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Saturday in Metropolis (with an occasional detour to Smallville)

by  in Comic News Comment
Saturday in Metropolis (with an occasional detour to Smallville)

Okay, something a little lighter this week.

A book arrived a little while ago that I was ridiculously excited to see. It’s one of those collector-hunt items that I’d been reading about for a long time, and finally I got to read it for myself.

This is the first licensed novel done based on a comic book character. The Adventures of Superman, by George Lowther and illustrated by Joe Shuster.

What I have here is not the actual 1942 hardcover, but rather a facsimile edition re-issued in 1995 by Applewood Books (“Publishers of America’s Living Past!”) a firm that specializes in nostalgia items. There is a new introduction by Roger Stern, but otherwise the book is essentially the same hardcover that came out in the forties, including the Joe Shuster illustrations.

It’s a beautiful book just as an artifact. It’s profusely illustrated with lots of black-and-white ink drawings and several full-color painted plates, all by Joe Shuster in his prime.

But it’s far more interesting to Superman historians as being the place where a lot of the accepted mythology about Superman crystallized for the first time. Lowther was the guy that changed up the names of Superman’s Kryptonian parents, from Jor-L and Lora to Jor-El and Lara. He also invented the angry confrontation between Jor-El and the Science Council, and the scene right afterwards, where Jor-El is complaining to Lara (“They just won’t listen!”) is almost beat-for-beat the same one we’ve seen play out in hundreds of comics and TV adaptations ever since.

And Lowther was the guy that laid all the groundwork for the mythology of Clark’s boyhood in Smallville; discovering his powers, being tempted to use them selfishly, having a hard time at school as he realizes he is different. Lowther established the Kents as the poor but good-hearted couple that raised Clark with old-fashioned values, set good examples for him at every turn, and taught him that his powers must be used to benefit all mankind…you know. The stuff we’ve seen in dozens of variations since, from Mort Weisinger’s Superboy comics to the flashback scenes in Superman Returns. All of that stuff first appeared in this prose novel. Until this was originally published, we’d had almost nothing; in the comics Siegel and Shuster had kissed it off with a two-panel flashback and on the radio show, Clark emerged from his rocket as an adult.

The boyhood of Superman, the stuff that eventually would sustain years of Superboy comics and Smallville TV shows, all started here in Lowther’s novel. It’s amazing how much of it stuck and got grafted on to the comics, even down to “Clark” coming from his foster mother’s maiden name. About the only pieces that didn’t stick were the names of Mr. and Mrs. Kent; Lowther calls them “Eben” and “Sarah” rather than “Jonathan” and “Martha.”

The book itself is pretty good, in a sturdy, young-adult novel way. Like a lot of the early Superman stories, most of the plot unfolds with Clark Kent, crusading reporter, being the focus of the action. (Generally, he only switches to Superman when Lois needs a quick rescue or when something needs to be smashed.) The menace of the mysterious haunted ship that’s plaguing the docks is maybe a little too Scooby-Doo for modern audiences, but in fairness this book was originally published in 1942, a couple of decades before Scooby Doo made it a cliche. (Lowther might have done that particular mystery-solution riff first too, for all I know. ) I enjoyed it a great deal, though I’d have to say it’s not a book you’d recommend to anyone that wasn’t already a Superman fan or had an interest in comics history.

At any rate, it’s fun to have it here at last.The first of…

…oddly enough, not very many Superman prose books. Come to think of it, there wasn’t another Superman prose novel of any kind published for at least another thirty-five years, not even a Big Little Book. On the other hand, almost all of the Superman novels that have been published are good ones; I can only think of a couple that are just okay and only one that’s an out-and-out dog.

Just for fun, let’s run down the list, in no particular order.

The thing that surprised me the most about the lack of Superman prose adventures between the forties and the seventies is that somehow Superman never even got a Big Little Book during that time.

Not even in the fifties when George Reeves’ version of Superman was so huge on television. In the 60’s there were quite a few superhero/adventure entries in the series– Aquaman got one, Batman and Robin got one, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four got one… hell, even Space Ghost and Major Matt Mason got one. That has to sting when a toy astronaut like Matt Mason’s kicking your ass in a book deal.

But Superman had to wait for the eighties revival of the Whitman line, and even then his was in paperback while all his colleagues got hardcover.

As for the Superman Big Little Book in particular, this is one I don’t have here; all I can tell you is that it was written by E. Nelson Bridwell, who was the guy that caught most of these ancillary licensing-deal writing assignments. So I’m guessing it’s probably cute, fun, well-plotted and has a twist at the end.

