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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Superhero Smackdowns? Who Needs 'Em?

Superman Returns, the most recent attempt to bring The Man of Steel to the big screen was a relative box-office failure and drew more than its fair share of criticism from fans and casual movie goers alike. Personally, I rather enjoyed it (note: as of 2012, I can honestly say that this is not a movie that has aged all that well so take the next bit with a pile of salt) thanks to some wonderful direction, spectacular set pieces, good performances and a real grasp of the sense of wonder and hope that Superman should elicit. Sure enough though, on a script level, it was a bit of train wreck. I am more than willing to take on board that the script was illogically structured, badly thought out and featuring some real head-scratching decisions in the form of Lex Luthor's moronic masterplan and the distracting inclusion of the Super-kid.

On the other hand, one criticism that has been levelled at the film time and time again that I have absolutely no time for is the idea that it was a weak Superman film because it didn't have enough moments of him trading punches and heat-vision blasts with some "big bad". Why precisely do superhero stories need massive punch-ups? Don't get me wrong, I get that the visual aspect of having fully grown adults running around in brightly coloured tights tends to lend itself to epic action scenes. To be honest though, the thoroughly thrilling sequence of Superman saving the free-falling plane in Superman Returns leaves even the biggest action scenes in even the best of the other superhero films in its dust.

I say this because even though it's clear that there is far more to the comic book - an art form that has been garnering more and more "mainstream" acceptance in recent years thanks to the growing popularity of graphic novels - than superheroes, there is still a tendency to underestimate just how powerful a storytelling device the superhero actually is. While the detractors of superhero comics write the whole lot off as nothing more than "juvenile wish fulfilment", characters like Superman or The X-Men are, at even the most cursory of glances, used as allegories for all sorts of real-world concerns. Superman is a particularly interesting case as he has meant a wide variety of different things to different people over the years from displaced refugee to a Christ-like saviour to a Moses-like leader to an assimilated immigrant and back again. It is on that note that we come to what is very easily my all time favourite Superman story, a Superman story so perfect that it doesn't even need to technically have Superman in it (more on that in a bit): Superman: Secret Identity.

Let's make no bones about it, Superman: Secret Identity is probably never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, Sandman or Maus and perhaps understandably so. Aside for not having the popularity of those comics, it certainly isn't anywhere near as ground-breaking as those genre-redefining masterpieces. Personally though, I love it just as much as those seminal works and even if it doesn't exactly reinvent the art form, it embraces the metaphorical nature of the superhero with a dexterity that is all but unmatched by even the greatest superhero classics.

The clue is in the title but Superman: Secret Identity explores a superhero trope that is as tightly affiliated with the genre as capes and tights: the secret identity. Most impressively, it doesn't simply take a meta-textual look at what the secret identity means to the fictional world of superheroes but gives it far more resonance and relatability by using it as a metaphor for the inherent complexity of every human being. It's a metaphor that is so blindingly obvious in its genius that it is something of a wonder that it hasn't been worked into every other superhero story published in the seven decades since Superman's first appearance.

Secret Identity is driven by the typically wonky old Silver Age premise of "Superboy Prime". For those who aren't steeped in old superhero geekdom, Superboy Prime was basically a kid named Clark Kent who grew up in our "real world" and to whom Superman was just a comic book character until one morning he wakes up with powers just like his fictional namesake. As a concept it's just as baffling, ridiculous and charmingly creative as you would come to expect from a time when superhero comics were aimed almost exclusively at young boys. It's also a concept that has recently been resurrected with a much less innocent slant in DC's regular superhero comics. In Secret Identity, however, it is simply the springboard for a story that is beautifully layered, emotionally involving and all too human.

Originally released as a four-part mini series before being collected into a single-volume graphic novel, each of the four parts deal with different stages in this version of Clark Kent's life. The story begins with our protagonist as an insecure teenager, burdened by the constant teasing and bullying that comes with having such an unlikely name. It isn't long, however, before things become much more complicated as he finds himself suddenly endowed with powers not far off from the Superman with whom he shares a name. It turns out though that real life isn't quite as simple as the comics. While the fictional Clark Kent may be able to preserve some semblance of a normal life simply by switching between a brightly coloured costume and an ill-fitting suit and glasses, our young hero quickly comes to the realisation that he will need to keep his superheroic identity just as tightly under wraps as his civilian identity - especially after a run-in with some less than benevolent government agencies.

While the rest of the graphic novel unfolds wonderfully from here in terms of plot, the true heart of the story lies in the thematic exploration of the two sides of this Clark Kent: his unassuming, for all intents and purposes "normal" exterior and the far more unique, powerful personality that hides behind the surface. It is not, however, a story of identity confusion, as it perhaps could have been in the hands of a more cynical scribe. What writer Kurt Busiek spends the ensuing 200-odd pages exploring is an idea that is both far more profound and far more common place. Busiek uses the extra-human events of the comic to examine the relationship between the parts of a person that he or she exposes to the rest of the world and the real person within.

Clark shows himself to the rest of the world to be a thoroughly decent, well accomplished human being but the thing that makes him truly special, the aspects of himself that truly defines him as a person is something that is hidden from outside eyes. It is a side of himself that is so precious and so important that he, ironically, doesn't dare show to anyone else. Before long, however, Busiek goes on to introduce a Lois Lane to this Clark Kent and love, unsurprisingly, quickly blossoms. At this point Clark is introduced to a truly life-altering dilemma: does he continue to safe guard his secret at all costs or does he dare risk sharing this invaluable part of himself with someone else? The answer to this dilemma drives the story through to its perfect, beautifully handled conclusion.

As is pretty much par for the course with such fantastical fiction, I am, of course, reasonably sure that most of us do in fact not have super powers, nor indeed do we have dangerous government types chasing after us (though I am slightly less sure about the latter). Nonetheless, like the best fables, parables and fictions, the themes that underline Secret Identity, could scarcely be more profoundly realistic. Indeed, from the elegant narration to the well rounded characters to the pitch-perfect dialogue, the comic is pretty much perfect on a writing level alone but its Stuart Immonen's breathtaking art that truly makes it soar. Immonen's soft, painterly style is as adept at showing human emotion as it is at presenting spectacular moon-lit Kansas vistas.

Superman: Secret Identity is simply the sort of comic that encapsulates everything great about the artform. Its combination of art and language work in tandum to create a superb piece of storytelling with an almost palpable sense of warmth and humanity. No comic book collection is complete without it.

1 comment:

  1. Superboy-Prime isn't Silver Age, actually. He debuted in '85. I think Earth-Prime itself is older, though.

    Anyway, this sounds really cool. I've heard of Secret Identity before and it sounded good, but such a glowing recommendation makes me really want to go check it out.