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Superman: Secret Identity
posted January 30, 2006
 

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Creators: Kurt Busiek, Stuart Immonen
Publishing Information: DC Comics, Trade, $19.95
Ordering Numbers: 1401204511 (ISBN)

I've long wondered if the problem with Superman is that his creators, going back to John Byrne twenty years ago, have written from what intrigues them about the character as adults rather than what might have interested them as a child. Obviously that approach isn't limited to Superman; I'm certain many if not most creators who work on modern superhero titles write within some semblance or their own interests or at least from the intersection of their concerns and the perceived needs the property or company might have at any given moment. It would be hard not to. It might even be necessary. With their limited readership, some sort of immediate, honest engagement with superhero material may be more important than writing skill. Hardcore fans tend to value authenticity more than talent, and can almost smell someone faking it on the page. It's hardcore fans that are catered to both overtly and by editors that share their interests and desire their contributions to market share. Talented writers learn to turn a recurring set of such concerns into a signature area of exploration: Joe Casey deals with responsibility in much of his work, Grant Morrison writes about self-transformation, and so on.

I think of all the big, iconic characters, Superman might suffer most for that now decades-old shift in approach. The other popular, franchise-bearing superheroes -- Batman, the X-Men, Spider-Man -- at their conceptual core all traffic in emotional states that are of interest to teenagers, to those who fail to outgrow the teenager's worries and concerns, and to those who don't mind revisiting them. Beyond the spectacle he provides, Superman's appeal rockets past adolescence to more of a little kid's boundary-driven view of the world. Superman is the strongest. He's the fastest. He's the toughest. Kids grasp at Superman for the reason they read biographies about LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez and wish to visit the observation deck of the Sears Tower. Superman is the best, and the world gets filled in between what we know about ourselves and what we can figure out about him. It's a much longer trip to see things from point of view starting out in our adult world than it is to get to the teenager's insecurities and feelings of omnipotence. This may be one reason some of the best Superman stories are almost automatically written, or, as legend has it, penned by those working through some basic issues in therapy.

For as much as it takes on in terms of commentary about the entire concept, Secret Identity seems a story with very modest origins. The trade paperback kicks off with a confessional introduction by Kurt Busiek that details the project's origin, odd that it speaks more in terms of where it stands in Busiek's career as opposed to the character's. Busiek describes how Secret Identity spun out of an idea that developed over time instead of being yanked from his head on a deadline or a long mulled-over, major, once-in-a-lifetime effort for comic creator stardom. Since that's a mountain the writer's already climbed, one tends to believe him. Secret Identity was fanned to life from the embers of a long-ago series proposal. Somewhere back in the magnificently absurd DC cosmology there was a planet/universe/dimension that was just like ours except that it was connected by one of those cosmic waterslide-style chutes to the world where Superman and the rest fly around, punch people in the nose and think in expository sentences. Alternate Universe stories might be out of favor as a source from which to launch a superhero series, but Secret Identity works within the framework of current DC publishing strategy as a kind of one-off project, a "special event" aimed at older fans that won't balk at a slightly higher price point. In the obsessive tackle box of universes that is the DC version of reality, there are stories, there are imaginary stories, and there are rare pieces of stand-alone fiction. Secret Identity is one from the rare category.

Busiek and Stuart Immonen present Secret Identity as a four-part saga, corresponding to a serial comic run before collection. They hit the high points in the life of its Clark Kent character at different, crucial periods: adolescence, when he discovers his superpowers; young adulthood, when he grows brave enough to share the secret of his powers with someone he loves; mature adulthood, when at the height of his physical powers he carves out enough room to provide for a family; and his declining years, where his powers begin to fade. It's a solid, conventional structure, made more satisfying in that Busiek and Immonen are among the stronger people in their field when it comes to basic issues of craft. If nothing else, Secret Identity is made up of accomplished adventure stories that might satisfy fans of that material, particularly older ones. The dialogue feels natural, even though as in other Busiek works I have a hard time recalling a lot of difference in voice between various characters. Immonen's pages are balanced and pleasing to the eye. The color palette is well selected, faces are uniquely rendered and sympathetically designed, there are subtle shifts in the art for mood, and each story is well paced. The various subplots are competently developed, and each comes to a satisfying but not overly trite conclusion.

Most surprisingly, Secret Identity has a point, by which I mean this book exists to tell this story. It has a beginning, middle and an end; it poses questions, and then it answers the ones that are important to it. There are no outside concerns in evidence of serving an editorially mandated story bible, or supporting a major limited series or toy line, or even bringing in new readers. If you have any experience being immersed in the relentless market demands of the mess of regular superhero titles from either Marvel or DC, reading Secret Identity will be like watching a TV show where you're not sure how they got it on the air. In that way, it feels like a solid installment of Masterpiece Theater circa 1985.

You can also find thematic development, if you look closely enough. Secret Identity, by isolating a Superman story and inflicting upon it various real world concerns, pan sifts through a lot of material for a fairly effective portrait of how ability can be alienating. Clark Kent feels like an outsider as a skinny, well-meaning kid in the American Midwest, even more so because of his name. He's teased because of the connection to Superman -- one kid even throws a reference at Kent I had to stop and think about for a second to remember, and I’m a nerd. The teasing feels a bit over the top. Kent's co-workers go so far as to set him up on dates based on this name in addition to ribbing him constantly. It rings false; if Busiek wrote in a mode that allowed for an untrustworthy narrator I would propose that much of it could be made up. At any rate, when Busiek's Kent says he thinks they'd grow tired of it, you find yourself agreeing with him rather than sympathizing. Having Clark Kent's powers occur in a world where Superman comics exist does work in that it at least gives Kent a logical reason to wear Superman's costume. By showing how the advent of special abilities makes Superman even more mistrustful and then justifying those feelings through the existence of governmental agencies that want to track him down and do horrific tests on his person, Busiek exaggerates the isolation that many gifted people feel, the distance that most exude. Superman's whole personality serves his talent. He has to close off to remain free, and become a brutal manager of his own time and resources in order to fulfill the mandates of his talent.

