Friday, December 2, 2011

Signal Watch Reads: It's Superman!

In 2005 or 2006, I bought the novel It's Superman! by Tom De Haven.  And, I never read it.  I don't know why.  I read the first couple of chapters and then loaned it to Judy (my mother-in-law) and when it came back a week later, I just never finished the book.

Truthfully, I didn't really understand the point of the book.  Who was Tom De Haven?  With television, comics, movies, cartoons, etc... all spinning their own take, why go to the media where Superman hasn't had as much success as elsewhere?  Why start over?

After listening to the novel as an audiobook from Blackstone (delivered via audible), I'm still not exactly sure.  Yes, the novel provides angles and insights movies and comics might not.  It follows inner monologues, switches points of view with tremendous regularity, but it also seems to lack a certain insight into Superman, the sort of insight that I think has been understood by others in recent media, from Mark Waid's Birthright to Paul Dini and Alex Ross's Peace on Earth to Morrison's All Star Superman to bits and snippets of Superman Returns.  And, again, I think I'm seeing it in Grant Morrison's Action Comics.

Between buying the book of It's Superman! and listening to the audiobook (thank goodness for long car rides), I read De Haven's follow up to this one.  The follow up, however, wasn't another novel.  Instead, it was a meditation on Superman entitled Our Hero: Superman on Earth.  It was a nuanced read but it also informs some of what I think De Haven struggled with in writing It's Superman! and where he and I might part ways in our opinions of what's going on with the character.

In Our Hero, it seemed De Haven could never mentally really get past what he felt was the absurdity of the character.  He was stuck in the box of a lifetime of the sorts of attitudes that surround comic book superheroes that folks have carried around since superheroes appeared in media in the 1930's and 40's, and which only recently have begun to evaporate a bit with mainstream success at the cinema.  But which Superman has not yet really shaken off (odd that Spider-Man, of all characters, seems to make perfect sense to people, but Superman is goofy looking and out there?).  Isn't this a fantasy character.  If the answer is an inescapable "yes", so what then?  What's a person who takes things seriously to do?

In short, after successfully publishing It's Superman!, in the pages of Our Hero, De Haven never convinced me he actually understood the appeal or core of the character, just that he could recite a few items anyone with a Les Daniels book and a link to the Superman Homepage would know.  He could recite some of the media impact, that people generally want to support a good guy in their fiction, but he couldn't stop himself from referring to the costume as silly or the ethics Superman represents as banal or ridiculous, somewhere just below the surface.

If he did actually have an appreciation for the character, could he just say it out loud?

It's Superman! doesn't really get around to the Superman bit until the last quarter of the book, and wants to act as an origin story with aspirations of making Superman exist in a "real world" scenario.  And that's great.  I'll take it.  But De Haven creates a "real world" of name-dropping news figures and screen figures from the mid 1930's, of uncomplicated stereotypes of weathered sheriffs, the cruelty of all Texans, Brooklyn/ Bronx-bred low-lifes and gangster schemes that make no sense.  Something, by the way, that reviewers seem to have found just absolutely authentic and grand rather than "okay, okay...  you researched the period.  Ger on with it" that I felt as a reader.

But most oddly, he calls out works stronger than his own, drawing attention to his own closing scenes, for example, by talking about maybe better ones (do not willingly draw comparisons between your work and that of Thornton Wilder, aspiring writers), trying to make a point about "connectedness", that, instead, in our novel's case, just made the world of the novel feel incredibly small and too coincidental for comfort at times.

If he was going for cartoony, or was going for the epic grandeur of Superman: The Movie, that doesn't happen, either.  The introduction of Luthor's plot on top of what is meant to feel like a well researched period novel feels somehow odd and misplaced, hinting at the cartoon that the world of Superman is in other media, and raising the question of why the realistic approach was taken in the first place.  Surely a less sci-fi threat was possible?

Most curious is De Haven's creation of an insertion of Willi Berg, a not particularly innovative or interesting character, who is a sort of walking plotpoint to tie together action and give external motivations to characters who had always had internal motivations in prior tellings of the same story.  I didn't dislike Willi, I just didn't understand why De Haven felt he was so necessary and needed so much focus when his character arc more or less resolves itself off-page.

