Our Hero: Superman on Earth

Posted by on September 30th, 2010 at 12:46 AM

Review by Nathan Wilson


Our Hero: Superman on Earth
Tom De Haven
Yale University Press
240 page hardcover
ISBN: 9780300118179

When I saw that Yale University Press was releasing a study of Superman, Our Hero: Superman on Earth, and read the book-jacket reviews, I was so excited that I purchased the book immediately and opted for next-day shipping. Although many books and numerous articles and essays have been written about the Man of Steel, this was the first book-length study published by one of the leading, academic presses world. My enthusiasm, however, was somewhat misplaced. Tom De Haven begins with the impetus of questioning Superman’s relevancy for contemporary audiences but in the 206 pages, little to no criticism or analysis or historical context is actually provided. Although it is well-written and De Haven’s strengths as a creative writer are vivid, the work itself is a conversation piece one would expect in a Sunday book-review column. For example, De Haven’s “cultural criticism” or “historical” context for the creation of the 1950s television series with George Reeves is nothing more than a laundry list of events that happened in 1951: “Nat King Cole’s ‘Too Young’ played across the radio dial that summer… G.M.’s rocket-like experimental convertible LeSabre, three feet low, bristling with switches and gadgets, and powered by a three hundred-horsepower V-8 engine, reached a speed of 110 miles per hour… By summer’s end, a first season’s worth of episodes for The Adventures of Superman was completed.” Or, when De Haven summarizes the plot elements of Superman and the Mole Men, he writes, “Pick your metaphor. Class? Race? Communism? They all work. Sort of,” and ends the discussion. These examples are indicative throughout and as a result, Our Hero largely synthesizes what most comic readers and general audiences already know about Superman from a wide variety of other sources.

Little attention is paid to any Superman product, either film, television or comic books, after the 1978 Donner film, which occupies the greatest critical attention of any item in the entire book. De Haven gives John Byrne’s Man of Steel story two paragraphs, Mark Waid’s Superman Birthright three to four, and provides a single sentence on Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, calling it “a macabre version of Superman” and a “large dose of postmodernist mock-solemn Dada on every page. But it worked.” Beyond my own admitted confusion over that single sentence’s meaning, De Haven’s purpose or intent is revealed only on the last page when he returns to his question of relevancy and concludes that Superman’s major contribution to American (as he neglects the Man of Steel’s international recognition or appeal) culture is his “self-serving quality… what he needs, and all he needs, is the freedom to act in ways that are satisfying to him. That’s why he’ll ‘never stop doing good.’ It makes him feel good, dammit. Our hero.”

Despite this odd statement, De Haven’s work is an interesting read as it deftly combines previous studies with some contemporary observations. And that is its greatest contribution: as a synthesis. De Haven is strongest when he forgoes plot summary and instead provides his own personal experiences with comic books and Superman. One of the best passages in the book is when he relates the comfort and protection Superman comics brought him or the “reliable presence” and “example” Superman set for him as a fatherless child. Unfortunately, in terms of cultural criticism or scholarly analysis, the book falls considerably short, particularly in regard to its publisher’s notoriety and acclaim.


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One Response to “Our Hero: Superman on Earth”

  1. […] September 30, 2010 by bgc2 The Comics Journal just published my review of Tom DeHaven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth by Yale University Press.  You can access the review here. […]