Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

Dawnbreaker Cover.jpg

Publisher: Penguin Books (Trade Paperback – 5 March 2019)

Series: DC Icons – Book 4

Length: 290 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bestselling young adult fiction author Matt de la Peña attempts to put his own spin on the classic origins of one of DC Comics’ most iconic superheroes, Superman, in the fourth and final instalment of the DC Icons book series.

The DC Icons series is made up of four young adult books that present new and modernised origin stories for four of DC Comics’ most iconic and recognisable characters.  Written by some of the world’s best young adult fiction authors, this series has so far looked at Wonder Woman, Batman and Catwoman, and this final book, Dawnbreaker, takes a look at Superman.  Each of the stories in the DC Icons series stands alone and does not connect to either the main DC comic universe or the other DC Icons books.  I have so far only had the opportunity to read one of the previous books in the DC Icons series, Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas, which presented an imaginative and captivating new version of Catwoman’s origin story.  I really liked Soulstealer when I read it late last year, and I have been looking forward to Superman: Dawnbreaker for a while.

In Dawnbreaker, the reader is taken to the sleepy Kanas town of Smallville, home to awkward high school student Clark Kent.  Clark has always been different to the other young people around him, as he is gifted with abilities that make him stronger, faster and resistant to injury.  Afraid of these powers and the potential reactions of the people around him if they found out, Clark tries to live a more ordinary life, hiding his abilities and only confiding in his parents.  However, Clark is finding it harder and harder to disguise what he can really do, especially when he has the power to help those around him.

However, Clark is not the only person with secrets in Smallville.  When Clark finds fellow student Gloria Alvarez crying one day after school, he begins to see that there is something dark at the heart of the town he loves.  People are disappearing; men are skulking around the Kent farm attempting to enter a barn that his father always keeps locked, a large corporation is buying up land around town, and several wealthy young people, including the mysterious Lex Luthor, are suddenly taking an interest in both Smallville and Clark.

Teaming up with his best friend, Lana Lang, Clark attempts to uncover what is really happening in his town.  But the further down the rabbit hole they go, the more Clark begins to realise that only his abilities will be able to stop the terrible events occurring around them.  Can Clark become the hero that his town and the world needs?

De la Peña is an award winning young adult author who has written a number of intriguing and thought-provoking books which often look at young people from disadvantaged or ethnic backgrounds.  De la Peña debuted in 2005 with Ball Don’t Lie, which was later developed into a motion picture of the same name.  Some of his other notable works include We Were Here, I Will Save You and the highly acclaimed children’s book, Last Stop on Market Street.  His most famous book is probably his second novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, which was actually banned in Tucson for five years due to its “critical race theory”.  Dawnbreaker is de la Peña’s first foray into comic book fiction.  While he has previously written some science fiction books, such as The Living and his instalment of the Infinity Ring series, Curse of the Ancients, I was interested to see how he went writing in this new genre.

I personally think that de la Peña did a great job with this book, as he was able to craft together a compelling and exciting novel that contains an excellent combination of mystery, superhero origin story and teen drama.  The mystery and young adult storylines are particularly good, and I quite enjoyed seeing where those parts of the story went.  However, I did have some minor issues with the Superman origin story part of the book, namely because I had seen this origin story so many times before.  I honestly found parts of Dawnbreaker to be very similar to some of the previous versions of Superman that I have seen in both comics or screen adaptions like the Smallville television show (which I may mention again a few times, as I was a massive fan of the show).  Of course, readers who have not already been exposed to so many iterations of Superman’s origin story will not have the same problem.

I fully recognise that this was always going to be a problem for any author attempting to write this sort of book.  For the last 81 years, Superman has been one of the most, if not the most, iconic and recognisable comic book superheros in the world.  As a result of the commercial appeal of the character, there have been so many different versions of Superman over the years, nearly all of which at some point have shown him as a younger Clark Kent living in Smallville.  Because of all of these comics, novels, movies, television shows, games and animated features, the character’s origin story has really been done to death.

