Last year I had a dream come true as far as my comics-reading career. I’d said for years that I wanted a remake of the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” story arc from the Adventures of Superman radio show. So when Gene Luen Yang’s excellent Superman Smashes the Klan came along, I should have been sated. It almost felt like I’d willed it into existence.
But as I think about it, I want more. As far as I’m concerned, stories about Superman fighting bigots should make up at least a third of the output of Superman stories. I’ll take them over Superman fighting criminals who have sworn revenge on Superman any day. So in this series I’m going to revisit other stories about Superman going up against racists and bigots and the like and see how they could be done again.
“The Hate Mongers Organization”
This serial arc actually ran before “Clan of the Fiery Cross” and, as far as I can tell, may be the show’s first Superman versus Bigots story that isn’t actually a Superman versus Nazis story (and we’ll get to those later). In fact, this arc gets mentioned near the start of “Fiery Cross” when Jimmy’s like “Racists? I though we got rid of those.” Anyway, I won’t be doing an episode-by-episode breakdown, but I will try to keep as many of the story beats intact while being as brief as possible (spoilers: I fail at the brevity part).
The story begins with ten-year-old Danny O’Neill, an Irish-Catholic boy, witnessing some young men starting a fire in a pharmacy. Danny recognizes one of the boys, local pool room tough Muggs, but unfortunately Muggs sees Danny too. Danny is afraid to go to the police for fear that Muggs will retaliate. But Danny does end up visiting the Daily Planet, where his story is heard by reporter Clark Kent. The Planet promises to protect Danny if he gives his account, then send him home with their youngest reporter, Jimmy Olsen. Jim drops Danny off and heads to his own home, only for Muggs and his gang to then show up and beat the kid nearly to death.
In the hospital Jim and Clark meet Danny’s priest, who has come by to check on the kid. It turns out that this priest and the owner of the burnt pharmacy are both members of the Unity House committee, a group that is proposing the construction of a youth centre that will entertain kids of all races and religions and encourage multiculturalism. The committee recently received threatening letters and they’re pretty sure that there is a hand behind the threats at a higher level than street toughs. Obviously Clark is on the job to investigate this (after briefly being side-tracked by needing to get a brain surgeon from Chicago into town ASAP via Superman express to save young Danny’s life).
Clark’s plan is to have Jimmy go undercover in Muggs’s gang so they can find out who the boss is. Jim is eager to prove himself and meets with Muggs, who tells him: “We’re working for guys with plenty of moolah. They got a job to do and we’re helping ’em out. We ain’t doing it for love, but we ain’t doing it for the dough alone either. It’s the kind of job we get a kick out of doing. Because it puts the skids on some of them foreigners lousing up the country.”
Jim, even though he’s supposed to be undercover, debates this. “I was just thinking, ain’t everybody in this country a foreigner? I mean, we all came from some other place, or our folks way back did.” (he will acknowledge Native Americans in a later conversation during the story.) Muggs replies, “Look, stoop. Cut the talk. You know who I mean.” Perhaps because of this debate, Muggs has Jim tailed after he leaves and he’s overheard reporting what he’s found to Clark.
Fortunately (for Jimmy), the kid who overheard is hit by a car! Unfortunately (for Jimmy), the kid is okay and leaves the hospital. But that delay gave Jim time to inform Clark of the problem. Clark arranges to have a police officer show up at Muggs’s place and arrest Jim and the kid before they can talk to Muggs, getting Jim to safety.
Though the arrest of Jimmy was fake, Clark soon gets a call from Inspector Henderson, his friend in the police force, who tells him a lawyer has turned up for Jim. They stall the lawyer long enough to get Jim to the jail to meet the lawyer, who is impressed by Jim’s intelligence (compared to Muggs anyway) and arranges to bring Jim to their boss.
Jim is taken to a location where he meets with the boss, who remains behind a black velvet curtain during the conversation. It turns out that Muggs’s gang is working for a group called the Guardians of America, who are trying to protect the country for pure-blooded Americans. When Jim says this sounds like Nazi talk, the boss says that Hiter’s only mistake was going too fast, they are learning from that and working more subtly and behind-the-scenes. They are impressed with Jim’s intelligence and give him a mission: there is an art gallery owned by a Mr. Klein and if Jim will go in and slash some of the paintings there, he will be made leader of the gang.
