I had never heard of this book before I picked it up for a dime at a library sale. I had low expectations, but for ten cents? Hey, I like superheroes! Why not? This book was good.
This novel would be a social realist work, if it were not for the fact that it is about the last son of Krypton (and has some heat-ray wielding robots at the end). Set in the Depression-era from which Action Comics emerged, it develops (pre-)Golden Age Superman into a believable character, enmeshing him in a social context that does not shy away from political and corporate corruption and the exacerbation of racial inequity caused by economic depression. Furthermore, since the novel does not focus on Clark Kent alone, we see the world through a variety of characters. For example, Lois Lane becomes a proto-feminist, dealing with being dismissed as a serious journalist because of her gender, while the weight of social pressure to conform to women’s roles and desires influences her inner-dialogue. Lex Luthor is a corrupt Alderman in the tradition of New York”s Tammany Hall, and everything is set against the backdrop of historical figures like Fiorello La Guardia, Lucky Luciano and FDR, who appear as characters, and a variety of timely pop culture references and social projects like the WPA.
While slow to start, the book is increasingly compelling and is not really a “superhero” novel at all, more of an extended origin story that explains the context for the rougher anti-corruption pro-worker Superman of the late 1930s (before he became the big blue Boy Scout representative of American hegemony). By the end, I could not put it down, loving how it comes together and does not concern itself with over the top superhero battles, but rather with the very realistic depiction of an individual struggling with the implications of his unusual power while also dealing with the insecurities of being a farmer’s son entering into a wider more cosmopolitan world of big city national journalism and politics.
De Haven’s excellent, mostly straightforward, but occasionally playfully modernist prose, certainly makes this novel sing. He strikes the right balance between homage to those early Superman comics (I went back to check out my reprints after finishing the book and loved the echoes I retroactively noticed) and developing his story into something more. I highly recommend it.
P.S. I’d LOVE a comic version of this version.