Vol #3, Issue 7
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006
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The Thunder Child: Interviews Source Book
Tom De Haven: Author It's Superman
Interview by Caroline Miniscule

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In 1984 I published Funny Papers, a novel set in the 1890s and the first book in my trilogy about an imaginary American comic strip called Derby Dugan and the cartoonists who write and draw it throughout the twentieth century. Before then I�d never done much research for any of my fiction, but suddenly a quarter of my work time was devoted to it. And I discovered, to my surprise, that I loved, just loved digging around in libraries and archives (especially the Newspaper Annex of the New York Public Library), ferreting out those offbeat sorts of details that evoke an historical time, trying like hell to �get it right.�

The next book I published, in 1985, was a collection of linked novellas called Sunburn Lake; the first novella in the book was set in 1936. Now, I�ve always loved the 1930s because of its popular culture�movies, plays, paintings, literature, the pulps, songs, and especially comic strips�but once I immersed myself in that time to do my fiction, I fell completely in love with the period, so much so that I began to teach a university course about the �culture� of the American Thirties.

I was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, grew up in the same neighborhood you see in the first half hour of Steven Spielberg�s War of the Worlds: that beautiful silvery bridge those aliens blast to undulating smithereens is the same Bayonne Bridge I used to ride my bike across (to Staten Island) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (I was born in �49.)

Robert Crumb has said repeatedly that the Thirties was the pinnacle of American culture, and I agree with him; Art Spiegelman has said that we are, for whatever reason, most nostalgic for the decade before the one we were born in, and there seems to be truth in that�at any rate, there�s truth in it for me since I was born in the Forties.

Tom DeHaven's Biography

I discovered and fell in fascinated love with newspaper comic strips when I was six or seven, shortly afterwards I fell in love with comic books. As I recall the first book-book I ever bought myself was a cheap Ballantine paperback anthology of horror stories called Zacherly�s Vulture Stew, and that was followed by Fahrenheit 451, then all of Ray Bradbury�s stuff (my favorite remains Something Wicked This Way Comes). Then I became a devotee of Forrest J. Ackerman�s Famous Monsters of Filmland, Spacemen and Screen Thrills Illustrated magazines.

In other words: I was seriously hooked on comic strips/ comicbooks/ sf/ horror fiction/ horror films/ movie serials practically from the get-go. And I drew. And drew and drew and drew. Made up my own comic strips, created my own comic books at the dining room table, drawing as I listened to Top 40 radio. (I was, happily, age-appropriate to buy the first issues of Showcase/Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Hawkman, Brave & the Bold/Justice League of America�and then Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, etc. And yes, I read all of the Superman titles�including Superboy, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, which in many ways I preferred since they were less �cosmic� and more �slice-of-life.�)

Continue to Tom DeHaven's Biography.

(By the way, Soda Wauters, the overweight big-band singer, who plays a major role in It�s Superman! originally appeared in Sunburn Lake, in the novella entitled Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie.)

When I finally got back to the Derby Dugan story in the early 1990s, I knew that the second installment would be set in the Depression-era heyday of the American comic strip. That novel, called Derby Dugan�s Depression Funnies (the title, by the way, was dreamed up by novelist Paul Auster during a time when I was completely stuck for one) came out in 1996, and was, by far, my best-reviewed and most popular book to date (and I�m fairly sure it will always be my own personal favorite).

Two readers who liked the book (I would later find out) were Paul Levitz, publisher of DC Comics, and Steve Korte, DC�s Special Projects Editor.

Steve wrote me a letter sometime in 1997, saying how much he enjoyed Depression Funnies and wondering if I�d be interested in doing a novel about Superman set in the same period. Apparently, in conversation he and Levitz had realized that for all of Superman�s various incarnations in comics, radio, film, TV and novels, following the first Siegel and Shuster stories he�d never again been presented in his original Great Depression/New Deal context. And since, Steve said, I was obviously a Thirties aficionado, maybe I could be the guy to do just that.

