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A Strange Visitor From Another Planet

  It's Superman!
Tom De Haven
Chronicle, 2006
Rating: 4.4
 

Posted: January 7, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

If this modern entertainment age has contributed anything new to our collective mythologies, it's the concept of the reinvention. Sure, long before Hercules had to contend with Kevin Sorbo, an animated Disney film and a less-than-completely-flattering Marvel Comics interpretation, our folkloric heroes endured the twists and turns of oral tradition, in which exploits could change drastically while passing down from one generation to the next. But never before have our larger-than-life figures had so many different conflicting permutations of their deeds lying around in the storytelling ether, ready to trip up continuity-minded hobgoblins.

Batman, for example, has had to endure a campy TV series, a series of increasingly campy movies, Frank Miller's Dark Knight comics, no less than three animated series and Batman Begins -- to say nothing of the countless changes he's undergone in the pages of his many comic books over the past few decades. (Heck, these days he can change drastically in a single month, depending on how carefully the creators of different comics choose to treat him.) Few of those permutations jibe perfectly with the others, but if a character is built on a solid-enough foundation, he can not only survive such contrasting stories, he can become stronger through those vastly differing representations. (And yes, I know I've just made a leap from Hercules to Batman that seems to hold comics up as a form of mythology. That's a whole different can of worms we're not going to dig into here; just stay with me, okay?)

Which brings us to Tom De Haven's It's Superman. With the increasingly enjoyable Smallville already bending the building blocks of Superman lore into chronology-defying shapes (Clark hanging out with a teenage Lois Lane?), and the upcoming Superman Returns film and Grant Morrison's continuity-free All-Star Superman comic further adding onto the Man of Steel's history, it seems that popular culture may be ready for newer takes on the Last Son of Krypton. Which would be a good thing -- the character's been ghettoized as a one-note Big Blue Boy Scout for too long.

What De Haven's compelling and meticulously researched novel, which revisits the Man of Steel's beginnings, contributes to that ever-evolving Super-zeitgeist is a vision of a teen Clark who is, if anything, less -- not more -- mentally and emotionally complex than Smallville's. De Haven doesn't hit us over the head with the obvious metaphor of super-powers as a stand-in for the physical and emotional minefields of puberty; his Kent does feel different from others because of his abilities, but he also feels just as alienated by a perceived lack of a quick wit or sophistication.

De Haven doesn't belabor Clark's mild but unmistakable inferiority complex, either, but it's central to what distinguishes It's Superman from other lore. Unlike Christopher Reeve or many comic iterations of the character, De Haven's Clark Kent doesn't need to pretend to be a halting Midwestern schlub in order to hide his true identity as Superman. Here, the nave, tongue-tied Clark is the true self; it's the Superman persona, which comes later, that Clark has some trouble getting a handle on. Although he seems more and more destined to step into the mantle of Superman as the story progresses, that mantle is more of a choice, and one that Clark doesn't seem quite sold on, like a vocation he sort of stumbles into rather than pursues.

That's not the only way It's Superman differentiates itself from the mythology, of course. De Haven's Lois Lane is a young, hungry journalism student drawn to the wrong men, like Willi Berg, a freelance photographer who, by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is framed for a horrible crime and goes out on the lam. (While working for Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, he meets and befriends Clark, who joins him in his nomadic existence.) And his Lex Luthor is a fiercely intelligent young crime boss and ambitious New York politician (there's no stylized Metropolis in this telling, either), whose scheme for amassing power, which seems torn straight from the pulps of the 1930s, amusingly helps to ground the proceedings in a Depression-era milieu just slightly different from our own.

Inevitably, our foreknowledge of Clark's destiny colors our reading of It's Superman, but De Haven's engrossing novel isn't just a whimsical alternate history. It's also a relatable tale about an ordinary Kansas farm boy struggling to find his place in the world: a boy who, like many of us, wants something more out of life but isn't quite sure how to use his talents to achieve it, or even identify it. De Haven's scrupulous eye for period detail roots the book in a version of the "real world," but it's his characters that seal the deal.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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