Tom De Haven's "It's Superman!": A Review
Why does this book exist?

There's an obvious answer, sure. Products that involve Superman make a lot of money. The book was released just prior to the recent film revival of Superman, the one with Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth and all the Jesus stuff. Publishing a novel about Superman is likely one of the few safe investments in the world of publishing.

I bought the thing, obviously, because it seemed ludicrous that this book existed, that it could exist. The whole design of the book reeks of the "we are a class act" syndrome in contemporary novel cover art: stark imagery by graphical wunderkind Chris Ware, notes about the typeface used in the back, the little "A Novel" legend to let you know that it's okay to buy this, you're still smart. Every indication is that they were trying to sell this product to the lit-fic market, the kinds of people who own matching sets of Vintage editions and who know who Maria Luisa Bombal is, but who don't much care about that knowledge.

And why would DC Comics--who support the whole project wholesale--be interested in tapping into this kind of market at all?

Initially I thought that the book was intended as a crack-brained, cynical-minded attempt to capitalize on the broad popular success of Michael Chabon's Adventures Of Kavalier and Klay. It was sort of inspiring to think this: it meant that someone in the Warner Communications Necropolis Tower was at last squinting at the world of Writing, thinking about the loot weighing down Chabon's pockets, thinking about how to make money off of this strange, suddenly lucrative business of popular hi-lit fiction. Why, they'd make their own knockoff literary bestseller about comics! With Chip Kidd design and Chris Ware cover art and everything! It'll wow them at the New Yorker!

But no: according to this interview with Tom De Haven, the project that became It's Superman! started in 1997, well in advance of Chabon's book. One of DC's "Special Projects Editors" liked De Haven's earlier book, Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies, and offered De Haven a job writing an official Superman novel set in the 1930s, because, you know, that'd be cool.

The project turns out to have been a labor of love, an experiment conducted between Superman fans and lovers of period pieces, with no commercial ambitions behind the taken-for-granted fact that, sure, this is going to sell a bazillion copies and make us a lot of money. It's Superman!

The idea that this is a labor of love rather than an act of cynical capitalization on the trappings of literature is much more upsetting. I don't want this to have been a labor of love. I don't want this to have been a labor of love because the corporate nature of the product limits the inherent possibilities of the material so much that the final novel is just irrelevant.

According to Gerard Jones's history of the comics, Men Of Tomorrow, Jerry Seigel (you know, Seigel and Shuster) tried to fuck with Superman as early as 1940, revealing his identity and marrying him off to Lois Lane in an attempt to convert the central Superman formula of "nice guy is unappreciated by women, but gets off on that" into a meditation on the negotiations and emotional back-and-forth of adult relationships. (Like, Lois Lane would trip a guy, and then Superman would punch him. Stuff like that.) The entire story was written and drawn by the Seigel and Shuster studio and submitted to DC Comics for approval. DC pulled the story and took creative control of Superman away from Seigel, finally ousting him from the character altogether around 1948 when his original ten-year contract was up. We would have had two years of the "classic", jerk Superman, then two years of something else, then two years of something else.

But you can't ever change what you're doing if what you're doing is selling, selling Superman bread and Superman radio shows and Superman tights. You have to turn your character into a trademark and you have to protect that trademark against all manifestations of human will directed at it.

Dan O'Neill and the Air Pirates tried to go against this. From their "Air Pirates Secret Lair", they self-published the Air Pirates Funnies comics, stories all about Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the like exploring horrifying mushroom visions, leading tired and brutal sex lives, and coping with their legacy as icons of exploitation. Air Pirates Funnies probably sold something on the order of 15,000-20,000 copies per issue for a total of thirty to forty thousand copies, with most of the money from each going to cartoonist food and printing costs. The Air Pirates were sued into oblivion by Disney and no one talks about Dan O'Neill anymore. 40,000 copies is too many when you're dealing with Mickey Mouse.

But O'Neill, obnoxious as he was, was right. You do have to deal with Mickey Mouse as Mickey Mouse, the same way you do have to deal with Superman as Superman. You can't control content by referring to it; you control content by hijacking it. Figures in narratives at that level cease to belong to their authors or their authors' sinister backers; the collective imagination is also cooperative. To publish a novel about "Wonderman" being a gambling-addicted kryptonite prostitute inspires readers to look for points of correspondence between Wonderman and, you know. To publish a novel about Superman being the same inspires readers to worry about Superman, to reevaluate Superman. Parody through reference is armor that only benefits the holders of copyrights.

