Sunday, July 25, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 8)

This week, we continue our look at George Lowther's 1942 novel, The Adventures of Superman. We left off at the destruction of Krypton, so naturally today's adventure brings us back down to Earth, starting in Chapter 3: Young Clark Kent.

The chapter opens on aging farmer Eben Kent plowing his field. There's a somewhat ominous flavor to the beginning of this chapter, the kind of thing you'd expect from the start of an alien invasion story rather than the happy accident of Kal-el's adoption:
There was something strange about that sky. He knew the weather, as well as any farmer born to the soil, and off-hand he would have said a storm was brewing. Yet he was not quite sure. It seemed to him there was the feeling of something more than just a storm in the air. (p. 20-21)

Eben shakes the feeling and continues plowing until he hears a rumble of thunder in the distance, which turns out not to be thunder at all. The strange sound increases in volume and the clouds open up to reveal a growing, blazing light. His horse gets spooked and runs off, dragging the plow behind it, while the roaring noise gives way to a series of explosions. Eben becomes dizzy, and the fiery object crashes into the ground nearby. He throws himself down and faints.

When Eben wakes up, the noises have stopped, except for the sound of a nearby fire. He sees the ship--"a strange, bullet-shaped object, almost completely enveloped in flames"--and runs toward it, sensing that someone might be trapped inside (p. 23).
Peering through the flames, he saw a child lying helpless behind the thick glass window of the door that sealed the rocket. Already Eben had come as close as the wall of heat would let him. He realized instantly that unless he broke through that searing wall the child would die.

He made up his mind quickly, took a deep breath, and plunged through to the rocket. When he emerged again from the flame and smoke, agony stood in his eyes, for he had been severely burned. But in his blackened arms he held the child! (p. 23)

I really like this take on the discovery. While it's a bit sad that Ma Kent isn't present, it gives Eben a nice heroic moment. In most versions of this origin, the Kents adopt Kal-el without much in the way of physical danger or difficulty--in some versions, the child saves them--but here, Pa Kent rescues the child with little thought to his own life and safety. It's pretty generally accepted that Superman gets his strong moral code from his parents, but usually that's just stated or it comes out in conversation or advice. Here is a fairly rare instance of showing, not just telling, the kind of people that the Kents are. That is, after all, the first rule of writing, and it's nice to see it put to use here.

Another interesting detail is one that had never really occurred to me before. I'm so used to this scene occurring as the Kents drive down the road in a beat-up pickup truck that it's a bit jarring to see the rocket crash down on the Kent farm in front of a horse-drawn plow. Even the earliest versions of the origin had a "passing motorist" discover the rocket, and I've not realized before how odd that really is. Imagine that Clark Kent is a conservative 22 when he leaves for Metropolis in 1938. That means that our motorist was driving through some unknown moderately rural town in 1916. It's certainly not impossible--the Model T was introduced in 1908--but it's definitely a bit unlikely. That's not really a criticism, mind you, just a reminder that the world has changed a great deal in the intervening seventy-odd years.

Eben Kent and his wife, Sarah, never knew where the child had come from, never pierced the mystery that surrounded his strange appearance on earth. Destiny perhaps played a part in directing the rocket to the Kent farm, for th eKents were childless and desired a child above anything else on earth. And here, like a gift from Heaven, was the infant Kal-el. The old couple took him into their home and raised him as their own.

They called him Clark, because that was Sarah Kent's family name. (p. 23-24)

I think this is the first mention we have of "Clark" being Martha's maiden name, a bit of trivial origin detail that remains even today. Clark grows up relatively normal until the last day of eighth grade, when he's thirteen years old. The school principal, Mr. Jellicoe, and Clark's teacher, Miss Lang, are giving out academic prizes to the various students (Clark was awarded a book of Shakespeare's plays due to his English scores and ambitions of becoming a writer), when one blue ribbon goes missing. Clark watches his teacher search the desk for the ribbon, and eventually realizes that he's also looking into the desk, where he sees it caught behind the drawer. Clark points it out, but when he's unable to explain how he knew where it was, everyone thinks that Clark had been rummaging around in Miss Lang's desk.

All at once, Clark learns that he has abilities which set him apart from others, and that such a difference alienates him from his peers. He learns an important lesson about secrecy and discretion the very first time he uses his abilities in public.

