Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Review: It's Superman

It's Superman
by Tom De Haven
Chronicle Books, $24.95

In It's Superman, novelist Tom De Haven brings a freshness to the origin of Superman by setting his story in the past. In the 1930s, in midst of the Great Depression, Clark Kent is a just graduated farmboy in Smallville with powers he doesn't understand, and looking for more from life than being a reporter for the town weekly. Unbeknownst to Clark, his life will eventually become entangled with that of Lois Lane--who is trying to make it as a woman reporter for the New York Daily Planet--and Lex Luthor, NYC Alderman, wannabe crime lord, and would-be captain of industry.

This is an origin story, and Clark doesn't put on his familiar 'S' and cape until close to the end. I've decried origin stories in the past, but by making his novel Clark Kent's bildungsroman De Haven successfully recasts the narrative; and the very last chapter of the book justifies his decisions rather poetically.

De Haven employs present-tense narration for this novel, which normally sets my teeth on edge but in this case works. In fact, it bothered me for a while why present-tense was working so well for the book, and it seemed like an odd choice for a novel set in the past. But then it occured to me that in using present-tense De Haven was employing the same narrative voice that one would find in the comic book adventures of the day, and it all made perfect sense.

This is not a typical novel based on a comic book super-hero; it's a sophisticated and compelling look at a man on his way to meet his destiny, and the world that shapes him.

Rating: 4 (of 5)

6 comments:

Will said...

I recently read this novel and I agree that it is a worthy entry as a work of literature alone (despite its pedigree as a novelization of licensed DC characters). Anybody who enjoyed Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or other well-researched historical fiction will find a lot of rewarding detail in this book. I've heard good things about Tom DeHaven's other books (which were also comics related and historical fiction as well).

redlib said...

You intrigued me enough to see if our library system owned It's Superman (we don't). The only 2 DeHaven's we own are"Sunburn Lake"- 3 stories from 1936, 1960s, and 2028 and "Funny Papers" set in NY 1995.
I'll put them on the fiction displays for patrons!

Anonymous said...

You said the book lends a freshness to the origin story of Superman by setting it in the 1930's. Well, Superman first appeared in 1938. Get with it, man.

Dave said...

Yes, Anonymous, I'm perfectly aware that Superman first appeared in 1938.

My point was that, in setting his story in the past instead of doing a modern retelling--like most adaptations do (see Smallville; Superman: The Movie; John Byrne's The Man of Steel; Superman: Birthright; etc.), De Haven manages to make the story fresh again.

hope said...

Funny Papers is actually set around the late 19th/early 20th century. It's about the people around the start of the newspaper comic strip. It's a brilliant book. The two sequels (for it is a trilogy) are Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies (about the start of the comic book industry), and Dugan Under Ground (about the 60s underground comics) are also perfect books. They mix the fictional charactesr with the real people. They are just so good it's hard for me to explain.

Phillip said...

Joe Gosh is another DeHaven title (the only one I've read). It is also about a superhero (in sort of a "young adult fiction" sort of way.) It certainly made me want to read more. To half.com!