Three Takes on Superman

This has been a good year for Superman. We’ve seen some of the Superman titles get better and better (Action Comics), All-Star Superman really closed strong, and the upcoming Superman/Supergirl/Action Comics crossover sounds like it will be good. It’s pretty inspiring that writers and artists continue to find news stories with the character, given that initially the very concept of Superman looks pretty played out (I am sure some of you still agree, but hang on). Really, what else can they do with Superman? We’ve seen quite a few tricks this year (Superman having a kid, Kandor suddenly becoming real size, etc), so one can imagine that being invited to take over the reins of the character can be pretty intimidating.

I was thinking about Superman books and thought I would talk about a few trades out there that take Superman head on and tell some pretty fantastic (and unique) stories with the inherent limitations of the character. But just like classical forms of poetry (say, for instance, a sonnet)–the limitations themselves seem to spur creativity in pretty cool and exciting ways.

The task of being “assigned” a Superman title is addressed, well, head-on in a book called It’s a Bird… by Steven T. Seagle with art by Teddy Kristiansen. Apparently semi-autobiographical, we meet a comic book writer who is given the opportunity of a lifetime — to write Superman — and finds himself unwilling, and, at times, unable to commit to the task. While we’ve seen “meta” stories before (where the story’s characters comment on the story and situations directly with the reader), but this particular story was handled rather well, I thought. It gives a the reader a great idea of just how difficult it is to tell a story with established characters and guidelines — again, how can the writer do something new? — as the “real” story unfolds. We have a writer who is surrounded by people who are very excited for him, but he just can’t bring himself to be too excited about the job. It’s like, he knows it’s a great opportunity, but he just doesn’t even like Superman all that much.

I had a friend of mine who is a successful film director who was working hard on a few projects that he had a real personal connection with (he helped write the stories and they took place in a city that he loved) but were not necessarily going to be commercially successful films. While he was shopping the script around, he was given the opportunity to direct a film that was an absolutely bankable story –like, the movie was guaranteed to do well in theaters and have fantastic DVD sales. This movie was going to make it possible for my friend to send his kids to college, get a house, and basically set him up for life — this was going to be a very, very commercial project. I remember talking with him about it and he was worried what would happen if he took the commercial project — would he lose all credibility in exchange for financial success? The writer in this book struggles the same way — is he making some kind of creative compromise by writing Superman? Everyone around him is so excited for him, to see what he will do with this icon, yet he can’t think of a single story… he can barely get his head around Superman’s costume, which he finds ludicrous. It might sound kind of trite, reading the overview here, but Seagle really personalizes the story so well that the stakes really resonate throughout. (My friend did end up making the film — he was able to make sure his other projects would get produced as part of the package, and, now that the shoot is done, I am happy to report that he is very happy with the commercial project from a creative point of view, so things do work out — nice problems to have, right?)

Anyway, there is much more to this story (and our hero’s discomfort) than “does he write the book or not?” It would be lame if I gave it away, but suffice to say that this becomes a highly personal tale of loss and regret, of confronting a difficult past. Teddy Kristiansen, who is a painter by trade, provides very stylized and almost ethereal artwork — not comic book-y at all — which makes this less a comic than really a graphic novel (or novella, perhaps). Here the art communicates how personal the story is, how our moods and inner turmoils really do define how we look at the world. It’s quite gorgeous.

Next up is Superman: Secret Identity, by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen. I actually got this book for my wife Whitney, who wanted to check it out after talking to Kurt at his table in Comic-Con a few years back. My wife Whit’s a writer and she was curious about what it’s like to write comics, especially “famous” characters like Superman (I’ve tried to get her to read It’s a Bird… but she’s not had time yet), so she talked to Busiek about what his favorite book of his was. He told us to get Secret Identity immediately — he said it was the best book he has ever written. So we got it and got it signed — originally he was just going to inscribe it just to her, but I was like, “Make it to me, too!” Kurt, not too pleased replied, “You, too?” and kinda rolled his eyes as he wrote, “To Whitney & Mike (kinda).” I guess he was much more interested in talking to Whit than me, come to think of it…

