Elliot S. Maggin's Superman: Last Son of Krypton was one of the first prose novels ever written about comic book superheroes. Maggin, a long-time writer of the Superman comics (among many other major comic book series) was hired to write this novel, which was marketed along with the opening of Superman: The Movie. It was a hugely successful cross-fertilization campaign. The movie was popular, the book was popular and widely read.
But Last Son of Krypton is largely forgotten today. There are some good reasons for that. This is Maggin's first novel. The novel is frequently fun, often curious, and always nostalgic, but the quality of the writing doesn't exceed what one finds in typical media tie-in novels, from Batman to Star Trek. One shouldn't expect this to be Heinlein or Card, and it's not.
The pacing of Last Son has a comic book feel to it, which may be understandable, given the subject matter. But the novel also lacks the depth of thought, feeling, and characterization that Maggin brought to his later novel Kingdom Come. On this first outing as a novelist Maggin was not a neophyte writer -- he was a celebrated professional with years of comic book experience. But he didn't fully take advantage of the different medium he was working in. Despite its focus on two potentially fascinating characters -- Superman and Lex Luthor -- Last Son serves up essentially shallow characterization. Many people will enjoy this novel, but even the most generous reader will realize that this is mostly "literature lite." Maggin's later work seems a whole order of magnitude improved by comparison.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the novel is that it feels dated, because it is. One can't really criticize Maggin for this. Maggin wrote Last Son prior to DC's revitalization of the Superman character, done in the 1980s with both the Crisis on Infinite Earths series and John Byrne's landmark Man of Steel limited series. Contemporary readers may be familiar with the more up-to-date, less godlike Superman of the current comic books and the successful Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman television series. This newer vision of the character is more plausible to our modern sensibilities, and probably a better vehicle for storytelling.
But Maggin's Superman, while very true to the character as it existed when he wrote the novel, may be hard for modern readers to swallow. There's just a lot of baggage and downright silliness that really was in those older comics, but which movie and television viewers may not be familiar with or comfortable with. For one thing, Clark is not simply a newspaper reporter, he's the world's most famous news anchor. The modern reader is forced to wonder: how can the world's most famous news anchor be the world's most famous man -- Superman, and nobody figure it out? In today's world of CNN and the Internet, we know where the President's "DNA" has been. We don't allow celebrities secrets and it is hard to believe this one. It's also hard to believe that teenaged Lex Luthor, genius that he is, never figured out that his lab partner, young Clark Kent, was Superboy.
Yes, this is another bit of baggage from the old comics: While the Superman movies and television series and modern comics let us blessedly believe that Superman didn't go public until he was an adult, the novel's version, in recounting Superman's origin, tells of a 14-year-old Superboy amazing Smallville and meeting that era's U.S. president. I kept expecting to see Krypto the Superdog pop up somewhere (but he never did).
Most laughable is the description of the pre-Byrne Lex Luthor. Gone are his sensible dark suits. In this novel Superman's greatest rival actually wears a skin tight body suit with crossed ammunition belts, and jet boots, just like in the Superfriends television series.
These dated elements aren't really Maggin's fault. He was simply accurately portraying the Superman he knew, which has usually been the best strategy for adaptations of comic book material. (See how much better, for example, the true-to-its-source X-Men movie was than the bizarre charade of Batman and Robin.)
But the most problematic element of the novel is Superman himself, with all his glorious abilities and imperfection. In Lost Son Maggin reminds us in a few places that Superman can fly through the heart of the sun without harm. At one point he actually does it, after a late night session of doing medical research on a deadly virus (flying through the sun before going to work sterilizes him so he doesn't carry the contagion to Metropolis). And isn't Superman powerful enough without being able to trace a phone call with his x-ray vision?? Then there's his "super ventriloquism." Not only can he throw his voice anywhere, he can disguise his voice so that it sounds like Lex Luthor's voice coming over a bad guy's radio headset. You get the picture. Maggin faithfully described a character who was bursting at the seams with about forty years of accumulated "innovations" by countless writers. There's a good reason the Superman character has been revamped in recent years -- the character was simply untenable otherwise.
The novel actually had a very strong start, and became weaker (kind of like Superman when exposed to Kryptonite). The best part of the novel was Maggin's scientific rationalization of Superman's Kryptonian origins. Not content to simply claim that Kal-El is an alien from Krypton and under a yellow sun he has super powers, Maggin actually goes to great lengths to describe how Krypton was larger and far more dense other planets, that it was an unlikely place for a civilization to develop, that two humanoids were stranded there from elsewhere, and that their progeny evolved extraordinary characteristics just to survive the high gravity and harsh condition of the planet. This brief history of Krypton is a delightful and fascinating chapter. This is followed by a surprisingly and oddly enjoyable couple of chapters in which Albert Einstein is contacted by a device which precedes baby Kal's spaceship and finds the world's smartest man. In a close approximation of the Biblical Annunciation, Einstein is recruited by the voice of Jor-El to help make sure the Kryptonian baby is given a good home. It may be worth the trouble to hunt down a copy of this book just to read the first few chapters and forget about the rest. (You can read the first chapter online. If you like it, you'll probably find some other parts of the book interesting.)
