I don’t know about you, but my interest in Superman as a character has never been terribly great. It amounts to a bit of frustration when I encounter him in comics (and dodgy films), because it’s so bothersome to feel like people are doing so little with such a potentially interesting character. Beyond that, my interest in him is almost purely academic, because he’s such an old character and predates so many superheroes.
Now and then, though, I react to Superman works with tremendous enthusiasm, and I realized that two of them are very interesting next to each other. You’ll see what I mean when we get into ’em.
Michael Chabon is one of those authors I am deeply suspicious of. He’s a brilliant, award-winning writer with a tremendous range, he’s good-looking, he’s charming and well-spoken, he can write in multiple mediums and it’s just too much. I assume he’s a robot, or he’s assembled out of a lot of smaller authors, standing on each other’s shoulders inside a trenchcoat. No I don’t watch too many cartoons, mother.
At any rate, his novel Kavalier & Clay is a prime example of his remarkable writing. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and it deserved the hell out of it. It’s the story of Joe Kavalier, a stoic young man with a difficult early life who comes to America in a strange way, in 1939. While here, he meets a young Sammy Clay, and they become fast friends. Eventually, they also become working partners when they discover that Kavalier has a remarkable talent for drawing, and Clay is an excellent writer. Slowly, they enter into the world of comics, and soon find themselves creating one of the first superheroes, the Escapist.
The book is a long, biographical look at their lives, the highs and lows, the ebb and flow of their friendship, the difficulties in the world around them as World War II happens. It also is a remarkable history of the early pulp fiction scene and the early superhero comic scene – and if the names have been changed to protect the innocent, a cursory knowledge of comic history will reveal to you who everyone is. In that regard, it’s a pleasure. I love fictionalized history, especially when it’s a period I know something about (and early pulp and comics is a fascinating world, and I love it much like I love animation history. You’ll perhaps join me in this love after reading this novel).
The superhero that Kavalier and Clay create is perhaps not explicitly him, but he is definitely Superman, and they are definitely Joe and Jerry, his creators. It’s fascinating to look behind-the-scenes at the early days of an iconic character, not only dealing with editors and censorship (and Joe McCarthy’s communist witchhunt), but other interesting areas, like that period in World War II when superheroes themselves went to war, or sold war bonds and stamps, or just appear in propoganda. You don’t finish the book with an accurate history of Superman, because it’s all been fictionalized, but you do have a functional history of the time period. And also all of your feelings stomped on a bit, because it is a gorgeous, powerful novel.
This is another early-20th Century novel about Superman, but we take a different approach here. While Kavalier & Clay is a behind-the-scenes look at the character, his creators, and the world in which his stories and his fame grew, It’s Superman is instead a realistic and literary look at what the character and his world would be like, if he actually landed in Kansas during the Great Depression, was raised by farmers, and went out into the world as a person named Clark Kent…who happened to not be from this world, and who happened to have incredible powers. And eventually, what would happen when the lure of television and films appealed to him and he went out to Hollywoodland, itself in its early days.
When I talk about how the book reads something like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, I think I put people off, who are expecting a dense and classic work of literature that they’ll perhaps be forced to read in schools and write an essay about. Really, that isn’t what I mean at all. It’s Superman is a serious literary sort of book, sure, but it always seems aware of the fun of its central character, and how alien he is in the world around him…metaphorically, in the way so many young people feel, and literally, in that he is a superpowered alien.
So where we went behind the scenes in the last book, here we take the same time period and the same character, and put him squarely in front of the camera, so to speak. Between the two of them, you get a fascinating look at Superman in the early 20th century, which in my humble opinion is where he fits best. You get a rounded look at early 20th century culture – particularly pop culture, and the ways it influenced and was influenced in turn by the world events happening around it – and you get a rounded look at the notion of Superman, treated as a fiction and as a real person.
The two books I mentioned up there are completely fine on their own, you’ll get the whole picture I wanted to offer you…but I wanted to suggest a comic for you as well, for further reading, and that’s All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Volume one, at the very least.
Even if you aren’t typically a Superman fan (and as I said, I’m really not), I really urge you to check this one out. The Superman on display is very different to ones we typically see. He’s sweet and clever, compassionate, funny, and drawn less like a walking slab of barely hung-together muscles (I know he isn’t always, but sometimes) and more like an actual person, wearing actual cloth. The stories are fun, and always beautiful. It’s the first – and nearly the only – time I’ve felt someone really understood the potential of Superman and exploited it to full effect. They’re some of my favorite comics, and I revisit them repeatedly.
Also, there’s a single page encounter on top of a skyscraper between Superman and a young goth girl, and it broke my heart in the best way possible. It’s worth reading for that. (And for the less heartbreaking moments, mind you).