14 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #4: Superman: Last Son of Krypton

Mass market paperback, 238 pages
Published 1978
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Superman: Last Son of Krpyton
by Elliot S. Maggin

It was this novel's good reputation that prompted me to begin my entire sub-undertaking of journeying through prose fiction based on superhero comics. Well, I'm happy to report that it's as every bit as good as everyone says, and definitely up there with the best Superman stories in any medium. Elliot Maggin just gets Superman and everything about him.

I was a bit skeptical about the book's opening, which begins with the destruction of Krypton and prophecies of doom from Jor-El-- we've seen all that a million times by now, not the least in the only previous Superman novel. Thankfully, this is only a small part of the novel, and it turns out to be necessary, because then we get three chapters of Clark's life in Smallville being set up by a very unlikely person. I thought it was goofy when I first figured it out, but I soon came to love the idea. And that person's influence turns out to be key to the plot of the second half of the novel.

The plot actually takes its time showing up, but that's okay, because I was having such a good time in the interim. Superman is portrayed how I love him best: a really good guy trying to do his best because he believe the best of everyone, bothered but not overly so by his inability to do everything for everybody. Clark is a bit of a wimp, but not overly so, and the interactions with Steve Lombard show how to carry that kind of thing out perfectly: you'd like Clark even if you didn't sympathize with him because Steve Lombard is such a jock.

Though everyone, down to Jimmy Olsen (as goofy as ever) and Lois Lane, gets their moment, Lex Luthor is the other standout character here. There is a lot of interspersed backstory here about Clark and Lex growing up together in Smallville, which is something I normally dislike because it turns Superman into someone whose presence is harmful and Lex into someone too obsessed with a single vendetta to be interesting. But Maggin does a great job with here, all because his character-work is very fine: the presence of Superboy is just one of many incidents working on Lex's mind, and though Lex might not have become a supervillain without Superboy, he didn't become one only because of Superboy, either.

What really makes it work, though, is all the stuff Luthor gets up to in the present. He's still in his Silver Age "mad scientist" phase here, but he's verging into being the corporate mogul: he has quite the criminal empire here. Maggin's Luthor is usually the smartest man in the room, but he also always knows what to do when he's not. My favorite passage is definitely this one, about when Luthor is in prison, allowed only a ballpoint pen and pad of legal paper:
One night, in a loose moment, Luthor figured out how to melt the plastic cap of the pen, let a certain amount drip into the ink refill, extract a substance from the glue that bound the legal pad, wrap it all in half a sheet of yellow paper and make an explosive powerful enough to blast out a wall of his cell. Luthor would never do that, of course. If he did, the next time he was in jail the warden wouldn't give him his pen and pad. (138-39)
Hilarious and genius. Perfect Lex.

It's not all about Luthor, though, as Superman just manages to keep his counterpart from stealing the show. There are some fantastic depictions of Superman's powers in action; sometimes you might think he's got too many of them, but as in All-Star Superman, who cares? What keeps Superman grounded isn't his powers (or lack thereof), it's his ethos. (The epilogue is particularly good in this regard.) My favorite moment is a late one in the book, so I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say that while Superman is trusting and always willing to give a second chance, he's nobody's chump... and he knows how to scheme with the best of them.

I can't wait to read Maggin's other Superman novel, Miracle Monday; this was a book of sheer joy.

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