Obviously I buy the origin stories I've read previously (see the last 8 years of my blogging for reference), so I'm going to want a darn good reason for additional material to get tacked onto the origin of Superman.  Young Clark Kent travels around, sees the countryside?  Fine.  Has a best pal we've never seen before who used to "date" Lois Lane, take up pages, etc..?  that's a harder sell.

In some ways I'm still wrestling with De Haven's take on Clark Kent, the alien farm boy from Kansas who moves to the big city and puts on tights.  At some point, it seems, De Haven took license with the insecurity of alienness and other-ness, and reshaped those insecurities and put them on a loop while amping them up a considerable amount.  Yes, the book is partially about Clark overcoming those insecurities so we can get to the Superman we know, but De Haven may have pushed it a bit too far in order to make his point.  At some point, I needed to see Clark find that inner strength, or else the line from where Clark is even in the final pages to "Superman" feels incomplete, the ellipses lead nowhere.

Or, if De Haven was trying to emulate the early era of Superman, he had a very different idea of who that Superman was than any reading I've ever done.  I don't think this is what De Haven was doing, but its the closest reference.  But in contrast with the Siegel/ Shuster Superman, De Haven's Clark shows no joy in the powers.  And that's an odd choice.  Its the choice that made Smallville such a chore to watch by the fourth season and misses the delight the delight and responsibility for the powers that have been core to tellings that better resonated with me as a reader.  Flying, invulnerablity and super strength are not a curse or burden.

And while our story's Clark might not have needed that same swagger as the Golden Age Superman, I don't think De Haven made the connection all the way from stuttering farm kid to Superman when he had the chance, particularly when Clark finally meets Luthor.

The victory could have been in a single line of dialog, the single thing that could have put Lex Luthor on his heels.  And if De Haven didn't know how important that was not just to the scene, but to the Superman/ Luthor relationship...  so much is defined in that first meeting that its got to be what's in the back of Lex's mind every single time he tries to murder The Man of Steel until they publish the last Superman comic, film the last Superman movie, or whatever will eventually be the last time Superman and Luthor meet and Superman is forgotten.

I get that De Haven wanted a "believable" Clark Kent, but I'd argue that's part of what he missed about the character.  He had to make a Clark he could believe, not one to believe in.  As readers of Superman, we  have to believe that he can push down the fear.  Which is part of why the one battle in the book actually works so well.  Its the only time we see it happen in a standard length novel.

The book doesn't muck about with a lot of the latter-era Superman mythos elements or much of what appeared in the comics after 1940 or so, and that's okay.  Had De Haven written a sequel, maybe they'd have shown up.  But that's the stuff, I think, that separates De Haven from some of us Superman fans.  I don't think he wants a Kandor, or Krypton or anything of the sort to creep in around the edges of his Superman.  And that's okay.  This is his version.

To his credit, I liked his Lois.  She was a great fit for the era without relying on rip-offs of old movies, etc...  I even liked his Luthor, even if I found the plot around him a bit ridiculous if we were going for "realism".

I do think De Haven gives any Superman fan a lot to think about.  And its an interesting read to contrast with what Morrison is doing over in Action Comics at the moment, what Waid said in Birthright, and what we'll see in the upcoming Superman live action movie.  What is necessary for a telling of Superman?  Does he need to have fantastic threats to exist?  How would a young man of humble origins really adjust to his roles and responsibilities?  How does one choose to become a Superman?

I did enjoy the book.  De Haven's tendencies to find odd side-narratives for characters who might appear once of twice was a novelstic touch that grated against my desire for narrative economy, but at the same time gave a picture of the world, something we don't get time for in comics, movies, etc...  And I do believe he understood his versions of the major characters well, and I think, in his way, he made a Clark for whom he could have affection and root for.  And its now one of the multiverse.

And what can we learn from how De Haven told the story?  Isn't it interesting to see a Superman who is living in the world?  Yeah, it is.

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