Monday, March 08, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 33 (3/8) -- Our Hero: Superman On Earth by Tom DeHaven

Tom De Haven begins this short book by explaining that he found himself, unexpectedly, to be considered an expert on Superman when the Superman Returns movie came out four years ago. Media outlets called him for soundbites and deep thoughts on the meaning of Superman, mostly because his novel It's Superman! -- an anti-revisionist take on the legend, re-placing Clark Kent in the late '30s and stripping him back to the wise-cracking, vaguely leftist crusader of those early stories -- had been published only a few months before. De Haven doesn't say this precisely, but he gives the strong impression that Our Hero is his attempt -- fitfully, and several years later -- to answer those questions about Superman, either for himself or to finally answer those reporters' questions.

It comes as part of Yale University Press's "Icons of America" series, described in the front matter as "a series of short works by leading scholars, critics, and writers on American history, or more properly the image of America in American history, through the lens of a single iconic individual, event, object, or cultural phenomenon." That's a lot to tackle in a single "short work," and if De Haven doesn't quite bring the image of America in American history into focus through the lens of Kal-El, I'm sure that most of his fellow writers in this series also aimed somewhat lower, and focused their lens somewhat less broadly.

What Our Hero turns into is something in between a moderately serious consumer-magazine history of Superman -- the sort of thing Harlan Ellison would do for Playboy in the '80s, or a dozen other writers might do today -- and a book for comics fans about the various interpretations of Superman through the years. De Haven does sketch the important highlights of the big S's fictional career -- from the introduction of kryptonite on the radio show to the baroque complexities of the Silver Age all the way to the big Death Scene of the early '90s -- and doesn't assume more than a passing acquaintance with those details in his readers. But he's primarily writing about the fictional character Superman, with an emphasis on the comic books and excursions into radio, film, TV, and elsewhere, not writing about popular culture in general, or Superman merchandising, or even what Superman meant or might have meant for the four generations of kids who have grown up with his image.

De Haven does show an exceptional fondness for the early, Siegel-and-Shuster Superman (as one might have guessed from his novel), and, occasionally, the reader might find himself wishing that De Haven had kept his focus on that Superman -- the one who isn't strong enough to shift the Earth, who isn't from Kansas, who hasn't had the accretions of a thousand writers and producers, who still stands for something and hasn't been homogenized down to bland mediocrity. But it's the bland mediocrity that is the real American icon of Superman, and De Haven recognizes that. Even more, he celebrates that iconic Superman, writing at the end about those shifts of power up and down, about the additions that stuck (Kansas, flying, and so on) and the ones that didn't (he doesn't explicitly talk about Electric Blue Superman, but I bet it was on his mind), and finding something essentially American in Superman's self-creation and essential, unswerving, belief in himself and what's right.

Our Hero is an odd book without an immediately obvious audience: it's too superficial for serious Superman fans, despite De Haven's many real insights and thoughtful, clean prose; and at the same time it's a book about Superman from a university press, meaning non-Superman fans are unlikely to see or care about it. But De Haven knows more about Superman than he gives himself credit for, and he's thought more about Superman than many people who publish this many words about Superman on their blog in any given week. This book is more of a signpost to the changing faces of Superman than a cohesive examination of those faces, but it's still worthwhile in itself, as well as for the other resources it points to.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Cordero - Come On Dear
via FoxyTunes

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