Book Review: Metropolitan Man

[content warning: sexual violence]

It’s been 10 years since I wrote Metropolitan Man, and last night I read it for the first time in almost that long. Since writing it, I’ve written over 4 million words, and hopefully, grown as a writer. I’ve also forgotten parts of the story, so was looking at it with as fresh of eyes as possible. These are my overall thoughts.

I should say, before I start, that I’ve read tons of comments and discussion on this story over the years. I don’t know how many of these thoughts are my own, or how much I’ve internalized things that people have said.

Writing Style

There were lots of changes I thought about making while reading, but people hate change, and this story is about ten years past when I wanted to be making editing passes on it. In many places I kept thinking of little extras I would add, things that would make the dialogue pop a little more, or provide characterization. I had this idea for a line where I describe Lois typing out two letters like she was letting loose with both barrels of a shotgun. There’s dialogue to clean just a bit more, a few places where words are repeated or something is just a bit awkward, and where it could have been tighter or more clear.

The biggest thing that stood out to me was how little time got spent on scene setting and how short some of the snippets were, just five paragraphs to get a scene across before we’re onto the next thing. I might have webserial brainrot, but those are definitely places where today I would give a little more breathing room and maybe use the same amount of words to describe something in a more oblique and stronger way. One that stood out as a clear example was a private investigator going home with Jimmy Olsen even though she was done pumping him for information, which could have been twice as long and benefitted from it. Another was a brief little thing about a Superman spotter on the roof, where I’d now describe everything he was doing, and only get to the conclusion of “he was a Superman spotter” at the end of the section to let the reader have this mini mystery of what they’re being shown and why.

I would describe things more if I was writing this today, trying to get those nicely tight and evocative descriptions and ditch the stuff like “she wore a white blouse”, but I often feel that way about stuff that I’m revising from last week, so it’s not surprising.

The plot is very tight, which is good. I tend to prefer my plots tight, but it takes work, and webserials aren’t conducive to it because it’s difficult to know when you’re writing a scene whether it’s really pulling its weight as far as moving things forward. The initial idea for MM was to move as cleanly as possible through a series of events: Superman -> Superman is invincible -> Superman is Clark Kent -> Clark Kent grew up in Smallville -> the ship is in Smallville -> the ship has a Kryptonite power source -> Kryptonite can kill Superman -> Superman is dead. The only thing that would make it any faster would be if we dropped the Lois Lane subplot, but that’s like half the novel.

Superman is OOC

I’ve gotten tons and tons of comments on this story over the years. If I hated myself, I would go back through my email and count them up, but there are some death threats and “kill yourself”s in there, and I prefer not to reread them. The major thing that people hate is the ending, which I don’t care to talk about, but the other major thing is that Superman isn’t Superman.

In this, I largely agree, but then, I’m pretty sure I’ve always agreed. That said, Superman has had a ton of interpretations over the years, and there’s a wide range of acceptable behavior from “a Superman”, even if we’re not counting the really out there variations like Red Son or some of the alternate timelines.

… but I still would probably make him more like a canon Superman if I had to do it all over.

There are a few things that raise red flags at the beginning, which is where I think they’re inexpertly placed. Superman takes Lois off the roof and flies her around, making her very afraid, and this is fine, I think, a misunderstanding that might be stronger if we got his insight into what was happening before we got hers to help bridge some of the disconnect there and characterize them both better. But there’s a little note after that, where Clark makes a joke about “Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane” that I think is a HUGE red flag, and which probably comes too early in the story. It would be better as a joke someone else made that Clark laughs along with, which raises the red flag to half mast.

The other major moment I would change is when the bombs start going off. Superman pulls back, unsure whether he’s actually immune to mustard gas, and I think this is one of the moments that most goes against the character of Superman. Canon Superman would just say “welp, guess I gotta find out whether I’m immune to mustard gas in a hurry”. Superman making the argument that he doesn’t know the bounds of his powers and so should exercise caution reads as either cowardice or as him being way too bitten by the rationality bug.

This would then obviously have to change the plot of that section a bit, because in the novel as it stands right now, Superman is convinced by Lois Lane that he can’t just sit on the sidelines for game theory reasons. Better to either scrap that section or have Lois convince Superman that for game theory reasons he should offer to have testing carried out against him in a way that doesn’t harm civilians, which canon Superman might submit to if it saved lives. Then the rest of the plot can proceed as normal, because Superman is immune to everything and that’s the whole plot beat anyway.

