Happy New Comic Book Day! Gene Luen Yang’s latest book, Superman Smashes the Klan #1 is out TODAY so be sure to pick it up. In part 1 of my interview, I talked with Yang about a variety of topics. In part 2 below, we focus a bit more on superhero comics and of course his take on Superman. Yang has a really insightful and unique perspective on Superman as an immigrant story and also the larger issues that the book Superman Smashes the Klan raises regarding society today.
This interview was edited for clarity and conciseness.
POC Culture: Switching gears to Superman Smashes the Klan, a really unique and timely project. You mentioned that you were reluctant in terms of taking it on, where did that come from and why did you ultimately decide to do it?
GLY: For this project I put in a proposal for it with DC Comics, but shortly after I did, I did feel kind of freaked out about it. It deals with a lot of subjects that are touchy in modern day America. It’s about racism – the fundamental question behind it is whether or not a multicultural country can work. It was a question that was around after World War II ended, which was when the original story came out, and I think that question has reared its head again in very intense way. And it’s not just in America, the question of multiculturalism has reared its head all over the globe right now. As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, it’s really unexpected.
Q: The book is inspired by the Superman radio story Clan of the Fiery Cross, which itself is credited with subverting some of the KKK’s efforts in the 40s. What is the message that you’re hoping to get across?
GLY: I went into the project wanting to learn myself. I wanted to learn about the 40s and what America was like after the end of the war. After doing my research, this is what I came away thinking – before World War II there had always been two streams in America: One stream that was “All human beings are created equal” and then there was another stream that was “These particular people are worth 3/5ths.” And these two streams were competing. Then in World War II, America went across the ocean to fight these Nazis. but really a big core of the Nazi philosophy was centered around Madison Grant, who was an American. He was an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt. He was a conservationist but also a pretty intense eugenicist and deeply racist. He wrote this book called The Passing of the Great Race and Hitler called this American book his Bible. So in some ways, as an American, you can see World War II as our country going across the ocean to face ourselves, or the worst version of ourselves. And when the war ends and the American troops come back, I think they saw what one of the streams of American history led to – it leads to concentration camps, it leads to genocide – so there was this embrace of the other side, at least in these really big and influential corners of America. It wasn’t 100%. It was an imperfect embrace, it was incomplete, but there was this sense that we saw what that other way of thinking leads to and we don’t want that. I think we’ve forgotten that. Whatever we learned by fighting the worst version of ourselves in Europe, we’ve forgotten.
I think that Superman radio show, it came out a year after the end of the war, in some ways you can see a crystallization of what America learned in World War II.
Q: Backing up a little bit, how familiar were you previously with this radio show and where did the inspiration come from to propose it to DC Comics?
GLY: I learned about it the same way a lot of other folks learned about it, I read Freakonomics and they devoted an entire chapter to this. After I read that, I told my son about it and talked with him about it. Then I found this middle-grade book called Superman versus the Klu Klux Klan by Rick Bowers and it goes into detail about the creation of Superman and the Klan and how they eventually came to a head in 1946. So it was always in the back of my mind. Then after I began working for DC Comics, I was at a book conference, I had breakfast with a couple of the editors at DC Comics and we were talking about this and this project came out of that conversation.
Q: I’ve heard you say that Superman is a symbol of American tolerance and his story is, at its core, an immigrant story. How much of that do you get to tackle in this book?
GLY: When I first signed on to do Superman, I did 10 issues beginning in 2015, that was my connection point with the character. I had always thought of Superman as this dweeb and kind of a square. That flipped for me when I realized the reason he’s a square is the same reason my parents are square – it’s because they’re immigrants. They know they’re foreigners and they know that there’s a part of them that’s deeply threatening to the people around them. So they gotta hide it under this perfect facade. They have to be the perfect citizens because if they’re not, people will start questioning their citizenship. That same dynamic is there for Superman. So that was my connection point and that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about. Writing mostly superhero comics is really crazy! I had a great time doing it, but at the same time, I felt like I never got to explore that core of the character and that’s what this is. This is me being able to talk about that.
