Warning: This article contains spoilers for Superman Smashes the Klan #1, by Gene Luen Yang, Gurihiru and Janice Chiang, on sale now.
Taking place within the Golden Age of Comics in the 1940s, Superman Smashes the Klan brings the Man of Steel back to his pulp roots. This Superman runs at super-speed along power lines instead of flying and defends a much older incarnation of Metropolis from the Klan of the Fiery Cross -- itself a direct callback and loose adaptation of a classic storyline from the radio show The Adventures of Superman.
However, the debut issue brings another long-forgotten Superman villain back to the forefront: Atom Man.
In the miniseries opening action sequence, the villain attacks the Metropolis Dam intending to flood the city. Distracted by Lois Lane, Superman is able to thwart the villain's plan but not before coming into contact with Atom Man's insidious power source: kryptonite.
In what's strongly implied to be the Last Son of Krypton's first encounter with the deadly, irradiated fragment of his home planet, Superman is saved when the container holding the Kryptonite is covered. However, he continues to feel its after-effects for sometime after his confrontation with Atom Man, which makes his encounter with the Golden Age villain an especially memorable one.
While Atom Man hasn't been seen much since the Golden Age, the first version of the villain debuted in The Adventures of Superman radio show as a superpowered Nazi foe. Another version of the villain debuted in the popular, aptly-titled Superman movie serial, Atom Man vs. Superman. The 15-part 1950 serial served as a standalone sequel to the previous 1948 movie serial Superman, starring Kirk Alyn as the first live-action incarnation of the flagship DC Comics character. Running in multiple parts ahead of the main feature, the 1948 serial was a runaway success, leading Columbia Pictures to commission a sequel that pit the Man of Steel against the eponymous villain.
The movie serial's Atom Man wasn't an original antagonist at all but a reimagined version of Lex Luthor, portrayed by Lyle Talbot -- who had previously appeared in Batman movie serials as Commissioner Jim Gordon. Reflecting the Golden Age interpretation of Luthor as a mad scientist, the movie serial had the villain plague Metropolis with a series of deadly inventions.
After being constantly thwarted by Superman, Luthor creates synthetic Kryptonite and takes on the alter ego of Atom Man. Incapacitating Superman, Luthor moves to attack Metropolis with a fleet of flying saucers only to be defeated by a rejuvenated Man of Tomorrow.
In this comic, Atom Man appears to be more like his radio incarnation, with clear Nazi sympathies given the swastika symbol emblazoned on his armor's chestplate that houses his Kryptonite power source. This take on the character has operates like a white supremacist cross between Metallo and Iron Man than Lex Luthor himself, as he touts a bigoted agenda before being decisively defeated after exposing Superman to Kryptonite for the very first time.
Given that the Kryptonite is still in play, the harmful substance will likely be obtained by the villainous Klan of the Fiery Cross to stop the Man of Steel, even if Atom Man himself may be sidelined for the duration of the miniseries.
Taking advantage of this Golden Age, 1940s setting, Yang has been able to blend long-forgotten elements of the Superman mythos that haven't really been incorporated into more modern storytelling. Other than the story's clear inspiration from the classic radio show, the creative team draws from the movie serials that packed theaters around the country in that era, while repurposing Atom Man and his motivations to suit the miniseries' story. In doing so, the creative team has crafted a love letter to the Golden Age history of Super,am that reminds readers what exactly it means for him to stand for truth, justice and the American way.