Saturday, 23 August 2008

Its Superman by Tom De Haven

You may have read one of the classical myths published by Random House. They invite contemporary writers such Ali Smith or Margaret Atwood to rewrite classical myths with modern concerns and twists. Superman by Tom De Haven is a rewrite of the comic magazine myth of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Superman. On the face of it, two different projects but dig deeper and they are not. The energy that enables Superman last 70 years and expand into TV, films etc is Myth. The baby that appears in a rocket (Miraculous Birth) who as he grow older discovers his powers (Initiation) which leads to loss of family and community(Withdrawal) as he try and find himself(Trail and Quest) and so on.

But Tom De Haven faces a different additional challenge, in rewriting a modern comic hero, as unlike the Greek myths we have grown up with the story and character. Those of us of a certain age can remember buying Superman comics from paper shops along with The Beano and Eagle long before they were elevated to graphic novels and specialist geek watering holes. Or being amazed at Superman the Movie in the 80’s( of course those of us even more of a certain age can remember the 50’s TV series). It means that you tinker with our childhood memories at your peril.

To do the story justice it has to be driven by the power of Myth but also refreshed so we experience something novel from fare we know in our bones. Does he succeed? Yes, Jumping Jehovah he does with bells on.

The story is set in the 30s and focuses on the politics and society of Depression America including the normalcy of how Afro-Americans were treated. Clark Kent struggles to come to terms with who and what he is and isn’t the sharpest blade in the drawer. Lois Lane is, and in control her life and her men (and the life in her men!) The big city is New York and its corruption where we met Lex Luthor a shining reformer by day and a criminal Mr Big by night. Its how he deals with Superman that seals both their fates and Lois as we discover how the Legend finally begins.

This in fact draws more on the original comic storyline then the later camp versions, thinks of the dark versions of Batman rather then the kowpow 60’s. The focus here as then is more on domestic crime and fascism rather then the weekly super villain. What also makes it work is the writing. We move in and out of the characters seeing their take on things, major characters die and secondary characters move to centre stage so you cant take things for granted. And the style engages:

He watches it-more like glares at it-till the paper bursts in flame, dissolves in to granular soot, and quickly disappears

Same as always. Clark’s eyes are left feeling syrupy, almost liquid like the waterglass his mom would make in summertime to preserve surplus eggs. But the sensation passes in less then a minute. And it’s a small price to pay for such a-


For the first time in a week Clark feels the muscles flex up at both ends of his mouth, It’s not much of a smile but for now it will have to do.

He needs to speak to his father

He needs to tell him good-bye
So pick this up, and revisit a retold Myth as ancient in its way as that of the Greeks you won’t be disappointed and this time you don’t have to wait for the film. Highly Recommended.

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