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Review of It’s Superman!, by Tom De Haven

It’s Superman!
By Tom De Haven
Ballantine Books, 2011

Originally published in 2005, Tom De Haven’s terrific novel It’s Superman! has been re-issued by Del Rey in a revamped mass market paperback with a grinningly retro new cover illustration by H. J. Ward (the cover of the original version featured a still from one of the classic Max Fleischer Superman cartoons), and this is wonderful news for superhero fans, historical fiction fans, and hungry readers of all persuasions. De Haven’s book was rapturously reviewed when it first came out (the particularly perceptive review in the Boston Globe admired its “cheeky aplomb” and called it a “rollicking good yarn”), but even so, snazzy reprints of non-canonical sci-fi novels are virtually unknown in this cash-strapped genre field. For It’s Superman! to get re-issued while almost all of Robert Silverberg or Jack Vance languish out of print is something of a minor miracle.

The book thoroughly deserves it. De Haven takes the bare bones of Superman’s well-known origin story – the kindly Kents find a baby inside a rocket ship downed in their 1930s Midwest town of Smallville and raise the child as their own – and fleshes them out with sumptuous, perfectly-described period details. This is as close to a ‘real life’ Superman as anybody’s ever come, and DeHaven maps the character’s singular alienation snugly onto the adolescent alienation that’s (probably) universal:

Washed in the moon glow, Clark Kent straddles his barn’s peaked roof, staring out into the middle distance, seeing insects, bats, and owls in the blackness, and wondering uneasily what he’s supposed to do with all of these crazy talents he just keeps finding out that he has. After a while he gets up jiggling that mashed wad of lead in his left hand. And flings it suddenly, as hard as he can.

It climbs, keeps climbing, and doesn’t arc …

DeHaven’s Clark Kent leaves Smallville to ride the rails with an amateur photographer and small-time grifter named Willi Berg, and eventually his adventures take him to Mayor LaGuardia’s New York City, where he confronts Lex Luthor … and falls in love with a Lois Lane who’s here portrayed as exactly the kind of Roslind Russell homage that suits her best.

And the Superman who emerges from these crackling pages? He lacks the godlike assurance of his comic book counterpart, and right up to the book’s climax, he’s sometimes still doubting himself:

He looks human and he tries hard, has hard as he can, to behave as he believes a human being ought to, but it is only playacting. If he isn’t human, though, what is he? He doesn’t know, just as he doesn’t really know anymore who he is – is he Clark Kent or is he this person called Superman? Only three months and he’s lost his way, lost his bearings.

With a new Superman movie in the works, the character is no doubt set to enjoy another arc of re-invention on the movie screen. This is a welcome thing, in the nature of myths, and books can do it too – especially when they’re as good as this one. A highly recommended fun and interesting read.

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