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Published by: Chronicle Books (September 2005)
In Metropolis, Lois Lane's latest ex-boyfriend, Willi Berg, has stumbled upon a horrific murder scene and the involvement of Lex Luthor, a prominent citizen on the rise to power. Willi photographs Luthor, and for his trouble, is shot. His film is stolen and destroyed. He is framed for murder. With some timely assistance, once he's healed, he escapes from the authorities and meets up with Lois. She alters his appearance, and he adopts a new identity before striking out across America. His journey takes him to Smallville where, as Clark Kent mourns his mother and discovers his origins, he once more finds trouble in the form of a terrible kidnapping. Upon the end of that adventure, together, they set out on a path of discovery.
In Hollywood, Clark becomes a stuntman, and is given a costume befitting his abilities. As he discovers he can fly, a bombing incident gets Willi locked up, causing Superman to make an unexpected debut. No one believes the story.
Lex Luthor, now a notable politician, begins the construction of LexBots, which he says will be the must-buy item of the year. What he tells no one is that the LexBots will also assassinate whomever Lex wants gone.
Willi and Clark come to New York and meet with Lois, who doesn't believe Willi when he tells her about someone called Superman. Clark attempts to get hired at the Daily Planet, and stumbles upon evidence that will clear Willi. But first, he must defeat a LexBot gone rogue, and meet his greatest nemesis for the first time.
Story (Justin) - 5: I labored over whether to give this story a four or five, but I finally settled on a five. While I thought the novel could've used more Superman (or more Clark Kent even) it gives equal time to all the characters - even the most mundane ones. And that's the real strength of It's Superman! - the great characterization. Everyone from Lex Luthor to Willi Berg has a back-story behind them and their own unique motivations and feelings. De Haven has managed to write not just a great super-hero novel, but also a great novel in general. This is the kind of novel you could see on a poster at Barnes and Noble. I'd compare it to James Joyce's Ulysses with some adventure and sci-fi put in. In many ways it's a tribute to the Golden Age Superman, as conceived by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. But to fully appreciate all this you have to know the characters.
First and foremost there is Clark Kent (Superman). Although I'm usually not a fan of "farm boy Clark" (with the exception of some stories - like the wonderful Superman For All Seasons) I felt that it worked quite well here. This is a Clark Kent that is confused by who he is and how he'll live his life. He has no idea where he comes from and is still discovering the limits of what he can and cannot do. He's prone to making mistakes just like any other person would be; yet he always tries to do the right thing. In other words, he's a very human character. For all those looking for a Superman they can relate to, well, here he is.
This Clark Kent is, appropriately, a big fan of science fiction. He reads the stories, sees the movies, and has even been known to try writing some of his own. There's a particularly good scene where Clark thinks about a story he's been working on, based on a recurring dream he's had since thirteen. He imagines the Earth in the far future, close to its destruction. The hero-scientist in the story plans to create a ship to send his child, his wife, and himself to Mars to escape the planet's fate. It's small things like this that make this story so good. Since I'm trying to become a writer myself I can easily relate to what Clark is going through.
Furthermore, this Clark Kent actually has experience in journalism. As a young adult he writes for the Smallville Herald-Progress (that's a catchy name), gaining experience that he'll need in the future. This makes much more sense to me than how it's usually presented in the comics. It's something that was done in the television show Smallville with Clark working for Chloe at the Torch, but it's on a much bigger scale in the novel. The Herald-Progress is a legitimate, rather than a high-school newspaper. I'll discuss some more similarities and differences between the book and Smallville later in this review.
As for Clark's powers, he's still discovering what he can do and how everything works. All the classics powers are here: super-strength, invulnerability (albeit limited), heat vision, super-hearing, and eventually even flight. We aren't told whether these powers are the result of Earth's yellow sun or evolution or genetic engineering or whatever. Indeed, there are no real references to Krypton or Kryptonian physiology. I was a little let down by the fact that Clark's extraterrestrial origins weren't touched on that much, but I understand why De Haven did things that way. I believe he wanted the novel to be more "reality based" and about people we could understand. Introducing an entire alien civilization might have taken away from that. But getting back to Clark's powers, he seems to have limits on what he can and can't do. In this respect he's much like the original Golden Age Superman. While bullets don't kill Clark they can sometimes leave welts. Perhaps Clark will get even stronger the more he learns about his gifts.
