Thursday, November 16, 2006

Book Review: IT'S SUPERMAN!

I have two hard and fast rules about fiction, both of which I’ve broken in the past year:

First, I don’t read novelizations based on movie scripts. Well, I read the Serenity novelization last winter. So sue me.

Second, I don’t read novels based on comic book heroes. Well, I just finished It’s Superman!, a novel by Tom De Haven. Whew.

The cover illustration on the It’s Superman! trade paperback caught my eye first; it’s an animation cel from the Max Fleischer Superman cartoon series of 65 years ago. Hmm, I thought, this looks intriguing. So I read the first two pages. Then I read three pages more. Then I took the damn thing to the counter, plunked down fourteen bucks, and took it home.

I don’t know anything more about Tom De Haven than the five-line “About the Author” bio on the last page of this book: he’s written eight novels and writes for Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times. What I do know is that It’s Superman! is a 417-page romp that I didn’t want to end. As I reached its last pages, I began yearning for a sequel.

De Haven’s Superman is the Siegel and Shuster Superman, stripped down to his bare bones. This interpretation owes a lot to Philip Wylie’s pulp sci-fi classic Gladiator, long credited as the Superman template. De Haven presents Supe’s origin story, and I know what you’re thinking — jeezus, another version of the origin? Well, yeah, but this is a dynamite one. It’s set during the Depression, and teenaged Clark is just getting a grip on his powers. He doesn’t really fly yet, but he can “leap over tall buildings in a single bound.” Bullets bounce off his head, but shit, they also leave really nasty (but quick-healing) red welts and bumps. He knows he’s from Somewhere Else, maybe another planet, but even his dad doesn’t seem sure. After his mom’s death in Smallville, Kansas, Clark doesn’t immediately fly off to Metropolis (here, appropriately identified as New York City) to find fame and fortune as a “mild-mannered reporter.” Nah. Instead, he first hits the road like Neal Cassady, scouring the nation to “find himself.” But by novel’s end, Clark has reached NYC, met Lois, nabbed a job at the Daily Planet, and even fought a robot, compliments of crooked Manhattan alderman Lex Luthor.

It’s Superman! is terrific. De Haven has tossed a dash of Steinbeck and a smidge of Hammett together with a touch of Wylie to create a Superman story that is a wonderful blend of Of Mice and Men, gangster noir, and retro sci-fi. It’s a revisionist masterpiece, full of surprises. This may not be your Superman, but it’s sure your granddaddy’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that.


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