I actually think that’s one of the big differences between Batman and Superman. Batman dresses up to be scary. Batman’s a WASP! [laughing] He fits right in! There’s nothing scary about him. If things had gone the way they were supposed to go, if his parents were never killed, he’d probably be like some kind of politician or something. You know? Everybody would love him. He’d go to these fund raising galas. He’d become the mayor of Gotham. But Superman, deep down inside, is legitimately scary. He’s this foreigner, he’s an immigrant, he’s from this completely different culture. So I think he wears these bright colors so people don’t freak out about him as much.
Q: Wow. I love it but after this interview posts, you’re going to get Batman stans all up in your mentions! [laughing]
GLY: [Laughing] Yeah sure. That’s fine!
Q: I love it because it’s so true to my own immigrant experience. Growing up, my parents were always like “Don’t make too much noise at home. Don’t play your music too loud because you’re going to bother neighbors.” So that experience of needing to be so perfect so others don’t start questioning whether you should be here is so true but I don’t think anybody has talked about that with regards to Superman.
GLY: I think that’s exactly it. He’s the boy scout because he has to be. He’s trying to get people not to question whether he should be a citizen.
Q: Prior to this you created and wrote Kenan Kong and the Justice League of China, which is one of my favorite stories ever. I know you initially had some reluctance to do that project and Jim Lee encouraged you. Looking back now, what was the highlight of that project and is there anything that you wish you had gotten chance to do?
GLY: That was super fun. I’m really glad I did it even though I was very hesitant at the beginning. I was hesitant because they didn’t want a Chinese-American Superman. I felt like I could’ve done a Chinese-American Superman. They wanted a Chinese Superman living in China. I’d never lived in China before and I’d only visited twice. I just felt like I didn’t have the insider’s knowledge to do it right. Ultimately I had to make peace with that. I had to make peace with the fact that this was going to be an American take on a Chinese superhero. To anybody who lives in America, I’m sure it feels very American. Have you ever heard of this comic called Lucky Luke? It’s a French comic set in the American West. It’s like a Western with cowboys and high noon shootouts but it’s done by a French cartoonist. It’s set in America but it feels very French but I still think it’s an awesome comic. I was hoping that’s what this was going to be like – it going to feel like an American comic that’s set in China. So once I got over that hurdle, I started working on it. In the end, I think I feel like my favorite part of that project was being able to do a chubby Chinese Batman (Wang Baixi). I’m super proud of that!
Q: [Laughing] And he was great too! What’s amazing is that at first you think “What in the world? Is this a parody?” but you made his character awesome!
GLY: Well thanks! I wanted to play with this trope. It’s like a kung-fu movie trope where you have this chubby guy come on screen and everyone laughs at him and he just whoops everybody’s butt. He turns out to be the best out of all of them. I think there’s a subversiveness to that in kung-fu movies, where it’s a warning to not judge people by appearances and I wanted to play with that too with Batman.
Q: Sammo Hung fans agree with you!
GLY: [Laughing] Exactly! Sammo Hung is Batman!
Q: You mentioned that you would’ve been interested in doing an Asian-American version. That’s the tension right now. China is a huge market that everyone wants to tap into, but there’s also this Asian-American market that’s very hungry. Do you want to do more Asian-American characters and stories. Is there anything like that on the horizon for you?
GLY: Yeah I absolutely do want to do more Asian-American characters and stories. There’s nothing…concrete yet but that’s definitely on my to-do list.
Q: Kenan Kong and the Justice League of China, are we going to see them again soon?
GLY: I hope so! There’s nothing concrete yet but I would love to do more stories. I feel like the Asian corner of the DC universe in general has plenty of material there that ought to be fleshed out. And hopefully we’ll be able to see that happen soon.
Q: Agreed. Whenever there’s a new diverse character that’s created, there’s always the conflict of whether they should be given a wholly new identity and try to build them up, or should we allow them to share an iconic mantle like Kenan and Superman. Not promising anything but what would you like to see in terms of the next evolution of Kenan Kong and any of the others?
