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Bringing a Comic to Life

Local author Tom De Haven breathes life into a beloved hero.



Style: What theories have you explored about Superman as an American icon?

De Haven: Well, he is an orphan and he is the ultimate immigrant, which is a motif in American literature. He's so malleable. He worked in the late '30s as a comic-book character, and he works now as a comic-book character in 2005. But I can go back and plug him into his original era. Talk to someone who grew up in the '40s and their Superman is going to be different from mine, which will be different from the Superman of someone who grew up in the '70s. He changes over time, but there are certain qualities that make him very American, and that's why a lot of superheroes come and go and he keeps on going.

Was it difficult to put meat on the bones of a comic-book character that all of America already knows?

I went into this saying, how do you make this character that is so familiar, fresh? And also, how do you make a character that is so patently a comic-book character, in the best sense of the word, into a character that you want to read about in a novel? I wanted to give him all kinds of qualities that add up but don't necessarily jibe. There's a certain kind of arrogance that he begins to develop when he realizes what he can do. Then there's also this thing where he's not sure of himself and he doesn't think he's smart enough. He had all kinds of qualities, not just one or two qualities. I wanted to write about a character who develops. It was a privilege to create my own version of Superman. It doesn't matter if he is "owned" by a corporation — the character of Superman holds a special place in the American psyche, and it was a real kick and, yes, a privilege writing about him for two and a half years.

Was it critical to you to make New York in the '30s seem authentic?

Oh, yeah, everything that goes on, that the characters are talking about in the real world, was real. All that stuff, Will Rogers, the election, the movies that were playing, the movie that was being made — it was all really happening.

Tell us about Lois Lane's relationship with our hero.

One of the blogs said this was really a novel about Lois Lane. You have to have her, that triangle. I kind of, in some ways, think DC blew it having Lois and Clark get married, because that triangle between Clark, Lois and Superman is so beautiful. I wanted to write Lois as a real Rosalind Russell tough '30s newspaper gal.

It's interesting that Lex Luther seems almost like the least racist of all the characters. Was he a difficult character to create anew?

Lex Luther was fun. I've never had the opportunity to write a real villain. Yes, he was always berating people for making racist comments. And he would care for his henchmen and then strangle them. What I really wanted to do was make him as complicated a character as Superman.

Do you personally identify with Superman in any way?

[Laughing] Well, I identify with Clark. Clark was really fun to do. Where Clark says he's not smart enough to do this. I always felt that I was an impostor. Everybody feels like an impostor. I played that up. There's a lot of me in him. S

Fountain Books will hold a book release party for "It's Superman" Nov. 1 at 6:30 p.m.

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