Reviews of Superman Novels

The Death and Life of Superman (1993) by Roger Stern, hardcover and paperback, pub. by Bantam Books

This is a novelization of the epic storyline chronicled in the comics wherein Superman battles, and is killed, by a monster called Doomsday, leading to four heroes arising, each laying claim to some aspect of Superman's identity, before the real Superman himself is revealed and battles an outer space invasion. (Y'know, the rather notorious storyline that led supposedly responsible mainstream journalists to believe DC was actually going to kill off its flagship character -- and if that doesn't speak volumes about the gullibility of the media...)

I first read this book long after I had stopped reading comics, and before I started reading them again, and I found it quite an entertaining epic. Part of the appeal is the sheer scope of it, 500 pages interweaving a huge cast and more than one storyline (sometimes resulting in sub-plots being conspicuously abridged). Too many novels based on comics suffer from too little plot...not so here.

Granted, there's a little too much of the mindless fisticuffs one associates with comics from that period (I mean, Doomsday is hardly a well-developed personality). On the other hand, the mystery over who would be revealed as the true, resurrected Superman certainly took me by surprise. I also thought it might be awkward...y'know, reading a Superman novel where Supes is absent from a big chunk of the story, but, surprisingly, characters like The Guardian (another Metropolis superhero) kept my interest quite well. In fact, a weakness is that Guardian just kind of disappears from the proceedings towards the end. The story only really lags a little for about fifty pages in the middle, when we seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern between plot developments.

Stern's prose style is adequate to the job, and the scenes are concise, easily encouraging you to keep flipping pages. Because I had been out of comics for awhile, there was an aspect of nostalgic appeal to the thing that won't be there for regular comic readers, but this is still one of my favourite of these comic book novels.


The Further Adventures of Superman (1993) edited by Martin H. Greenberg, paperback, pub. by Bantam Books

One of a series of "Further Adventures..." anthologies edited by Martin Greenberg, which began with a Batman collection, and came to include two other Batman collections, plus a Wonder Woman collection. This features a collection of short stories and novelettes by a variety of well known writers featuring the man of steel. Although the writers are allowed a certain latitude in their interpretations, there doesn't seem to be as much variance as was in the Further Adventures of Batman (which included one or two radical interpretations of Batman). Here the stories stick pretty closely to the generalities of the established mythos of contempoary Superman stories (his Fortress of Solitude is placed in the Antarctic, rather than the Arctic, for instance).

The sense of editorial restriction is both a plus and a minus -- it's a minus because, obviously, there isn't much in the way of creative curve balls, it's a plus because most of the stories seem like Superman stories...which is kind of why one picks up a book like this, right? Overall, these were decent tales though, having read it piecemeal over a long period of time (rather than reading all the stories at once), I'll admit, reflecting back I can't always remember what the stories were about! Clearly, some made a bigger impression than others.

Some highlights include Garfield Reeves-Stevens "The Warrior of the Final Dawn", even though I'd normally have qualms about a story involving a gory serial killer, but the killings tie into Krypton, and Reeves-Stevens throws in some nice traditional elements, like the Phantom Zone, and Supes' longing for the world of his birth. "I Now Pronounce You Superman and Wife", by Henry Slesar, starts out seeming like a revisionist/what if? tale, but turns out to be more traditional, and therefore, more appealing.

Diane Duane's "Apparitions" is moody and well-written, but the pay off is kind of weak and anti-climactic for a story that had the potential to be the best of the bunch. Will Murray's "The Riddle of Superman's Mask" is a wonderfully traditional idea -- with Superman suffering a disfigurement (that he doesn't know whether it will be permanent) and worried that if Clark Kent shows up with the same disfigurement he can kiss his secret identity good-bye. But though an unpretentious adventure-story, it didn't entirely explode into life.

That's a problem with a lot of the stories -- and maybe it's just how I read them -- but few really made the leap from being decent reads to great stories, where you really felt the characters live and breathe, and the immediacy of the moments. There were few memorable scenes -- as in some snappy dialogue, or a memorable encounter -- within the stories. And this despite a fair amount of introspection throughout.

