Talking Man of Steel with novelist, VCU professor Tom De Haven

VCU creative writing professor Tom De Haven’s talks about Superman’s history, why he wrote the 2005 novel, It’s Superman!, and how the Man of Tomorrow fits into the world of today.

Superman get a Hollywood reboot on Friday with the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. But there’s another reason for the iconic character to celebrate: he turns 75 this year. Over the decades, many writers and artists have left their mark on Superman, including VCU creative writing professor Tom De Haven, who was commissioned by DC Comics to write the 2005 novel, It’s Superman!

A fan and avid reader of comic books whose novel Freaks Amour was recently adapted into a graphic novel, I asked the 64-year-old author to reflect on the character’s legacy, to talk about his Superman novel, and what the Man of Tomorrow offers us now.

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Superman first appeared in 1938, but many comic characters were created around that time. Why has Superman endured?

You’re right, there were a lot of comic-book characters, some of them super-powered, created around the same time as Superman,1 but Superman had a lot of qualities and themes associated with him from the start that other characters did not. On the most basic level, he embodies fundamental and powerful American elements and values: he’s an immigrant, and he’s an orphan; he’s part of the melting pot myth, and he’s also (as a double orphan) the self-made/reinvented personality that Americans have always been so drawn toward.

And because [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster2 were, like their parents, big supporters of FDR and the New Deal, Superman originally was a social activist, someone who stood up for the ordinary American/little guy at a time (the Depression) when it seemed that the forces of social and political reaction were the inevitable winners; Superman took on corrupt politicians, insidious lobbyists, and contemptuous mega-capitalists and fascistic corporations–like the automobile industry, the mining industry, etc.–and that resonated with the first readers in the years leading up to World War II.

How has Superman evolved over the years?

The original Superman bears scant resemblance to the Superman of the mid-40s and later; as I said, he was originally a social crusader, helping ordinary people when they had no one else to come to their defense; he didn’t fight super villains or alien invaders for many years–at least not until DC Comics reined in his left-y creators. As I said in Our Hero, my essay about Superman, he was kind of like Tom Joad in aerialist’s tights.

The World War II Superman was a super-patriot, and the post-war 1950s Superman was a kind of law-abiding super-citizen, and the paterfamilias for all of the Kryptonians who followed him to earth–Supergirl, Krypto the Superdog, the citizens of the bottle city of Kandor, and even the villains from the Phantom Zone. The 50s–the Silver Age–Superman, as developed by series editor Mort Weissinger was positioned as a benign god-like workaholic (and Super Dad) who was forever plugging volcanos and breaking the time barrier; that era saw a Superman science-fiction series that was consciously aimed at very young readers.

Beginning with the John Byrne Man of Steel relaunch in the mid-1980s, Superman–like all other superheroes by then–was written for older readers, for serious fans, and the character was, and is, pretty much like any other superhero these days–angsty, very serious, and far more concerned with the hundreds of costumed demi-gods (hero and villain) who share the DC Universe with him than he is with ordinary human beings.

Talk a bit about how your book, It’s Superman! How did it come about?

I was invited by DC Comics to do a Superman novel set in the era of Superman’s original appearance largely because I’d done a series of historical novels (the Derby Dugan Trilogy) about cartoonists and comic strips; I was a little hesitant to do the book, knowing that I wouldn’t own the copyright, but the opportunity was just too tempting to pass up. I was originally asked to do the novel in the late 90s, but couldn’t get to it until I’d finished Dugan Under Ground in 2001; it took me 4 years to research and write. The [manuscript] was close to 1000 pages, but I cut it back to under 500 pages for publication.

It’s Superman! retold the character’s origin, as does the forthcoming Man of Steel. Why tackle Clark Kent’s “rise” to Superman in such a detailed way?

I was interested in the “otherness” that the original Superman story touched upon, but never dealt with all that much in the comics. What would it be like for someone to be, literally, one of a kind–unlike no one else on earth. What would that loneliness be like–and how would that loneliness be mitigated by the fact that the “otherness” encompassed super-strength and the ability to fly? The genius of the early comic book was that Superman was one of a kind; it was a premise that was tantalizing.

Once he was surrounded by hundreds of other super-powered beings, his appeal, I think, declined enormously. As a novelist I want to write about people in stressful situations that lead to good and revealing drama; I felt Clark Kent’s story was way more interesting than Superman’s, which is why I held back and held back making him “become” Superman, in very much the same way the Smallville TV show (which was running at the time I was composing the book) dealt with its version of Clark Kent.

Why superhero movies are so tedious to me is that they make the mistake of thinking that there’s got to be two-plus hours of Big Noisy Stuff and Explosions; that stuff exhausts me after 20 minutes; I’m more interested in character than in special effects.

Was writing the origin story of a revered cultural icon intimidating?

Not at all. I just remembered what I’d heard Richard Donner say when he came on the set for the first time to film the first Christopher Reeves Superman movie: “I don’t want to mess this up, this is an icon.” I took my job seriously, I wrote the novel with the care I’d given to every other one of my novels. I did love being able to put my stamp on the character for a while (making him left-handed, insecure, not the smartest guy in the room, etc.), but I always remembered that I was dealing with a character that had been around a long time, was meaningful to a lot of people, and had certain recognizable qualities (optimism, generosity, humaneness, and a cool costume). No, it wasn’t daunting at all; what it was, was fun.

Producers of Man of Steel still think Superman is relevant. But what about you? Can a Golden Age comic character like Superman remain a relevant cultural icon in the modern day?

Certainly Superman is relevant–if he’s handled in the correct way. In a period of political and cultural cynicism, Superman can be easily dismissed as corny and of another era long gone. But that’s basically crap thinking. Superman is a philanthropist and a humanitarian, that’s what he is–on a grand scale. If we can’t admire, or hope for, such people, we’re in deep shit–and we’re in especially deep shit if we prefer our protagonists to be selfish psychopaths.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed about the new Superman movie; I’m not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work, but I’m hopeful he’s transcended his limitations–I’m hopeful that he felt the same way Richard Donner (and I) did: that he didn’t want to mess up an icon. I’m hoping this isn’t an overly dark movie, and I’m praying it’s not 118 minutes of buildings being blown up and 20 minutes of sanctimonious dialog. We’ll see. The coming attractions look good, but the costume is dreadful: chain mail? Really? Please.

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  1. De Haven recommends the recent book Supermen! edited by Greg Sadowski for more on this. 
  2. Creators of Superman. 

photo by Katherine Johnson

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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