Even Luthor's "caper" in this novel seems a bit silly. Thirty years after the death of Albert Einstein, Princeton University opens his secret vault, in which he had placed his last papers after leaving instructions that his final discovery wasn't to be revealed until this time. On the day the vault is opened, Luthor steals the papers. This leaves a lot of unanswered questions, like why Einstein would hide information, and why Luthor waited so long to steal it. (He couldn't break into Princeton??) Also odd: Einstein's discovery is so brilliant that an alien from the other end of the galaxy journey to Earth to get their hands on it as well. This alien is from a star-spanning civilization of countless worlds, representing millions of years of progress. And Einstein figured out something they didn't know? Smart man. Just what did Einstein figure out? Rumor has it that Einstein discovered the method for "trisecting an angle." Needless to say, Last Son did not become an underground classic in university math departments.
Maggin had no way of knowing how his subject material would be updated for modern tastes in the decade after he wrote his novel. Last Son was probably more palatable for readers at the time it came out. Today it is a lot of fun, but it's fun in part because it takes you back to a bygone era of comics. This means the book may appeal most to older readers interested in a nostalgic experience, or to those who read it for academic and historical reasons. In much the same way that nobody reads Le Guin for fun or excitement, Maggin's Last Son of Krypton may be a sort of "classic" for historical reasons, not because it's a great read. Serious fans of Superman of superhero novels will really enjoy this novel. I read it because I so loved Maggin's work on Kingdom Come. But for most people who are regular science fiction or comic book readers, this novel probably won't seem worthwhile.
Perhaps Last Son would come across better if it was judged purely on its own merit, and not viewed through the prism of two decades of change in society and the comic book characters. It could be seen as a kind of grand operatic fantasy. The more modern, less eccentric version of Luthor may be absent, but in compensation, this book's Luthor is generally funny. Some of the banter between this amoral but affable genius and his colorful hirelings recalls the best of Gene Hackman's scenes from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Put can you really remove this novel from all context? As an independent satirical fantasy Last Son certainly can't be compared to Candide or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or A Canticle for Leibowitz. This novel's satire isn't even about real society, but about the world of the Superman comics. People are going to read a book about Superman because it is a book about Superman, not because of who wrote it or because of its philosophical themes. Context is important.
As noted before, Maggin's characterization seems lacking given such rich subject matter. For a novel about Superman, Last Son leaves its title character seeming sadly opaque. Maggin's characterization of Luthor isn't very much deeper, but it is better.
Halfway through the novel Superman has, with disappointing ease, found Lex Luthor and returned him to prison. Einstein's papers have been stolen by an alien and offworld alien intrigue seems afoot. Last Son lurches into an all out Star Wars-esque tale on another planet populated by a thousand different species of aliens. Exploration of Superman's psyche or his impact on Earth now takes a back seat to traipsing through a cheap pulp fiction science fiction milieu. This spacefaring adventure isn't without its rather Douglas Adams-like fun points and satirical levity, but it seems somehow inappropriate. One megapowerful alien on Earth isn't enough to sustain a 238 page novel?
The good point about this second half of the novel is that Superman doesn't embark on this adventure alone. Given the potential dangers of the quest, he enlists the aid of the world's most creative genius: Lex Luthor himself. The mixture of enmity, comraderie, respect and derision between these two polar opposites is fresh, enjoyable, and interesting. Their peculiar relationship while working together is one of the elements of this novel which has best weathered the passage of time. Indeed, it largely saves the book and makes it worth reading even today.
If you're an old Superman fan you'll probably enjoy this novel. If you're a new Superman fan (only exposed to the character in recent post-Byrne years), you will certainly find Last Son interesting. You may enjoy it, but you'll just as likely be annoyed by it. In terms of content, there's nothing at all in the novel that teachers or parents would find objectionable and inappropriate for young people. This isn't Lobo, after all, or even Batman. It's Superman, and he really is a Boy Scout. Maggin is a practicing Jew; his novel is respectful of all peoples, and respectful of Judeo-Christian beliefs and values. Contemporary general science fiction readers find Last Son overburdened with implausible baggage, and lacking sufficient depth and artistry to make up for such weaknesses. But most people drawn to this book because of its subject matter will probably enjoy it thoroughly.