I’d definitely clean up some of Superman/Clark’s dialogue to nail the character voice better, but I don’t think it’s that bad, and it’s mostly a few places where the wording is off. I think in particular the points where he’s feeling anger go too far, and are not how someone internally conflicted about the anger might talk.

And then, oh yeah, Superman punches a guy’s head clean off, which I think is the biggest sticking point for most people.

I’ve thought about that scene a lot. I personally like it. But if I were ever trying to sell this story to DC, it’s one of the things I would almost certainly change. Superman doesn’t kill, except in that one movie that came out just before this story was published where Superman snapped a guy’s neck.

The change I am most happy/comfortable with is that Whitman, the governor whose children were [REDACTED], is the one to kill Calhoun. This happens just outside the courthouse with Superman watching and not intervening in the slightest, or maybe catching the bullets as they go through Calhoun so no bypassers get hit.

I don’t know, as I type it out, it doesn’t have the same weight to it. It’s not cool. It’s not a watershed moment. Maybe there’s a plot thread to pull there, where Superman has tacitly endorsed other vigilantes, and it would be a great time to pull in other mundane street-level heroes … but that’s an entirely different story at that point.

Another option is for Superman to simply fly off with Calhoun and put him away, but that lacks punch too, and gets talky, and … it’s about the rage, right? The feeling of injustice, not just at Calhoun, but at the entire world, and it’s not just an unhappy side effect that there’s blood everywhere, all over the clamoring press, that’s part of the point.

Social Justice

I really enjoy how wide-ranging the novel is, and how many things it touches on. Good job me. There was a line I had completely forgotten about where Lois asks “Why doesn’t Superman stop abortions?” that I had completely forgotten I had ever written, and which brought a big smile to my face (but no wonder some Superman fans hate this story).

There are a few other things that I raise my eyebrow at a little bit, at least sitting here in 2024. There’s a particular line that Superman gives when talking about this whitewashed mural of the past they’re walking by, and he says “It’s easy to forget that slavery ever happened, you know?” Now, I will grant you that this is a part of a conversation where he’s saying that maybe he should have been a better student of history, and is saying this as a white guy in 1934, but I wanted him or someone else to tear that statement apart. It never really happens.

“It’s easy to forget that slavery ever happened [if you and your people have not been affected by slavery]”. The novel takes place ~70 years after the end of the Civil War, which means that when Clark was growing up there would have been freed slaves who were in their fifties, probably many of them in Kansas, though Smallville is (notably) small. I don’t know, it wouldn’t have been historically accurate for them to have a discussion of privilege, but there’s way more meat on that bone, and it’s all left as subtext.

Also probably the case that if I were writing it now, I would pay more attention to race in general, but that I’m less sure on, because it would mean some major structural changes to be done well. There’s a single black guy in the whole thing, who is barely a character and has no speaking lines: the farmhand Ma Kent has before he gets lured away with the promise of being an actor. I have never felt that any novel needs racial balance to it, but if you’re going to be talking about slavery and whether Superman would have done anything about it, you start to make black people look like props, which is not a good look.

I mean look, I think it’s fine for a given story to not actually take a stance on political issues or have a diverse cast, but this story goes from abortion to the Equal Rights Amendment to Prohibition to Nazis to the death penalty, and then despite being set in 1934 sort of talks around the subject of how shitty race relations were. As a white guy, I never feel comfortable talking about race, but I think it would have been appropriate to have here in more than the cursory way it was handled. But the cast is just not that large, and the way that modern Superman stories handle that is usually making Jimmy Olsen black and then not actually talking about the fact that he’s black so it’s just a palette swap, which I don’t think would work here, especially since Jimmy is such a bit character, and also it’s 1934.

Sexual Violence

Alright, I will say it: there’s too much sexual violence.

Chapter 7 is when the two Whitman kids get kidnapped. Their driver gets his throat slit, the boy gets dismembered, and the girl gets raped. I knew it was coming and I was still horrified by it.

I would not remove this part. I would foreshadow it better with a few scenes with Calhoun, the brutes, etc., and I might change some of the details to be a bit less awful and gruesome, but I don’t think I would remove it. There are a few core ideas here that I think all work:

  1. The better class of criminal has left the city now, and all that are left are the worst of the worst, the people who will not respond to incentives or symbols or rational thought.
  2. If you cannot strike at Superman’s physical self, you strike at his mind instead, and one of the ways to do that is psychic damage. In Calhoun’s case, this is irrational, a pure desire to hurt Superman in any way possible while his empire collapses.
  3. The amount of evil in the world is enormous. The pain and suffering cannot be comprehended. I love what Superman says, that this isn’t really unique, that these things happen to children all the time. He’s upset about not being able to save them, but they’re a drop in the bucket.