On one hand, it was a cinch decision for me to make: of course I�d love to do such a thing, to have Superman to play with. What fun! On the other hand�this was a character owned by a huge corporation; anything I wrote, I knew, would not be copyrighted in my own name. That gave me pause. A big one. (Chronicles of the King�s Tramp caused me some grief because, while the texts of all three novels, were copyrighted in my name, the series title�and in some obscurely legal way, the characters�was copyrighted in the name of �Byron Preiss Visual Productions.� Which meant, Byron controlled reprint rights.)

It�s not every day a writer gets to put his own spin on an iconic figure like Superman.

I had to think about it for a while, but in the end I decided this was a project I wanted to do; after all, it�s not every day a writer gets to put his own spin on an iconic figure like Superman.

I told Steve I�d work up an outline, but that it would take a little while since I was still in the middle of writing the third and last of the Derby Dugan novels.

That �little while� turned out to be four years.

Dugan Under Ground was published in 2001 (in September of 2001, as bad luck would have it), and soon after that my proposed storyline for a Superman novel (as well as the title It�s Superman!; the exclamation mark was added later, and not by me�although I think it was a brilliant touch) was accepted by Steve Korte at DC.

Steve then contacted several different book publishers/editors and showed them the proposal. Eventually (sometime early in 2002) Jay Schaefer at Chronicle Books made the best offer.

The contract gave me roughly a year to complete the manuscript; it took me more like two-and-a-half years. I handed in a finished manuscript in late October 2004; it ran about 870 pages (space-and-a-half, which would print out at something like 1000 pages in book form). Obviously, it was too long. I got the manuscript back with Jay�s (and Steve�s) comments sometime in December 2004, and immediately after Christmas I took a room in a hotel at Virginia Beach (it�s beautifully deserted near the boardwalk at that time of year), then locked myself in for a week or so, ordered room service and cut the book roughly in half.

What went? A lot about Lex Luthor (his family life, his rise to power, his manias); a complete interwoven storyline about a Russian spy trying to get her hands on Lex�s robot-schematic, some more Hollywood/Diana Dewey stuff; quite a bit more about Alger Lee and his relationship with Jonathan Kent; and gobs more historical texturing. Do I miss any of it? No, not really. The book is way better shorter.

Throughout the entire project I immersed myself in Superman stuff�I read all of the early comic book stories (Steve Korte was kind enough to send me all those DC Archive books) as well as the Siegel and Shuster newspaper strips; I got tapes and cds of the radio shows, listened to them at home and in the car. I watched, and rewatched, the Fleischer animated cartoons, the Columbia serials. Fortunately when I was still living in New Jersey I�d taped a two-day George Reeves/Superman marathon that a local TV station broadcast (with Jack Larson intros), and I still had those to look at.

I got dvd�s of the Christopher Reeves movies, watched those. I�d taped Lois & Clark when it was originally broadcast�watched those again, too. Ditto the most recent Superman animated series. I was well on my way when Smallville premiered, but I watched that too, as many episodes as I could (Richmond TV broadcast the series at 2 in the morning for some crazyass reason!).

I read �histories� of Superman (the Les Daniels book, the Michael Fleisher book, the Scott Beatty book, as well as Superman at 50 and Superman: Serial to Cereal, etc.). I read the George Lowthar novel, the Roger Stern novel, novelizations of Lois & Clark and Smallville. I read a Martin Greenburg-edited anthology of Superman short stories originally published in the 1970s, Superman fiction by E. Nelson Bridwell, and, of course, I read Gladiator, the early 1930s novel by Philip Wylie that inspired Jerry Siegel. And I re-read Silver Age/Mort Weissinger era Superman comics as well as John Byrnes� relaunch/Man of Steel stuff, the �Death/Return of Superman� comic book series, Loeb and Sales� �Superman For All Seasons,� Mark Waid�s �Superman Birthright,� and tried to keep current with the ongoing monthly Superman titles. I read Mark Wolverton�s amusing (and helpful) �The Science of Superman��hell, I even read fan biographies of Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger!

And I don�t want to forget to mention Krypton Nights, a superb and very moving collection of poems about Superman and Lois and Lex (and Jor-el) written by Bryan D. Dietrich. (The book, published by Zoo Press out of Lincoln Nebraska, won the 2001 Paris Review Prize.) The courage, sympathy and wit Dietrich displayed in imagining fresh (but legitimate) personas for the whole Superman cast inspired me to take some risks myself with those (daunting) characters.