Still, it's a good collection overall, and one I enjoyed more than other such short story collections, like The Further Adventures of the Batman, and the Ultimate Spider-Man (though it pales beside the Marvel Superheroes)


Lois & Clark: A Superman Novel (1996) by C.J. Cherryh, hardcover (cover right) and paperback, pub. Prima

This is the only full-length novel meant to tie-in with the the 1990s TV series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (other tie-in books were shorter and sold as "Young Adult" books). The story has Superman flying off to an area of the former Soviet Union to aide when a dam breaks, while Lois in Metropolis ends up helping during a hotel collapse, becoming a media celebrity in the process. Eventually the two reunite and Lois suspects the collapsed building has some connection to the villainous Lex Luthor.

In a way, the title: Lois and Clark reflects parts of the book -- for the first half or so it seems like a Superman story and a Lois Lane story, rather than a story about both of them. This led some fans of the TV series to be disappointed in the book. As well, the show was comedy-drama, while here, though Cherryh pens some wry lines, it's all drama. That's been a problem with a few media tie-in books I've read, where a series' eclectic mix of elements gets a watered down by a novelist (such as Xena novels which, likewise, were more straight-faced than the series).

With all that being said, Lois and Clark is a strong read. It actually seems like a combination -- inspired by the TV series, but also by the comic book itself. And despite the separate plot lines, there's a healthy helping of romantic angst, as the characters reflect on their relationship in absentia. And Cherryh, the science fiction writer, takes both the characters and the super-powers seriously, well-delineating the characters, and considering the repercussions and technical nuances of Superman's abilities, making super-feats plausible. I've often thought Superman, by virtue of his super super-powers, was wasted in simple hero vs. villain stories. Cherryh obviously agrees. Although she throws in villainy toward the end, it's mainly concerned with natural disasters and the repurcussions. Obviously, it's a mixed bag. I'm as shallow as the next guy, and some pulpier adventures and megalomanical villains with Death Rays would've been nice, but Cherryh crafts a good read nonetheless (and knowing that Luthor will eventually crop up, helps).

It's sprightly paced if not exactly fast paced, and a maturely written, oddly affecting read, that puts you inside the characters' heads better than a lot of comics (or a TV show) could. Definitely recommended to Superman fans, though fans only of Lois and Clark might be less enthusiastic (though it's still interesting on that can imagine the actors saying the lines).


Superman: Last Son of Krypton (1978) by Elliot S. Maggin, paperback, pub. Warner Books

First up, although it was published to tie in with the motion picture, Superman, The Movie, complete with stills from the movie, this isn't an adaptation of the film. Apparently, one of the writers of the Superman movie had it in his contract that there could be no novelization -- maybe he was hoping they'd publish the screenplay (as had been done for other movies like the 1976 King King). Instead, what the Powers That Be did was commission this original novel.

I'll be honest up front...I was disappointed in it. Part of that can be attributed to my own expectations. After all, I'd wanted to read this for years and it was written by one of the writers of the Superman comics I used to read, and most reviews I'd come across of it praised it to the ceiling.

The premise embroils Superman and arch-foe Lex Luthor, reluctantly allied, against the grand schemes of an alien would-be galactic conquerer. It's heavily science fiction, with much of the action taking place off earth on alien worlds: the ideas are outlandish and diverse, involving everything from a lost Albert Einstein document to flashbacks to Superman's and Luthor's childhoods, and tossing in comic book continuity, like throwing in the Guardians of the Universe (from Green Lantern comics). But  it's written in an oddly aloof way at times, with Maggin describing things more than portraying them -- curious since, as a comicbook writer, Maggin would be used to telling a story through scenes and dialogue. But here he relies on too much exposition, almost like you're reading a condensed version of a longer novel. And by the end I wasn't entirely sure of all the twists and turns in the story.

