Now that Gene Luen Yang’s SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN is finally here, readers can watch the relatively rare occurrence of Superman fighting off an (unfortunately) real-life threat. Yang was inspired, in part, by the 1946 Superman radio show titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross which supposedly featured anti-Klan messages. Rick Bowers wrote a book about it here.
But for all the coverage of these stories and their offshoots — a movie (ok, cinema) of the original radio story is being planned — what if Superman had an even deeper ancestry of fighting against the Ku Klux Klan?
He does, in way. For though he did not fight the Klan in his early comics, his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, did write an episode of their comic SPY in Detective Comics #17 (July 1938) that does. It was titled “The Hooded Hordes:”
In the story, Bart Regan and Sally Norris are ordered to infiltrate a very familiar looking terror group. Though not specifically named as the Klan, Joe’s striking art and the insignias on their robes are unmistakable. This is not a coded villain or a Hydra/Nazi wink-nudge; this is the real deal.
See? But look at Jerry’s words here too: “nightriders,” “flouting the laws of tolerance,” “lash.” This is not just a nod. The man they are whipping is white, but the reader sees right through it.
The actual plot itself has to do with the
Klan Horde being more concerned with disrupting manufacturing concerns than spreading hate, but that first panel:
Look at the shadow on the tree. This is an incredibly bold panel that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, especially from a couple of Jewish twentysomethings from Cleveland trying to make their mark in this newfangled comics thing in 1938! But maybe that was the point. Chris Gavaler has argued that that the Klan, in a way, helped birth the vigilante superhero. I’ve written about the Klan and Batman in a previous UBS. More important here, I think, is Jerry and Joe’s sheer bravado in creating this panel. In their high school newspaper, the Torch, there is an article that mentions how much Jerry hated Adolf Hitler. We know too that the Nazis saw Superman as a propagandist threat and made racist threats about Jerry in the SS-run Das schwarze Korps newspaper in 1940. In my book Super Boys, I wrote (and someone told me this) that Jerry felt this was a badge of honor. After the book came out, someone who knew him way better said “No no, he was terrified.” The second is much more believable.
This was real stuff. That’s why they wrote about it.
Also interesting is the choice of the Horde’s unrest: Meadeville. But rather than Mississippi (as Meadville), which would cause so much pain in the civil rights movement later on, I think Jerry was talking about Meadeville, Pennsylvania, which was much closer to Cleveland and a hotbed of Klan activity, boasting a possible 250,000 members in the late twenties.
I was going to post a scary Klan photo showing that the robes in the Pennsylvania Klan looked just like Joe’s characters in the comic, but who needs to see those clowns? I’d much rather see Superman do this.