Book: “Superman: Dawnbreaker” (DC Icons #4) by Matt de la Peña
Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, March 2019
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: When the dawn breaks, a hero rises.
His power is beyond imagining.
Clark Kent has always been faster, stronger–better–than everyone around him. But he wasn’t raised to show off, and drawing attention to himself could be dangerous. Plus, it’s not like he’s earned his powers . . . yet.
But power comes with a price.
Lately it’s difficult to hold back and keep his heroics in the shadows. When Clark follows the sound of a girl crying, he comes across Gloria Alvarez and discovers a dark secret lurking in Smallville. Turns out, Clark’s not the only one hiding something. Teaming up with his best friend, Lana Lang, he throws himself into the pursuit of the truth. What evil lies below the surface of his small town? And what will it cost Clark to learn about his past as he steps into the light to become the future Man of Steel? Because before he can save the world, he must save Smallville.
Review: Though I’ve come to terms with the fact that Batman is always going to be my choice of male DC superheroes (depressive demon nightmare boys are my weakness, as we all know) Superman is a very close second, and it’s probably because he’s the exact opposite of Bruce Wayne and his brooding tendencies. Clark Kent/Superman is an optimist who just wants to do the right thing, and to help people because he can. Sure, he has sadness about his home planet of Krypton blowing up, but overall he’s a cheerful and stand up guy whose motivation to do good is pretty much without strings. So it makes sense that the DC Icons Series, the YA books that have taken on DC’s favorite characters, has saved their Golden Boy for last. Therefore we come to Matt de la Peña’s “Superman: Dawnbreaker”, a new quasi-origin story for Superman set during his teen years in Smallville.
Overall, this was a very satisfying and well done Superman origin story. We’ve seen so many different iterations of this, but de la Peña manages to make it feel fresh and original, if only because he takes it to places that aren’t as obvious as the usual plot points. There are still familiar faces, like Ma and Pa Kent and Lana Lang, but de la Peña tweaks the relationships a tiny bit. In “Dawnbreaker”, Clark knows that he has powers, but he doesn’t know why, and he hasn’t felt comfortable asking his parents for answers. He gets the feeling that something is being hidden, but doesn’t necessarily know if he wants to know what, and wonders if he can be okay with not knowing all facets of his identity if it means living a relatively uncomplicated life. But, given that this is a Superman origin story, one can guess that all will come out soon enough, but even this I felt was handled with nuance and complexity. You see both Clark’s AND The Kents having to come to terms with the fact that Clark isn’t of this world, and what that could mean in both the greater scheme of things, but also their own familial ties. I was also VERY happy to see what de la Peña did with Lana Lang. I’ve always been solidly a Lois girl, and portrayals of Lana that I have seen have made her into an uninteresting love interest that I can’t abide. Partially because she’s competition for Lois (YES I AM THAT PETTY), but mostly because she could be so much more than just the hometown sweetheart. And de la Peña allows her to be more than that! While it could be argued that she’s just kind of been turned into Lois (though to be fair the comics did this too, with her being a TV newscaster on and off), I liked the spunky and intrepid Lana we got on the page. Also, she isn’t relegated to love interest here! She and Clark are best friends, and while they have some romantic tension it feels more like a wink towards their original storyline as opposed to a ‘will they or won’t they’ scenario. It means the Lana can be her own person, and her story isn’t defined by Clark’s affection for her. This is the Lana that Lana deserves to be.
But what struck me the most about this story was the plot and themes that de la Peña was able to bring together in a seamless way. When people think of Smallville they usually think of the humble and down home hometown that Clark grew up in, and the positive Americana that such a place an evoke. de la Peña doesn’t exactly blow this notion out of the water, but he does bring up the notion that small town simplicity and charm generally favors a very specific population, aka white people. In “Dawnbreaker”, Smallville (like many small towns in America’s midwest and heartland) has seen a growing population of Latinx immigrants, and racial tensions are on the rise as some townspeople miss ‘the good old days’. Seeing Clark hope that at the end of the day the people of Smallville will do the right thing is SO very Clark Kent, but it’s also a sad reality that unless checked and questioned and called out, prejudice and racism can easily run amok. And given that the people who are going missing are from the local Latinx population, Clark learns some hard truths about why they aren’t being sought out so much, and why their loved ones are too scared to push the authorities too much. In fact, while the main plot and mystery surrounding strange people in town and a mysterious new corporation moving in was well done, I was more interested in the themes about racism and xenophobia, and how capitalism and capitalist interests can claim they want to help, when they actually want to make a profit. And while it’s true that sometimes de la Peña is more inclined to spoon feed these themes to his reader as opposed to trusting that they can pick up on it, for the most part the execution was fairly well done.
“Superman: Dawnbreaker” was a strong end to the DC Icons series. I’m glad that they saved this one for last, because I think that it was my favorite of the bunch.
Rating 8: A strong end to a fun series, “Superman: Dawnbreaker” gives Clark Kent a timely and fun new origin story, while addressing social issues that remain incredibly relevant in today’s societal climate.
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