A few weeks ago, I wrote a column praising Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony. Near the end of that column, I called the Grammy-winning piece one of “the quintessential creative works” about Superman, listing it alongside such conventional choices as All Star Superman, the Fleischer cartoons, and the 1978 Richard Donner film. However, there was one additional work I mentioned that might not be as familiar to everyone. The prose novel, It’s Superman!, by Tom De Haven, was first published in 2005, and it does as good a job of reinventing the Superman myth as anything I’ve seen or read. What’s more, like the other items on that quintessential list, the novel manages to be a fun and enlightening work in its own right, independent from its connection to Superman.
There have been original Superman novels before. In 1942, George Lowther, one of the writers behind the Superman radio show, wrote The Adventures of Superman, a novel featuring a handful of original illustrations by Joe Shuster. It’s a fun nostalgia piece, clearly targeted for Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys-age readers. Over 35 years later, Elliot S. Maggin wrote Last Son of Krypton followed by Miracle Monday. Both books were marketed as tie-ins to the first two Christopher Reeve movies, and both were aimed at an older audience than the Lowther book. More recently, Kevin Anderson has written two novels—one about Krypton and the other a Superman/Batman team-up. I haven’t yet read the Anderson books, but the two by Maggin—both out of print—are well worth a look (and perhaps even grist for a future column).
But De Haven’s book is different—less interested in incorporating lots of Superman details and more interested in creating real, lived-in moments. It’s a literary novel—the kind of thing you might read after finishing Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The story begins in 1935, three years before Superman’s appearance in Action Comics #1, and it tracks Clark Kent’s journey from invulnerable Kansas teenager to costumed (or “uniformed” as he prefers) hero in New York City.
So what makes this book quintessential? For one thing, we don’t often see much of the Golden Age Superman—the one with limited powers and still a little rough around the edges. A quick perusal through that that first Action Comics story by Siegel and Shuster offers a nice reminder that the character, originally, was very much a Depression-era, two-fisted hero for the common people, using his powers to save death row convicts and challenge wife beaters, gangsters, corporate lobbyists, and corrupt politicians. That Siegel and Shuster character, the one with Socialist roots that tapped into the Great Depression, rarely ever appears anymore, but De Haven fully embraces him and gives us his origin.
And because we’re looking at a version of Superman that was mostly discarded and has only rarely been revisited, almost everything De Haven gives us is new. Yes, we go through the familiar touchstones of a Superman origin story—discovering the rocket, losing parents, getting the costume, meeting Lois Lane, going public—but in every instance, De Haven makes these overly familiar moments seem fresh. And in classic revisionist tradition, De Haven places his emphasis on earthbound plausibility, so there is no mention of Krypton and Metropolis gets swapped for New York City.
It’s a simpler Superman, freed from all the narrative baggage of the Silver Age nostalgia that seems so inexplicably in fashion these days. Instead, De Haven gives us the answer to the proverbial what-would-Clark-Kent-really-be-like-question. De Haven works all the angles, depicting Clark as reasonably intelligent, but a perennial B-student who is all too aware that he lacks the super-intelligence to match his strength and speed. He’s an aspiring reporter, still struggling to shake off the poor grammar and midwestern accent of a Kansas farm boy. Most of De Haven’s choices—like having the nearly indestructible Clark work as a Hollywood stuntman—are so logical and inspired that they make the reader smile, nod, and say, “Yes, of course.”
But this book is more than just a clever Superman origin story. There have been an over-abundance of those in comics, television, and film. In fact, between 2003 and 2012, DC gave comics readers a dizzying four competing origin stories. Toss in a long-running television series, two novels, and a movie reboot, and it becomes clear that simply re-telling Superman’s origin isn’t worth much by itself.
What makes this novel transcendent is that much like the Morrison and Quitely series, the Fleischer cartoons, the Donner film, and the Daugherty symphony, It’s Superman! doesn’t rely on its existence as a Superman story in order to work. De Haven doesn’t give us a Superman story so much as he gives us a world in which to deposit Superman. Of the familiar characters, only the Kents, Lois, and Lex really feature in the story. Everyone else is an original character.
In fact, Clark is absent for long stretches where we follow other characters’ stories, most notably, Willi Berg, a ne’er do well photographer, who factors almost as much into the story as Clark. As Lois’s ex-boyfriend who runs afoul of Lex Luthor and befriends Clark Kent, Willi is the glue that binds the disparate elements together. In many ways, the story is a much about the bumbling, much-abused Willi as anyone.
De Haven’s greatest strength is his meticulous attention to period detail. The story is really a period piece, and reading it is like perusing the archives of a newspaper on microfilm—only in a fun way. De Haven knows his stuff and depicts an entire world with which his characters can interact. As a New York alderman, Lex feuds with Mayor La Guardia, and when Willi stumbles upon some gangland violence, he winds up befriending Meyer Lansky. Throughout the book, the songs people hear, the radio shows they listen to, and the theatrical billboards they read all provide the texture of a fully developed environment. In fact, De Haven provides a far better vision of the ‘30s than most contemporary comics give us of the world today.
This lived-in period texture also serves more than simply as window dressing. Take the first chapter. In many ways, it’s the best chapter in the book—a pitch perfect introduction with Clark being interrogated in a police station about an incident at a movie theater. The movie Clark had gone to see was the 1935 Werewolf of London with Henry Hull. That’s an appropriate enough choice of movie for a teenager in 1935, but when you consider that Clark is wrestling with keeping a part of himself under control and hidden from the rest of the world, the werewolf motif resonates much more.
The same is true for the final chapter of the book where many of the characters, Clark included, attend the Broadway debut of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Just as Wilder used his play to try to depict the rhythms of everyday life, De Haven uses the novel to depict the kinds of things we don’t normally get in a 20-page comic book—the mundaneness of the ordinary where people scramble eggs, mend clothing, and hold all-night conversations. And as Clark struggles with transitioning from childhood to adulthood, leaving behind the last traces of his life in the small town, the final act of Our Town prompts a flurry of thoughts. De Haven isn’t simply making historical allusions; he’s using them to deepen his story.
I feel funny trying to describe too much of the book because, as my kids often tell me, my plot summaries always wind up focusing on odd or weird things and I sometimes make things sound boring. But there’s something thrilling about reading a novel where Clark Kent’s first appearance in costume takes place over a stove as he offers to scramble up some eggs for his girlfriend. That’s the kind of world that’s missing in most formulaic comic book stories. I’ll forget three-fourths of the battles Superman has fought with Luthor or Brainiac, but I’ll never forget the throwaway image of the Clark, holding a skillet and spatula, preparing to do something so universal and real. That willingness to embrace the mundane, to use it in service of a story about the fantastic—is a big part of what makes Neil Gaiman’s work so exciting. It’s Superman! is like the proverbial indie-creator’s Superman story that everyone fantasizes about but never gets published. Fortunately, this one did.
 Grant Morrison brilliantly analyzes that first Superman story from Action #1 in his book, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012.