"Krypton Nights, a superb and very moving collection of poems about Superman and Lois and Lex (and Jor-el) written by Bryan D. Dietrich."

So yeah: I did some homework.

The actual proposal I worked up for DC Comics contained a fairly complete outline of the story I intended to tell, but more importantly, for me, it defined the scope and the tone: I meant to do a straight adult novel, no winks, no nudges, no irony, no cynicism. I also intended to write about a Superman who looked like Joe Shuster�s version�more Average Joe than Linebacker on Steroids; I wanted to write a �coming of age� novel about a boy who grew up during the 1920s in rural Kansas�what would he be like? What would he have learned/been taught? (By the way, I actually managed to find curricula for Kansas elementary and high schools of that period, and incorporated it into the manuscript.) What would such a boy/young man think about the world, about the United States, about his home state; how would he feel about his parents, the future, politics, etc. And then I would add in the fact that he knows, gradually discovers, that he is unlike anyone else, anyone else anywhere.

I deviated (as I'll always do) from my story outline, but I never deviated from my character premise, and that�s why I enjoyed writing the book as much as I did. I think I created an honest and true character and I stuck with his persona; what he did in each and every circumstance was what I felt a character with that history and those character traits would do.

I�ve been startled and often disappointed, sometimes even disgusted, that some reviewers and bloggers have felt that I wrote about a Superman who was "dumb." I didn�t, not at all�but he is a young man who grew up in his time and his place and was educated according to the theories and with the tools of that context. (He went to Smallville High, not Phillips Exeter Academy, for crying out loud.) He worries that he�s not smart enough to do the things that he wants to do, feels he should do, but he manages to put aside, if never completely overcome, those feelings of inadequacy, and to me that�s heroic. Why would anyone think a 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year old kid from a tiny farming town in eastern Kansas would move out into the greater world and immediately, instinctively believe he could compete with a big-city politician like Lex Luthor or engage in an easygoing man-to-man conversation with the President of the United States?

In the novel we take leave of Clark/Superman just before his 21st birthday�if we re-visited this version of the character when he was, say, 30, he�d be a very different, probably very confident individual because of his life experiences. My novel, however, shows him just when those life experiences are beginning. And frankly, if he had super-confidence at that point, I�d be worried about him. And I sure as hell wouldn�t believe in him.

The outline that DC accepted and Chronicle Books purchased contained the same movements as the finished novel: Smallville, Hollywood, New York, with a brief �on the road� section in-between Smallville and Hollywood. Some of the particulars of the story, however, changed, and in many cases changed drastically, from the outline. For the better, I�m convinced.

Some reviewers and readers have wondered why I used New York City rather than Metropolis.

Some reviewers and readers have wondered why I used New York City rather than Metropolis. Simple. I wanted to put this Superman in the �real world� as much as possible so that when I deviated from it (robots, for one example) those deviations would more likely be accepted. Also, I�ve always loved reading about New York in the Thirties, and I know a lot about it�so it seemed I could give good weight/more bang for the buck using the bona-fide Manhattan as the setting rather than a made-up Metropolis. And I�m glad I did it. No regrets.

When I began drafting the novel, some parts of the story were told in the past tense, other in the present. Later, when I was revising and cutting the completed manuscript, I changed everything to the present tense, for consistency. Those kinds of craft decisions�which point of view to narrate from, narrating tense, etc.�are very important to me, and they are decisions I�m forever harping on about to my writing students (you can teach craft, but not art; you can help to make someone a craftsman, but not an artist, at least that�s how I see it).

Originally I mixed past and present tenses with a notion I would use the present tense to speed up the pace, to zoom in on the action. Ultimately, though, it just seemed fussy and theoretical, and I didn�t want readers even to be aware of the craft. I wanted them to be carried away by the narrative; transported. So I had to choose between the past tense or the present tense, and I chose the present because it�s non-reflective�everything is happening now; it�s the camera tense, used in screenplays to create immediacy and velocity. And finally I wanted this 400-plus novel to move �faster than a speeding bullet.�

You asked about the female characters, and all I can say, really, is that like all of the characters in the novel I tried to make them as true to the historical period as I could; and of course they also had to do their particular jobs to make the plot work.

