The year is 1981, and once again, there’s a yawning, empty space in the Warner Books release schedule. Every big movie in 1981 got a paperback novelization, one way or another — Ballantine Books published the Raiders of the Lost Ark novelization, Jove published the Flash Gordon novelization, and Avon published a novelization for the Popeye musical that included the song lyrics, which is incredible, because almost all of the songs in Popeye consist of two or three words repeated endlessly.
But there wasn’t going to be a Superman II novelization, because dumb ol’ Mario Puzo had the rights to novelize the Superman films, and he refused to have anything to do with them.
Back in ’78, Warner Books — stuck without a Superman: The Movie novelization in a novelization-friendly market — threw up their hands and said fine, we’ll publish an original novel instead. The book, written by DC Comics writer Elliot S. Maggin, was called Superman: Last Son of Krypton, and it was 238 pages of blithering nonsense about an invasion by an enormous hypnotic alien jester who was using a cosmic Xerox machine to make copies of planets, or something. It was confusing and not very good, but it had a picture of Christopher Reeve on the cover, and that was good enough.
It turned out that it didn’t really matter what you put between the covers of a paperback that looks like a Superman: The Movie novelization, because the kind of people who like to read movie novelizations would read just about anything. It appears that Maggin didn’t have much of an editor; I guess the book was published on the honor system. Maggin says that he knows absolutely nobody at DC read Last Son of Krypton before it was published, because if they had, they would have at least stopped him from using the brand name Xerox, which he did quite a bit.
So if the first book, written in a hurry without any serious editorial oversight, sold just about as well as anything else would have in that format, then Maggin knew that for the second book, he would be able to write down the craziest thoughts he ever had about Superman and they would publish it anyway, and that is exactly what happened.
The book is called Superman: Miracle Monday, and it is an extraordinary approximation of American literature. It’s a free-standing novel by a current comics writer who is completely immersed in existing Superman continuity, and dreams of being something more than just a comics writer. He has a lot of ideas about Superman that wouldn’t fit in a 16-page comic book punch-em-up, and this is his opportunity to stretch out and really enjoy himself.
Miracle Monday is mainly about an upsetting dimensional intrusion by C.W. Saturn, a demonic agent of Satan, who has manifested itself on Earth in the body of Lois Lane’s time-traveling secretary Kristin, in order to play weird tricks on the world and piss off Superman. The other main plot thread is about Lex Luthor, who escapes from prison by learning how to temporarily transform himself into a gas through meditation, and then uses a bewildering variety of eccentric alter egos to get his hands on a lock of Superman’s indestructible hair, for reasons that are not immediately clear.
But it’s about a lot of other things too, including the mystery of Lena Thorul’s identity, the true nature of magic, the benefits of being friends with Ray Bradbury, how Superman really feels about Clark Kent, and what it sounds like if you listen to literally everything at once. It’s about telepathy and tidal waves and art auctions and aluminum dust and Noam Chomsky and chorus girls dressed up like Hasidic Jews and how to fuck with dairy farmers.
You may be wondering if I’m going to tell you whether this book is good or not, but if you are, that’s the wrong question. Miracle Monday is interesting, and unusual. I’m glad that I read it, and I’ll probably read it again. But it’s like asking if a thunderstorm is “good”; it’s just not a relevant question.
The book opens with the description of a nightmare that Jonathan Kent has, while Clark is still a boy. In the nightmare, Superboy starts wearing his costume and helping people, in ways that are unthinking and dangerous. It begins with a pair of bank robbers evading the law by traveling under a lake in divers’ suits:
Superboy plopped out of the sky into the lake and spotted the pair merrily plowing through deep murk, breathing their canned air. The boy knifed through the water and gripped steely hands around a pair of aluminum air tanks. He punctured both tanks in five places. The air rushed out, and a minute later, people saw the corpses of the pair of drowned bank robbers surface in a dead man’s float until the police could fish their blue bodies from the lake.
It gets worse.
Superboy crashed through virgin forests to help build roads or dig mines. For the good of society he dropped tyrants, heinous criminals and chronic speeders into volcanoes. He was a weekend guest at the White House where he suggested that the president make him de facto Commander in Chief of all American military forces, since, according to Superboy, he would be in charge of everything soon enough anyway. The president considered the expediency of this.
In the dream, Jonathan finally realizes that he has to dig up the buried chunk of Kryptonite hidden on his farm, to get his son to slow down long enough to talk about what he’s doing to the world… and then Superboy appears, furious, and kills his father with a shovel.
It is dark as fuck. We are currently on page 8 of a Superman movie novelization.
It gets lighter, obviously. Jonathan has a talk with Clark that convinces him that the boy still has respect for humanity and the balance of nature, and he goes back to sleep happy. Superman is still the good-hearted hero that we all expect him to be. But it’s important for Maggin to ask that question: how would it feel to be responsible for something as huge and terrifying as Superboy?
The writing style is more or less modeled on Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote darkly comic satires of American life, often using science-fiction tropes. It’s funny and conversational, describing impossible things in a matter-of-fact tone. It punctuates almost everything with specific details that are technically irrelevant, but create a picture of a wider scope.
