It's Superman!

It's Superman!

two covers from the hardcover and paperback editions of the novel
Author Tom De Haven
Country United States
Language English
Genre Superhero fiction
Publisher Chronicle Books & Ballantine Books
Publication date

September 15, 2005 (hardcover)

August 29, 2006 (paperback)
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 384 (hardcover) 432 (paperback) pp

It's Superman! is a novel by Tom De Haven based on the comic book superhero Superman. It was released on September 15, 2005 in hardcover and August 29, 2006 in paperback. The premise tells the tale of Clark Kent's beginnings into becoming Superman, set in the 1930s, where Clark befriends a wrongly convicted photographer named Willi Berg, and is then taken from Kansas to Hollywood and finally in New York where he meets Lois Lane, fights Lex Luthor, as he debuts in his superhero persona. Despite the setting, this is not about the Golden Age Superman also known as the Superman of Earth-2; as Perry White, the Daily Planet, Lex Luthor's position and his trademark powers (including flight) are not part of that alternate Earth. Rather, it's a Superman period piece set in the 1930s.


In Smallville, Kansas, in 1935, Clark Kent is interviewed by the local sheriff over the death of a wanted man whom Clark confronted at a movie theatre. He died from, what everyone agrees to be, his handgun firing backwards. Clark and his father, Jonathan Kent, know the real story: he shot Clark, and the bullet bounced off Clark's forehead, and killed the wanted man instead. Clark is scared over what he is becoming. Matters worsen when Clark's beloved mother, Martha Kent, dies of a terminal illness. In Manhattan, Willi Berg storms out from Lois Lane's, his girlfriend's, apartment because she could not help him buy back his camera, so he intends to steal it. Arriving at the pawn shop, he discovers several men dead, and gets wounded trying to escape when he sees the ringleader of the gang: Lex Luthor. Because he is an alderman, Lex frames Willi for the murders and a henchwoman attempts to murder him at the hospital days later until she is stopped by federal agents, led by Meyer Lansky. With their help, and Lois's, Willi goes on the run, finding himself in Smallville as a member of the WPA. There, he meets Clark, who is now a reporter for the Smallville Herald Progress, and befriends him after he shows off his superspeed. After solving the crime of a kidnapped child that ends unhappily; Clark quits the paper and Willi discusses with him the idea of leaving Smallville to travel. Because he wants to see what else is out there, Clark agrees.

Hollywood of 1937; Clark has a job as a stuntman and has a girlfriend named Diana Dewey, a costume designer. Willi meets with a former roommate of Lois's, a voluptuous nurse who goes by the nickname Skinny, where he is found by police and gets arrested. Clark tries out a costume that was made for a science fiction film that is now cancelled: a blue leotard with a red cape and a red "S". Upon trying it on, he is taken by it. After he discovers his ability of flight, Clark puts on the costume to free Willi from the police. Clark and Willi then head back to New York where they meet back up with Lois, now a reporter for the Daily Planet. Clark falls instantly in love with Lois. There at Clark and Willi's new apartment, they describe to an unbelieving Lois the person who freed Willi who is a "friend" of him and Clark's: Superman. The conversation turns from good to bad when Lois reports the sad news: the case that had been building against Lex Luthor has been dropped over the death of the head agent of the case and the missing, presumed destroyed, evidence. In a shocking turn of events, Lex announces his resignation from his position as an alderman. Inside the offices of his company, LUTHOR Corp., he initiates the construction of robots - seemingly benign, but equipped with surveillance and weapons capabilities - dubbed "Lexbots".