No one seems to know who illustrated it; there is no credit given in the book itself, according to the people that index Big Little Books. Eyeballing the cover, though, and knowing the publication date is 1980, I’m thinking it was probably Ross Andru or someone like that. The poses are a little too awkward for Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, even though he was the go-to guy for a lot of DC licensed art.

Really, where Superman does best in his prose incarnation is when there’s a TV show or a movie to push his name forward a bit in the public consciousness. Sometimes a prose version can even fix some of the characterization mistakes made in a movie.

I can tell you that Louise Simonson did a remarkable job of reverse-engineered plotting in this particular novel, Strange Visitor. This is a prequel set just before Superman’s departure from Earth as depicted in Superman Returns, and it really does a nice job of making sense of the stuff in that movie that, well, didn’t make a lot of sense. It’s meant as a juvenile book, aimed squarely at the young-adult market, but nevertheless Ms. Simonson did an extraordinary job of writing here that adult fans can enjoy as well. A lot of the criticism fans had for the movie, in particular the ideas that Superman would just up and leave Earth, and that he would be the kind of guy to end up as a “deadbeat dad,” gets addressed in this novel. And it gets done in such a way that nothing in here contradicts the movie, but rather makes it work a little better.

It’s also a pretty fair adventure in its own right, as Superman has to take on both Metallo and Bizarro, and there are some fun Easter Eggs for the comics readers with long memories. (… which would be pretty much all of us, I guess, if the readers of this blog are any indication.)  Again, it’s probably not for those folks who aren’t already fans of the character, but it’s a nice little book that works for fans of either the comics or the movies.

Another set of under-rated gems are the novels that appeared when Lois and Clark was on the air. There was a fun series of paperbacks done by Michael Jan Friedman.

These are set firmly in the continuity of the television show, but Friedman’s got the advantage of never needing to worry about his special-effects budget. So the adventures are a bit larger in scale than what you saw on the actual episodes, but the overall tone of light romantic comedy remains more or less intact.

There were three of these in all– Exile, Deadly Games, and Heat Wave— and I would place them squarely in the good-but-not-great category. Entertaining light reads ideal for, say, a long bus commute.

A slightly more ambitious undertaking is C.J. Cherryh’s Lois & Clark novel that originally appeared in hardcover in 1996.

This is just a good novel, period, and I’d recommend it unreservedly even to those people that aren’t that crazy about Lois & Clark or Superman in general. This book, unlike the Friedman entries, is very much not a light read. It’s quite a bit more serious in tone than the television show… a very different take on Superman, with Ms. Cherryh doing a remarkable job of extrapolation of what Superman’s powers are capable of, and even more importantly, not capable of. (Her decades-long background in SF and fantasy serves her really well here.) Without in any way devaluing or depowering the character, she nevertheless makes Superman genuinely have to work for the win.

Ms. Cherryh also takes the time to work out exactly how Clark and Lois’ romance works, how they each have to struggle with making time for one another while still upholding their responsibilities to the greater good. Honestly, the only real criticism I have of the book is that at times it comes off as almost too dark; I daresay it was a bit of a shock to those people who bought it on the strength of their appreciation of the television series. But I do like it a great deal and I’d encourage you to check it out.

Far and away the best Superman novels ever done came out as tie-ins to the first two Christopher Reeve movies. Oddly enough, the only connection they have to those films is the packaging.

I’ve heard several stories about how the first Elliott Maggin novel, Last Son of Krypton, was published as the novelization of the 1979 movie. The version that is the most common is that somehow the planned novelization got screwed up or didn’t happen, and they were contracted to publish something, so DC pulled the Maggin novel out of the files and slotted it as a replacement.

It is absolutely not the story from the movie, but rather an original novel set squarely in the comics continuity of the 1970’s. In fact, it may well be the second-best Superman prose novel ever written. The only reason it’s not the best is because Maggin trumped it with his next entry, Miracle Monday.

This is widely-regarded as the best Superman novel anyone has ever written. (In other words, it’s not just me saying it, though I agree that this is the one to beat.)

This time the deceptive packaging was on purpose. Since Last Son of Krypton turned into a best seller, Warner decided they’d try the same trick again and commissioned a second original novel from Maggin that they would package the same way in conjunction with Superman II. I gather the trick worked, and it’s a mystery to me why they didn’t keep going. For the third movie Warner went back to a straight-novelization approach, and William Kotzwinkle’s book has the dubious honor of being even limper than the movie it’s drawn from.

Pity, because they were on a roll there and William Kotwinkle’s done good work elsewhere. But this was not the best venue for him.

However, the first two books are easily found from a number of online dealers at very reasonable prices, and I can’t recommend them strongly enough. Not only are they the best Superman novels anyone’s ever written but I think they are the best things Elliott Maggin’s ever done, too.

