Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Last Son of Krypton: the paperback that wasn't a novelization

Marlon Brando gratefully and
humbly accepts his
Academy Award for playing
Superman's dad.
Remember the first Superman movie, titled Superman the Movie so we wouldn't confuse it with Superman the Comic Book, Superman the Restaurant Chain, Superman the Performing Stunt DogSuperman the Automobile and Mr. F.G. Superman?  Of course you don't! Few bother so why should you? And yet Christopher Reeve made the perfect Superman and somehow or other the producers talked Marlon Brando into wearing a Charlie Rich wig and a dress made of aluminum foil to play Jor-El.  They couldn't convince Gene Hackman to shave his head, but they did stick a bald cap on him for a scene near the end.

Well, I remember the movie even if it wasn't much of an earner and soon lapsed into obscurity, remaining a mere midnight cult oddity for assorted weirdos who like to dress in blue tights and red capes while shouting back at the actors on the screen and riffing on the movie's absurd dialogue and situations. I also recall using my allowance to buy Elliot S. Maggin's paperback Last Son of Krypton. I read the first chapter and almost threw it away. What the heck was this thing? It was nothing like the movie, which was confusing and infuriating because there was Christopher Reeve right there on the cover! I mean I  had already read the novelizations of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, respectively.  Who knew those two were such fantastic writers?  Plus they stuck fairly close to the movies, which wasn't surprising considering they also directed them.  But what was this Maggin character trying to pull with his non-movie story?

A few months later I actually read the entire book during consecutive dinnertimes and decided I liked it.  The sequence near the beginning with Albert Einstein taking an incognito trip to Smallville left me confused, though.

 Not because it's poorly written. It's not. Revisiting that chapter today, I found Last Son of Krypton positively Vonnegutian, minus the melancholic humor.  What makes me think of Vonnegut is Maggin's economy of language in explaining characters and action.  In fact, as I read the first few chapters, I kept thinking about Breakfast of Champions.   Einstein plays the role of Maggin's Kilgore Trout.  In Breakfast, Trout inadvertently sends another character off on a violent spree, while Einstein chooses to help midwife a heroic legend.  I suppose Vonnegut would ultimately reject guys like Superman and even Maggin isn't above poking a little fun at the Man of Steel himself-- Martha Kent pointedly refuses to expose her adopted son to Tom Sawyer prematurely, favoring the Bible and Horatio Alger.  Vonnegut might have poked the Kents with a sharper stick, but Maggin's approach is a bit more affectionate.

His prolific, mostly comical alien races also anticipate Douglas Adams's epic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series with a sequence in which Superman and Lex Luthor team up, travel to an a distant world and meet various bizarre alien species-- some of which happen to be biologically predisposed to careers as clerks.  At times, Superman's story gets lost in all the cosmic digressions, but they do tend to make you feel it's all taking place in a densely populated universe teeming with goofy beings.

No, the writing quality is more than adequate for what at first glance appears to be a cheapie movie tie-in.  I only failed to comprehend what was going on because I was only 10 or 11 when I originally read it. Yeah, yeah, I knew who Albert Einstein was; I just didn't understand his purpose in taking another name or walking around Smallville borrowing money, dealing in secondhand tractors and eating ice cream.  I remember thinking to myself, Why didn't he just use Einstein?  Oh, because he did, ya dummy!

Albert Einstein.  Did you know he and Leo Szilard once tried to invent a safer refrigerator for home use?  Instead of a nice metal box to keep our veggies and and sandwich meats fresh and our Sunny D cold without poisoning us with chemicals, they managed to help us create the means for the mass extinction of all life on earth with radiation.  Szilard later turned against nuclear weapons proliferation.  Einstein did other things, too.  In Last Son, it turns out the greatest mind of the 20th century wasn't simply spending his last years making sure Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins met cute and had genius sex, Hollywood-style. He also took a break from his work on the Unified Field theory to ensure the Kents were in the right place at the right time for a little sci-fi stork delivery.

Pretty clever, but the bit about the philtrum is what most impressed me as a kid and continued to linger in my mind even after I'd completely forgotten the book's plot.  Apparently there are only two places outside a certain part of the galaxy where the intergalactic tourist will find them and only those who have them are capable of smiling.  Is this true?  I used to quote it to friends and acquaintances as if it were, so I kind of have an interest in finding out after all these years.

Anyway, the book's online if anyone cares.  It's one of the better Superman stories and really deserves a wider audience.  I've been secretly reading it at work today!

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