On Halloween Night; Clark tries to cheer up a depressed Willi as they walk throughout the city. At the same time, Lois tries to help her former boyfriend, an ex-cop who believes Lex murdered his partner. When Ceil Stickowski, widow of one of Lex's old henchmen, calls to reveal secret information on what Luthor is planning, the two head out only to get into a gun fight with Paulie Scaffa, another henchman who just now murdered Ceil and Mrs. O'Shea, Luthor's partner. Paulie takes off - not before shooting Ben, Lois's police officer boyfriend - and takes off only to be stopped by Clark, wearing his Superman costume, as he damages the car to get Paulie out. However, inside the trunk is one of the Lexbots and it soon activates and attacks Superman. After a horrifying attack that leaves a few sections of the city street on fire, a bruised and exhausted Superman finally destroys the Lexbot and escapes before police can arrest him. The next morning, thanks to his article and the revelation that the evidence against Lex was not destroyed, as well as new evidence found by Lois of the LUTHOR Corp. logo on the robot; Lex Luthor is called to be arrested and Clark gets a job at the Daily Planet. Before he is arrested, Superman meets with Lex at his home; as Lex talks about how similar the two are, making them "perfect rivals", Lex forces his assistant to jump from the window. Superman saves the assistant, but upon returning, he learns that not only is the assistant dead of a heart attack, but that Lex used the time to escape.

In the closing chapter, the central characters watch the play Our Town in February 1938. During the play, Clark reflects on what has happened to him and Superman. He has saved countless lives from accidents and disasters, Lex (still on the run) has given Superman (through Clark) a new more powerful costume with a red on yellow "S" crest, FDR has called for Superman to have a "chat" (which Clark is reluctant to attend), and sometimes Clark hates his Superman persona because of the pressures put upon him and also because Lois dislikes Clark but loves Superman. Finally, as the play ends, he thinks of what his father said to him on his deathbed; to use his powers for good. Lois notices Clark sobbing in his theater box and, surprised by her own concern, calls out to him. She finally gains his attention by throwing a shoe at him. When Clark takes off his glasses to wipe his eyes, a thrill goes through Lois as, immediately spotting his resemblance to the Man of Steel, she first develops the classic suspicion that Clark is Superman. At the same time, Clark looks into Lois' eyes and realizes that he will love her for the rest of his life and that this love will fuel him to do his best to do good in the world. He has struggled through the entire book to feel "like everyone else", and now, he is "like everyone else".

Main characters

Clark Kent is the protagonist, who later goes by the alter ego of Superman. The adopted son of farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, Clark is a shy, quiet and insecure young man who feels "there" in society because of his alienation. He possesses "talents" such as super strength, speed, flight, and much more. No matter how many people he is surrounded by, he feels alone. This is because he feels that they can not relate to him (ironically the only person who does is his nemesis, Lex Luthor). Unlike most mythos, Clark is given a more "human" approach, much like an "everyman", that subjects him with the same humane actions and temptations that would go against his comic book counterpart, while still not astraying from his "boy scout" image. Examples include an angsty brooding nature more reminiscent of Batman than Superman; and moments where he breaks the law and uses his powers to his advantage. Also unlike the mythos, Clark is unaware of his Kryptonian origins. Instead, he at one point recalls a dream where a planet is dying of old age and a scientist and his wife send their son off to a rocket ship. Plus, he is jokingly told by his father that he came "from a "wagon", suggesting it might have been an airship that dropped a bomb (under this assumption, they do not understand why a bomb would contain a baby). But it is Clark who suggests to his denying father, that he must be an alien from another planet.

Willi Berg is a photographer, Lois Lane's ex-boyfriend, and, eventually, Clark Kent's best friend. Known for his past of getting into trouble; no one believes him when he is accused of murder, saying he was framed by Lex Luthor, New York's alderman. He is saved by the FBI, and with the help of Lois, gets a job with the WPA, where he meets Clark. It is because of Willi that Clark develops his powers, leaves Smallville, and he and Clark together create Clark's dual-identity; making Clark and Superman two separate people. It is alluded that Willi intended to use Clark and his abilities for his own purposes to get him out of the jam he was in, but went against that idea as he was starting to like Clark. Willi dyes his hair red while on the lam, making him reminiscent of the Daily Planets red-headed photographer, Jimmy Olsen (who does not appear in this book, though was going to be Willi's false identity when he was on the run in the original proposal).

