Super­man Ver­sus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Sto­ry of How the Icon­ic Super­hero Bat­tled the Men of Hate

Richard Bow­ers
  • Review
By – April 17, 2013

2013 marks the sev­en­ty-fifth birth­day of America’s first and best-known super­hero. Peo­ple have been writ­ing about Super­man since his birth in 1938, and even in this age of super-fast dig­i­tal media, pub­lish­ers are still deliv­er­ing books on the top­ic. Hot off the press are three new books that will sat­is­fy even the most avid fans of Super­man, as well as read­ers who are inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about the con­nec­tion between Super­man and Judaism.

Accord­ing to Super­man biog­ra­ph­er Lar­ry Tye, the late may­or of NYC, Ed Koch, toast­ed Super­man on his fifti­eth birth­day with the tra­di­tion­al bless­ing, may you live to 120!” But is Super­man Jew­ish? Tye shows how Superman’s val­ues can be claimed by all major reli­gions, while Har­ry Brod answers with a resound­ing yes, not only in ref­er­ence to Superman’s reli­gious affil­i­a­tion, but to that of most of the oth­er well-known super­heroes. Rick Brower’s book shows how America’s favorite super­hero tack­led the machine of hate known as the Ku Klux Klan and, in the process, won the respect of mil­lions of fans.

Tye’s book is the most com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy ever writ­ten about Super­man. It cov­ers the Man of Steel’s entire life, from birth to death to rebirth (since most super­heroes (and vil­lains) rarely stay dead in the realm of comics). Tye explores the entire cast of char­ac­ters in Superman’s world, from Lois Lane, Jim­my Olsen, and Per­ry White to Lex Luthor, Mr. Mxyx­ptlk, and oth­er arch­en­e­mies. He traces Superman’s appear­ances from the very first com­ic book and com­ic strips to ear­ly radio and TV car­toons, then to live action TV shows, movies, and even a Broad­way show. The Man of Steel was eager­ly co-opt­ed by adver­tis­ers as an icon of Amer­i­can val­ues; from war bonds urg­ing cit­i­zens to sup­port their troops, to cere­al box­es exhort­ing chil­dren to eat healthy, Super­man was on hand to deliv­er the message.

Inte­gral to the sto­ry of Super­man is the saga of Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter, the Jew­ish teenagers who cre­at­ed the super­hero as a way to escape from their lives as poor immi­grants in Cleve­land, Ohio. Tye delves deeply into the lives of Siegel and Shus­ter, and threads their suc­cess­es and fail­ures, both in the pub­lish­ing world and in their home lives, through­out the book. Inter­wo­ven with the tale of Siegel and Shus­ter is the birth of the comics indus­try and the impact that comics had on soci­ety. Tye’s enter­tain­ing and infor­ma­tive biog­ra­phy has exten­sive notes, a com­pre­hen­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy, and even an appen­dix with Superman’s cur­ricu­lum vitae. A cen­ter sec­tion con­tains pho­tographs of Siegel and Schus­ter, images of Super­man as his image changed in the hands of dif­fer­ent artists, as well as pho­tographs of the actors who brought Super­man to life in radio, TV, and movies.

Brod takes the sto­ry of Siegel and Shus­ter and expands it beyond Super­man to encom­pass the Jew­ish roots of oth­er super­heroes. His stat­ed aim is to show the influ­ence of Jews and Judaism on comics, and he achieves his goal with copi­ous exam­ples and a good dose of humor. Mov­ing from Super­man through the Gold­en and Sil­ver Ages of comics, Brod takes read­ers on a whirl­wind jour­ney through history’s most influ­en­tial com­ic book authors. The big names are all here: Jack Kir­by, Stan Lee, Will Eis­ner, Joe Kubert, Art Spiegel­man. There is even a chap­ter that looks at comics orig­i­nat­ing out­side of the Unit­ed States; notable authors, such as Rutu Modan from Israel and Joann Sfar from France are giv­en ample space. Brod’s book packs a lot into bare­ly 200 pages; it could eas­i­ly be used as a text­book for a course on the influ­ence of Jews in the com­ic book indus­try. Detailed notes round out the volume.

As the slo­gan goes, Super­man fights for truth, jus­tice, and the Amer­i­can way.” This sen­ti­ment was test­ed in 1946, when the caped cru­sad­er bat­tled the Ku Klux Klan on live radio. Bow­ers traces the rise of both Super­man and the KKK in his grip­ping account aimed at younger read­ers, but just as suit­able for adults. As in Tye’s biog­ra­phy, Bow­ers begins at the begin­ning, describ­ing the lives of Siegel and Shus­ter and their efforts to bring forth a hero to help lift them out of their impov­er­ished lives. He address­es the ques­tion of Superman’s Jew­ish­ness by acknowl­edg­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties that oth­er authors have debat­ed over the years: the Hebrew-sound­ing name of Kal-El, the Moses-like exile to anoth­er world, and the embod­i­ment of tikkun olam that makes Super­man a hero. How­ev­er, Bow­ers affirms that What Super­man wasn’t was just as impor­tant as what he was…The Super­man char­ac­ter offered a lit­tle bit to everyone…he was the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can.” There­fore, as a quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can, it was Superman’s duty to con­front racism and anti-Semi­tism, and to do his part to enlight­en his fans about the evils of the KKK. Bow­ers intro­duces read­ers to a real hero, Stet­son Kennedy, who helped infil­trate the KKK and bring aware­ness to the pub­lic. In June 1946, the forces of good col­lid­ed with the forces of hate, and the 16-part Clan of the Fiery Cross” was pre­sent­ed on live radio. In the sto­ry, Super­man, Jim­my Olsen, and Per­ry White tri­umph over hate. The result­ing aware­ness worked to weak­en the KKK, and Superman’s mes­sage of tol­er­ance was received to great acclaim. Bowers’s book con­tains his­tor­i­cal pho­tographs, a bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes, and an index, mak­ing this high-qual­i­ty book a per­fect resource for Amer­i­can his­to­ry stu­dents and buffs.

In order to ful­ly cel­e­brate Superman’s sev­en­ty-fifth birth­day, first read Super­man is Jew­ish? for its overview of super­heroes and the Jews who cre­at­ed them. Then read Super­man, the biog­ra­phy, for its thor­ough focus on the Man of Steel. Fin­ish off with Super­man Ver­sus the KKK to get a detailed exam­ple of how Super­man became so inter­twined with Amer­i­can life and val­ues. Then get in line for Man of Steel, the newest Super­man movie, slat­ed to be released in the­aters on June 142013.

Addi­tion­al Titles Fea­tured in Review

Wendy Was­man is the librar­i­an & archivist at the Cleve­land Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in Cleve­land, Ohio.

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