There was much more about Martha Kent in the long version of the novel, but even in the published version she was "the pioneer/frontier" woman, a woman of strength and simple faith. For story purposes, and to be true to the Siegel and Shuster version, she had to die early, and I regret that I couldn�t do more with her (but I was glad for the opportunity to "bring her back," briefly late in the book, even if she�s probably just a figment of Clark�s imagination at that point; nevertheless, even as the "imaginary" Martha (who talks to Clark during the chaotic events of Halloween night), I tried to get her personality across, to suggest the ways she might have influenced who Clark was and would become: self-effacing but committed to acting, doing something, even when you�re not sure at all what that ought to be.

I�ve been criticized by a few readers, on a couple of blogs and even in a review at Amazon, for making "cracks" about Republicans and for making Clark "godless." I�m no fan of Republicans, lord knows, but what I was trying to do in the novel was show how Clark�s politics, as minimal and even as inchoate as they are, came from his father: early on, we find out that Jonathan Kent is an FDR Democrat who believes the local newspaper editor is a fool for supporting Hoover in the �32 presidential election; later, when Clark makes that remark to Lois at their first meeting (�What are you, a Republican?�) I was hoping the reader would make the connection: his politics are simply a reflection of his father�s, which seems to me a truthful observation.

I�ve been criticized by a few readers, on a couple of blogs and even in a review at Amazon, for making �cracks� about Republicans and for making Clark �godless.�

Same with religion. When Clark and Willi are �just talking, talking� on the road, Clark mentions that he doesn�t believe in God�but then quickly adds, �Do you think there could be a God?� That, again, is supposed to remind the reader of the earlier passage where we learn that Jonathan Kent, while a spiritual man, has no truck with religion and is not sure about anything, including the existence of God or life after death.

Same with Clark�s enlightened (for the time) thoughts about racial and ethnic tolerance. (Mr. Kent, the reader might recall, stood up for the Native American who was turned away from membership in the Tomahawk Methodist Church. "Tomahawk," indeed.)

The point is, Clark takes much of his core beliefs and ideals from his father rather than from his mother; from his mother, he takes his strength of character. (So if the novel has a position on which is more crucial, nature or nurture, I suppose it comes down on the side of nurture.)

Lois, of all the characters in the book, was the most fun to write.

Lois, of all the characters in the book, was the most fun to write. Again, I tried to make her true to the times, and while this Lois Lane certainly wouldn�t have been the �typical� young woman of the era, neither was she un-typical. One reviewer referred to her as �a pistol,� and I think that�s a pretty good description: she is. She knows what she wants and goes after it�yet there�s a (big) part of her that still worries she�s giving up some important things (love, for instance) in her single-minded pursuit of a career.

About those �problems of 1930s racism� I deal with to some degree in the novel: while it may be true that the 30s was a pinnacle of American pop culture and enlightened government, it was also a time of terrible injustice and prejudice, especially racial. The number of lynchings in the south and southwest was mind-boggling. And if I wanted the novel to be authentic in its grounding, I had to deal with that, at least to some degree.

The episode at Panterville was based on a real incident in mid-30s Texas; except (of course) for Clark�s part in them, the events actually happened: the attack on the courthouse, the �Negro� prisoner being locked in a vault �for his own safety,� and his eventual death in there once the courthouse was set on fire, even the gruesome, unbelievable fact that the townspeople dragged out his cooked body, tied it to the fender of a car, dragged it around the square and then hanged it. On the internet I found the actual typewritten report by the Texas Ranger who�d tried to hold off the mob and used that for all of the details. (The Thirties was also a time when ethnic slurs were almost commonplace in ordinary conversation, something I tried to show in several scenes, particularly in those involving Lex and his henchmen, Lex and Mrs. O�Shea, and Mrs. O and Mrs. Stickowski. Making Lex himself a scold, taking others to task for making ethnic and racial slurs, was a way to round out his character a bit; making him a complete sociopath wouldn�t have been half as much fun.)

