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Superman vs. the KKK: New book sorts fact from fiction


A new book, due out in April, will shed some light on the story of the Superman radio shows that took on the KKK back in 1946—and hopefully straighten out the record once and for all. Several versions of this story have made the rounds over the years, and the basic facts are not in dispute: In 1946, the Adventures in Superman radio show ran a 16-episode arc titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” in which Superman took on an organization that had many similarities to the Ku Klux Klan. (You can listen to it here.)

Much of the background material from the shows came from journalist Stetson Kennedy, who infiltrated the Klan and then wrote about it. Kennedy claimed the Superman shows included real Klan code words, causing great frustration to the real Klan leaders, who had to change them after every episode. (Our sister site, Comics Should Be Good, discussed the story as part of their Comic Book Urban Legends series.)

Author Rick Bowers researched the matter at length for his new children’s book, Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan, and concluded that, although it makes for a great story, it just ain’t so. As he said to J.L. Bell, in an interview at the Horn Book site,

The reality is that “Clan of the Fiery Cross” — while dramatic and to a degree realistic—did not contain actual code words and did not force the Klan to scurry about changing their code words. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the Superman producers for creating such a powerful program and to give a nod to the anti-Klan efforts of Stetson Kennedy — even if he was prone to exaggeration and tended to grab credit.

The code-words story was included in the first edition of Freakonomics, but the authors amended the story in later editions. Bowers said he began working on his book after that, and the public debate led him to research the matter carefully. The truth, as is usually the case, is more prosaic than fiction—but still pretty good!

Vampire-hunting children and the 1950s U.K. comic-book scare

Sunday Mail clipping from the vampire scare

Sunday Mail clipping from the vampire scare

While the U.S. comic-book scare of the 1950s boasted Senate hearings, bonfires and the founding of the Comics Code Authority, it always seemed to be lacking a certain … something. It turns out that “something” was vampire-hunting children.

Don’t worry, though, Scotland had our backs.

In its preview of an upcoming BBC Radio 4 documentary, BBC Scotland recounts the incident that set off the United Kingdom’s horror-comic panic and led to strict censorship laws: On the evening of Sept. 23, 1954, hundreds of children, armed with knives and sharpened sticks, descended on a Glasgow cemetery to hunt the so-called Gorbals Vampire, a 7-foot-tall revenant with iron teeth who was said to have eaten two local boys.

The children, ages 4 to 14, were sent home by a constable, but they returned night after night, determined to find and destroy the fiend.

Of course, there was no vampire, and no missing schoolboys. But just as the Glasgow youths were swept up in an urban legend, they were caught up in a media and political feeding frenzy as adults were eager to find an explanation — or a scapegoat, perhaps — for the unusual, and unnerving, behavior.

Much like politicians on this side of the Atlantic, those in the U.K. settled on American horror comics, such as EC’s Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Never mind that there were no iron-fanged, kidnapping vampires in any of those titles. In 1955 the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act was passed, banning the sale to minors of magazines and comics portraying “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature.” And, well, that was that.

The Radio 4 documentary, which airs at 4 p.m. PST on March 30, sounds fascinating, as it includes interviews with people who as children participated in the hunt for the Gorbals Vampire. (You should be able to listen to the story on the BBC iPlayer.) Plus, y’know, vampire-hunting children!

More than five decades later, it appears as if the iron-fanged creature actually may have sprung from a local nursery bogey — a monster created by parents to keep naughty children in line — called the Iron Man, and not from those awful, awful American horror comics. So … oops?

(The accompanying newspaper clip is borrowed from the Southern Necropolis Research website).

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