Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan--Rick Bowers
January 2012 by National Geographic Children's Books
154 pages--Goodreads

This book tells a group of intertwining stories that culminate in the historic 1947 collision of the Superman Radio Show and the Ku Klux Klan. It is the story of the two Cleveland teenagers who invented Superman as a defender of the little guy and the New York wheeler-dealers who made him a major media force. It is the story Ku Klux Klan's development from a club to a huge money-making machine powered by the powers of fear and hate and of the folklorist who--along with many other activists-- took on the Klan by wielding the power of words. Above all, it tells the story of Superman himself--a modern mythical hero and an embodiment of the cultural reality of his times--from the Great Depression to the present.

I bought this book solely because of the title.  The phrase 
"Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan" was so intriguing that I had to pick it up.  The book parallels the history and development of the Ku Klux Klan with the creation and development of the Superman mythos.  For the first three fourths of the book, the two stories are only juxtaposed, not interwoven directly.  It is not until the very end of the book that Superman directly confronts the KKK in a radio series.  Though this is an interesting incident, it is an isolated one; and I think it is a bit too tenuous for a good thesis.  The book is more of a dual biography than an exploration of a direct confrontation, which is what the title advertises.

Though the title was a bit misleading, is was an interesting book.  It is targeted at a younger crowd, 5th-8th grade or so.  Kids that age, especially comic book fans, would be very interested in the development of their favorite superhero.  The book  brings out a lot of intriguing facts, such as the similarities between Superman's origins and Jewish mythology (Moses in a basket/Kal-El in a rocket), and Superman as a bit of everything, making him able to appeal to everyone (he is both a country boy and a metropolitan reporter; he is alien, the ultimate foreigner, but he is quintessential American; he mild-mannered and quiet but a strong defender).  The chapters on people infiltrating and spying on the KKK were particularly interesting. The juxtaposition of the spies' secret identities works well against the backdrop of the Superman mythos.  

The book does a good job of contextualizing the KKK against the backdrop of the Reconstruction and the perceived threat of "non-traditional Americans."  It explains how the Klan emerged by pandering to the fears and desires of a few before turning militant.  However, in some parts the book over-biased against the KKK.  Let me be clear, what the Klan stands for is not okay, and I in no way agree with its premise.  But the "The KKK is bad" message was overhanded.  The book stops being merely factual and gets a bit propagandistic, to the point of oversimplifying the issue.  I read non-fiction to learn and understand, not to learn catch phrases to throw around.

The way the Superman radio show took on the KKK was very interesting.  The book gives us a synopsis of the plot of the 16-part series that juggles action and excitement with a moral message without getting too preachy.  That a mainstream media production both would and could successively combat an ideology is very cool.

I appreciate that the end of the book was not sugar-coated.  Bowers readily acknowledges that some of the people involved in the creation of Superman were just in it for the money.  Not every body lives happily ever after, some of them died selfish or bitter.  The loose ends don't tie up neatly, an accurate reflection of reality.  It was an interesting book--not a play by play of a book-long confrontation with the forces of evil, but good.

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