Lois Lane begins as a student at Columbia University journalism school, before becoming a reporter for the Daily Planet. Described as a "pistol" by the novel's reviewers, Lois will do anything to get the story, including getting the dirt on Lex Luthor, and will not let anything or anyone stop her in the male-dominated journalistic world. Her intelligence, self-confidence and beauty attract an impressive number of men, including Willi Berg and Ben Jaeger. She is an army brat; with the man she grew up being a hard-nosed retired army captain (in the comics, he is a general). She occasionally fears she will never meet a man where the relationship lasts, and she isn't put down because she is a woman. Her relationship with Clark is complicated; as she knows she can easily have him, she expresses disinterest and sometimes scorn when he asks her out. She always makes jokes about him, but she does not mean it, and she is not as cold-hearted as she makes herself appear.

Lex Luthor is the main antagonist, an alderman in New York, and in charge of his company, LUTHOR Corp. Luthor is the man responsible for framing Willi Berg after he is spotted at the murder scene of a pawn shop owner. Under his respectable disguise of an alderman, Lex secretly runs a criminal empire from within Manhattan, his connections allowing him to evade the long arm of the law. Lex's criminal actions are motivated, at least in part, by trying to outrun the memory of his father, himself a fugitive who lived in fear of being caught. Lex is embarrassed by his drunken, painfully honest mother, so much so, that after her funeral he confesses to her headstone that he never loved her. Despite his ruthlessness, Lex is the epitome of social grace; no racial slurs or coarse language are tolerated in his ranks. The connection between Lex and Clark/Superman is founded on how similar the two characters are revealed to be; not only in the outward "face" each presents to the world but the feelings of isolation which motivate those deceptions.

Jonathan and Martha Kent are the owners of their self-named farm, as well as the loving parents of their adopted son, Clark. Before Clark came into their lives, the Kents could not conceive, and Jonathan felt happy about that, due to his past with his own father to whom he disrespected. Because of Clark being "different", Jonathan could not help nor understand what must have been going in Clark's mind to answer his questions, making Jonathan feel as if he had been a bad father. All evidence, however, points to him as the opposite: a patient and loving man who gives Clark his moral conscience (and a few grammar lessons); Jonathan's encouragement becomes one of the reasons he becomes Superman, and why he stays being Superman even after experiencing some fears. Martha dies early in the novel, but her presence is still felt through the minds of both Clark and Jonathan; mentioning her background, her faith, and her past as a pioneer woman. Jonathan follows suit near the end and dies too; just like his wife, it appears to be of natural causes, hastened, it appears, by the loneliness brought on by Martha's death and Clark's departure for the wider world.

Other characters

Sheriff Bill Dutcher, is the Sheriff of the county in which Smallville, Kansas is located. His duty is dealing with the crimes that occur in the unincorporated county area surrounding Smallville; two of which feature and involve Clark Kent. He is sometimes accompanied by other law enforcement officers, such as Doug Parker, Smallville's local Chief of Police, and later with FBI Agent Foley.

Jiggs Markley and the Markley Gang are criminals on the FBI's most wanted list who find themselves in Smallville, Kansas. Jiggs is killed by what the Sheriffs of Smallville believe his gun firing backwards while confronting Clark Kent at the Jewel movie theatre (in reality, the bullet bounced off Clark's forehead). Three others from the gang, made up by Ike "Curly Ike" Kelting, Milt George, and Claude Draper, later kidnap and murder the child of a banker they were holding for ransom. The gang is later taken down, while Ike is killed in a car crash caused by Clark, covering the incident for his town's newspaper. All others from the gang are mentioned to have fled to Mexico.

Alger Lee is a young African-American man, who first appears working for the Jewel movie theatre, and later at the Kent Farm (like his father did) when Clark starts moving on away and Jonathan Kent becomes weaker due to old age. Alger knows Clark, and knows Clark can do things no other man can do, but keeps it a secret just like Willi. It is assumed that, after the passing of Jonathan Kent, that Alger and his family get the farm thanks to their generosity.