Lex Luthor is another fascinating character in the novel. In many ways, his character and personality are drawn from the many other interpretations of Luthor. This Luthor is more of a politician than a scientist or businessman. Instead of inventing his own super-scientific weapons or running a large business, this Luthor gains both inventions and money by sheer manipulation and force of personality. He's very Machiavellian and his schemes reflect that. It's also important to note that Luthor is an individual that constantly changes who he is. His birth name is not "Alexander Luthor" and his family is anything but glamorous. Elliot S. Maggin first introduced the concept of Lex having multiple identities (some of whom were rich) and it's used here quite well. While the manipulation aspect to the character owes much to the post-Crisis reinvention of the character.
Chief to Luthor's character is his ruthlessness. Lex is willing to sacrifice anyone - friend or foe - to achieve his own ends. To him, true power only comes from being able to do what the other person can't. He never feels guilty over the many crimes he commits and the people he hurts - in his mind that would make him weaker. When he finally does come face to face with Superman, his reaction is one you may or may not expect.
On a side note, I'd just like to mention that this story contains a fair degree of violence and sexuality. If that kind of stuff offends you then this might not be the novel for you. As I said above, the characters in this novel are very human and are prone to making human mistakes. It's important to keep that in mind when reading this novel.
I really enjoyed the character of Jonathan Kent in this novel. In many ways he's a man ahead of his time. Despite being from the Bible belt (and years in the past) he's known to read books from other religions, not just from the Bible. But more than this, he's unique in his acceptance of other races - particularly when it comes to Alger Lee, a young adult that happens to be black. Alger is almost like a second son to Jonathan, which is quite touching. That's not to say that this novel is anything close to politically correct - no, far from it, language of the day is used often--even by Clark. Perhaps the most touching scenes involving Jonathan are when Martha Kent passes away and when he reveals to Clark where he really came from. Both are powerful scenes that should be appreciated.
Next we come to Lois Lane and Willi Berg (I'm examining them together for a good reason). Willi is Lois' boyfriend at the beginning of the story, and because of a plight he experiences the story comes together. Without it there would be no Superman and Lois and Clark never would've met. Willi is Jewish (a nod to Superman's creators perhaps) and, in many ways, is Superman's pal (regrettably, Jimmy doesn't show up in this story). He's Clark's confidant and someone he can always talk to. Needless to say, his relationship with Lois doesn't workout (and he later becomes jealous of his ex's attention to Superman). Willi is a very defined character in this story and we can really feel for him. Lois is her usual self in the novel: bright, strong, determined, beautiful, and independent. Lois decides for herself what's right for her and never gives up on her dreams. She's attracted to uncommon men, probably one of the reasons she's drawn to both Willi and Superman.
The main plot of the story involves Luthor having a series of robots built to accomplish his gains. This is done by the acquisition of Italian inventor Caesar Colluzo (who has many similarities to Lex). Caesar could perhaps be best described as Luthor's scientific half. The robots tend to make one think of the classic Fleischer Superman cartoons, in particular the episode entitled "The Mechanical Monsters!" Caesar was inspired to build these robots after seeing the classic silent sci-fi film Metropolis (which also ties into Superman lore). As a big fan of both those cartoons and Metropolis I really enjoyed this. It's very retro - in a good way.
Perhaps the story's biggest achievement is the way it successfully takes you back in time. De Haven has an impressive ability to capture the feel of the past. The landmarks, historical figures, and speech all seemed appropriate. It's the mark of a good writer to make you suspend your disbelief and take you into the story.
A unique thing about this story is that it tends to use real places rather than fictional ones (Smallville being the exception). For instance, instead of Metropolis there is New York. This might be controversial for some fans, but I had no problem with it. If anything it helped me to get more into the story.
I said earlier that there were some ideas in this story also present in Smallville the series. I actually wish that the show had gone this route instead of putting young Clark Kent in the present. Some have questioned whether Superman is an inherently retro character or not. While I believe that Superman can work fine in our current wor'd, he does work exceptionally well in the past. Despite my love for Smallville, sometimes I think they try a little too hard to be trendy. I think that the show would work much better and could have even more creative plots if set in the past. The show even explored this in one of the past episodes.
All in all, this was a great book to read and a fitting tribute to Superman. With Luthor you have a villain very much in the style of the Golden Age Superman--he was a hero for the common man/proletariat and opposed to corrupt politicians and shady businessmen. I'd imagine that Joe and Jerry would enjoy this book, and the fresh but nostalgic take it has on their character.
This is the story of how a boy becomes a man, and how a man becomes a hero. In that respect and others it succeeds admirably.
Story (Aaron) - 2: IT'S A BIRD! IT'S A PLANE! IT'S UNBELIEVABLY DULL!
There is no denying that "It's Superman!" is an epic tale. It is, naturally, a retelling of the origin of Superman, the story that spawned a thousand superhero titles since the late 1930's. Tom DeHaven painstakingly recreates the atmosphere of that decade, from dress to speech to vehicles to mannerisms.