(n.b: This issue just doesn't come up much in literature-literature because (1) boo hoo no one reads, (2) the publishing world, bad as it is, as a rule buys the rights to your text and not your characters, and (3) literary figures aren't icons of the same one-dimensional rammed-down-your-throat order.)

De Haven uses three big-time copyright characters from the Superman universe in the book: Superman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor. There's a fourth major character, a Jewish photographer named Willi Berg, who at one point dyes his hair red. This was originally supposed to be Jimmy Olsen, Superman's hard-smoking hard-drinking "best pal" who disguises himself as an Irishman to assimilate into New York society in the 1930s. It's the biggest risk De Haven takes with any of the classic Superman characters, calling this thug Jimmy Olsen. DC vetos that risk; the damage to the copyrighted property is too high. Jimmy Olsen symbolizes pluck and servitude, not the actual qualities necessary for success in the newspaper rackets of the 1930s--and sure, our ostensible purpose is to place Superman and his cast into a realistic 1930s context, but why stress the point if the property gets scuffed in the process? So no, it's not Jimmy Olsen and never will be. Move along.

All the non-Superman-affiliated characters are cliches. There's the fallen priest, the jazz-loving Honest Cop who sends his own son to jail, the eccentric scientist with a lurid double life, the upper-crust father of Lois Lane, the small town black kid who's bad at math but who sees through the hidden ways of white folks. (Seriously.) De Haven doesn't care about any of them and happily kills them off roughly fifty pages after they're introduced, as a rule, mostly to develop the theme that Lex Luthor is evil. Reality is useless unless it feeds the icons, which reality consistently refuses to touch.

All of the Superman-affiliated characters are also cliches. Clark Kent is slow-witted but honest and lonesome. Lois is a modern girl who fucks and smokes and matches wits with the boys. Lex Luthor had a bad childhood, so he years to possess the world, and he is without fear.

They're cliches and their masters want them to stay cliches. But as flawed as the novel is, it's still a novel that at least tries to use high-lit techniques. And that's where we cheer, because even with two hands tied behind its back, a game leg, and a corporate gag in its mouth, prose fiction still beats every other narrative form without even trying. The comics have never made Lois Lane more interesting than De Haven writes her, and De Haven writes her as a sub-Fitzgeraldian flapper without dimension or soul. But that's still an improvement.

Like the best unwholesome "twin" experiments, It's Superman! is the strongest argument for the superior narrative virtues of prose fiction that I can think of, or at least the only one that involves a big-time superhero type.

And at points it's obvious that De Haven wants to go farther than he's allowed to go with the book. There's a moment where Clark watches a housewife ironing shirts in her slip, and he doesn't turn away modestly; he's interested; he leers; he speculates; the narration turns away and we're meant to forget. There's the scene where Clark rips off a pawnbroker in order to help out his old pal (but, hastily inserted, he leaves twenty bucks. Why? There's no reason Clark as written in the novel would do this; he does it because a corporate icon can't be a thief.) There's the early scene where Clark seems to have the attitude that a liberally-minded-but-none-too-bright Kansas teenager in 1935 would have toward a black person--fear, prejudice, speculation--where the novel comes this close to broaching questions about exactly what truth, justice, and the American Way even meant to the heartland comics fan, to Seigel and Shuster, and to the mob-backed Detective Comics, Inc. of 1938. The novel comes close to broaching these issues and then ducks away, which is worse somehow than never broaching them at all. It's worse because someone, or at least some cluster of money, is keeping these issues hidden. Refer to racism, but under no circumstances make our hero complicit. Even if we're all complicit.

Taking the novel in this direction would be the only way this whole lit-fic Superman project could have any lasting value. Playing to the strengths of the novel--making things dirty, mean, complicated, real in all their grandeur--is the only reason to write a novel these days, to at least pile up something decent while you're starving and everyone's shouting louder. But this is the direction that the corporate nature of the characters can't allow the novel to explore.

So why does this It's Superman! fiasco exist? Outside of money, which is a given.

Answer: to prove that in the face of corporate control of our fantasy lives, labors of love are not sufficient. Either be willing to break the law, or get out of the way and make up something yourself.

Posted by future on Sat, 12 Jul 2008 02:11:36 -0400 -- permanent link

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