Reviewed: September 13, 2007
By: Tom DeHaven
Publisher: Chronicle Books
425 pages, $29.95
Clark Kent first realizes he is bullet proof when he stands up for a black teen who is being terrorized by an escaped con in a movie theatre and has the bad man’s bullet bounce off his forehead (leaving a mark like a pimple that soon fades) and back to Mr. Jiggs Mackley, killing him.
Clark had already known that he could run pretty fast, and that he was a mite stronger than average, but this whole business of being responsible for someone’s death, even if the man had been going to hurt Alger Lee, the teen behind the counter, even if he would surely have killed Clark if he had been able to, well that’s just not something that Clark can absorb very well.
This, you may have guessed, is not the Clark Kent we have come to know over the last sixty plus years, nor the version that was revamped in 1985, nor the version we are currently seeing in the television show, Smallville.
This is Clark as he might have been in the real Great Depression, if he had grown up poor and somewhat socially inept (because of the need to hide his abilities) and had not been the glamorized brainchild of two Jewish boys from Cleveland (one of whom started out in Toronto), who were reimagining themselves in a cartoon strip when it all started.
This is Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s great creation presented as if the scripts had been written by Damon Runyon. This is “Superman - the Lost Years”, set before the Big Blue Boy Scout suddenly rocketed (well, jumped - the flying came later) across the skyline in June 1938, in Action Comics #1 (now worth US$1,380,000.00, if you ever happen to run across a mint condition copy).
In those first years, there was no backstory in Smallville, no years as Superboy, no flying, and no Ma and Pa Kent. They had already died and their adopted alien son had forged an identity for himself as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter. The point where the comic book begins is the point where DeHaven’s novel ends.
DeHaven’s Clark is a fellow who’s not quite as pristine a as the guy we are familiar with, who runs off to join the circus (as a strong man, naturally) and who falls in with a conman, tabloid photographer named Willi Berg, has his first love affair with a lady of easy virtue, and falls into the superhero racket by accident. Just happens to be wearing his circus outfit on the night of his first big fight.
Willi is the connection between Clark and an aspiring girl reporter straight out of The Front Page by the name of Lois Lane, who isn’t nearly as nice as she ought to be, and has a string of failed relationships behind her already, stretching from one of her university professors to Willi Berg.
Then there’s Lex Luthor, a man with two careers on the go. He’s an aspiring politician hoping for a shot at the big time (in the comics he’s recently been President, so that fits), and he’s also a gang lord with the morals of a cockroach. He uses each of his lives to further the goals of the other. All of Lex’s incarnations have been brilliant as well as evil, and this one is no exception. His plot to seize power in the city of New York (no Metropolis in this version of the story) is foiled only by sheer chance and, as is often the case, a touch of the Luthor arrogance.
This story, however really isn’t about the plot with the killer robots. There’s a bit of that and some bits about Clark falling in love with Lois and her beginning, oh so reluctantly, to return the emotion. But this novel is mostly about Clark, the alien, the complete outsider, and his all too human struggle to find his place in the world and figure out who he is.
“He looks human and he tries hard, as hard as he can, to behave as he believes a human being ought to, but it is only playacting, If he isn’t human, though, what is he? He doesn’t know, just as he doesn’t really know anymore who he is - is he Clark Kent or is he this person called Superman.”
For my money, the neverending battle is at its most interesting when it includes this internal struggle, and DeHaven has done a great job of capturing that conflict and wrapping some interesting characters in it.