These days, the world of superheroes feels like a giant money making market (WW84 anyone?). Not many people read the actual comic books anymore, other than the true diehard fans. But there was a time when kids flocked to comic book stores, when there were low tech tv shows like Wonder Woman and the Hulk, and it wasn’t such a merchandising market. I will admit, I’m not generally a fan of the blockbuster movies, though I watched the shows when I was younger and had my Wonder Woman underoos. The story is always good triumphs over evil, but if you were to look back at a lot of the older comics, the bad guys often were rooted in current events and issues. So it isn’t surprising that there are some great books being published that combine these same ideas.
The first one that I read was over the summer – Superman Smashes the Klan, by comic great Gene Luen Yang. The book is set in 1946 and focuses on a Chinese-American family that has moved from Chinatown to a different part of the city. Their next door neighbor just so happens to be Jimmy Olsen. Roberta and Tommy Lee try to adjust to their new neighborhood, but are greeted one night with a fiery cross burning in their front yard. In the book, Superman is still getting used to his powers and Roberta is a great observer, but struggling to make friends. Both of them deal with the idea of being different from those around them and have to figure out ways to deal with it. Bringing it back to the idea of history, the book is set in 1946 and the issues that the Lee family were happening. Cities were growing larger and many residents were not happy about it. Yang’s book does an amazing job of painting the picture of what parts of America were like in the 40s. It makes a great backdrop to the main story of finding yourself and being ok with being different. Yang takes on racism head first, allowing the story to touch on issues in our past as well as our present. Superman in this story is very human in his emotions. While he becomes a huge hero, he isn’t from this planet and has feelings of inadequacy and not fitting in just like the rest of us.
This story actually stems from a Superman radio show that was produced in 1946 – “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” The Anti Defamation League had contacted the producers of Superman and proposed a storyline featuring the Klan as the enemy. They ran with it and this book is loosely taken from that story.
When the world needs a superhero, sometimes you become one.“Cape,” Kate Hannigan
Kate Hannigan also takes a look at history in her new series, The League of Secret Heroes. I first found out about this series by seeing second book on NetGalley. Since I hadn’t read the first one yet, I started there. The first book, Cape, is the origin story of “The Infinity Trinity.” Josie, Akiko, and Mae are three girls from different backgrounds who are all obsessed with superheroes, particularly the female saviors. In these books, masked crusaders are real, but there is evil afoot, and not just in the form of WWII. Allowing for a great amount of diversity, the girls are Irish, Japanese, and Black, aspects that become more important in book 2.
The girls meet when they all answer an ad for a math competition and find themselves formed into the newest batch of superheroes with powers they didn’t know that they processed. Hannigan fabulously integrates bits of history into the series by featuring real-life women from World War II—the human computers and earliest programmers called “the ENIAC Six.” Women were a vital part of the war effort as code breakers and human computers, something often forgotten in the shadow of the big battles. Sprinkled with pages of black and white comics, this is a fast-paced read for fans of classic comic book stories and historical fiction alike.
Book 2, Mask, takes the girls to the west coast and introduces Josie and Mae to the reality of the Japanese internment camps. Akiko has only avoided living in one because she is needed by family on a farm. In this book, there is someone selling secrets to the Japanese and the girls become part of the team to help solve the mystery. I only just started this, so I don’t know much more yet.
I love that we are encouraging kids to take part in the world around them and be the superheroes that they are.