Through comics, TV, movies and good ol’ word of mouth, we as Americans know the origin story of Superman by heart. So why have it told to us again?
Because IT’S SUPERMAN! – the new novel by Tom De Haven – tells the story like you absolutely, positively have never heard it before. If you thought BATMAN BEGINS was a revisionist take on a well-known pop-culture legend, you’re about to have your definition rewritten.
Covering a three-year period in the life of Clark Kent, IT’S SUPERMAN! is set in the Depression era. Portrayed as socially inept, hick-accented and just a hair shy of being dumb, the teenaged Clark leads an uneasy existence in the racist farm community of Smallville. As the novel opens, Clark has survived being shot by a gangster for defending a black man; the police are baffled when the bad guy ends up dead via an unexplained ricochet and Clark sports nary a scratch. Even Clark isn’t sure what’s going on, with his fist firmly closed for hours to hide a spent bullet.
Not knowing what his powers mean or are for can damage an already crippled adolescence, so Clark ties his belongings in a rag, hobo-style, and jumps the train from Kansas to Oklahoma, and eventually to California, where he finds work as a motion picture stuntman. Eventually, his travels take him to New York City (not Metropolis), where he meets and annoys intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane and runs afoul of politician Alexander Luthor, who has eyes for world domination using his new line of robot assassins. Along the way, Clark seeks work as a journalist, even though he’s weak in both spelling and getting the facts straight.
Doesn’t sound like the confident, cocksure Superman we know? That’s entirely the point of De Haven’s KAVALIER & CLAY-esque treatment of arguably the world’s most iconic superhero. No mere tie-in quickie, this is a fully developed, emotionally rich novel containing a strong dose of fantastic sensibilities, yet grounded by gravitas. With more realism than not, it’s a literary take on a pulp idea, with one eye cast toward the historical, as real-life figures as varied as Joseph Kennedy and Alfred Hitchcock wander in and out of the story to lend the period setting more credibility (not that it needed it).
IT’S SUPERMAN! may not pack the heartbreaking wallop of KAVALIER’s epic, generations-spanning scope, but Clark’s plight will at least provoke a tinge of ache in the ticker. This is a nice surprise, easily one of 2005’s top discoveries. Exciting enough to merit its title’s exclamation point, the book’s thrills emerge more through De Haven’s writing than any wham-bam action sequences. And the Chris Ware cover depicting the Man of Steel leaping the Empire State Building in a single bound doesn’t hurt, either.