June 27, 2013


Man of Steel: The Early Years—Junior Novel. Adapted by Frank Whitman. HarperFestival. $5.99.

Man of Steel: The Fate of Krypton; Superman Saves Smallville. By John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $3.99 each.

Man of Steel: Reusable Sticker Book. Adapted by John Sazaklis. HarperFestival. $6.99.

Man of Steel: Superman’s Superpowers; Friends and Foes. Adapted by Lucy Rosen. Illustrated by Andie Tong (Superpowers); pictures by Steven E. Gordon (Friends). Harper. $3.99 each.

Batman: Who Is Clayface? By Donald Lemke. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.

Flat Stanley Goes Camping. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $16.99.

     The return, reinvention and repackaging of comic-book superheroes for the big screen continues apace, with Superman, the original DC Comics action hero, the latest to get a makeover as a highly chiseled, prototypically square-jawed and almost-grotesquely-muscled good guy with a form-fitting uniform and a cape. The film Man of Steel revisits Superman’s origin on the doomed planet Krypton, his journey to Earth, his adoption by the perfectly parental Kents of Smallville, and his gradual discovery of his unearthly powers. To create a modest degree of angst, young Clark Kent has to decide on his own to make use of his powers rather than conceal them; but at the same time, he must conceal them, even to the point of allowing himself to be bullied, lest he seriously damage those who do him wrong. Superman is a creation of the 1930s, but his one-dimensional life seems to fit pretty well into the largely flat and surface-level moviemaking that has become the norm in recent years – and generated considerable profits despite the abject failure of occasional would-be spectaculars, such as John Carter. In any case, Man of Steel is ripe for book tie-ins, and it is getting plenty of them. For ages 8-12, there is an easy-to-read paperback novel that essentially tells the story of the entire movie, and includes eight pages of stills from the film. For younger kids, ages 4-8, there is a lot of choice. The Fate of Krypton and Superman Saves Smallville pick up portions of the movie’s plot, the first focusing on the doomed planet and baby Kal-El’s escape from it, the latter being about a trio of equally super bad guys also arriving on Earth – and somehow managing to be defeated by Superman even though they have the same powers he does and a three-to-one numerical advantage. Hey, it’s a superhero comic-book story, you know?

     Kids who particularly enjoy the highly stylized poses incorporated into the film will have fun with the Reusable Sticker Book, which actually has one page called “Poses of Power” and which invites kids to, among other things, “stage the smackdown” between the good guy and the baddies. And Man of Steel is even being enlisted to help early readers through the “I Can Read!” series. Both Superman’s Superpowers and Friends and Foes are Level 2 books (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in this early-reading sequence. The first deals with young Clark’s eventual decision to use his great powers for good, and the second zips along from Clark’s school days (friend Lana Lang, bully Pete Ross) to his adult life in Metropolis (“ace reporter” Lois Lane, bad guy General Zod). Families that enjoy Man of Steel certainly have plenty of ways to bring the film home and re-live the experience.

     DC Comics’ other super-famous hero, Batman, has been viewed and re-viewed through many recent movies, and has shown appeal to a wide variety of movie directors and a number of different audiences. He continues to show up in short, simple books, too, including yet another Level 2 entry in the “I Can Read!” series – called Who Is Clayface? The bad guy here is an “evil mud man” who poses as Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, in order to make a million-dollar cash withdrawal from a bank – all of which money he gets without identification, and all of which money fits in a standard-size briefcase, which is a little more of a suspension of disbelief than even comic books usually require. The fact that the bad guy’s skin “started bubbling and bulging through his suit” might have given the bank personnel pause if they had not apparently been lobotomized and then hypnotized as a pre-condition for getting hired (that is how they look, anyway). In any case, Batman catches up to the crook in a wax museum, where Clayface actually, no kidding, is quoted as saying, “BWAHAHA!” The good guy wins, of course – with cleverness, which is the attraction of the non-superpowered Batman character – and eventually gets to “clean up this money mess at the bank” and restore Bruce Wayne’s good name. And if these silly heroics help new readers get involved in books, so much the better.

     Families seeking a more down-to-earth hero, who is one-dimensional in a different way from comic-book stars, will likely prefer Flat Stanley Goes Camping, the latest Level 2 book based on the character created by Jeff Brown. The “I Can Read!” books about Flat Stanley have little to do with Brown’s original works, simply using Stanley’s flatness as a plot device for small-scale adventures. There is nevertheless something inherently pleasant about these Stanley stories, and in this one he really does get to be a hero of sorts, acting as a parachute to help his brother, Arthur, down from a cliff, then becoming a raft to get himself and Arthur back to the family campsite. The book starts with Stanley being “sick of being flat” and ends with him deciding that his flatness is not so bad after all. Brown himself had Stanley (who was originally flattened by a falling bulletin board back in 1964) returning to normal boyhood, but neither the origin of the flatness nor the return from it is significant in Flat Stanley Goes Camping or other recent books that have followed Stanley through a series of mild but pleasantly involving tales that in some cases – including this one – have an amusing twist at the end. Flat Stanley may not have the highly angular appearance of modern-day versions of Superman and Batman – he is, in fact, rather rounded in appearance despite being only half an inch thick – but he is heroic in his own way. And despite being just as unrealistic as DC Comics heroes, Stanley seems like someone that early readers might meet on the street or in school, not like a character to be found only in Smallville, Metropolis or Gotham City.

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