26 March 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #1: Superman

I've recently been curious about superhero prose fiction, largely spurred on by this almost-comprehensive list on Wikipedia. Lacking enough reading projects as it stands, I decided that between each phase of "Faster than a DC Bullet," I'd read another superhero novel. So, here between Lucifer and Alias, I get to experience (yet again) the origin story of

Hardcover, 215 pages
Published 1995 (originally 1942)
Borrowed from the library

Read March 2012
by George Lowther
illustrations by Joe Shuster

This is quite probably the first novel based on a comic book. Released in 1942, a scant four years after Superman debuted in Action Comics, I think this is the first extended take on Superman's origin story. The novel opens, like so many subsequent takes would, with a guy named "Jor-el" on Krypton fretting about the end of the world. (This was the first time Kal-el and his father had an "e" in the second syllable of their names, fact fans.) We then get several chapters of young Clark growing up on the Kent farm in Smallville, as his powers manifest gradually-- this was before "Superboy" became part of the character's history. There's not much of a role for Ma Kent (here named "Sarah"), but there's a nice relationship between Clark and his adoptive father (named "Eben"!), and the scene where Pa dies is probably the best one in the book. It reads a lot like the similar scene in Superman: The Movie, actually.

So, Clark heads to off to the city to get a job at the Daily Planet. In the book's second-best scene, he manages to save editor Perry White's life by pretending to bumble in, so no one knows he has superpowers. Clark asks for a job as a reporter, but has no background; Perry wants to do him a favor but can't justify hiring him, so he assigns Clark to investigate a ghost ship sighted in Maine, as he can't waste a "real" reporter on the case. Oddly, why Clark wants to be a reporter isn't really explained, other than that he got his best grades as a kid in English and always wanted to be some kind of writer.

Despite this, there's a heavy emphasis on Clark's investigative skills in the rest of the story. Clark's investigations drive the mystery plot, with him transforming into Superman just for the action scenes (fighting u-boats, punching out Nazis, that sort of thing). Yes, Nazis-- of course they turn out to be involved with the skeleton crew of a ghost ship. The plot actually gets pretty convoluted at some points, though it all comes out in the end. There's some Lois Lane, but perhaps not as much as one might like. The novel's end, Clark is only beginning to be attracted to her, and though she gets in there with the verbal jabs, she doesn't do anything plotwise expect need to be rescued. Superman won't wow you with its insight into Superman or Clark, but it passes the time. (And fairly quickly, at that; the 200 pages just fly by.)

Though I found it an interesting choice that Superman's first mission was a somewhat subdued mystery rather than a plot to take over/destroy the world, I was somewhat disappointed that the social mission of the early Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster version of the character has already vanished, only four years in. This Superman doesn't have the desire of the original to right wrongs in society like corrupt arms lobbyists and juvenile delinquency; he just wants to solve a haunting and defend America against nasty foreigners. This isn't a problem with the novel per se, but more an observation on how quickly that social crusader version of Superman vanished.

What is here of the original Superman are some magnificent illustrations from co-creator Joe Shuster. There are ten full-page illustrations, four of them in color, and they just pop off the page. Shuster shows that over seventy years later, he's still one of the best illustrators Superman has ever had; these are powerful, iconic images that really add to the story being told, and often surpass it.

Next issue: I look at a superhero who changed the world-- Miracleman!

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