Paulie Scaffa and Herman "Sticky" Stickowski are two of Lex Luthor's well-known henchmen. They perform their duties however Lex wants them do to them, and try not to get their boss angry at either one of them from whatever mistakes they make on purpose or not. Paulie is the son of a father who does not appreciate anything he does, even after showing him a Lexbot robot. Because of that, he hates his father. Sticky, already terminally ill, is smothered to death by Lex, who then offers his wife, Ceil, a job managing a brothel. Ceil Stickowski continues to nearly worship Lex until, near the end of the novel, she realizes he murdered her beloved husband. She is later killed by Paulie when Mrs. O'Shea learns that Ceil is about to spill all she know about Lex's robots to Lois Lane. Paulie during a fight between Superman and a Lexbot the thug has foolishly hidden in the trunk of his car.

Skinny Simon is a friend of Willi and Lois, and is ironically nicknamed Skinny because of her voluptuous figure. She works at a hospital in Manhattan and is the first to tell Lois when Willi is shot. Later, she and Willi meet in Hollywood where she is almost murdered by her husband. Despite these ordeals, she perseveres and eventually finds herself back in New York. She eventually marries Ben Jaeger.

Dick Sandglass is a New York City detective; has a son nicknamed Spider, and is admired by both Willi Berg and his fellow partner, Ben Jaeger. He spends two years investigating the link between a "ghost gang of criminals" and Alderman Lex Luthor. Because of his investigation; Sandglass is later murdered by Luthor's men, and his son dies afterward while trying to rescue is father.

Caesar Colluzo is a self-taught engineer who is hired by Lex Luthor to design ultra-powerful, omnipresent robots. After the creation of the Lexbots are a success; Lex murders Caesar so that he will not reveal Lex's secrets.

Diana Dewey is briefly Clark's girlfriend - and his first lover - when he is living in Hollywood, California, working as a stuntman. A former actress; Diana is a costume designer for various movies, one was of which that becomes cancelled was going to be "The Saucer Man from Saturn". Clark tries out the only outfit made for the film which later becomes the Superman costume. By the time Clark and Willi are in New York, Diana is never seen again. One idea is that Diana might've seemed uncomfortable after Clark revealed what he could do and later after he freed Willi from jail was possibly eager to rid herself of Clark; but there is no evidence to support that theory. The only thing the novel does is that, once Clark meets and is smitten by Lois Lane, he doesn't seem to remember Diana at all.

Ben Jaeger is a New York City cop, a protegee of Dick Sandglass, and the boyfriend (later ex-boyfriend) of Lois Lane. After the death of his mentor, Sandglass; Jaeger is hit hard and becomes obsessed with nailing. Even during this obsession, he brings Lois candy, but she is put off by his intense, brooding, single-minded demeanor. He is shot in the chest twice by Paulie and nearly dies, but later recovers, and finds a new lease on life working at the theatre with his first gig being involved with the play Our Town.

Helen O'Shea (mainly called Mrs. O'Shea) is Lex Luthor's personal assistant, but after she murders the son of Dick Sandglass, she becomes Lex' full partner and his lover. Her husband, Denholm is serving a 50-year prison sentence for murdering a union organizer with a shed cutter. Lex met O'Shea after she was sent to the House of Detention for Women in Greenwich Village, and has been working for him since. Once she realizes Ceil Stickowski is going to inform Lois Lane on Luthor's Lexbots, she goes out to kill her, only to be killed herself by Paulie Scaffa, one of Lex's henchmen, who also kills Ceil.

Edith "Soda" Wauters is a singer and owner of a jazz music club named after her nickname, and the mistress of late Dick Sandglass. A twice divorcee; Soda fell in love at first sight toward Sandglass (though he never told her his last name, and lied saying he was not a cop). She is devastated when he stops coming around, eventually realizing he is dead. It is only when she remembers the package he left for her to keep safe (a copy of the same one that was to be used against Lex Luthor, but was destroyed after Sandglass was murdered) that a drunken Soda heads out and after some dead ends, makes it to the Daily Planet the next day, where she meets Clark Kent. She and Clark later become friends; as evidenced by Clark's birthday present to her by taking her to see "Out Town", and by Soda dedicating the song "Someone to Watch Over Me" anytime he visits her club.