Still, de la Peña does do a great job portraying the character of Clark Kent and presenting a more modern version of the hero.  In particular, he did an outstanding job of capturing the character’s identity issues.  An important part of Clark Kent/Superman’s character has always been his fear of hurting anyone with his power or exposing his family to danger.  De la Peña’s take on this character aspect is fantastic, as his version of Clark is extremely vary of using his powers anymore after he previously lost control and hurt someone.  As a result, he finds himself somewhat socially isolated in this book, as he attempts to distance himself from others to make sure they do not realise that he is different and subsequently reject or fear him.  However, events keep conspiring against him, as he keeps finding himself drawn into situations where his powers could help or save people and he has to decide what to do.  I felt that de la Peña covered this part extremely well, and the emotional and ethical internal debates that occur within the protagonist during these events were spot on and some of the best writing in the entire book.  The eventual creation of the Superman identity later in the book is a great result of some of these events, and it is shown to be a natural progression for the character.

Another issue I had with this book was how compacted the origin story felt.  While some origin stories would build up to Clark becoming Superman and an alien saviour over an extended period (although perhaps Smallville’s 10 seasons were a bit over the top), Dawnbreaker covers all of this rather quickly.  At the start of the book, Clark is a teenager with powers (mostly strength and invulnerability at that point), but he has no idea where they come from or what their full extent is.  Within a few days, he finds out that his an alien, he learns all his additional abilities (x-ray vision, heat vision, artic breath and the ability to fly) and he takes on the Superman identity for the first time.  While I certainly understand de la Peña’s desire to portray all these iconic Superman elements in this book, it did make Dawnbreaker’s story feel a bit rushed.

There is some great utilisation of characters within this book.  As I mentioned above, the examinations of Clark’s inner self are done perfectly and really cover important aspects of the character.  I also felt that de la Peña made good use of several classic Superman comic characters, specifically Lana Lang and Ma and Pa Kent, and there were a few clever references to other major characters associated with Superman.  I was a tad disappointed in the portrayal of perennial Superman villain, Lex Luthor.  While he is a key character with his own agenda, there are no real signs of the super scientist and utterly ruthless businessman he is in the comics, nor was there the close friendship that devolved into antagonism that features in some comics, as well as the excellent version that appeared in Smallville.  Still the new, original characters that appear in this book are really well done and offer some unique new inspirations for Superman that I quite enjoyed.

I also quite liked the way that de la Peña attempted to introduce relevant and divisive political and social issues into Dawnbreaker, such as racism and immigration.  This can be mainly seen in treatment of Mexican immigrants (both legal and illegal) in Smallville.  Not only have several of these immigrants gone missing without the police caring, but also people in the town are harassing some of the remaining immigrants, and there are attempts to pass a targeted stop-and-search law.  I thought this was an intriguing and thought provoking inclusion for this book, and it was interesting to see such issues discussed in a comic book tie-in novel.  A Superman book is a great place for this sort of storyline to be explored, as the character is probably the most famous illegal alien in fiction, and Clark’s empathy for these immigrants once he finds out the truth of his past is an interesting inclusion.

Like the other books in the DC Icons series, Dawnbreaker is targeted at a young adult audience.  This is quite a good book for younger audiences, as not only does it present an exciting and fun adventure at an American high school, but it would also serve as an excellent introduction of this iconic character’s origins for this younger cohort.  Younger readers will no doubt appreciate the author’s more modern take on this beloved superhero and be intrigued by how his story starts.  There is also quite a lot for older readers in this book, especially fans of comic books and Superman, and an adult audience can easily enjoy Dawnbreaker.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña is a compelling and exciting story that attempts to present an updated origin of one of comic’s most iconic superheros.  Featuring some new takes on the character of Clark Kent, as well as bringing some more contemporary issues to bear in the story, this is an fantastic and enjoyable book and one a wide range of readers can appreciate.  Dawnbreaker is an excellent conclusion to the DC Icons series, and I still fully intend to check out the first two instalments in this series in the near future.