Secret Identity is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never quite got to.
It was sold to me in a variety of ways: a Superman book that’s not a Superman book, a metatextual examination of the legacy of the Big Blue Boy Scout and otherwise a fun comic. It had a lovely pedigree and all but…
Well, I fixed that, anyway.
First off? It’s guh-guh-guh-gorgeous. But, then, it’s a Stuart Immonen joint and that’s par for the course; here he’s leaning a bit more realistic compared to the clean, angular stylization he used in Ultimate Spider-Man and refined in Nextwave. It’s kind of odd to see the sharpness I’ve always admired in his style dialed back and for his figures to be rounder and less cartooned, but it works well, particularly with the relatively muted colour palate Immonen uses; the whole affair seeming to signal that, no, this is not a “real” Superman story but, instead, something a bit more related to our own normal world.
A bit, anyway.
Immonen’s art, always a high point in any book, really well compliments the writing duties by veteran superhero scribe Kurt Busiek, who’s worked on the big titles like Avengers but become best known for his work as the writer of Astro City, which has been the gold standard for humanizing the superhero genre.
And here he goes to humanize Superman.
So, taken as a whole, does Secret Identity work?
Not really, but al-bloody-most.
So, the story is about a poor, introverted schmuck in a world largely like our own who’s saddled with the name Clark Kent. His family makes a bunch of bad Superman jokes at him and the other kids at his rural Kansas school make Superman references the cornerstone of their bullying campaign.
And then he wakes up with Superman’s powers.
What follows is a series of vignettes over the course of the four 48-page issues wherein our Clark comes to terms with his powers, debates becoming a public figure like his comic book namesake and while he doesn’t exactly do battle with the government, he absolutely has to come to terms with it and…
Well, the problem with Secret Identity is that for all it’s a good-hearted and on the short-list for “the only Superman story you really need” award, for all the super-feats and kindly perspectives about people even when they’re not on the side of Our Hero and for all the gorgeous moments of humanity throughout, it’s not a story about anything more than its high concept: “what if Superman was just a dude in a world like ours?”
And that’s all it is, start to finish.
And maybe that’s enough, you know? Maybe it’s enough to be sweet with the superhero genre instead of violent, to have smiles over teeth-gritting grimaces and healthy relationships over dramatic ones. Maybe it’s enough to follow Clark Kent through his journey from frightened kid to secret superhero to super-patriarch.
But by the end, for all I felt good that I’d read it and for all that I wish I could read another dozen things with that same heart, it wasn’t much of a superhero story. No giant robots, no evil geniuses, no master plans, no space aliens; there’s only one guy in spandex and no one dies unnaturally. No one makes speeches or clearly espouses their defining characteristics with tons of exclamation points. There are no tears or big, loud betrayals.
That said, it’s one of the best super-man (as opposed to Superman) stories I’ve read and one of the few stories with superpowers (and, by the end, superhumans) in it that doesn’t at some point devolve into a lot of punches, kicks and explosions. There are a couple, sure. And a few super-feats to boot. There are a few moments where our Clark is allowed to be frightening, sure, but true to the spirit of the work, he’s never the bully he could be.
It’s just this rambling story of a young man named Clark who meets a young woman named Lois who does all the good he can before retiring to a good life with his kids as the world passes him by.
As I’ve come to think of a superhero story, it’s a total failure.
Which speaks either to the limitations of the genre or the flaws in my understanding of it because there isn’t much I’ve ever read, aside from a couple issues of the new Astro City (also by Busiek, sadly without Immonen), that spoke so well to the human drama part of superhuman drama.
And, honestly, with the lack of massive character arc, it might not even be that great a drama. But it’s one of the better ones to come out of the superhero genre. That might be damning with faint praise, but it’s also a sign of hope that the genre can be more than the latest attempt of a crew of well-meaning and talented individuals to turn Disney or Warner Brothers’ marketing plans into worthwhile stories.
In the meanwhile, I’m gonna have to see about picking up some Astro City.