After the release of his 1985 book, Funny Papers, Tom De Haven began working on the novella Sunborn Lake. From the work done in creating it, De Haven ended up falling in love with the 1930s, the period the first of his novellas was set in. After the release of Derby Dugan Depression Funnies, the sequel to Funny Papers, in 1996, De Haven got a call from DC, asking if he would be interested in doing a Superman novel set in the same period as Depression Funnies, the 1930s. De Haven was honored at first, because of the iconic nature of the character, but on the other hand felt unsure as he would not own the copyright as he had done for his previous works. Nevertheless, he accepted the job. However, he was already committed in writing Dugan Under Ground, and wanted to finish that first. DC agreed, even though that novel was finally published in September 2001, four years later. During that time, DC gave De Haven copies of Superman's early stories found in the pages of DC Archive Editions, for the writer to study.

For De Haven, he wanted It's Superman! to be a straight adult novel, with little irony, and very real world (New York instead of the more famous Metropolis), as much as he wanted the Clark Kent/Superman who was an average Joe like Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's version. A coming of age story where everything that made up the 1930s, religion, politics, or the world, influenced the mind of our main character. It was De Haven's idea to end the story with Clark ready to experience his life experiences as Superman, different from similar stories of the norm where everything is all set in the end. This was done for readers to easily have confidence in Clark because of the story's main events as the book closes.

After De Haven's pitch proposal, Chronicle Books made the offer to publish the novel. Even with the contract to finish the manuscript within one year, it ended up taking up to two-and-a-half years to complete. The finished manuscript ran up to 1000 pages long, obviously too long for a published book, and De Haven was allowed more time to cut down the book to a reasonable page length in early 2005. What was removed were: the backstory on Lex Luthor, a subplot involving a Russian spy after Luthor's "Lexbot" plans, more about Diana Dewey, Clark's girlfriend from Hollywood, more on Martha Kent, and more. Losing the material was not missed on De Haven's part, as it made the book shorter, or as he put it, "faster than a speeding bullet."[1]


Reviews of It's Superman! were overall generally positive. Readers applauded the 1930s details, from movies to even the brands of cigarettes, as well as the book's nature to "suck them into" the story. The New York Times described the novel as "Delightful with energy and imagination", and Entertainment Weekly stated that the book is "textured with authentic faces, places, and attitudes." Various websites went as far as to put the novel side by side with non-superhero novels such as The Grapes of Wrath[2] and The Outsiders.[3] Comic Geek Speak, a fan podcast dealing with comics and other media, did an episode about the novel, where De Haven was also a guest. The novel was praised by the podcast, where the hosts stated that they liked the novel's story being original, and the depiction of Clark, where he was seen as "..a much more 'human' Clark than we are used to seeing in comics and other media." It was also brought up that this novel alone had gotten every one of the hosts interested in other novels based on comic books and superheroes, noting Batman: The Ultimate Evil as one example.[4]

Some reviewers though felt the opposite, to which De Haven described in his entry on the Thunder Child website that he felt those readers "didn't get it". One example was from Superman; while one reviewer gave the novel a positive review, the other reviewer gave a negative one, feeling that, regardless of how intelligent the novel was, it should have been a superhero novel, and thus felt ripped off. The reviewer noted that there was only one battle in the book, and the actions Clark/Superman does in the novel were not "Superman-like", and went as far as to say the character was stupid.[5] Those alone were defended by De Haven himself from the Thunder Child website, where he described that he was in "disgust" over the negative comments, and he explained that: "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 17-20 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?"[1] Comic Geek Speak joined De Haven in his comments, with co-host Bryan Deemer saying that he liked It's Superman!'s Clark because he himself was tired of seeing Clark as the "perfect angel" all the time; adding that Clark's actions made sense for him to do because he was a kid, and it will still lead him into the boy scout he will soon evolve into. Also, co-host Peter Rios pointed out that he saw the scenes where the doubtful Clark did not "get it", as scenes where Clark came across as "alien...which is exactly what he is."


  1. 1 2 "Tom De Haven: author, It's Superman. Page 1-Writing It's Superman". The Thunder Child. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
  2. "REVIEW: It's Superman! by Tom De Haven". SF Signal. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
  3. Archived January 5, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. "It's Superman! with author Tom De Haven". Comic Geek Speak. 2005-12-19. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
  5. "Book Reviews". Superman Homepage. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
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