November 2006

Gregory M. Greenleaf-Knepp


It's Superman! by Tom De Haven

It’s superfluous to suggest we forget American legends like Pecos Bill or John Henry when in this day they’re already passé. (Pecos, who?) Indeed, while they may have served a purpose in explaining to children who helped settle the West or build the railroads that united this nation, that was before the advent of comic books and the creation of our own pantheon of fabled heroes that we have to this day.

And just as Zeus reigned in Greek mythology, within American popular culture, there’s no comparison who has held sway for almost seventy years within American popular culture since his first appearance in 1938.

It’s Superman.

Serving as a corollary to the Man of Steel’s popular iconography, It’s Superman by Tom De Haven could just as well be subtitled The Lost Years. Detailing the life of a young Clark Kent just after high school graduation in Smallville and just after his arrival in the Big City, (i.e., Metropolis), where his real superhero adventures begin, this is a true bildungsroman.

Able to instill in his version of Clark the inner doubts and angst one not only expects from any main character, De Haven literally has an out-of-this-world character that’s brimming with Sturm und Drang. Awkward and shy, he’s the adopted child of an elderly couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent; he knows he’s different somehow from boys his age because he’s “gifted” with unexplainable powers. Just after his adopted mother’s death, his adopted father tells him the remarkable tale of how one day he was found among the debris of a rocket ship. Not long after, having never felt at home in Smallville, he takes to the road with a newfound friend who has his own worries.

Depicting an everyday Depression-era America along with its rich early 20th century lexicon that’s chockfull of moxie, De Haven’s tome breathes life into the stale characters that adults might remember from the comic books, the syndicated TV show featuring George Reeves, or the Christopher Reeve films from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Rather than expecting contemporary readers to hang around for over four-hundred pages of the “Golly, gee, whiz” of the comic-book milquetoast, we instead get a young man’s odyssey that one might not expect from the uber Walter Mitty every red-blooded American knows:

Clark swears! (Okay, it’s just “ass,” but…)

Clark smokes! (Okay, he bums one cigarette, but…)

Clark gets laid! (Great Caesar’s Ghost! You didn’t see that one coming did you?)

Yet by the story’s end, the gang’s all here -- almost. Lois Lane. Perry White. And, of course, his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, whose evil doings share as much as half the book. Here, however, Luthor -- the bald-pated archetypal mad scientist in the comic books -- is instead a corrupt politician who outsources his diabolical doings to others. Another character within the book dyes his hair red to escape trouble with the police but don’t hold your breath waiting for him to take the name of “cub” reporter Jimmy Olsen; it isn’t going to happen.

Iconographer or iconoclast? Whatever side of the fence readers decide to place author De Haven’s book, no one can argue that Superman’s saga has been ripe for a new retelling. And though it tinkers with Superman’s pure-as-the-driven-snow image, even for purists, It’s Superman! will no doubt find its way into many Mylar comic-book bags with or without Superman publisher DC Comics’ seal of approval.

It's Superman! by Tom De Haven
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0345493923
417 Pages