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Gene Luen Yang

Superman Smashes the Klan

Superman Smashes the Klan is a wonderful graphic novel geared for young adults, yet will appeal to all ages. Author Gene Luen Yang deftly combines the mythology of Superman with timely topics of immigration and battling prejudice.

When you hear the word Klan, you will automatically think of the hate group that seems to targets blacks the most. But instead, Yang sets the story in 1946 and centers on the Lee family who are Chinese-Americans who have recently moved to Metropolis for their father’s new job as a scientist. Brother and sister Tommy and Roberta begin to assimilate into their new community after leaving Chinatown, but Roberta struggles more than her brother who is soon befriended by boys in the neighborhood when he shows a gift for pitching.

But soon the family is targeted by the Klan of the Fiery Kross, which is obviously a stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan. The chants they use and their justification of their actions are sadly a commentary on what is going on in America right now. Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen befriend the Lee’s but Roberta picks up on clues about Superman’s abilities and helps him confront his own issues regarding his own assimilation. This story is set early into Superman’s career, and he is shown as not able to fly, as he is suppressing his alien powers. This runs parallel to the Lee’s journey of embracing who they are and not being ashamed of their background. This narrative not only makes Superman more relatable to younger new readers, who might only view him as a demi-god, not a young boy who even in later years as an adult struggles with his identity.

The artwork by Gurihiru (actually a Japanese illustration team, consisting of Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano) is a fun throwback to the 90s style of comic animation. The illustrations are deceptively simple and will appeal to readers of all ages. The story flowed beautifully from panel to panel, with some outstanding one and two-page spreads. The colors are bold, with the primary colors of red, blue and yellow taking center stage. That these colors are found in Superman’s costume is a natural tie-in.

I was very impressed with this story. Yang wrote a nuanced story about the struggles of fighting adversity, calling out hate, maintaining cultural traditions while balancing fitting into a new home and battling back against preconceived notions.  An afterword by the author clarifies his message in which he shares how racism against any race is unacceptable and shares his story along with his personal connection to the iconic Superman. This strong story may very well inspire readers to take stands against hate and racism they run across, and should be a welcome beacon for all Superman fans.

-Nancy

Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints is a companion set of historical fiction graphic novels that gives a unique look at the Boxer Rebellion of China between 1899-1901. This magical realism tale delivers a heartbreaking look at the violent upheaval that occurred in Chinese society during this time period.

The longer first book, Boxers, sets the stage for young Lee Boa to see how both foreigners and encroaching Christianity are changing his rural village as well as his entire country. Boa is entranced by a traveling warrior who teaches him and the other peasants a form of kung fu that incorporates mysticism. When his mentor dies, Boa and his band leave their village to roam the countryside to drive out the foreign “devils” and the Chinese Christianity converts whom they call “secondary devils”.

The story does not shy away from bloodshed. This group, who call themselves The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist, at first are viewed as noble vigilantes that take inspiration from the Gods of old and the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. But soon their commitment to saving Chinese culture ends up destroying it as their original intent morphs into extreme violence. While Boa remains a sympathetic figure, you can see the conflict in his heart as he struggles with what he feels would be best for China.

The second book, Saints, tells the story of Vibiana, a young girl who is abused by her family. Her conversion to Christianity at first is just an experiment and a way to get away from home rather than experiencing a real love of Christ. But slowly, as she learns more about it, and she is offered different opportunities than she would be given if she remained at home, she starts to actually live out the tenets of the faith.  Her inspiration is Joan of Arc, whom she sees in visions.

Boa and Vibiana meet in Peking (now known as Beijing) when the Boxer Rebellion comes to a head. Both are fighting for a cause they feel strongly about and we see where their loyalties lay. We see nuanced views from both perspectives and see the extremes that people will go to in the name of faith and country.

To put the stories in context, in an interview with Austin Chronicle, author Gene Luen Yang said “I wanted to do two volumes because I was not sure which side in the conflict were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I noticed connections between contemporary terrorists and the Boxers. So in a lot of ways, I was trying to write the story of a young man who was essentially a terrorist, and I wanted him to be sympathetic, but I also didn’t want the book to feel like I was condoning terrorism. So it was kind of a fine line.”

The art is deceptively simple, with a very muted color palate. More color is used in the first book when Boa and his band of rebels transform into Gods of the Opera. Readers are not spared from the blood of the victims, but it is only right to be truthful to the fact that this rebellion resulted in much loss of life, both for the Chinese and the foreign Westerners. Yang draws the people and the traditions of his ancestral land with pride and dignity, and you can tell he spent much time researching the era and region to draw it accurately.

It seems almost a trope to say that this duology is thought provoking, but it truly is. The magical realism both added and detracted from the power of the story for me. Created for a YA audience, this magical element helps show what the young protagonists were thinking, and drives the narrative. As an adult I struggled with it, for I wanted a more realistic rendering of this time in history. But ultimately I believe this set of books is perfect for youth to explore this little known rebellion and will hopefully lead to them studying more about it. Huge kudos to Yang for creating this atypical graphic novel series that will have readers pondering their faith and political views.

-Nancy

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