They say you can tell a lot about someone by the people around him. His friends, his family, his heroes and his enemies. To some extent, I feel the same might be true on a larger scale. America is a complicated and many times divided place. We’re a nation of immigrants and invaders who want to keep others out. We’re a nation “under God” where the line between church and state is (hopefully) sharply drawn, and yet the President and witnesses in court both take their oath on a Bible.
Superman has been one of the most popular, easily recognized and influential cultural icons in our history. The ultimate immigrant, a being with godlike power from humble beginnings. He’s the opposite of the bootstrapping climb to success that exemplifies the American Dream: he already has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, so the real question is not how does he get stronger, but better.
De Haven sets his tale of Superman in the 1930’s. Smallville is a divided place, the nation is suffering through the Great Depression, and things are as hard and bleak as they ever are in our history. Clark Kent is a man with an itch to write and questions about his own awakening gifts. Lois Lane is an ambitious and fiery cub reporter looking for a good story. And charismatic, handsome young city councilman Lex Luthor has big plans for the future.
The backdrop feels so right for the characters that I’d suggest that this is how it should be-Superman fits in here better in some ways than the modern-day retellings of his story. You get to see how confronting the issues of 1930’s America changes and shapes him (in a curious parallel to Marvel’s Captain America) . Racism, violence, greed, friendship, growing up and romance all help make young Clark into the person he and the world will soon know. After all, you can’t stand for truth, justice and the American Dream without seeing them firsthand, and you can’t do that on a farm.
Superman has been accused of being stodgy, a Boy Scout and old-fashioned. The hero in It’s Superman squashes that nonsense. He is moral and upright because he has seen the consequences of violence and hatred and will have none of them. A section of the book deals with Clark’s travels across America and his letters home to his dad. The picture it paints of the young man is both touching, and at one point, frightening. Lois and Lex are different enough to be fresh imaginings of the characters while being true to the established canon without being predictable. There’s a supporting cast too, new faces mostly but well-sketched.
There was a point while reading it that the reader might even forget that Superman is a part of the story, since Clark is so well-written and the S-name isn’t even mentioned till the end. Then he comes up against Luthor’s brilliant scheme to dominate the world (as you know he will) and for just a moment John Williams’ score will probably kick on in your mind. I won’t spoil Lex’s plot, as it’s plausibly pulpy and yet fiendishly clever. Even if you don’t like Superman, this is a good enough story that it doesn’t matter; that aspect of Clark is woven so well that it feels natural and very unlike a comic book. It’s the story of a hero in America, not just an American hero.