GLY: We did talk about giving Kenan his own identity apart from Superman. We didn’t get to that point of the series where we were able to introduce that but that was something we definitely talked about. In terms of diversity, I think you need both. You need characters that take on established legacies and you also need characters that establish new identities and new legacies. When you have something like a Korean-American Hulk, or Miles Morales, you’re tapping into a name recognition that I think is really important for visibility. But at the same time, as popular as Miles Morales is, Spider-Man is still going to be Peter Parker first for most readers. So the way to overcome that is to also have characters of color establish new stories and identities.
Q: There’s a significant burden that comes with being one of the primary Asian-American writers in comics. How do you manage that?
GLY: I’m interested in doing that. Maybe it would be different if I didn’t want to write Asian-American characters, but I really want to write Asian-American characters, so I don’t know if I even think of it as a burden. It’s just something I’m naturally interested in. It’s actually something I want to do. Even if they didn’t pay me, I would being doing this. Even when I was losing money in comics, I was doing this.
Q: I love that you embrace that. Going back to Jeremy Lin, he’s talked about how at first he didn’t know that he wanted to be the Asian-American standard bearer, but he’s come to embrace that. You’re the Jeremy Lin of DC Comics!
GLY: [Laughing] I don’t know about that! There’s Greg Pak, though he hasn’t written in DC in a long time. There’s Amy Chu. There’s a lot of us.
Q: I did want to ask about American Born Chinese, which is such an important work. It was released about 10 years ago. I recently re-read it and it’s so relevant today. So my question is – is it still relevant because that’s how good the story is or should we be sad about how little has changed?
GLY: I know right? That’s depressing. It’s not even that so little has changed. It’s that some of the change has been unwound. I had heard someone talk about how in technology, the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. And I think that’s true too about issues of culture. I’ve been lucky enough to go to these different school communities to talk about the issues that are discussed in American Born Chinese. And it seems like there are some communities where they just don’t feel the emotions behind the book, and I think in a lot of ways that’s a good thing. I’ll go to these communities that are pretty diverse that have a significant Asian-American population, and these kids are born here but when they talk to each other they’ll switch back and forth between English and whatever their native tongue is. The comfort level that they have with their cultural heritage feels foreign to me. I can’t imagine myself being their age and feeling as comfortable in their own skin as they appear to be in theirs. So in communities like that, the embarrassment, the quiet humiliation that’s inside American Born Chinese is really foreign. So in some places the book is not relevant in a very good way, but it’s just uneven.
Q: We’re in a time where Asian representation in media is growing quickly. How have you experienced that and where would you like to see that representation go in the next couple of years?
GLY: It’s been really cool to see. It’s fun to turn on Netflix and have Netflix recommend shows and movies with Asian characters in in. I never would have imagined that when I was in high school – to have mainstream American media feature predominantly Asian casts. I think it’s been great. It’s not prefect of course. Asian-America is diverse. Asian-America is also a diversity fractal, and there are definitely corners of Asian-America that are not well represented now. But the changes that we’re seeing in media now is one of the most hopeful parts of American society to me.
Q: Is there anything that you’ve recently watched or read that you’ve really enjoyed?
GLY: Just like all Asian-Americans I really liked Always Be My Maybe. It was just weird to see a romantic comedy where I felt like I could have grown up with those kids.
Q: And it even takes place in the Bay Area so it was probably very true to you!
GLY: Yeah it was really neat to see.
Q: Two last questions: Do you have any tips for kids love writing and story telling and who want to be you? And last, Avatar: The Last Airbender – which nation do you associate with?
GLY: [Laughing] Well for the first question, I think you just have to practice. Set aside some time every day and just draw, write or play music. Whatever it is you want to do. That’s the main thing. You have to consider your art important enough to allocate time to it and keep that time sacred.
In terms of my nation I would be Earth Kingdom for sure!
Q: I do want to say that I’ve loved your Avatar comics as well. It’s such a fun world.
GLY: I had a lot of fun doing that. It’s such an amazing world. They did such a great job world building.
Q: Thank you again. It’s so fun to talk with you.
GLY: My pleasure! I appreciate it.
Many thanks to Gene Luen Yang for the great conversation. Superman Smashes the Klan #1 releases today so be sure to pick it up at your local comic book store!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.