Anyway, at first glance, this seems like one of those painfully clever conceits — we are introduced to Clark Kent… a “real” Clark Kent, in this world, not comics. Every year, he gets Superman-themed presents for Christmas and his birthday, and, of course, he hates all of that stuff. Like the writer in It’s a Bird…, he really just doesn’t like the whole idea Superman and wishes, terribly that his parents hadn’t named him Clark — it’s just not funny, you know? This all changes one night when he falls asleep while camping, only to wake up and find he’s floating twenty feet in the air. Suddenly, he’s got the powers of the proverbial Man of Steel! Later, he is introduced to a girl named Lois — who is very tired of being set up with guys named Clark by her friends, and at first thinks the whole thing is a joke –and, well, they fall in love… and then things just get way more interesting.

That’s the cool thing about the book. Busiek basically re-tells the Superman myth in our world, but in a totally different way. I mean, who hasn’t imagined waking up one day to realize you have superpowers? It’s a pretty basic premise, but Busiek tells it beautifully over the four issue story. The art is by Stuart Immonen, who is amazing (scratch that; I think it’s awesome — page through this trade if you bump into it). His art has actually changed a lot since this was published in 2004; his work on Ultimate Spider-Man looks almost completely different (I must say that I prefer this older work). Busiek and Immonen work really well together — I wish they would do another book — both capture the emotionality of falling in love and the excitement of becoming a hero. I don’t want to go into the details too much, but suffice to say, this book is more than just a love story and a coming of age tale with a cape. Clark’s struggle to find his way as a normal person with the responsibility of helping those in need is also told with an honesty that I found quite touching. It’s really a terrific take on what being a Superman is, and I think that even if you find the idea of a hero that can do almost anything kind of loathsome, that you will find much to enjoy in this book.

So, we talked about two books that take aspects of the Superman mythos — one quite literally as  a book to write and the other as a guy who suddenly realizes that he is a Superman — so I’d thought I’d mention a book that takes the mythos and embraces it full force: Superman For All Seasons, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. I know the guys have discussed this book in various podcasts, so you’ve probably heard a bit about already, but it’s worth mentioning because even though it’s easy to be cynical about Superman because the title is so familiar, it can be easy to forget why the character is so compelling in the first place. Loeb and Sale have done this before, of course, taking existing characters (Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil, and now Captain America) and re-telling (or, really, re-focusing) their origin stories/early years but this book really and truly captures the essence of what makes Superman so special, and yes, I know that that sounds kind of sappy, but, in the end, Superman is an honest, straightforward hero, an ideal that comes to us from a different time, when an ideal was all we had. Superman comes from the hope that people can be more than themselves, that good, in the end, wins.

Tim Sale’s Superman is one of my favorite renditions of the character, along with Frank Quitely’s take in All-Star Superman. Both artists really acknowledge (and embrace) the idea that Clark Kent is a big, barrel chested guy, just like Superman, so he has to compensate to be small though his body is not. It’s a great challenge, you know? We are so used to unassuming often, clumsy Clark, but then he goes into the phone booth and then wham! Strong and muscular Superman. True to the essence of the character, the art just dances, ever so gently, into the cartoony, but it works here.

The story is somewhat by the numbers, but it is by the numbers in a way that is totally refreshing. Loeb and Sale find aspects of the origin story that we’ve never thought about but upon reading realized we’ve been missing. There’s an honesty here that gently melts away the cynicism that the reader may have, and Tim Sale’s art just shines throughout with some truly awe-inspiring two page spreads. Much like Superman: Secret Identity, this is the story of a boy becoming a (Super) man, discovering his powers and his place in the world. It’s a charming work and, as I flip through it, realize that it’s even better than I remembered. It’s a good companion piece, by the way to Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale’s run in Superman Confidential (collected as a trade titled Superman: Kryptonite), which is also recommended.

Superman is an archetype, representing, in many ways, what humanity is capable of. The best Superman stories tend to reflect not so much he can do with his incredible power, but the power of his humanity, our humanity, to do real good in this world. While this character can seem simplistic as you scan the various Superman covers on the shelves with Supes in embarrassingly heroic poses, it’s nice to know that writers and artists are still tackling the ideals of Superman in new, compelling and increasingly relevant ways. These books are a few examples of just how timeless the character truly is and why the world still needs Superman.