But in the process of making an epic tale of a boy becoming a man in the 1930's, he seems to have forgotten that he's also writing a superhero novel. I say this because, while the novel is extremely well written, it has one serious, tragic flaw: It bored the begeezus out of me. It takes a lot for a novel to do that. X-Men: Empire's End is an example of this. Like "It's Superman!", Empire's End focused on what should have been an epic story, the impending destruction of an intergalactic empire. And like "It's Superman!", it utterly failed to deliver slam-bang action. When Superman fights a robot in this story, it should be exciting, climatic... I've had more thrills cleaning my cat's litterbox. It reads as utterly pedestrian and pedantic, so slow I barely even registered when it began and ended.
The worst part is that it's the only super-battle in the entire novel. They built up, for a majority of the novel, the impending threat of the LexBots... And then, does he fight a horde of them? He fights ONE. Does he confront Luthor? Yes. In one scene. Their ONLY scene together.
This is pitiful. This is insulting. This is a RIPOFF.
Oh, and here's the kicker. LUTHOR gives Superman the indestructible costume. LUTHOR. One, this means that for the entire novel, Superman is wearing rags half the time, and TWO, he's accepting a gift from A MORTAL ENEMY. That's insanely stupid.
There are other troubling points in the novel as well, foremost in my mind a scene taking place in Hollywood, where Clark is waking up next to his lover, and wishes he could play with her chest some more. Before that, naturally, Clark encounters the execution of a "colored man". Now, I'm all for realism in fantasy writing, but this is taking it a little far. Under NO circumstance should Clark Kent ever use racist phrases like "colored man", and certainly, NO ONE ON THIS PLANET WANTS TO SEE SUPERMAN FANTASIZING ABOUT PLAYING WITH THE FEMALE ANATOMY IN A MASS MARKET HARDBACK NOVEL!
Bluntly, this isn't a Superman I want to read about. He spends the majority of the novel traveling the country with the author's pet creation (who amazingly survives against all odds), discovering his powers slowly. They even come up with a ridiculous story about how Willi (pet character) and Clark met Superman while he was riding the rails. It degrades the mystique of Superman's invulnerability and godlike stature to do this. Now, whenever I look at this book, I see Superman as a hobo and toss it aside in disgust. Heck, at one point, Superman rides a train in full costume and a mask, calling himself the Spaceman from Saturn. Ludicrous. This novel does everything to drag Superman down except force-feed him drugs.
The Smallville section is, I suppose, good enough (although, for the life of me, I can't remember anything about the kidnapping), but I really don't buy the coincidences that pepper the novel to force it to all tie together in the end. It rings horribly false. A bomb bought by a third tear supporting character in the novel from Luthor somehow gets Willi and Clark to go to New York where they just so happen to wind up bringing down Luthor. Clark has no personal stake in anything that goes on in the novel. Heck, Lois notes that she never got into real danger before Superman appeared. That's a telling sign right there.
Now, for all my harping, this does have all the qualities that a good period novel should possess. Lots of character interaction, a journey of discovery, a fitting coda.
Unfortunately, as a SUPERHERO period piece, it falls flat on it's face and sinks into the mire. I bought this novel expecting to see Superman beating up abusive husbands, saving wrongly accused men from execution, forcing military leaders to duke it out and save soldiers' lives. But we get Superman against one glorified appliance and what has to be a handful of annoyed seamstresses, thanks to all the costumes he destroys in the course of the story. That the one fight in the novel comes near the end is intolerable.
To reiterate, we have a somewhat sleazy, racist, not-very-Superman in a non-battle with Luthor he had no reason to be involved with in the first place. Mr. DeHaven? Do me a favor? Stay away from superheroes from now on. You're obviously ill-suited to handle them. This novel goes on my shelf, never to be read again. Not even Empire's End or the disastrous "Wonder Woman: Mythos" have earned that designation. This novel gets a 2, and only because it works as a period piece. As superhero literature, it's a dud and a snore. And way too expensive considering the lack of excitement within. Avoid.
Cover Art (Justin) - 4: I enjoyed this cover, but felt it could've used something more. Certainly the imagery is appealing: Superman leaping a tall building in a single bound. But I think something more visceral would have been even better, perhaps a take on the cover of Action Comics #1?
But these are minor critiques. Overall the cover is inventive and shows just how amazing Superman is.
Cover Art (Aaron) - 4: One cute touch here is, if you pay attention to the end of the novel, you'll recognize it as the photo Willi takes of Superman. If you look closely, you can see some of Superman's anatomy. Still, it's a pitifully small image of Superman (although appropriate considering how little he actually does in the novel).