Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It's Superman! & Superman In The Forties

Icons become icons because they transcend their origins, but that doesn't mean they lose them. Superman has gone on to become much more than the caped tough guy who tossed bad guys out of a car on the cover of the first issue of Action Comics in 1938, but it's a particular time and place and the lives of two young, second-generation Jewish immigrants from Cleveland—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—that made him possible. Siegel lost his father to random crime, and both came of age in the Great Depression in tenuously middle-class families. They fell in love with the pulps, comic strip heroes, and the promise of a better tomorrow, one they knew wouldn't be achieved without a punch or two.


An alternate version of Superman's origin, Tom DeHaven's It's Superman! takes the hero back to the past Siegel and Shuster first imagined for him, following a young Clark Kent as he grows up in small-town '30s Kansas, begins to recognize his extraordinary powers, heads to the big city (real-life New York, not Metropolis), meets a plucky young reporter named Lois Lane, and brushes against megalomaniacal criminal/politician Lex Luthor. As the author of the Derby Dugan trilogy—which follows a comic strip creator from the early days of newspapers through the underground comix of the '60s—DeHaven knows a thing or two about comics and 20th century history, and he fills It's Superman! with rich period detail. An aspiring reporter obsessed with the new "scientifiction" genre, Kent rides the rails, gets enraged by a Texas lynching, picks up a costume from the lower reaches of Hollywood, and ultimately makes his crime-fighting debut.

If it weren't for DeHaven's insight into the hero, It's Superman! might have been just another pleasant, alternate-universe origin story like so many in the Superman canon. But DeHaven has created a Superman who, though physically invulnerable, can be easily wounded. Forever a good-hearted, awkward lummox, he doesn't fit in in Smallville or New York, and the novel builds to both an exciting showdown with some robots and an existential crisis. He's due to become the Man Of Tomorrow, but that doesn't make it any easier to figure out who he is today.

"It was clear from the start that Superman voted for Roosevelt," Superman-archivist Bob Hughes writes in the introduction to Superman In The Forties, a collection of 18 early stories. In the earliest, Siegel-penned, Shuster-drawn entries, Superman spends a lot of time battling corrupt, war-mongering capitalists and crooked businessmen. As the supporting cast comes into shape, he throws punches around with less abandon and starts acting downright responsible as he settles into a comfortable routine of less politically provocative adventures. Infatuated with Lois Lane and locked into an eternal stalemate with Lex Luthor, he seems to be headed down a similar course in the final chapters of It's Superman! by the time DeHaven writes "And here, at last, is the point where our story merges with all of the others." Sometimes even icons have to grow up.