s core principals. As was ‘tikkun olam’, “the mandate to do good works or, more literally, repair a broken world” a strong part of his character... and the early issues I’ve read of Action Comics and Superman certainly showcase that kind of attitude in a very bold, simplistic manner. Plus, of course, we have Kal-El plus his son Jor-El (later Clark Kent) and, in Ancient Hebrew, El apparently means “all that is God”.
The book starts off with a few chapters outlining the contributions and early lives of Siegel and Shuster and also looks at the marketplace conditions at the time (we all know the Max Gaines story about gluing all the newspaper strips together on white sheets to make the phenomenally successful world's first ‘comic books’) which would, in a few years, allow that creation to flourish and take off in ways the many publishers who rejected the idea couldn’t even imagine. It also, as a footnote, includes the bitterness with which the creators pursued a more appropriate remuneration for their work many years later... while still making the point that they were actually getting pretty good money for the time (despite signing off the rights to the character to get it published).
Meanwhile, in the Deep South and the aftermath of the American Civil War, writer Richard Bowers goes on to explain the background of the club of hate mongers that were the Ku Klux Klan and how their ‘society’ was formed in secret by bored ex-soldiers who came out on the wrong side of their battle. Revealing many guises and the three versions which rose up in the late 1860s (eventually outlawed after their violence, despite having many men in powerful positions around the country), the 1920s (eventually ousted when the various heads of the different chapters of the Klan were caught in what I will, in modern parlance, refer to as Weinsteinian style scandals) and, again, to a very short run in the 1940s... before being headed off by a journalistic infiltrator in their midst. With a little help from the last son of Krypton.
Some things I learned here were that those stupid white sheets they used to wear were actually supposed to be symbolic of the ghosts of confederate soldiers returning from battle. Since the first version of the society had to make their own costumes, one wonders if they had contests in their little club houses to see who had the brightest and most intolerant sheets. I also found out about how D. W. Griffith’s major motion picture The Birth Of A Nation (aka The Klansman) was used as a big recruitment push by the KKK and how they gathered at theatre exits with their big crosses, using the film as a promotional tool. I also loved that the main reasons for the second and later incarnations of this band of hate, which boasted millions of members, was not because the people in control bought into their own brand of intolerance but... purely for the money they could make out of their members. $10 membership was a lot of cash in those days and the people with their fingers on the buttons were literally making millions off of their organisation. Think about what that means in terms of the times with that kind of money. And then add in the amount of merchandise they were selling to their people... actual manufactured costumes (by the 1920s incarnation), bottles of initiation water, all-American pocket knives and, seriously, a jewel studded pendant in the shape of a fiery cross for the lady of the house. This is hilarious. I guess everything comes down to money, in the end.
By the 1940s, their third incarnation was on the rise as isolated groups who were joining with other hate filled rabble such as Nazi sympathisers... as Hitler waged his war on humanity. But, this time... there was Superman.
The Adventures Of Superman radio show in the 1940s, starring Bud Collier as the Man Of Steel, was a huge hit but, by the end of the Second World War, the script writers and their sponsors, Kellogs, needed a new enemy and, perhaps, a new angle to keep their radio show the huge success it had always been. There were no Nazis left to ass-kick (Clark Kent failed to be drafted in the war due to his X-Ray vision screwing up the eye test part of the medical) and new targets were required.
Stetson Kennedy was a journalist who had started infiltrating the Klan under an assumed name and who wanted to bring to light their terrible deeds and motivations. Somehow, either himself or via someone else, the producers of The Adventures of Superman had all the intel passed on about these clandestine organisations and took on the Klan... changing their name in the radio serial to The Clan Of The Fiery Cross... which was a less than subtle bit of satire, to be sure. Bowers then continues on with this account of events and shows how the radio show promoted tolerance and respect by beating down on the hatemongers who were slowly rising and helped change the attitudes of children and families everywhere. It not only did the obvious stuff but also showed up the true motivation of the people behind the outfit... dollars. It didn't single handedly wipe out the clan and there are certainly versions of the KKK still operating to this day but... it did make a sizeable impact on the organisation and I think the Man of Steel must have been very proud to be able to lend a helping hand to this real life threat.
Richard Bowers' book is an extraordinarily coherent and entertaining read. The design of the book is great too... feeling a little bit 1970s retro, to be sure but... a nice piece of work. Each chapter starts off with a photo of something relevant... such as a large photo of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro (an inspiration for Jerry Siegel) or a typical newsstand front in a relevant time period. The type is fairly large but it’s an easy read and, like I said before, you get a heck of a lot of information parcelled up in those 160 pages. There are the odd errors, for sure. For instance, when the writer claims that Superman teamed up with Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Captain America in the 1940s. Nope. Captain America was a rival comic company’s character and the first multiple comic book company crossover between characters from what would become Marvel and DC didn’t happen until the Giant Sized Treasury Edition of Superman VS The Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. That being said, stuff like this isn’t really too much of a problem and I’d definitely recommend Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate as a welcome addition to any superman fan’s bookshelf. More people need to know about this little slice of K-K-Kryptonian history.