October 09, 2006

BOOKS: It's Superman!, Tom De Haven (2005)

There's a fair amount in the Superman mythology about the childhood of Clark Kent -- the trip from Krypton, the crash landing on the Kent farm -- and certainly tons about the exploits of Superman himself, but not much about the transition from one to the other. How did Clark Kent become Superman? What led to the uniform and the heroics? Tom De Haven's It's Superman! explores just that transition, following Clark from the ages of (roughly) 17 to 22 as he leaves Smallville and makes his way to New York (and yes, it's New York here, not "Metropolis"), meets Lois Lane, and has his first encounters with Lex Luthor.

De Haven remains faithful to the characters he borrows, while adding new shadings of character and making them more fully-rounded people than they are in the comic books; his newly created characters are just as vivid, and you may find yourself wishing that Willi Berg or Skinny Simon had been part of the story all along.

The writing is gorgeous, moving from thrilling action scenes to touching relationships. Take, for instance, this passage, set at Martha Kent's funeral:

She cherished her family, and baked the world's most delicious rhubarb pie. And her apple pie, too -- the way she coated the crust with sugar, that you couldn't beat. Simply could not. And she was always there in your time of trouble, with a kind word, a smile, a sincere offer of assistance. She was humble. She was gracious. She wrote the loveliest, the most thoughtful Christmas letters. She had moral fiber, real pioneer strength of character. And. And did everyone recall that wienie roast just before the war, the summer Mary Agel was afflicted by shingles, and Martha, always the friend in need, always the selfless one, stepped right up and volunteered to --

Mr. Kent doesn't think he can stand too much more. Martha was all that everyone said, but she was also his wife of thirty-one years, his best friend, his soul mate, his complement, and she is five feet away from him now, confined forever in the plain wooden coffin she requested, and his heart is broken. Rhubarb pies! That woman made the sun come up. And he wants this ordeal to end, to go home, to be home, back in the house where her spirit is still present, will always be present, in the iron stove, the knotty pine wardrobe, the spoons, the handwoven draperies and pillow covers, the stair treads, the floorboards, their bed. In everything.

The more you know about the Superman legend, the more you'll appreciate this book. But I think that it's so well done that even if you're not a comic book fan, you can enjoy this novel entirely on its own. Very fine stuff indeed.

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