by Dan Nadel
Friday, August 20, 2010
The best surprise of 2010′s ongoing orgy of comics history is Tom De Haven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth. De Haven, already notable in comics for his Derby Dugan trilogy, which tracked a fictional character and his creator(s) through 20th century comics history, as well as for some excellent writing on Chester Gould, among other topics, has constructed a funny, incisive and warm account of Superman-the-character, and the men who made him in comics, film and television. The central question here is, “What, if anything, has Superman meant, and does the character still mean?” This could be a weight around the narrative, but instead allows De Haven plenty of room to nimbly explore all the facets of the character. De Haven is a wise and self-effacing guide, admitting to a childhood love of Superman, an adult disinterest, and that mortifying moment in 1992 when he stood in line to buy the “Death of Superman” comic book.
What I enjoyed so much was that De Haven recognizes that, yes, this is a corporate property, and has no illusions about that, but is able to write as fluidly about the television show and the actors involved as he is the editors, ghost-writers and ghost-artists of the comic book. And because he so shrewdly sketches characters, he’s able to quickly jump back and compare, say, the leftist underdog of Jerry Siegel to the Utopian bore of Mort Weisinger. Partly this comes from the way he structures the book: In the first person and as a synthesis of multiples sources. He freely (as he should) draws on, and extrapolates from, extant scholarship, which allows him to cover a lot of ground and make it look, well, easy. Besides the specific pleasures of the book (including a bemused take on the 1976 film and a suspenseful retelling of the Siegel and Shuster agreement of December 1975) Our Hero is distinguished for being a joy to read as a narrative. With the obvious exceptions of Men of Tomorrow, Spurgeon and Raphael’s Stan Lee bio, and a few others, most comics history books are a slog — really an enumeration of facts/ideas/examples rather than a story. The Thin Black Line, which I wrote about two weeks ago, while a valuable work, has trouble getting any narrative steam going) Here we have a skillful writer matched with a subject that, at first glance, seems done to death. But because he’s able to craft a story, and a thematic through-line, from disparate media and sources, De Haven makes something all together new. For example, here is De Haven on the appeal of Shuster’s artwork:
His was a guileless and low-budget storytelling, the comic-strip translation of a Warner Brothers mean-streets melodrama: cheap and tawdry and rushed, but snappy and impromptu. It related itself and was convincing. After Shuster, and despite the professional polish and more creditable, more variable compositions, Superman never again seemed as integrated into his environment, or as spiritually alive.
In a short paragraph, De Haven nails an oft-maligned artist and then keeps the book moving. It’s not an easy feat. Later, he deftly weaves together a description of Curt Swan the man (“described by his daughter as resembling someone straight out of A Prairie Home Companion”) with a timeline of his career and his style of drawing as applied to Superman, and nicely ties it to the contemporaneous TV show: “Later on, once Weisinger had brought him onto the Action and Superman titles, Swan abandoned the [George] Reeves resemblance, instead basing the look of his Superman on Johnny Weissmuller and his Clark Kent on Alex Raymond’s comic-strip private eye Rip Kirby.” As someone who has never cared much for the “media” history of a character, I found the radio, TV and film portions revelatory, mostly because of how much those ancillary (though the point is, they weren’t really so ancillary after all) manifestations related to the comics, both in terms of the ideas at work and their actual contributions to the mythology.
There is plenty of good, solid comics history here as well, though the Mort Weisinger section detailing the unhappy editor bullying and humiliating his artists is the only part of the book where I wish De Haven had dug deeper. He quite acutely corrects the general perception of Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson, the usually ridiculed almost-first publisher of Superman, and early innovator of the comic book (and actual pubisher of early Siegel and Shuster), by drawing from interviews with Nicholson’s granddaughter (for more, Alter Ego 88 contains interviews with the family). But when it comes to Weisinger, he defers to the admittedly overwhelming amount of gnarly stories. Still, I can’t help wondering, with Weininger’s family still out there and his papers at Syracuse, if there’s more to the story. There may not be, but who knows.
In any case, in the end, for De Haven, it’s the grand idea of Superman, in tandem with the usually fascinating specifics (George Reeves; Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, Jack Liebowitz) that makes the book worthwhile for him — the idea of this do gooder, doing good. So, this is one of those reviews where I actually say: Go out and get this book. It’s exemplary work and covers many and exciting ideas about the medium itself. (why, De Haven even half-winkingly calls Weisinger the John Ford of comics!)
Note: Tom Spurgeon has a great process-oriented interview with De Haven over at Comics Reporter. And next week: The other side of Superman: Funnyman — a recently released study of Siegel and Shuster’s last stab at success.