17 December 2010

It’s Not Superman (at least as I understand the story)

I finally figured out what in Tom De Haven’s It’s Superman! strikes me as a fundamental shift away from the core Superman myth, which of course reveals what I think that myth fundamentally is. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I wish I’d realized this point earlier so it wasn’t nagging at me as I read.

In the extended essay he wrote after this novel, Our Hero: Superman on Earth, De Haven says, “I’ve always been a Superman Guy.” I don’t make the same claim, so my reaction might be based on a more limited idea of the myth’s capacity.

My problem isn’t the book’s setting in Depression-era America. That fits perfectly with De Haven’s aim to offer a backstory for Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor up to 1938, when Action Comics appeared on newsstands. Nor do I mind De Haven’s choice to shift the saga’s urban setting from generic Metropolis to New York City under Fiorello LaGuardia.

Like many other people writing novels about superheroes, De Haven seems to revel in long scene-setting descriptions and internal monologues that the comics don’t have space for. But he also does a good job with the twists and turns of plot, looping a relatively small cast of characters together to make the narrative keep flowing briskly.

Rather, my problem is with a single character: Willi Berg, aspiring photographer. All my unease comes down to this one addition to the usual cast of characters.

Otherwise, the story in It’s Superman! is familiar, if not exactly like any previous telling. The novel establishes Clark’s childhood in Smallville and his sole-survivor status. It leaves him as a new, bespectacled reporter at the Daily Planet.

Lois Lane is a more experienced reporter at the same paper. Clark is gaga for her; she thinks he’s a hick, a rival, and an unworthy shadow of his friend Superman. Lex Luthor is a criminal genius on the edge of respectability who once had red hair.

The novel eschews the aspects of Smallville established in the Superboy stories of the 1950s through 1980s. There’s no Pete Ross, Lana Lang, or Krypto. Clark doesn’t go to college or spend junior year abroad in Atlantis (added to the comics in the post-GI Bill 1950s, I think). But I never assimilated those details into my basic idea of Superman, anyway.

The myth has proved to be accommodating about whether Ma and Pa Kent are dead (the old canon), alive (the current canon), or dying in the course of the story (All-Star Superman, Smallville, etc.). Again, De Haven’s choice seems to fit into the acceptable limits.

But then there’s Willi Berg. At the start of the novel, he’s Lois Lane’s boyfriend, hustling photos to the tabloids. Soon he becomes an unwitting enemy of corrupt alderman Lex Luthor.

About a third of the way through the book, Willi meets Clark Kent in Kansas and tumbles to his immense strength. The two then travel America, hopping freight trains, working odd jobs, and ending up in Hollywood—Clark as a near-invulnerable stuntman, Willi as a cheesecake photographer.

All that while, Willi urges Clark to test and develop his powers. Together they come up with the notion of a “Superman” separate from Clark. Together they return to New York, connect with Lois, and take on Luthor again.

(It’s Superman! also depicts Clark finding a girlfriend in Hollywood before he starts wearing glasses. She sees he’s close to invulnerable, and she designs the suit with the S on the chest. I doubt she’ll have a problem recognizing Superman from the newsreels. But at least she’s on the opposite coast, and thus out of the picture.)

Unlike De Haven’s other additions, Willi strikes me as a fundamental change to the basic story. His presence means Clark has a friend in the city who knows all about his powers and secret identity. It means that the fraught relationship between Lois, Clark, and Superman has yet another corner. Indeed, Willi is lodged so deep into this version of the story that it’s impossible to imagine subsequent tales that don’t involve him (or at least his memory).

Even more important, Willi Berg changes Clark’s psychological situation. He’s no longer the only person outside his family who knows his secrets, no longer isolated—which in the usual story echoes his status as Krypton’s last survivor. When in the comics Superman shares his secrets with Batman, Lois, and/or the Justice League, that feels like a connection he’s earned from having spent decades alone.

Adding an intimate friend at the start of the Superman myth doesn’t just change its plotting, I think, but also its symbolic meaning. And symbolism is what superheroes are all about.

1 comment:

Richard Bensam said...

I haven't read It's Superman! but I absolutely agree with what you say here. To give Clark Kent a confidante -- even a collaborator or co-conspirator of sorts, judging by your description -- changes the whole meaning of the character. If it doesn't actually erase his meaning altogether!