23 January 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #17: Superman: Secret Identity

Comic trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 2004)

Borrowed from a friend
Read January 2010
Superman: Secret Identity

Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist, Colorist: Stuart Immonen
Letterer: Todd Klein

DC Universe Timeline: N/A
Real World Timeline: 1990-2050?

Imagine your parents' surname was "Kent", you were born in Kansas, and they gave you the first name "Clark". Wouldn't that be terrible? But then imagine that one day you discovered that you really were Superman. That is the premise of Secret Identity, which follows this boy named Clark up into adulthood. I'd known the fundamentals of the premise, but not much more, before reading it-- enough to know it took him up until he was old enough to hold a newspaper job, at least, but I didn't know quite how far along the story went. 206 pages to cover a man's entire life. The book is narrated by Clark, in the form of extracts from a typed diary he keeps and doesn't share with anyone.

Given Superman action figures he doesn't particularly enjoy by his family and the constant butt of jokes from his cruel classmates, Clark is pretty much a typical teenager until he discovers he can fly. It's a magnificent moment, as you might imagine, and he soon discovers he has all Superman's powers: super-strength, x-ray vision, super-hearing, laser eyes, super-breath, and so on. He spends the rest of the book figuring out what he ought to do with these powers: should he used them for good? Should he go public? Should he hide them from everyone he knows? In the end, events convince him that he can't afford to go public-- the risk is too great.

In the first chapter, when Clark is still in high school, his powers are pretty obviously a metaphor for the need all teenagers feel to hide themselves and fit in with others, yet at the same time be recognized for who one really is. There's a girl Clark wants to impress, of course. But dare he go out on that limb? Of course he doesn't, but he gains some small recognition from her all the same. The end of the chapter, though, introduces this notion that there are darker forces at work: there are people out there who want what Clark is. Only he himself doesn't know who he is-- where did he come from? He's not adopted, so how did he gain these powers?

At first, I was tepid about these plots. Surely the point of the story was how did a boy deal with these things? Explaining where they came from, or introducing a group of evil folks trying to take advantage of him seemed like it would just derail that. That wasn't going to be the interesting part. It's like in Ken Grimwood's Replay-- the powers the main characters have can never be explained because any answer would be boring. But as the story unfolded, I realized that I was wrong: just as Clark's powers stand for the true identities we all carry within us and reveal only to a few others, the government officials trying to uncover him stand for the forces of the world constantly trying to push us out into the world where everyone sees us. It's interesting to have a story that argues we ought to keep parts of ourselves hidden from the world, whereas most fiction tells us "to be who we really are" but it works here-- and truth be told, it's how things actually work in the real world.

Unfortunately, Busiek seems really worried that the reader can't figure out this subtext on their own, and there's a few panels where this is ham-handedly narrated by Clark. "THIS IS WHAT THE STORY MEANS." Ugh. Thank you, I am capable of interpreting literature myself.

Clark's friends delight in setting him up on dates with women named "Lois" and "Lana" (and even "Cat Grant"), but one of these dates introduces him to the woman he eventually marries, one Lois Chaudhari. (Though I was amused by this element, I found it hard to buy the story's claim that Lois was constantly set up on dates with men named Clark-- is "Lois" really so uncommon?) It's a very real romance, and the moment where Clark reveals his secret identity to her is fantastic.

Stuart Immomen's art is a little odd. It's often glorious, especially in his big wide vistas and such, but often times his faces look a little stiff-- and stuck on an emotion that doesn't actually fit with the dialogue depicted. But his action shots are great, as is his use of color. It would be a very different and somewhat inferior book with a different artist on the case. Possibly the best sequence is when Clark is captured by the government and makes his escape: there's no dialogue, no narration, yet it's utterly harrowing.

As I said, Secret Identity covers quite a span of time, the last chapter taking place when Clark and Lois's own daughters are grown. Some aspects of this I found improbable, but the last few pages of the story, as he goes on one last mission, declares his retirement, and celebrates Christmas... well, I think I must have had something in my eye while reading it, because the alternative is untenable for me. The emotion that Busiek and Immonen drew together at the end was potent and powerful.

This is a fantastic story, told fantastically well. I think the appeal of Superman is that he's an ordinary person, just with superpowers-- he'd be trying to do good even if he wasn't from Krypton, and this story drives that idea home. People often complain (wrongly, I think, but also understandably) that Superman is hard to relate to, but this Superman certainly isn't. He really is just like you or me or anyone else you know. He could be you or me or anyone else you know. After all, don't we we all have secret identities?

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

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