Book of the Month
What did the
Art by Stuart Immonen
Letters by Todd Klein
Cover by Stuart Immonen
Size: 208 pages
I don’t know what you do when you have trouble sleeping—maybe you count sheep, maybe you go over the next day’s to-do list, or maybe you just stare up at the ceiling—but I do a lot of thinking. These days that thinking is usually about my work and so you can often find me rummaging for the bedside notebook that is somehow never found at my bedside before I forget an idea or a turn of phrase that has come to me while sleep remains elusive.
There have been occasions, however, when my brain has gone in a different direction. This used to happen much more when I was younger, and it’s still been known to happen every now and then, but I would often find myself wondering what it would be like if I woke up the next morning and found that I possessed all the powers and abilities of Superman, not in any fantastical cartoon or comic book world, but here in the real world.
As I got older and this scenario popped into my head it became less of a fantasy than a thought exercise. Would I want to use those powers for good? (Absolutely.) Would I go out and get a high quality Superman costume? (I’d want to, but I don’t think anyone is ready for a Superman with a shaved head and a beard.) Would Warner Bros. sue me once I went public with me superheroics? (I’d have to think they’d at least explore the idea.)
I used to have a lot of fun ruminating over these questions and I think that is a small part of the reason why I love Superman: Secret Identity so much.
A large part of the reason is that it’s an excellent comic book told by three masters of the medium and remains, all these years later after I first read it, one of my all-time favorite Superman stories,
Written by Kurt Busiek, drawn and colored by Stuart Immonen, and lettered by Todd Klein, Superman: Secret Identity was first published as a four issue prestige-sized mini-series in 2004. It drew its inspiration from DC Comics Presents #87, written by Elliot S. Maggin and drawn by Curt Swan in 1985. That story was about Superboy of Earth-Prime—back before the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis turned him into the metaphor for crazy comic book fans known as Superboy Prime—who existed in the “real world” in which the rest of the DC characters existed only in comic books. In that story, a New England kid named Clark Kent, who looked just like his comic book counterpart, got made fun of all the time for it until the time came when he found himself manifesting the very powers of his comic book counterpart. I tell you this not because it’s important to know to read and enjoy Superman: Secret Identity—it’s not, at all—but because it’s sometimes fun to know where great stories find their inspiration.
Superman: Secret Identity stands as not so much a remake as a homage to that original story, and one that, as Busiek explains in the foreword, became less and less of a remake the more he delved into the story, which will, on its surface, sound very familiar to anyone who read the preceding paragraph.
Opening in what is ostensibly the “real world”, Superman: Secret Identity introduces us to a teenager living in Picketsville, Kansas named Clark Kent. Clark, whose parents really didn’t have much in the way of foresight, is sick of the Superman-related presents he gets for every Christmas and birthday (he’s got a closet full of them) and he’s sick of the taunts and the bullies at school who delight in reminding Clark that he’s nothing like his super namesake. Life seems pretty miserable for young Clark until one day, while out camping in the woods alone, he suddenly manifests Superman’s powers. It’s never really explained how or why this happens, and that’s okay because how or why Clark Kent finds himself with the wondrous abilities of his comic book counterpart is entirely besides the point. The point is to explore the life he leads going forward.
Each chapter of this story covers a different phase of Clark’s life. The first chapter features teenage Clark in Kansas where he first gains his powers and decides just how the hell to deal with a development that is, quite frankly, equally exciting and terrifying. The second chapter finds Clark, now grown up and out of college and living in Metropolis New York City. This Clark isn’t a reporter, but he is a writer working for The New Yorker. In New York Clark finds himself set-up on a blind date with a woman named Lois because this is the kind of thing one’s friends would find hysterical if they are in their early 20s. The third chapter finds a middle-aged Clark, now a successful author, making a life for himself and his wife in Maine. In the fourth chapter Clark is an old man content in his family and his life and his place in the world. I’ve skipped over a few details and have been purposefully vague because I don’t want to spoil all the beats, and while this isn’t a book that reads like a typical comic book—it does not not live and die on the final page cliff-hanger; each issue is its own story—it’s better to not know everything that is coming. It’s like life in that way.
If the story isn’t structured like the typical comic book and if there isn’t a whole lot of slam-bang action, what makes Superman: Secret Identity so compelling? It’s a fascinating portrayal of a “real” Superman. A man who, in a world with no other superheroes or villains or aliens or monsters, finds himself suddenly able to do the fantastic. The dangers may not be of the comic book variety, but between an hysterical media and a terrified and therefore aggressive government, they are real. Busiek does a really wonderful job of making Clark Kent feel like a living breathing human being with all the hopes and fears that any of us have. This Clark Kent is wonderful to be around and following him along through the journey of his life is endlessly fascinating. Everything is familiar—the name, the small town, the job, the girl, the glasses, the costume—but here it’s all just different enough that all of the real world elements echo the traditional Superman mythos in a way that makes the story different yet very familiar. In 2004 Busiek was coming off a years long run of comic book excellence that found him among the best in the business and Superman: Secret Identity is a writer at the top of his game.
One of the lessons of Superman: Secret Identity is that no man is an island and Busiek isn’t alone here—not with a creative partner in Stuart Immonen providing full art duties. Those who are only familiar with Immonen from his recent Marvel work might not realize that the supremely talented artist often worked in an entirely different art style ten years ago, one that fell heavily on the photo-realistic side. All of his skills in that regard are on display here and one of the big reasons that this particular story about the “real world” works so successfully is that because Immonen’s realistic style makes every character come alive. As great as the writing is I don’t know that a story in this setting would be as compelling drawn in a more traditional cartooning style. The fact that these characters look real adds to the feeling that heightened sense of reality. Add to that the unique coloring palette that Immonen deploys here—in the foreword Busiek says that Immonen was trying to emulate magazine coloring from the 1950s—and you have a book that is just about as gorgeous as you’re likely to find. From sweeping vistas that really capture the sense of the freedom of flight to pitch perfect acting on the faces of the characters, Immonen once again proves himself to be one of the best artists in comic books.
I love superheroes for a variety of reasons and not the least of which is their versatility. They can be used as a way to tell an edge-of-your-seat action adventure story and they can be used to examine the human condition. Here we have a man who worries about his career, his relationship, the safety of his children, and the well-being of his fellow man. That’s not a concept that’s so foreign; it probably describes many people you know in your everyday life. The only difference here is that in Superman: Secret Identity the man in question occasionally puts on a costume and saves people in Australia from a tornado.
I believe a man can fly.