One reaction to the novel that I�d never anticipated was this whole business of how �canonical� my Superman/Superman story is or is not. I tried to synthesize the dozens of back-story variations that have appeared in various media over the past 70 years, and labored hard not to violate any true essence�but, remember, this is a novel and not a �novelization� so of course I had to invent. Truth is, if I couldn�t do that, I wouldn�t have said yes to the project.

And besides, what is the �canon�? The early Superman of Siegel and Shuster isn�t the Superman of the mid-40s, and that Superman is certainly not the Superman of the George Reeves TV show, nor is that TV show Superman the Superman of the Mort Weisinger years. And John Byrnes�s Superman (with living Kents, for example) sure isn�t the Superman of the Silver Age. And within a few years of Byrnes�s revamp, entire chunks of his �bible� were changed or thrown out, etc. etc. Canon? What canon?

What is the �canon�?

The thing I discovered early on about the character is that he is incredibly fluid: he works in any number of different incarnations�my version is simply one of those. (When I was a kid and reading Superman and Superboy comic books, the �canon� stated that Superman�s costume was sewn from the blankets he was swaddled in on his flight from Krypton; that was a great bit of business (although it made no sense: the material you�d need to wrap an infant is hardly enough material to produce an adult�s costume!). I wanted to do my own �origin of the costume� vignette, and it�s my personal favorite bit of business in the book�the Saucer-Man from Saturn riff. A novelist invents. I invented.

One comics fan on an online forum I peeked at stated categorically he wouldn�t read the novel if it didn�t �follow continuity.� Well, that�s his prerogative, but I wondered which �continuity� he was referring to.

Finally, you asked for my opinions on the various extra-comics versions of Superman�

Being a child of the 50s, I�ll always see George Reeves as my primary real-life Superman (just as I�ll always see Curt Swan�s version as my primary comic-book Superman and Wayne Boring�s as my primary newspaper comic-strip Superman), but I love Kirk Alyn�s �feisty little guy� version in the serials (he looks a lot like the Superman I saw in my head while writing the novel�my guy was a composite of Kirk Alyn, Jimmy Cagney and Henry Fonda as Tom Joad).

Christopher Reeves was the most charming Superman of all, but Dean Cain was terrific (and Teri Hatcher was a fantastic Lois Lane; she and Phyllis Coates were hands-down the sexiest). It was a shame that Lois & Clark changed producers after the first season and went straight to hell; the initial batch of episodes, I thought, were classy stuff.

Christopher Reeves was the most charming Superman of all

I love watching Smallville, although I admit I watch it only on dvd and I�m two-and-a-half seasons behind the rest of the world. The Lana Lang on there is a bit too perky and porcelain for my taste, but Tom Welling is delightful, and Michael Rosenbaum is the best Lex Luthor ever; ever.

As far as the upcoming Superman movie�I dunno. All the rumors concerning the plot make it sound fairly awful, but who knows?

The problem with �superhero movies� (if anybody cares about my two cents) is that they neglect character and story almost entirely (and forget about plot!) and just slather on the special effects/computer graphics. For It�s Superman! I deliberately kept the super-powered stuff to a minimum for at least half of my novel, and if you�ll notice much of it was done �off-page� (stopping the bullet, catching the little boy falling from his roof, capturing the kidnappers, being hit by a speeding automobile, saving the oil field boomer, etc.). My reasoning was that if you saw all of those heroics from the start, they�d be just ho-hum/more of the same by the climax.

And that�s how superhero movies generally are for me: ho-hum. In fact, the only contemporary ones I consider good movies are the two Spiderman pictures. Because they�re really about Peter Parker�which is what made Spiderman a success in the first place. (The first two-thirds of the last Batman movie was pretty good, then all the stops were pulled, the logic jettisoned, the special effects unleashed and it turned dopey and seen-it-before.)

Any last thoughts on It�s Superman? Yeah, but just this: despite his being a corporate property, Superman is still the first superhero, still an American icon of the first magnitude, and it was a real privilege getting to put my own stamp on the character. I�m proud of what I did, and I�ve been gratified so many readers have responded favorably to my �version� of the story. I wanted to write a solid, intelligent entertainment and I think I succeeded. And I had a hell of a good time writing it. A hell of a good time.

Continue to:
Tom DeHaven's Biography.

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