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It's a Bird...
posted January 18, 2006
Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen
DC Comics, $24.95, 2004
The stand-alone graphic novel It's a Bird...
tackles the subjects of mortality and disease and human weakness as it plays out in network of one man's family and friends. It also functions as an extended rumination on writing mainstream comic books for a living. On page ten, grumpy protagonist Steven is offered the chance to write a Superman
comic book for DC Comics. The remainder of the volume follows Steven as he works through his resistance to the assignment while dealing with a minor personal crisis related to his family's genetic predisposition for Huntington's Disease. The narrative tempo of the 124-page story relies greatly on moves back and forth between Steven's explorations of the character and his efforts to hold things together grappling with the job and trying to resolve his family problems. The personal difficulties inform the writing process, both the blockage and, it's asserted, the eventual work. In some ways It's a Bird...
functions like a really long and depressing superhero-centric episode of The Seinfeld Chronicles
Writer Steven T. Seagle, who did end up working on the Superman
comics for a few years, does a fine job pacing his dramatic scene-work. His characters react to one another in the emotional shorthand that arises from years of familiarity and chronic disappointment. The same dull expectations characters bring to one other mirrors Steven's earlier, surface oriented and limited-perspective explorations of the Superman character. When Steven finally experiences a breakthrough that allows him to understand the emotional underpinnings of his father's bizarre, hurtful actions and how it's had an impact on him, he gains the ability to come to terms with what Superman means for himself and may mean for others. The order of epiphanies makes writing superhero comics look like the most emotionally daunting enterprise in all media.
A key to understanding It's a Bird...
is that nothing in Steven's transformation absolves the vapidity that preceded it. The writer's attitude changes towards the character, but the character never really changes -- in fact, Superman may not be able to change, at least not all that much. Artist Teddy Kristiansen gives each moment of super-scrutiny a visual signature that aids greatly in parsing what Seagle is saying without slowing one's read to a standstill. Kristiansen's work is routinely lovely, expressively angular and full of fun, grotesque figure drawing. But the various scenes of analysis tend to be the kinds of things stoned college students muse over at two o'clock in the morning: Superman as a manipulative liar, Superman as a totem of invincibility, Superman as a awkward vehicle for justice. After his hospital-room moment of truth, Steven finds much to cherish in the character's links to folk literature (he even reminds us of the Christ metaphor), a memory of the value escapism and fantasy can have in young peoples' lives, and the reliability of the Superman's continuing adventures as a metaphor for human coping. Seeing eight hundred something monthly issues as a nudge for the rest of us to keep on keeping on is obviously highly problematic due to the corporate nature of Superman's continued survival. It takes very little effort on a cynical reader's part to see Steven's transformation as a capitulation to getting along, making himself and those around him happy at the cost of pursuing a more trenchant set of truths. I think the creators realize this, at least to some extent.
More than any graphic novel I've ever read, It's A Bird...
engages the difficulties of working with superhero material in a way that doesn't rely on a simple construction of relative worth. What seems enlightening to Steven may horrify another writer; surface qualities of color, excitement and imaginative art may be as valuable as any metaphorical weight with which such stories can be infused; one man's corporate treadmill is another's life-saving regular gig. Seagle and Kristiansen play up the ambiguity about superhero stories in a way that suggests a shrugged shoulder notion of value may be the greatest comfort of all. More than any genre or sub-genre, superhero stories have resisted rigorous analysis about what they do well in part, perhaps, because suggestions are more useful than hard answers when it comes to securing the emotional response we want from these works. Becoming thoughtful about superheroes may involve floating ideas that embarrass in a different context, or it may mean moving freely between the seriously intended and the simply ridiculous. The most interesting thing about these often garish, sometimes even painfully deficient comic books isn't in what we are able to see but that we keep looking.