Fiction Review: Tom De Haven's "It's Superman"

I love superheroes, New York City, and the 1930s. To be honest, I really only have a legitimate connection to New York City, being originally a Brooklyn boy. But the art deco cityscape of the 1930s always held a high fascination for me and my grandfather, a New Yorker his entire life save for a tour in Italy in World War II, often shared with me his love and knowledge of New York City.

Tom De Haven's novel It's Superman takes one of, if not the most, iconic superheroes - the original, Superman. In the wrong hands Superman is a boring character. He's a boyscout and is never conflicted. He's too powerful, forcing many writers to think of ways to de-power him. Though in the right hands he is an amazing character.

But what I've been describing above is the character of Superman as he evolved over history. When he first appeared he was not the familiar character of today. His costume, while fancy, wasn't all that exotic, recognizable as a union suit or workout clothes of its time, albiet it with bright primary colors, boots, and a cape.

His powers were in their earliest form. Superman as he first appeared in Action Comics #1 could not fly but he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. He was tough to hurt, but if you fired an exploding shell at him it would penetrate his skin. There was not a sign of Kryptonite of any color.

His ethics were still in their formative stages. He was not the boyscout who always obeyed authority. He was the creation of a pair of young teenagers living in Cleveland, both from Jewish immigrant families, one of whose father was killed in a store robbery. Their creation was rough, with a strong blue collar ethic. He thought nothing of kidnapping a mine owner and forcing him to work in the mine to illustrate the unsafe work conditions. He got involved in crimes such as illegal gambling on sporting events and influenced the outcomes of civil wars.

It is to this Superman that Tom De Haven writes about. At this point I should point out that while the character he writes about is Superman this is not a comic book or graphic novel but rather it is a standard prose novel. And despite it being classified by Audible as part of "Audible Kids" it is not really juvenile literature, dealing with adult themes - though it isn't so naughty that it wouldn't be inappropriate for a mature young reader.

While the novel is entitled It's Superman it is really the story of Clark Kent and how he grows into Superman. It begins in Smallville, Kansas with high school student Clark Kent being questioned by police as a witness - he was shot at by a mobster at a movie theatre he had taken a date to. As it turns out he wasn't just shot at, one bullet bounced off him, killing the monster and he caught the other. He doesn't understand why he is the way he is but he does know he is different.

De Haven over time introduces us to Clark's life in Smallville. As in the original comics his parents are elderly. His mother is a pious church-going woman suffering from a cancer which is slowly killing her. His father is changed from most of the portrayals I've seen of him. He isn't all that welcome in the church. This stems from a number of things. There is his attitude towards religion - not a particularly educated man he nonetheless has read the works of a number of religions and thinks they all have something useful to say. Additionally, he is a very progressive man for his day. The final straw which pulls him out of his churchgoing life is when the Chippewa handyman who maintained the church was told he and his family were not not welcome to worship there. He is a very tolerant man, treating people of all races and ethnicities equally.

The plot begins to alternate, giving us different viewpoint characters. We are introduced to Lois Lane, recent college graduate and budding journalist in New York City. She is quite the troublemaker, smoking, drinking, having sexual relationships. We are introduced to her on-again off-again lover, photographer Willi Berg. And we meet city alderman Lex Luthor.

Willi witnesses a crime committed by Luthor and gains photographic evidence. Evidence which Luthor's men destroy and shoot Berg for. He is left for dead but survives and is accused of the murders that were performed at the command of upstanding citizen Lex Luthor. He manages to escape the hospital and with Lois' help goes on the run.

Willi, now by going by the alias of Willi Boring (an homage to long-time Superman artist Wayne Boring) meets Clark in Smallville where Clark is now working as a reporter for the weekly newspaper. There Clark uses his powers against kidnappers and Willi sees Clark using his powers. The two become friends, albeit awkward ones, the reserved farm-boy and the streetwise accused murderer. Willi convinces Clark to travel America with him, leading to the two tramping across the United States. During this time Clark begins to develop his powers and Willi tries to convince him he has these powers for a reason.

They eventually settle for a while in Hollywood, Clark becoming a stuntman - and falling in love. He also becomes fond of a costume for a movie which was never made, that of "the Saucer-man from Saturn". Unsurprisingly it is blue and red with an "S" and cape.

Events send them back to New York City for a climax as Lex Luthor's evil plans are unleashed where only Superman can stop him.

I've deliberately stayed vague on the plot so as not to take away from the enjoyment of those reading it for the first time. I will however strongly endorse it. De Haven's goal seems to be to bring Clark Kent (and Superman) to the point they were at in Action Comics #1. His portrayal of the era of the 1930s is masterful and he gets us into the heads of countless characters, major and supporting. All of them seem real with real goals. Yes it features a man who can leap tall buildings in a single bound but this is an awkward man who can't seem to do anything right at times.

If you ever have the urge to run a Golden Age superhero RPG game, this is definitely a useful book to read - but it is excellent read for the sheer pleasure of it as we watch Clark embark on his journey to becoming a hero.

I'd love to see this book turned into a movie and I'm frankly surprised how rarely writers explore superheroes by returning them to the era from which they came.

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