Thursday Comics Hangover: We need a hero

Why is it that all of a sudden people are getting Superman right again? I would argue that with a few noteworthy, high-profile exceptions (Mark Waid and Grant Morrison) the last twenty years or so of Superman comics have been disappointing. They've focused on the sci-fi trappings of the character, or gotten mired in generic superhero drama, and so they've failed to capture what makes Superman so essential.

But as I've noted before, Brian Michael Bendis's Superman comics — in Superman and Action Comics and, likely, in Legion of Superheroes — have been dead-on in their representation of Superman. He's humble, optimistic, positive, and just generally good. He's closer to Mr. Rogers than to Captain America, and that's exactly as it should be.

And last week, another book came out that captured the essence of Superman: written by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Gurihuru, and lettered by Janice Chiang, Superman Smashes the Klan is the perfect Superman book to pass on to children who are interested in reading about the world's first superhero.

Smashes is based on a Superman radio program from the 1940s that pitted the hero against the Ku Klux Klan, which was enjoying a revival in post-Depression America. The radio play is largely credited with making the Klan shameful again in polite American society — smashing the Ku Klux Klan in real life.

This book adapts the radio serial, adding some additional material and fleshing out Superman's story to make it more of a standalone adventure. This is very much early-days Superman: he can leap, but not fly; he makes mistakes; he hasn't explored all of his own weaknesses and limitations yet. He gets around by running on top of electrical wires, and he doesn't know his own origin yet.

When the Lees, a family of Chinese-American immigrants, move to a fancy Metropolis neighborhood, the Klan embarks on a campaign of terror to scare them away. Superman gets involved, even as he is dealing with his own questions of what it means to be an immigrant — albeit one from another planet.

The story is slick and fast-moving, with some gross-out jokes to keep young readers amused and interested. And Gurihuru's manga-esque artwork evokes the clean lines of Max Fleischer's old art-deco Superman cartoons without being slavishly tied to an ancient model sheet. The lines are sleek and kinetic, here, and the whole book is fun to read and easy on the eyes. There are two more issues of Smashes to come, and I hope the collected edition starts showing up in Scholastic Book Fairs around the country.

So why are so many people getting Superman right in the modern moment? Maybe it's because we need a Superman. With white supremacists creeping back out of the shadows and into the real world, and with alt-right cartoonists actively fighting against the idea of social justice in comics, maybe we really need Superman to remind us what we're capable of, and what we've already achieved in the not-so-distant past. Maybe we just really need Superman to save us right now.