It's still an O.K. read, with Maggin working in some wit and wry observations. This is squarely about the Superman of the period, so for older readers it's nostalgic fun, and for newer readers it might provide an interesting look at an alternative Supes. For one thing, this Superman and Luthor knew each other since childhood, and Luthor is decidedly different from the modern version -- though still an egotistical megalomaniac, he's a more sympathetic figure (for one thing, he's never killed anyone, unlike the current version) and one gets the distinct feeling this Luthor (Luthor-the-scientist) would have nothing but disdain for the modern Luthor-the-businessman. Though that becomes its own problem, in that Maggin seems almost more interested in Lex Luthor than Superman.

A moderately fun, but kind of breezy, depersonal read -- certainly "big" in its concepts, but a far cry from the definitive Superman novel I was expecting.


Superman: Miracle Monday (1981) by Elliot S. Maggin, paperback, pub. Warner Books

Like Maggin's previous Superman novel, Last Son of Krypton (see above), this was published to coincide with the release of a movie -- Superman II -- complete with a picture of actor Christopher Reeve on the cover and photo inserts from the movie. And, like the previous novel, the story itself has no connection to the movie whatsoever. The plot, as it emerges, involves basically the Devil, or a Devil-like figure -- here identified as C.W. Saturn -- attempting to get Superman's soul, and causing Mr. Mxyzptlk-like mischief in the process. Villain Lex Luthor is also around. And there's a time traveller from the future here to record a historic event...that no one in the future can quite remember.

Miracle Monday has some big strengths and some weaknesses -- sometimes both at the same time. Maggin, one of the principal Superman writers of the 1970s, clearly loves his characters, loves their world, and clearly had lots of things he wanted to touch on that couldn't be worked into a monthly comic, due to the limiting page numbers. The novel is full of little vignettes, philosophical ruminations, reflections on the nature of right and wrong, flashbacks to Superman and Lex Luthor's childhoods, and extraneous details that cleverly flesh out the characters (like that Superman, to cultivate a personality for his alter ego, Clark Kent, gives him the idiosyncratic hobby of taping TV commercials he likes). All of this is quite wonderful at times...but it also tends to interfere with simply telling a plot. Although C.W. Saturn is first introduced early in the book, his plans don't really start to manifest until more than half way through! At times the book can seem like a collection of incidents and vignettes, rather than a story where one chapter leads directly, inexorably, into the next.

Still, I actually liked Miracle Monday more than Last Son of Krypton, though that may just be because I was now ready for Maggins' stylistic approach, including the tendency to use a lot of exposition, writing a lot of scenes more by describing them, rather than just letting them unfold in events and dialogue. I'll have to read Last Son of Krypton again, to see if I like it more a second time through.

There is a story -- a grand one, full of big ideas -- but it doesn't flow as well as it might, because Maggin is so easily distracted by "neat" scenes that don't always have any overall purpose (like a brief meeting with real life author, Ray Bradbury). And the conclusion is a bit vague -- I wasn't sure about some of the specifics as to how Supes beat the bad guy. You may need to be up on your folklore concerning deals with the Devil to get it

At the same time, the digressions and sidebars are part of the book's appeal, the way Maggin immerses himself -- and the reader -- in Superman's life. And this is most definitely a very different Superman and Lex Luthor than the characters being published today, and you can't help but think of how rich and quirky they were, and how much potential those earlier versions had. This is a Superman who uses Clark Kent as a disguise (unlike the modern one who is more supposed to be Clark, who dresses up as Superman) making for a cleverly complex character, and a slightly schizophrenic one. And this is a Superman who is so powerful, his whole outlook on life is affected by it, making for an intriguing, slightly alien character, and his adventures need be more grande and outrageous just to challenge him. And this Lex Luthor used to be Superman's friend, and the love-hate history between them makes for a delightful character dynamic (something that the makers of the TV series, "Smallville", clearly recognized). And that also leads to a nice, affecting denouement in this book.

I liked Miracle Monday. But like Last Son of Krypton, I found it a little oblique at times, with a story that could've benefitted from just being told as a story, unfolding scene by scene. It's also depressing, because neither it, nor Last Son of Krypton, quite emerge as the definitive Superman novel, but any future novel won't utilize these versions of the characters. So, for Bronze Age Superman fans, this is all there is.

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