Mike Romo is an actor in Los Angeles and is happy to hear that Final Crisis #4 is supposed to come out this week (he couldn’t think of a Superjoke).  You can write him at


  1. It’s a Bird is awesome.  

    As is Superman, in general.  

    Looking forward to unveiling the first issue of Mike Romo: Man of Action! 

  2. @Paul, then Joe Casey would destroy Mike for even using the words "Man of Action" without his consent. Fear the Casey..

  3. I wasn’t totally digging It’s a Bird when I read it.  I think I need to reread though, I just wasn’t in the mood I think. 

    However, I totally loved Secret Identity.  I couldn’t put that book down.  At first I thought it was just going to be some cheesy story about a kid "thinking" he had Superman’s powers.  Man, I was thrown for a loop.  Definitely a must read.  As is Superman For All Seasons.  Love the different narratives in each issue.  Loeb at his best

  4. I’m tempted to check out Secret Identity just for Immonen.  I <3 Nextwave.

  5. I’ve heard good things about all of these books, but haven’t gotten to them yet.
    No matter how many comics I read, I’m still not getting to so many others…

  6. It’s a bird isn’t terrible, but the main character is such an immature whiner that it’s kind of hard to like.

    The other two get my wholesale endorsement.  Secret Identiy is probably my favorite superman story.

    Honerable metion:  Red Son.

  7. @PudgyNinja-I agree, I love Red Son.  Fantastic fun and interesting take on nurture vs. nature and just how different would Supes be if he landed in Russia.  Some didn’t dig the ending, but I loved it. 

  8. I’m still after many months surprised that I’m reading Superman.  His comics to me were so poor to me.  Thank you Geoff Johns.

  9. Yeah, Red Son is my favorite Superman story. I really hope Mark Millar gets to take a stab at the Superman movie franchise. I’d really like to see his rumored "angry god" take on the story.

  10. i adore all star and all seasons.

  11. I’m curious about Secret Identity, but it seems rather similar to the premise of Superboy-Prime (that is… the original stories about him during Crisis on Infinite Earths) for me.

    Superman for All Seasons was a very good read. I really enjoyed it. 

  12. I wanted to really enjoy Secret Identity but i guess i couldn’t get over the fact that the protagonist kept his powers hidden from the world. that’s a perfectly legitimate story idea, can’t fault him for using it….but i was hoping for something grander, the notion of how would our world really face a man of steel coming down from the clouds, the inevitable fear, acceptance and hope he’d bring for mankind.

    but then, on the other hand, there are some beautiful pages, and what stands out are when he first goes flying and the serenity when he’s camping out on the mountain, or streaking over the flood waters (i think). and save for the starting point of characters, which Busiek points out in the intro, Prime and this Superman are nothing alike, because Prime was a boy forced to take on his role by events outside of his control, while this Superman eventually decides to take on the role as a more well rounded adult, and is the story of his life from young teen to man and beyond.

  13. SECRET IDENTITY and FOR ALL SEASONS are two of my favorite Superman stories.

  14. I’ve been trying to track down a copy of Secret Identity for months.  

  15. Best iFanboy article I’ve read up until this point. Very very good, Mike. I have had the door closed on Superman for sometime now so i want to say thanks for opening my eyes to some excellent Superman stories. I picked up the first All Star Superman trade and I’m anticipating the second…does anyone know the release date? (I don’t think it’s out yet). I plan on checking out some of the trades you’ve mentioned above and I feel now is a great time for me to jump on Superman with the upcoming Superman/Supergirl/Action Comics crossover. 

     Thanks for the great read, Mike.  

  16. btw, I appreciate all the articles on iFanboy…I don’t want to discredit any of you. 

  17. We’re not offended.  Don’t worry. 

  18. Kudos to you sir for bringing up two gems in Secret Idenity and It’s A Bird than sadly get overlooked.

  19. Secret Identity and It’s A Bird… are so good, even I liked them.

  20. I really want to read Secret Identity.  It sounds really freakin’ awesome.  I’ll add it to my always growing list of comics to check out.  Thanks for the heads up Mike!

  21. Secret Identity is beautiful!

  22. Secret Identity was the first book I gave my wife to read (we have two daughters, so it really hit home) and she immediately asked for more after reading it.