Before he can do that however, Jim learns that Muggs and the gang are going out to attack the synagogue of Rabbi Stone, one of the Unity House committee. Jim gets a message to Clark and thus Superman arrives to warn Stone about the attack. Superman doesn’t want to reveal himself and lose the chance to find the boss of the Guardians of America, but the rabbi is a former boxer and is eager for the chance to bust the kids down a peg. It goes well until one of the kids pulls a knife and stabs the rabbi. The kids flee, the synagogue unharmed, but Superman has to rush Stone to the hospital.
At this point, Henderson has had enough of Clark’s investigation. He wants to arrest the gang members who stabbed Stone and be done with it. Clark doesn’t agree. He says arresting those kids won’t help anything because they aren’t the real problem, there are greater societal issues that they need to deal with by finding the root cause of the bigotry and his plan is to go after the cause not the symptoms (Wait, dealing with social issues by doing something other than arresting kids on the streets? What a wacky 1946 idea!). Henderson goes along with this reluctantly, presumably remembering how many episodes Clark has been right about this sort of thing before.
Jim then finds out that Muggs’s next plan is to plant a car bomb in Perry White’s car. It turns out that Perry has made a sizable donation to Unity House and he’s a target now too. Jim gets dragged along on this case and his attempt to defuse the bomb is seen by Muggs, which has blown his cover. Though Jim gets beaten by Muggs, it turns out that Muggs is caught before he could tell his boss, so the ruse is still on.
They decide now is the time to go forward with that art-slashing plan. Clark and Jim meet with Adolf Klein, the art gallery owner, and ask if they can have his permission to print a fake news story saying the paintings had been slashed. That way Jim can report back to the Guardians’ boss having done the job. Klein agrees and it goes as planned. Jim heads back to the boss, who reveals himself as a man named Frank Hill. He’s read the story about the slashed art in the Planet and is impressed. And, he says, he has an associate who was impressed too. He then shows Jim this associate: It’s Adolf Klein! The art gallery attack was a test. They now know that Jim is working with the Planet. They leave him locked in a room in Hill’s penthouse and tell him they’re going to throw him off the Metropolis bridge at midnight. Jim is able to write a note and drop it out the window, but it is found by an organ grinder who can’t speak English. Things seem hopeless for Jim. When Hill’s henchmen arrive to take him to his doom, Jim tries to escape but he’s brought down by tear gas. Before long he’s being thrown off the bridge.
Clark and Perry are worried sick about Jimmy, but can’t find him anywhere. It’s only when a young girl who found a note in her father’s organ grinding outfit calls Clark to relay Jim’s message that Superman can head out just in time to catch the falling young reporter. Jim leads Superman to Hill’s base where they briefly pretend Jim is a ghost to scare the crooks, then Superman captures the lot.
Having captured Hill, Superman goes into his files and reveals the criminal’s secrets. He asks the members of Muggs’s gang how many of them had someone fighting in the war, how many lost a loved one to the Nazis. Well, it turns out that Frank Hill is actually Franz Hiller, a Nazi agent. Shocked at what they did, the gang members turn their lives around and start helping to raise money for Unity House.
# of Episodes: 25
Air Date: 16 April 1946 to 20 May 1946
Clark: “You see, it isn’t just the Catholics or the Jews or the Protestants they’re after. That’s only an excuse. Their game is to stir up hatred among all of us. To get the Catholic to hate the Jew, and the Jew to hate the Protestant, and the Protestant to hate the Catholic. It’s an old trick. But for some reason a lot of us still fall for it.”
Jim: “You mean what happened in Germany couldn’t happen here?”
Clark: “Unless we’re mightily careful it could. You see, Hitler may be dead but his mad, twisted ideas didn’t die with him. There’s still a lot of people who want power. Like the man we’re after. And they know the best way to get it is to start trouble among different races and religions. That’s what we’ve got to fight Jim, and there isn’t much time.”
Frank Hill: “People who are friendly and stick together are hard to control.”
- I can’t be certain without more research, but it is possible that Jim dressing in shabby clothes to join Muggs’s gang in this story is the first instance of Jim disguising himself in a Superman story. This would become a staple of the character.
- The founders of Unity House come across well in this story. They play a more active role than the Lee family will in “Fiery Cross” if only just barely. It’s still Jim and Clark’s story in the end.
- Several of the men who are on the Unity House committee turn up in Superman Smashes the Klan, so I guess everyone should go out and buy that book.
- I have to assume that it is an intentional choice that Jim’s message to Clark is delivered by a foreign organ grinder and his daughter (named Maria D’Angelo). If so, it’s nice that they technically aided in saving the day.