For want of anything else to do, I’m going to open the book at random and give you a taste of what it’s like. Okay, it turned out to be chapter 14, which is about a famous and mysterious scientist named Dr. David Skvrsky. Here’s a representative sample of Miracle Monday:
More recently, a boatload of overcrowded but unanimously healthy Vietnamese refugees floated unannounced into San Francisco Bay with the story of how a miracle-working physician dropped from a helicopter onto their deck somewhere in the south Pacific, examined ailing passengers and took blood samples. Then he synthesized, from a gel produced under the gills of sea bass, a serum to combat a virus that was sweeping the boat. Soon afterward, the health ministers of sixteen countries in Asia and North America received identical manila envelopes stuffed with formulas and explanations in their respective languages, detailing nearly a hundred cures, treatments and foods that could be made from this plentiful sea bass gel.
Skvrsky had been reported doing one thing or other this week in diverse parts of the world. Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Togo, Colombia, Senegal, the Dominican Republic, Byelorussia, Liechtenstein and other places turned up, in just about that order, in a wild itinerary of Skvrsky sightings. A free-lance foreign correspondent from London named George Laderbush noticed, according to the “People” section of Time magazine, that someone claimed to have seen Skvrsky in each of those countries immediately following a reasonably reliable report of the outbreak of the Itching Sickness in each place.
Four days earlier in Reykjavik where, the day before, Superman had caught a toddler falling from a hotel window, there were three reports of Itching Sickness. Laderbush went there immediately, and yesterday’s Daily News carried a story by a European stringer named John Hughes to the effect that Hughes’ sometime collaborator Laderbush ran into Skvrsky in a hospital lobby there. According to the Hughes report, the only quotable phrase Skvrsky uttered to Laderbush was, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
The most Miracle Monday thing about that excerpt from Miracle Monday is that the foreign correspondent from London is named George Laderbush. It’s just one weirdly specific detail piled on another, and you find out a couple pages later that David Skvrsky, George Laderbush, John Hughes and the Itching Sickness are all fictional constructs invented by Luthor, to accomplish who even knows what. That is what Miracle Monday is like.
At its core, the book is an exploration of the concept of super-excellence. Maggin spends a lot of time describing what life is like for Superman and Lex Luthor, who are both extraordinarily gifted, and live exceedingly complicated lives where they succeed at every single thing that crosses their mind.
Luthor is essentially supernatural in the book, able to plan and implement the wildest and most unlikely schemes you could imagine. He juggles a dozen fake identities simultaneously, many of them famous. He determines the nature of the human soul while sitting alone in a jail cell. He fools everybody in the world except for Superman, which drives him crazy.
Meanwhile, Superman does lots of Superman stuff, like turning a tidal wave into snow, and battling a demonic villain who can turn buildings upside down and cause all the steering wheels in Metropolis to disappear at the same time. He measures time in fractions of a second, making insane calculations about how fast and how strong and how clever he needs to be to solve the many problems that he faces, including the ones that he’s created himself.
The book actually has some interesting parallels with Watchmen, with Superman as Dr. Manhattan and Luthor as Ozymandias. Like Superman, Dr. Manhattan is all-powerful and can see through time; his impact on Earth and history is potentially hazardous, because it leads humans to live with risks and problems that they would otherwise have to solve themselves. Ozymandias is a Luthor figure who can look at a wall of TVs and magically intuit the future, and he’s so accomplished and intelligent that he becomes a dangerous puppet master.
Miracle Monday is animated by essentially the same questions about superheroes and supervillains that Alan Moore asks in Watchmen, but published five years earlier and pretending to be a novelization of Superman II. Obviously, it’s not as good as Watchmen, because almost nothing is, plus especially Miracle Monday definitely isn’t, but it’s working a similar patch of ground.
There are remarkable passages about Lois as well, and Maggin takes great pains to respect the integrity of the franchise’s main characters. Chapter 10’s got a beautiful description of a Superman/Lois date at a secret hot springs that only he knows about, and chapter 18 has a really well-observed and heartbreaking confrontation after Lois, and everyone else in the world, learns that Superman really is Clark Kent.
But the cost of all of this fancy writing is that there isn’t much room for a coherent plot; the book is mostly a series of interesting set pieces, and having the main antagonist be more or less the Devil means that all normal rules of storytelling can be discarded. For one thing, I have tried and failed to decipher how Superman wins in the end. The pleasure of Miracle Monday is in the details and surprises, and if it doesn’t hang together as a story, then that’s just the way it is.
I’m realizing, while I’m doing this, that I like this book more than I thought I did when I started writing this post. I expected that Miracle Monday would be just as baffling and worthless as Last Son of Krypton, and it’s exceedingly weird for me to find myself liking a book that was published as a throwaway fake novelization. But this is an exceedingly weird book, and life is like that, sometimes.
And it looks like Superman II may be the last big superhero movie for a long while that didn’t get novelized. I’ve got a lot of them ahead of me, including Swamp Thing, Supergirl, Howard the Duck, Batman Returns, Daredevil and practically everything that follows. Even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a “deluxe junior novel”.
So we might as well treasure this lunatic outlier, which was given a chance to explore new territory with very little oversight. Thanks to some strange magic, Maggin currently owns the rights to the book, and he’s selling it on Kindle for five bucks. Expect the unexpected.
— Danny Horn