Once again, in somewhat of an annual tradition, while the vast majority of the nation focuses its attention on some sort of big sporting event or something like that, we hear at Gutter Talk HQ turn our attention to telling readers of this blog about a classic tale of the Man of Steel. This time out, our subject is not one of the character's comic book exploits, but one of his early ventures into the realm of prose novels.
Regardless of outward appearances, despite the fact that it uses the film's crystalline Superman logo, notwithstanding the picture of Christopher Reeve in his Superman costume on the cover, and setting aside the sixteen pages of black and white photos from the movie embedded in the center of the book, Elliot S. Maggin's 1978 novel Superman: Last Son of Krypton is not an adaptation of the then newly released Superman: The Movie. Rather, it is an original tale set in a rough approximation of DC's Bronze Age Earth-One continuity and reflects pretty accurately Superman as he was appearing in the comics of the day, many of them, not coincidentally, also written by Maggin. As had been the case for several years in his comics titles, Superman, in his secret identity of Clark Kent, works not as a mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper but as anchor for the WGBS six o'clock news and fairly recent additions to the supporting cast Steve Lombard and Morgan Edge figure prominently in the story alongside old standbys Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olson.
It has been said that the advantage that comics had over film, especially in the pre-CGI days when this novel was published, is that they could portray things that were beyond the scope of special effects technology. Comics, especially in the Bronze Age, had their own limitations, however. One was space. A typical single issue of the day contained a mere seventeen pages of story, and, at least at DC, single issue stories, or at least stories no more than two or three issues in length, were still the norm. Words and pictures, of course, take more room to tell the same events than words alone, thus far more story could be conveyed in a 238 page novel, allowing Maggin to tell an epic, cosmic science fiction adventure story on a scale previously unattempted in any Superman comic.
Maggin peppers the novel with many of his signature themes and tropes. The author's admiration of Albert Einstein is well known among comics fans and the renowned physicist, though never actually identified, is a major character in the novel as well as a main motivating factor in the plot. The Guardians of the Galaxy, from Green Lantern, make an appearance, and in a nod to the classic Dennis O'Neil/Neal Adams "Hard Traveling Heroes" era of the book, the exiled Guardian known as the "Old Timer" shows up. Part of his purpose in the story is to give voice to another of Maggin's favorite themes as he, in disguise as a human sociologist being interviewed by Lois Lane for a TV talk show, warns of the possible negative effects of Superman's presence on Earth on human evolution, echoing Maggin's earlier short comics story "Must There Be A Superman?"
The novel begins begins with a retelling of Superman's origin, but with a new spin. Prior to baby Kal-El's arrival on Earth, a probe carrying a message from Jor-El visits Einstein, who, as "the most highly developed intellect" on Earth, is entreated by the Kryptonian to take in and raise his son. Instead, the aged scientist travels to Smallville, Kansas, near where Kal-El's rocket is to land, and chooses a local couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, whom he deems suitable to give the Kryptonian child a good upbringing. Through the ruse of selling the Kents a new tractor, he maneuvers the couple into position to discover the child from the stars upon his arrival.
The novel then moves to the present day, as Superman's arch-enemy Lex Luthor makes plans to steal a document left behind by the now late Professor Einstein and sealed in a vault for the last quarter century. Einstein, it turns out, is a personal hero of the criminal scientist, and it is speculated that the document may contain one last scientific breakthrough.
Lex makes off with the document, but it is, in turn, stolen from him by an alien named Towbee on behalf of the Master, not the Doctor Who villain but the ruler of the planet Oric in the Vega system. After meeting with the Old Timer, Superman recruits Luthor to journey with him to Oric and aid him in retrieving the Einstein papers. Once on Oric, the unlikely allies discover a plan by the Master to make himself ruler of his section of the galaxy, after he has, by manipulating black holes, physically separated that arm of the galaxy from the rest of the rest of the Milky Way, thus putting him out of the Guardians' jurisdiction and beyond the reach of the Green Lantern Corps.
One of the best things about the book is Maggin's exploration of the character of Lex Luthor, who emerges as much more than simply a two dimensional mad scientist. Throughout the early chapters of the novel, Maggin introduces flashbacks to Clark Kent and Lex Luthor's childhood days in Smallville. He expands the story of how Luthor came to hate Superboy, giving the future villain a more emotionally resonant and realistic reason for his emnity toward the hero than simple vanity over the loss of his hair. Superboy, in his attempt to save Luthor's life, in Maggin's account not only causes the permanent loss of Luthor's hair, but destroys his greatest experiment as well.
I've wondered recently how come someone supposedly as smart as Luthor never figured out that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person, especially since he knew both of them back in Smallville. After all, both Clark and Superman are about the same age, each left Smallvile at the same time, and then showed up in Metropolis at pretty much exactly the same time. It really doesn't take a scientific genius, as Luthor purports to be, to put two and two together and come up with something other than mere coincidence.
Okay, digression over, let's wrap up this post.
While Superman: Last Son of Krypton is dressed up as a novelization of the first Superman movie, it is, in my opinion at least, something even better; the ultimate Superman epic from one of the character's premier writers.
Here are some links to sites where you can get other opinions and perspectives on today's topic (and maybe even buy a copy):