- I said this last time, but radio Clark is the worst at keeping his secret identity. There as a point when he was on the phone with Jimmy and he said something was “a job for Superman” changing his voice in the fantastic way Collyer would, only for Jim to say “You know, you sounded kind of like Superman just then,” to which Clark replies “Oh, force of habit,” before changing the subject quickly so Jim can’t respond.
- When Clark arranges Jimmy’s fake arrest with Henderson, he specifically asks for a particular cop by name. This cop (whom I don’t recognize from any other stories) is Irish. He doesn’t come up again after this scene. Is Clark trying to get an officer he trusts for the job, or is he specifically picking one the gang would have a prejudice against for some reason?
Hey gang, here’s an inspirational Superman quote from right before they had Jimmy pretend to be a ghost!:
“People like that – narrow-minded, bigoted, hateful people – are usually superstitious. Ignorance and superstition go hand-in-hand. Anyone who believes, as they do, that men should be judged by the way they worship God is as ignorant as the jungle savage.”
Dammit, show. You were doing so well.
I’ve got other issues with the arc to be sure. First of all, something it has in common with “Fiery Cross,” there are no roles for non-male characters in here. Lois has maybe three scenes in the whole twenty-five episodes. Also, a story arc dealing so heavily with intolerance could use a little more colour, I think. Muggs makes one reference to the Chinese (unintentionally calling ahead to “Fiery Cross” I suppose) but all the discrimination on display here is based on religion or nationality.
But I’d say that my actual biggest problem with this one is the reveal that the bad guys are basically all Nazis. Firstly, Hall is revealed to be both a draft dodger and a Nazi agent working within America. That’s slandering of draft dodgers first of all (it was 1946, sure, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it), but also I feel like we’re veering too close toward an anti-German sentiment that is contrary to the story’s purported message. Adolf Klein turns out to be working with Hall. Hall’s henchmen are named Erik and Karl. And this discussion of Hall between Jim and Superman is practically out of a WW2 propaganda comic:
Jimmy:”[Hall has] dirty blond hair and little pale blue eyes and his fingers are long and thin and white like milk snakes.”
Superman: “That’s not a very pretty description.”
Jimmy: “He’s not a very pretty guy.”
It’s not great. And if Google Images is steering me right, milk snakes aren’t even white. You’re better than this Jim.
But this choice also makes it so that the intolerance problems in the arc are caused by foreign instigators, rather than being part of America as it stands. Fortunately, after the next arc (which is actually about political corruption, albeit non-racism-focused corruption) comes “Clan of the Fiery Cross” which shows that the racists are home-grown as well.
I don’t know that this story really deserves a remake. Not in the way “Fiery Cross” did. But if someone wanted to do story like Superman Smashes the Klan in which we’re back in 1946 and things play out this way, I’d be all for it.
I’d go a different way with it though. No doubt this is just because I’m living through 2020, but I can see making the Guardians of America a group that has attracted a large following among the police and I could see Unity House as a sort of political community organization that would be getting death-threats from the likes of the Guardians of America. I say we frame the story as a look at Jimmy Olsen’s first big job as a reporter. We maintain the part about him going undercover in a racist group. I’d also keep the part about Jimmy being trusted to protect a witness and then the witness being beaten up, but lean into it more for the story (Danny is actually forgotten as soon as his brain surgery is over in this arc). And I’d also deal with the idea of the “good cop” by exploring things from Lan-Shin (Roberta) Lee’s point of view. You see, there’s no way this was intended, but there was a woman named Lee on the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit in a few 90s comics and I am an ardent believer that this was (again, unintentionally) a Post-Crisis iteration of the Roberta Lee we saw in Superman Smashes the Klan (being near-impossible levels of weird, I actually thought this before Klan was released, but her inquisitive mind displayed there makes a job as a police detective a fit for her). So in my hypothetical remake, we have Lee as a police detective horrified to see the weapons that are meant to be for fighting supervillains used against protestors and the like, and we have Olsen infiltrating the Guardians of America because he feels bad that he let a source get hurt. The two probably meet up some where and we have a bit more of the chemistry they showed in Klan. And Lee would absolutely quit the police in the end.
I had originally intended to work my way through the radio show’s other plots that deal with these themes, but listening to this arc for this write-up really reminded me of the things I hate about the radio show. To clarify, it is one of my favourite depictions of Superman, but the dramatic piano stings are grating and the characters bickering to kill time can wear me down. So I’ve expanded the scope of what this series will be and next I will look into something from the comics of this same era.