By Matt De La Peña
Random House, 2019
The latest in Random House’s “DC Icons” series tackles the biggest gun in the superhero arsenal: Superman. Previous volumes in the series have featured Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and a young Bruce Wayne, and Superman: Dawnbreaker, by Newbery Medal-winning writer Matt De La Peña, stars a young Clark Kent, still a high school student struggling to figure out the superhuman powers he possesses.
More so than any of those other characters, a teenage Clark Kent is a tricky thing to write. The first question is: which teenage Clark Kent? 70 years ago, DC Comics introduced the character as Superboy, rocketed to Earth as a baby from the doomed planet Krypton and donning his famous blue-costume-and-red-cape as a teenager. He thwarted bank robbers, gangsters, and mechanical menaces in his small town of Smallville, all the while living under the roof of his adoring adoptive parents, the Kents, and industriously hiding his secret identity from his sweetheart Lana Lang and all the other townsfolk. This is the Superboy who’s world-famous, who has adventures all over the world, all over the galaxy, and even a thousand years in the future as a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes.
That Superboy was a cultural icon, a marketing staple, and the star TV shows, and yet, as odd as it sounds, he no longer exists. Years ago, DC Comics revamped the continuity of their superhero comics, and suddenly Clark Kent first dons his famous suit as an adult - in this new comics backstory, he’d never been Superboy at all. Among other things, this was the continuity in which the hit TV show “Smallville” was set - a Clark Kent with superpowers, yes, but: no tights, no flights.
Hence, the tricky nature of writing the character (current fans of DC Comics will know that it gets trickier still, with two current claimants to the role of Superboy, one a quick-aged teenage son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and the other a clone combining genetic material from Superman and, um, Lex Luthor): a Clark Kent using his super-powers and donning his super-suit - as he does in Dawnbreaker - is clearly Superman. But a Clark Kent still going to high school and hanging out with his football team buddies is clearly a Super-boy.
Matt De La Peña addresses some of these obstacles with a fair degree of nuance. The book’s plot revolves around a fairly standard dastardly scheme to imperil first Smallville and then the world, and familiar supporting characters like Lana Lang and Lex Luthor play pivotal parts in the plot, but our author wisely chooses to make the book’s main theme one of Clark’s own self-discovery, a rocky process of learning about his Kryptonian heritage for the first time, from the Kents who’ve been keeping it secret in order to protect him. De La Peña foreshadows this conflict when another character in the book talks about the freedom of the sky (in airplanes, that is):
“When you’re flying … you look down at your city or your town, and you see how small everything looks. And you realize maybe your problems are small, too. And all the important people, like my dad - they’re small, too, you know? And it sort of puts everything in perspective … Because the world is a really, really big place. And it existed for billions of years before we came along. And it may exist a billion years after we’re gone. And up there … you get that.”
Young Clark is worried about exactly this kind of distancing from the world and the people he’s known; he reacts with a combination of panic and outrage when Pa Kent shows him the alien spacecraft that brought him to Earth, and he’s painfully embarrassed by the bright blue costume crafted for him by Ma Kent out of the blankets in that craft. And although Dawnbreaker is curiously poorly written - sketchy action sequences, flat characters, an uninteresting plot - De La Peña does a good job capturing the inner birth of a hero:
He couldn’t remember being on fire or falling out of the sky. But what mattered was that he was still alive. And when he’d stepped out of the crater and found everyone in his Smallville community staring at him in silent amazement, he understood himself on a deeper level. These special powers he possessed - they weren’t for his own amusement or vanity. They were for the service of others. Even people who might shun him if they knew what he actually was.
Fans old enough to remember the aforementioned TV show “Smallville” will find Dawnbreaker very familiar, in both good and not-so-good ways. There’s neither the touching emotional undertone of Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman volume nor the inventiveness of Sarah J. Maas’ Catwoman volume, although De La Peña keeps the action and the plot-twists coming. Who knows if we’ll ever see an actual Superboy novel again, but Superman as a boy? That we have.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.