Choosing to work with a character that takes so naturally to this situation calls on Busiek to limit Clark Kent's world in a way that really proves unsatisfying. The moral choices Superman makes feel assumed; he seems incapable of making a bad or selfish choice. Ever. It's almost like his primary superpower is careful decision-making, and the heat vision and flying and whatnot come in second. Even Steve Ditko would approve of this Superman's judgment and self-control. The guy doesn't have old girlfriends, or go on a drunken bender, or sit around the house in his shorts watching repeats of Inside the Actors Studio while a train plunges into a river. There are people like this in the world, but we don't even get to see this Superman's struggle to become this much in control, as much as a cost is suggested. His screw-ups as a kid are being just weak enough to be tempted to go public and not being quick enough to discover people are conspiring against him until almost too late. This is the number of learning experiences that most teens face on a typical Monday to Wednesday. Later, Superman finds the perfect wife but we have no idea what he had to go through with other relationships before discovering her in "cute" fashion. After she shows up, he does learn to dial it down from being a total shithead to being a partial one, a true love package he spices up by showing her he can fly. Talent can be a factor in attraction, but the lack of difficulties later on suggests a deeper, truer emotional connection between the two. I don't recall seeing that connection made. Too many crucial emotional steps in their relationship Busiek and Immonen gloss over, so that the feeling becomes of course Superman is in control, and of course this woman loves him, which in a way isn't that much different than the books against which this should have had a chance to stand out in more startling, revelatory ways.

Why this particular plot point is even more disappointing is that one troubling thing about superhero literature when you read it straight on is that everyone and everything bends themselves to the lives of the heroes, everybody around them carries themselves with a slightly bowed head. This even more than the posturing of the heroes within each book gives nearly every superhero comic a tiny aroma of hero worship, the slightest impression that meaning in life comes through ability and power. It would be nice to see someone have sparks with Superman, to not fall in line behind the character, to have a chance to exist somewhere off the page, to consider the whole thing moronic and stupid and selfish or to at least make that case before being convinced otherwise. But here even the governmental antagonist eventually tips his hat to the character's effectiveness and overall decency. A couple of the other characterizations are simply snoozers. Superman's daughters are dull as dishwater, good-girl mega-achievers, the primary difference in their sketchy personalities being that one has a series of interesting boyfriends and one settles down early. If nothing else, Busiek makes us glad we don't get into their heads.

This moral lockstep makes Secret Identity kind of slow going at times. Hanging out with Superman and his family as given us by Busiek and Immonen reminds me of the times I had dinner with my pal the religious, good-guy valedictorian and his incredibly stable ad supportive family. Also some of the plot feels like cheating. Things fall into a place in a way that lets this Superman remain Superman-like. The fact that the government is on the lookout for him, routinely employing traps more in line with a Nick Fury comic than a real-world bureau, takes the decision of how to negotiate a public personality out of his hands. The increased reality of the story's setting would also seem to suggest greater moral complexity than the standard DC comic book; yet none of that comes through here. If you're going to investigate how super-powers work on a personality in a world where they're likely to be mistrusted and exploited, why wouldn't you explore the moral and character components the burden and opportunity provides? I know a lot of morally resolute gifted people, but none with this kind of burden. Superman doesn't even seem to have a job; he writes sociological books that would fail to support anyone who didn't also have a teaching position, which kind of tempers the cleverness in Busiek's idea that it's his isolation that gives him the insight to write. We never see Superman really fail, we never see him struggle under a false idea or pay for it; he's always on top of things. Even his non-Superman life kicks my life's ass. The Superman in Secret Identity thus reads more like the Cary Bates-era Superman trapped in a "real world" by some super-baddie than a person I'd know to whom these extraordinary powers are granted. Nothing feels earned, not in a story sense. If that's intentional, I can't figure out what that says about Superman, or even these characters. If all Busiek and Immonen mean to say is that we get what we need to handle extraordinary situations, what do we gain by seeing this across an entire lifetime? If they're suggesting that gifts and abilities isolate their holders, that kind of isolation doesn't seem so bad a fate. It seems wholly desirable.

There remain lovely touches here and there. Busiek has switched out points where most stories' beats would call for incidents of physical triumph in exchange for moments of natural reverie -- the city of New York at night, a flooded town, several sunsets and moments high above the earth. There are character moments that feel right. Superman has a favorite crab shack in the Carolinas, which seems the kind of precious thing this guy would cultivate. Many of the ways Superman foils the government's attempts to control him are clever, and relate a strong sense of Superman the problem-solver, which is how his stories were structured when the character was at his most popular. The last chapter, when Busiek allows the world to change because of the advent of super-people, reads more smoothly than the work preceding it. Superman is a creature of the fantastic that feels more real when the world changes to reach up to his level. On our world as depicted throughout Secret Identity, he's another decent, boring guy who's good at everything and sort of a tight-ass about his job.