Neither a bird nor a plane — it’s a great Superman novel

I read the novel It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven not long after it came out, probably 15 or so years ago now. It’s, in part, Superman as historical fiction, placing the character in his original 1930s setting. Though I liked it the first time around, I figured I’d appreciate it more now, having read several nonfiction books about the period since then.

And I did, and not just for the historical detail.

The parts in Smallville feel like a cross between a Superman story and a John Steinbeck novel, which gradually transitions into old-school sci-fi, with a lower-powered, more vulnerable Superman battling robots.

This Clark Kent is young and awkward, feeling like the alien he is as he tries to figure out his place in the world. The novel repeatedly makes the point that while Clark isn’t stupid by any means, he’s not especially intelligent either.

That seemed to diminish him at first, but it does enhance the awkwardness and uncertainty the author is going for. This Superman hasn’t developed his confidence yet, and giving him a normal mind allows the character to retain plenty of vulnerability.

One criticism I keep seeing about Superman is that he’s too powerful—if nothing can hurt him, then why should we care? This overlooks the fact that there are many ways to hurt a character, and not all of them are physical. Plus, the aspirational appeal of Superman is that you’ve got this guy who can do virtually whatever he wants with his life … and he still chooses to help people.

Lex Luthor, by contrast, is highly intelligent and supremely confident, and he uses his skills for his own personal gain. While Clark tries to find his place among humanity, Lex prefers to distinguish himself from all of humanity.

Compare this description of Clark: “Finding people who are like him, even in the smallest ways, is always a comfort. It’s stupid, he knows, but it’s always some comfort.”

And this line of dialogue from Lex: “ ‘I don’t discriminate, Carl. All human beings are the same to me.’ ”

There have been various takes on Superman over the past 80+ years. In some, he’s Superman first and foremost while Clark Kent is little more than a disguise. In others, he’s Clark Kent first and foremost while Superman is simply the way he chooses to use his gifts to serve the world. I prefer the latter approach, which is the approach It’s Superman! takes.

This novel would fit in well in DC’s Elseworlds line. It should not be seen as the definitive take on the character. But as a way of fleshing out the version that appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and giving that Superman a detailed backstory, it’s excellent.

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