This scene is interesting for a few other reasons. First, it follows through on the "he has always been sensitive to the elements" foreshadowing line from the previous chapter, by making the super-vision abilities the first manifestation of Clark's strange abilities. Vision powers were a later addition to Superman's repertoire; he used some kind of super-vision in the Fleischer cartoons, and it's probable that X-Ray vision had showed up in the comics by this point1. It's nice, too, that Clark has ambitions of being a writer. Even the earlier origins have treated reporter as something Superman chose to do for practical reasons; this is the first real glimpse (in an origin story) we've had of Clark Kent as a normal person with hopes and dreams and ambitions, rather than just a mask for the Man of Steel.

Also, one might note Clark's teacher's name, Miss Lang. This book was published a full eight years before Lana Lang made her debut. According to the introduction, the novel was pretty successful, so it's not unlikely that the use of the same last name is intentional. Still, Miss Lang makes an interesting forerunner to Clark's teenage sweetheart, just as Jimmy-not-Olsen in the radio program presaged the later Jimmy. Sadly, blue ribbon recipient Lucy Russell didn't stick around quite so consistently.

Clark returns home, where his father congratulates him on winning the book of plays. This is the first time Eben speaks in the book, and it's dialect dialogue worthy of Chris Claremont:
"Son," said old Eben, "ye've done a mighty fine job. That book--that book of plays--why, shucks, boy, that's one o' the finest things that's ever happened to yer ma and me. We're proud o' ye!" (p. 29)

Yes, in this episode, the part of Pa Kent will be played by Snuffy Smith. It's just so jarring to see the 'ye' and 'yer' from Pa, who I've never actually seen written or acted with an accent before, let alone one as cringeworthy as this. For better or worse, though, we don't have to deal with it long.
Clark looked up at them and felt everything going soft inside him. He loved these two, loved them as nothing else on earth. (p. 29)

I quote this last bit for humor. "Everything going soft inside him" is a really bizarre way of describing Clark's feelings, and "loved them as nothing else on earth" might as well be followed with "Eben had only one week until retirement." If you didn't know that Eben was going to die (perhaps from reading the Table of Contents: "Chapter V. The Death of Eben"), this brief paragraph paints a big red bullseye on him.

Ma and Pa give Clark a present, a homemade costume for a costume party that night. It's about what you might expect:
There was a tight-fitting suit of blue, a wide belt of leather, knee-length boots, and--most thrilling of all--a scarlet cape. (p. 30)

It's at this point that I really started questioning Roger Stern's declaration that John Byrne was "working without the benefit of Lowther's long-out-of-print text" (p. xix) when he wrote "Man of Steel" in '86. As in "Man of Steel," here Clark's powers don't really begin to manifest until he's a teenager, his costume is made on Earth by his mother, and his name comes from Martha's maiden name. I wouldn't be surprised if Byrne did have this book, or had read it at some point, because the details he chooses to bring in are eerily similar to the ones presented here. I suppose I could go to the Byrne boards and ask, but I'm not quite that brave/foolish.

In any case, Clark runs up to his room to try on the costume, and jumps for joy once it's on. Shockingly enough, the jumping leaves him on the other side of the room. Trying it once more, he discovers that he can fly. And with this discovery comes the understandable angst that launched ten seasons of "Smallville":
He was frightened at first and his heart beat like a triphammer. Just as his eyes could pierce the wood of Miss Lang's desk, so he could fly. What was the answer? How could he do these things when other boys, he knew, could not? Was he different from other boys? He had never thought so before and he didn't want to think so now. He had a feeling that to be different would set him apart, and he saw himself as a queer and lonely figure, shunned by all. (p. 32)

There's a lot of room for allegory here, but I think the X-Men have pretty much covered that. Still, it'd be interesting to see a Superboy story that made the secret identity/in the closet linkage intentionally, as the language in this paragraph suggests.

Clark tries to forget his powers in the ensuing months, to be a normal kid, but temptation would get the better of him, and he'd try them out, eventually coming to enjoy them. He was also developing superhuman strength, though he would not discover that until he was seventeen.

The Kent farm had fallen on hard times, and the family was in dire need of extra money. Despite his age, Eben decides to enter an anvil-lifting contest at the state fair, which would award a $500 prize. While he'd won the contest as a young man, his age and the presence of much stronger men in town made victory unlikely for the old farmer. But Eben was desperate, and so was willing to take desperate risks.

We'll finish the rest of the origin material here in the next installment, which (with any luck) will be sometime during the week. I'm really enjoying this book, but I'll be happy to move back into the comics.

1. (Edit: 7/26/10) I don't know exactly how I missed it, but Superman's X-Ray Vision first showed up in Action Comics #11, cover dated April, 1939. That means that he'd been using the power for roughly three years by the time this novel came out.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

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