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Superman Versus the KKK

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Faster Than a Speeding Time Capsule: The Superman of past decades often outstripped his modern version in political and social savvy.

The Man of Steel's forgotten past as a Klan-fighter remembered

By Richard von Busack

IT'S A BIRD, it's a plane, it's in turnaround. The now-scrapped Nicolas Cage/Tim Burton Superman Lives film project had a number of strikes against it, including debates over the script and a budget of reportedly more than $100 million. Apparently, no one could gauge the right attitude to Superman's divine power: reverence, awe or joshing around? The mix of proposed scripts failed to arrive at a plan to make Superman either flying E.T. or the hammer of the gods.

A recent episode of the animated program The Superman Adventures (WB Network) took the fascist tendencies in Superman to the extreme. Visiting a parallel universe, our hero meets up with his other self as he would have developed if he'd been adopted and raised by the villainous plutocrat Lex Luthor, the Bill Gates of the Superman stories.

In this alternative world, Superman has become the head cop on a planet of slave laborers; he is clad in Mussolini wear, complete with jackboots. (At least I think they were jackboots; as George Orwell noted, nobody knows what jackboots are, except that they're the footwear you put on when you're going out to deprive someone of their civil rights.)

Naturally, the democratic Superman triumphed over his alternate-universe Nazi model. Maybe this episode, entertaining as it was, isn't really worth noting; the long-running epic of Superman always was populist, for better or worse. Still, turning backward to the history of the Superman character, you can see that his pursuit of the American way was more overt, even remarkably so, in the last years of the 1940s.

Radio's Adventures of Superman (rebroadcast nightly at 9:30pm, KABL 960AM) was a popular show on the Mutual Broadcasting Network, claiming 4.5 million listeners in 1947, according to a March 3, 1947, article in The New Republic. While the mainstream press didn't comment on the political content of the show, it was noted by the right-wing commentator and reactionary evangelist Gerald L.K. Smith, who denounced Superman as "a disgrace to America."

The radio Adventures of Superman was honored by various groups, including the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the American Newspaper Guild and the Calvin Newspaper Service, a chain of African American newspapers.

THE MOST noteworthy Superman radio episodes are described in Weyn Craig Wade's indispensable history of the Ku Klux Klan, The Fiery Cross. According to Wade, Stetson Kennedy, a reporter for the short-lived lefty newspaper PM, went undercover into the Klan, learning the secret passwords and countersigns used by the Grand Dragon "Doc" Green's vicious Klavern No. 1 of Atlanta. For sport, Kennedy passed on the info to writers of the Superman radio show about that comic-book character whom Wade calls "the ultimate antifacist."

As Wade relates the incident:

    The writers jumped on the idea and Superman ... began trouncing the Klan over the airways, a battle replete with obviously authentic detail. During the first broadcast, "Doc" Green received a phone call from the Atlanta AP bureau chief:

    "Superman's really on your trail ... sounds to me like Superman's got a pipeline into your klaverns somehow. You'd better watch your step."

    "I smell a rat," the Dragon said bitterly. "Just wait till I get my hands on him!"

    "You'd better make it snappy--Superman just flew over your Imperial Palace to case the joint."

    "Nuts," the Doctor said, and hung up.

Green had to change his passwords because of the show. The Klan chief tried to retaliate by pressuring Pep Cereal--sponsors of the Adventures of Superman--off of grocery shelves in Atlanta. Despite Green's actions, the sponsors continued to green-light the anti-Klan shows.

The coolest part of the story is that the network was open about what they called "the tolerance angle." There were none of those usual flacky obfuscations how people could read politics into a fantasy show if they preferred, and yadda yadda yadda.

An unnamed executive quoted in the 1947 New Republic article about the show said, "This tolerance theme is good business." He continued, "The psychologists tell us we're planting a 'thought egg' into the kids' minds. It won't have too much effect now, but it will when they become adolescent." Big words--still, didn't a lot of those children come of age in the 1960s?

I suppose Clark Kent, as an extraterrestrial immigrant, ought not to have been covering the foreigner-hating Klan in the first place; it was a conflict of interest. But journalistic ethics always were loose at The Daily Planet. Anyway, might part of the reason why children are leaving comics in droves is their lack of relevance?

As a caped asset of Time-Warner, Superman has less mobility than he enjoyed in his younger days. His latest stories put more of an emphasis on science fiction and fight scenes--and less on a reaction to current events; for example, the way kryptonite was introduced in 1949 after stories about plutonium hit the headlines.

Like movies, comic books are trying too hard to meet computer games on their own field. That's too bad; the hatching of a few more "thought eggs" might help bring back readers to the ailing medium of comics.

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From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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