Beyond that I don’t have too much to say about these two books that I haven’t said in this space before, other than to reiterate that they are terrific and it’s criminal that they are out of print. Ideally what I’d like to see would be an omnibus edition comprised of these two novels along with Maggin’s novella Starwinds Howl featuring Krypto the Superdog. No, really. And it’s good, too. (Maggin has at least generously made his Krypto manuscript available as a free PDF download, here. But these should all be put back in print, somewhere.)

If you don’t count the novel based on Kingdom Come, Elliott Maggin’s only other Superman prose entry to date was a short story called “Luthor’s Gift,” which was — I think — done originally as an entry for this anthology.

It’s not in the book, which is annoying because the story is no longer posted anywehere online, either. However, the anthology is still worth a look, particularly for the entries from Diane Duane and Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens.

There are a few other original books that aren’t spinning out of any particular TV or movie version of Superman. I quite liked Kevin Anderson’s novel The Last Days of Krypton.

This is a remarkable book in that it manages to reconcile all sorts of contradictory versions of Krypton, from the Weisinger comics to the crystalline giant-perfume-bottle look of the movies, into one coherent whole. Additionally, Anderson creates a suspenseful, compelling narrative despite the fact that we know the whole planet blows up and everyone dies at the end, which is an impressive feat of storytelling all by itself; he gets you so wrapped up in the story that there are a couple of times where you are thinking Jor-El really is going to pull it off and save everyone. His version of General Zod is good too. It’s a fun book.

Another Superman original which I highly recommend is Tom deHaven’s wonderful It’s Superman!

This is much more of a literary approach to the character, and I have to warn you that if you are looking for a more traditional action-oriented take on Superman, this is not the book for you — it’s set firmly in the 1930’s, and has hardly got Superman “on stage” at all. But as a character study of Clark, Lois, and Luthor, it’s brilliant, as well as remarkably evocative of America in the 30’s. This one’s all about the atmosphere.

Honorable mentions to Roger Stern’s two novels, as well.

Obviously The Death and Life of Superman is a novel based on the comics storyline, and it suffers a bit from trying to condense that sprawling serial into something that would fit into a novel. It’s still an entertaining book, though, and in fairness I should point out that it probably it would be impossible to do a version that stayed true to the original comics that didn’t feel a bit cramped. (It’s worth mentioning that for the animated adaptation of the same story, the writers essentially threw out the whole “Reign of the Supermen” part of the storyline and started fresh rather than even try it.)

Just as an aside, Louise Simonson did an even more condensed prose version of the “Death of Superman”/”Reign of the Supermen” storyline for the young-adult market. It’s notable primarily because the cover was the first-ever published DC work of one Alex Ross, which made it something of a collectible.

Roger Stern’s other Superman book, The Never-Ending Battle, was the final entry in the series of JLA original paperbacks that came out a few years ago and it was one of the better ones in that series.

Stern also did a nice job on his Smallvile novel, Strange Visitors.

I am always a little befuddled at the success of Smallville. It’s the longest-running of any of the Superman TV series (it left even the legendary George Reeves show in the dust a couple of years ago) and likewise there are almost as many Smallville licensed novels as there are of all the other Superman original books put together; there were eight paperback-original novels in all, as well as a separate series of juvenile paperbacks adapting various episodes.

Oddly enough, most of them are from comics people like Alan Grant, Devin Grayson, and the aforementioned Mr. Stern, and I find them to be quite a bit better than the television show itself. All of them are set during the high-school era of the series, before the various soap-opera subplots got carried away to the labyrinthine levels of ridiculousness we are seeing in the current TV episodes.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that Superman dominates the DC Universe series of paperback originals, as well, starring in two of the four published so far.

Of those two I prefer Mariotte’s Trail of Time, though Alan Grant’s Last Sons is a perfectly serviceable book.

That’s the checklist of Superman books. As I said up above, it’s a pretty high level of quality throughout. Not a bad record at all considering how long Superman’s been around.

Still, it’s sad that of the four or five books I would rank as the very best Superman novels, two of them were published disguised as novelizations of movies and a third spun out of the Lois & Clark television show. And another top-flight entry, Last Days of Krypton, technically doesn’t even have Superman in it at all.

What’s up with that? I think there’d be a market out there for the kind of SF pulp adventure novel that Superman works really well in, and it’s a pity we haven’t seen more of them.

Maybe someday Warner will give it a real try, the way Pocket Books did when they got hold of the Star Trek license in the 80’s, by inviting a bunch of name SF writers in to come take their shot. I’d love to see something like that.

Maybe someday.

See you next week.

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