I think you have to be careful with sexual violence, whether it’s depicted or hinted at or just briefly mentioned. There are tons of people who are not on board with that in their media, and even of those who are on board, it has to be handled carefully and can feel very cheap, as though you’re just going to the worst and most transgressive thing you can think of for the shock value. People will see it as lazy and trivializing and making entertainment out of this horrible thing.

I think the world is shit. I think terrible things happen. I have always felt both oppressed by the weight of evil in the world and powerless to stop it. I think that’s the thing that I’m gesturing at here, and it feels weird to me that sexual violence would get put on a pedestal as the one thing too horrible to mention, even though we’re mentioning all the most horrible things.

How do Superman comics and shows and movies deal with this? My impression is that they don’t. Surely Superman must be stopping rapes from happening, but I cannot think of a single time I’ve seen it happen. I’m actually having trouble thinking of a time it was implied to happen. I think this is probably a good idea on the part of the people who make these bits of media, but it’s absolutely not realistic if you’re thinking about how Superman would operate in the “real world”. Sexual violence happens, child abuse happens, and I guess we just sort of assume that these things are dealt with by Superman off-screen.

Though … I mean it impacts the characters, right? Does Superman not have a trauma response? Does he have a superpower where he can bottle it all up? He’s definitely too late to stop certain crimes, and he definitely can’t make things better for some of the victims, and I guess in the comics when he shows up to a burning building he generally has a 100% success rate and people come out with only minor injuries, but … alright, this is definitely the sort of thing that led me to write this fic in the first place.

It’s a question that the fic doesn’t have an answer for: how do you go on living when you know that there’s so much evil in the world?

I think dialing that particular scene back is, maybe, fine. But it’s the sort of thing that would feel like I was being less authentic in a way, as though I wanted to grapple with the big questions but not that one, wanted to consider ethics and morality but silo myself away from things that actually are on my mind. I see the point of blunting that scene, and I rebel against it because I don’t want to be blunted, I want to be sharp.

I would, however, remove a lot of the earlier references, or blunt those, because they didn’t need to be sharp. There are, before the Whitman stuff, about five references to sexual violence, and maybe even just using “sexual violence” would be enough, rather than “rape”. One of these references is to what crimes Superman is statistically most likely to stop, another is to a plot to besmirch his name, both can be massaged or they can go.

I don’t know if I think about these things differently because time has passed or I’ve had a bunch of discussions about these issues, or whether it’s just having the outside view. It’s weird to think about what a conversation with myself would look like, if we were working on the story together.


I understand why Superman fans sometimes hate this story. There’s the Superman OOC stuff, sure, but there are also a lot of questions about Superman that apply to canon equally well, and people hate that. Superman is a fantasy, maybe the ultimate comic book fantasy. He stops crimes and bullets bounce off him! You’re not supposed to think about his stance on abortion rights. You’re not supposed to look at the Clark Kent mask and say ‘huh, that’s strange’. I mean it’s media, you can do whatever the hell you want, but if Superman is a fantasy, then there are a lot of questions that are fantasy-ruining.

I stand by the story as written about 80%, which is higher than I thought it would be, though there are certain things that I stand by more than others. There are certain structural changes and many line-by-line changes, and I’m glad that I didn’t have the story open in edit mode, because it would have taken me three times as long to read and when I hit “save changes” people would grumble about archives or bad changes or whatever, because you can’t please people.

About five years ago, I started writing A Common Sense Guide to Doing the Most Good, which was meant as a companion piece to MM. It ended up being all mechanics, no plot, and the plot that I wanted it to have was divorced from the center questions it wanted to answer. It didn’t feel as grand, I guess, and the cats were out of their bags a little too quickly.

One of the Answers that MM gives is that the thing you should do in the face of overwhelming evil is to grind relentlessly, grind until your bones are scraping the grindstone and there’s nothing left of yourself. The story does not believe this answer, but it’s one of the places I ended up ten years ago, and am still sort of at now. The other answer is to live as best you can, be aware of the evil and do what you can against it without letting the idea of it (or the battle against it) consume your soul.

When I was finished reading, I kind of wanted to write an uncritical Superman comic. Something where Superman can be as his most loyal fans see him, someone who is Good and doesn’t often have to grapple with what Good means, where the thorny edges of moral quandaries never come to light and the hero is always there in the nick of time. Where Clark Kent is a bold and noble expression of humanity rather than a deception and a mask. Maybe I will go do that.

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Book Review: Metropolitan Man

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