This ain't your kid's Superman. A better title for this book might have been Metropolis Noir. It reads like a dark and gritty detective drama set in the 30s. Clark Kent is made more human. He has geniune feelings and doubts. He's not always that wholesome kid from Smallville. The bad guys in the book are the real stars though. A great deal was done to give them backstories and emotions. You get to see their twisted logic and justications for the things they do. That said this book is a slow burn. If you are wanting superman show and save the day you're more often than not going to be heartbroken. If you are wanting a detailed look into Clark Kent becoming Superman, then dust off your DVDs of Smallville, but if you have ever wondered what would Supermen have been like if rather than created as a comic strip for children done in the film noir style of the day, then this book is a real treat. In this world good and bad aren't always as black and white as the setting.
When Superman debuted in Action Comics back in 1938, he had remarkable abilities, but wasn't the God-like mover of planets he became in the Silver Age. His strength while an infant caused bit of a ruckus during a brief stay at an orphanage, but he didn't take up life as a superhero until adulthood. Phrases like "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" and "nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin" applied to Siegel and Shuster's creation, and his powers only increased gradually over the years. Tom De Haven's novel tells the origin of a Superman who's much closer to this original version, and set in the same era. However, it's also set in a world closer to the real one than usual for Superman stories, with New York subbing for the fictional Metropolis and aspects of 1930's America observed that would not have appeared in early comics. Lex Luthor has a rather different career here, one that forces him to deal with several historical New Yorkers well before he encounters Superman. I think these changes work very well, and make the book read more like a true novel than a novelization. There are also numerous little surprises to amuse hard-core Superman fans. (I don't want to give away too much, so let's just say it helps if you know the name of the artist responsible for the iconic look of the Golden Age Superman.) I can't quite give this novel five stars, as the plot meanders a wee bit too much in places, and I think ultimately any novel treatment is going to run into limits on how well it can deal with a character invented for graphic portrayal. Still, "It's Superman" is far more satisfying than anything along these lines that I've read before.
"It's Superman!" is the fifth Tom De Haven book I've read. All of them are excellent! IMHO his Derby Dugan books are the best ever written about syndicated comic strips, and "It's Superman!" may be the best book every written about a comic book super hero. I doubt there is a better depiction of 1930s America. Mr De Haven's ability to put his readers in a time and place astounds me. If you're interested in comics... READ HIM.
In June 1938, two men from Cleveland, Ohio made history by giving birth to an alien. Although such a feat is remarkable, these men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, did not even make the front page of their local newspaper. They had to settle for their offspring to be debuted in Action Comics #1. Little did they know that their creation would grow up to become the greatest hero the world has ever known--Superman. Since his inception, Superman has taken the world by storm and his adventures have been featured in radio serials, TV shows, and movies. After seventy years, Superman has remained alive in our world, but despite his old age, this character seems to have remained just as simple and two dimensional as the day he was born. That is, until 2005, when writer Tom De Haven took on Superman in the novel "It's Superman!" In this novel, De Haven does a fantastic job of making Superman and the world that he lives in, deeper and more realistic. This new three dimensional perspective of Superman is brought to life through the setting, supporting characters, and an exploration of Superman's internal personal struggle. In the Superman comics, Superman lives on Earth, but it is not "our" earth. On his earth, technology is far superior, extraterrestrial villains are a common occurrence, and other superheroes are a dime a dozen. De Haven begins his story of Superman on "our" Earth, back where he first began--the 1930's. Baby Superman crash lands in rural Kansas, and is found by a married couple, who decide to adopt him and raise him as their own son. They give him the name Clark Kent and teach him the values of an average god-fearing farmer. In De Haven's exploration of the setting, in which young Clark is raised, the reader is granted access to a look at our past and is able to see the simplicity and struggles of a 1930s mid-American farming family. In one passage, De Haven even describes Clark's father. Jonathan Kent, and his reluctance to rewire their house for electricity because that is a luxury that they just don't need in their lives. As Clark gets older, he decides to accompany another character on a journey that takes these two across the United States. Throughout this journey, De Haven is able to take Clark and pit him against historical events and themes, such as racism in the South and the booming movie industry in the West. With each step into a new setting, the reader is privy to the emotional growth of Clark's character, and by the end of the book, the reader is able to understand that Superman is not just a small town boy with small town values, but a hero that is made up of the best (and worst) of our country as a whole. As young Clark struggles to grow up to the hero we all know he will be, he comes across many different characters. These characters, as De Haven so eloquently uses, are the spark to Clark's outward growth as a real person. Having been raised by small town farmers, Clark is not familiar with the outside world, except for what he sees in the newsreels at the movie theatre, so he has yet to experience any sort of external opposition. He has simple ideas and small town dreams, but this all changes when he comes across Willy Berg, a big city photographer turned wrongly accused murder suspect. Willy is from New York City and has lived with nothing but the fast paced lifestyle of a big city. When they first meet, Willy's big city attitude is something as a shock to Clark. Clark doesn't like him very much, but is intrigued by Willy's suspicious nature and lack of mid-American values. Willy represents the exact opposite of Clark's upbringing, and De Haven uses this as a way for Clark to balance his own nature and moral code against that of a "normal" person. These two agree to take on a job that takes them on a tour across the country, and in doing so, come in contact with more people of different persuasions. Over the course of this tour, Clark writes letters to his father, describing his adventures with Willy. De Haven uses these letters as a unique way to show and describe the growth of his character and the new perspectives that he has had the opportunity to come across. In the climax of this story, it is Clark's memories of the characters he met and the adventures he had with Willy that help him to discover his true identity as a hero, and we, as the readers, are able to see the rich evolution of Superman's character by way of his friends and supporting characters. As an infant, baby Kal-El was sent from his crumbling home planet of Krypton to Earth, to live out a life of peace as the last surviving member of their civilization. This baby was adopted as Clark Kent and raised as a human. He is not human (Shuster, 1938). In this novel, De Haven describes in very great detail Clark's inner struggles of loneliness and isolation, as well as his difficulty coming to terms with his powers. This aspect of Superman identity has rarely ever been explored is the backbone of De Haven's story. Clark is alone in full of world with people who look like him, but are not like him. He wants to be normal but knows he isn't and that he can't hide his true nature forever. Though out the book, Clark's only genuine moments of happiness come from when he finds others that share physical characteristics with him, such as being left-handed or having blue eyes. He clings to any feeling of acceptance or thoughts of being common, but knows that ultimately, he is alone. This feeling of Clark's isolation is explored very well, but it is never resolved. Along with his loneliness, Clark struggles with his powers. He doesn't see them as a gift, and is uncomfortable when characters, such as Willy, attempt to exploit them for personal gain. De Haven even delivers a scene where Clark is so embarrassed by his powers, that when questioned by a sheriff after an altercation with a gunman, that he just mumbles his story and keeps hidden the bullet that he caught with his bare hand. By the end of the story, Superman becomes Clark's true identity and his powers become an extension of his will, but his inner struggle becomes his one true weakness. De Haven's exploration of the inner Superman became one of the most interesting aspects and has really given this character the depth that most fans have longed for. Over the last seventy years, Superman has fought evil scientists, aliens, and even clones of himself, but he has never faced the foe De Haven presents him with-- three dimensional character developments. Throughout this novel, De Haven gives a stunning and deep portrayal of Superman's beginnings as Clark Kent and his evolution to the hero we all know and love. It is through the world he lives in, the people he meets, and his path of inner self-discovery that makes this version of Superman so compelling and exciting. Having read this book several times, I would implore anyone, even if you're not a fan of comic books or typical superhero tales, to pick up this novel. It will have you sitting on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.