REVIEW: It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The adventures of a young man named Clark Kent through depression-era America, as he learns not only how to handle the world, but his own amazing powers.
PROS: Well-drawn characters, a plot that hangs together beautifully. Prose that is beautiful all by itself, and dialogue that is strong and clear and deserves to be read aloud. Hilarious, and sensible solutions to how Superman eventually came into being.
CONS: Some readers may be disappointed to find that Superman/Clark Kent is almost besides the point.
BOTTOM LINE: An amazing novel, one of the best looks at the character of Superman, and why he matters. Also one of the smartest looks at Clark Kent, and the ways in which he is both human and inhuman.
The first thing which caught my attention on the bookstore shelf was the title which certainly lends itself to attention. It’s Superman! The second thing was the magnificent cover, which is an animation cell from one of the Fleischer studio Superman cartoon, from 1941. It’s a compelling and iconic image.
I’d been aware of Tom De Haven’s book since right around when it came out, back in 2005. But my “want to read” list is so astonishingly long that here it is, 2009, and I’ve just gotten to it. Partially because I’ve expended so much recent time and thought on the subject of the character of Superman, and partially because I was working on some of my own fiction which was talking, in its way, about the idea and the functionality of Superman. It was on my mind, and so I picked up the book. I wasn’t intending to read it quite yet, being in the middle of two other books. But I started the first few pages…and that was it. The pages flew by in a rush of a small handful of days.
The book opens at the end of May, 1935, with an intense and a bit stolid teenager named Clark Kent, who has just been shot and who has reached out and caught the bullet and crushed it in mid-air. Young Clark, who has never been sick, and never had a cut, begins a long journey to not only figure out who he really is and what he’s capable of…but what he can do with these amazing powers, not only to aid himself (a broke kid who doesn’t get bad grades, but isn’t so smart) and to aid the world (could he save a sinking boat? Could he stop a robbery?)
Then there’s Lex Luthor, New York City alderman and criminal kingpin; Lois Lane, a student-become-reporter with bad luck in boyfriends and a whole lot of attitude; Willie Berg, photographer-murder…and if I kept listing interesting characters who came into and out of the book, it would eat up the rest of this review, because there are a lot of them. The book is just jammed with characters, big and little. And the fascinating thing is that Tom De Haven weaves all of their stories together beautifully. They all become rich and full-featured individuals. We spend pages and pages discovering their histories and relationships and thoughts. And it never gets dull, that’s the magic of his writing, for me. I was as thrilled to learn about Skinny Simon’s past as I was about any of Clark Kent’s powers.
And in fact, that’s something which may put some people off this book: Clark Kent, and eventually Superman, are really almost besides the point of this world of people. In fact, he is both needed and unneeded at the same time. The book cannot exist without his presence causing things to happen…but as long as he is there, in the background, the book exists and runs on the strengths of this whole world of characters.
The language is beautiful. It feels, in some places, like The Big Goodbye, and in other places like The Grapes of Wrath, but written around Clark Kent and his adventures into the world.
The way it weaves the Superman mythos together is fantastic as well. To say too much would be to spoil the journey of the book, which is why I’m being deliberately vague (because really, it’s the journey that makes this book worth it), but when you read details like how Clark Kent got his Superman costume, you cannot help but smile and think “Yes. Of course. Absolutely.”
It looks and feels and seems like it should be a pulp action-adventure novel, but it’s really not. It’s a quiet, literary look at the world around Clark Kent, and how it shapes him into Superman. The world causes Superman, and in turn, Superman causes elements of the world to function. Particularly when dealing with Lex Luthor. (Who is, here, a more fully-faceted and interesting villain than he has been in any other incarnation. He has fiendish schemes, but they don’t feel absurd and like cheating, and he is intelligent, and rounded, and a Bad Guy, in a Godfather-movies sort of sense.)
If I haven’t said much bad about this book, it’s because I didn’t find much bad. Perhaps the slower pace might bother some people. Perhaps the present-tense writing style. Maybe the lack of Clark Kent. For me, though, it all held together as a beautiful tapestry, a homage to the world and literature of the 1930s era of pulps and newsreels and scientifiction. I expected to enjoy the book, but I really didn’t expect it to just shoot up my list of all-time favorite reads and take one of the top spots. Although it still pleases and excites me that that can continue to happen, even after all these years of reading.
In conclusion: if they made this book into a movie, we would finally have a Superman film that was an absolute piece of art. But failing that, go buy the book and eat it up.
And go watch some Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons on YouTube when you’re done.
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