I want to put in a plug for one of my favorite comic books, which just so happens to be getting a reprint this week. Superman: Secret Identity is one of the greatest Superman stories - nay, greatest comic stories - ever told... and it doesn't even feature the real Superman. Perhaps I should explain.
Secret Identity is a wonderful example of a writer taking a familiar property and finding a completely different spin on it. Were Superman in the public domain like all the fairy tales that seem to be in production these days, we might even see a writer develop this brilliant concept as a screenplay, as it offers the chance to reinvent Superman in a way that might make him more accessible to a modern audience.
The graphic novel is set in the "real world," that is to say - our world. It's a world where Superman is a fictional character, and our hero is a young man born to the Kent family - and who was tagged with the unfortunate first name of "Clark." As you might expect, this ensured a nearly-daily ritual of taunting and teasing.
Then during one night of camping, Clark wakes up and he can fly... and in short order he figures out he has all of Superman's powers. He starts doing good deeds in secret, but superpowered feats like that don't go unnoticed, even if the local "Superboy" can't be proven to be more than an urban myth. At Halloween, Clark dons a Superboy costume, hiding in plain sight as his abilities are called upon to end a catastrophe.
The incident convinces Clark to continue being a hero in secret. The story was released in four chapters, with each chapter covering a different installment of Clark's life. We watch him grow from boy into man, fall in love, start a family, and even work in secret for the government. The artwork by Stuart Immonen is gorgeous, having almost a painted quality to it.
But all that art would be just pretty pictures without Kurt Busiek's wonderful story behind it. It's more than just a cool concept - it's a very well-developed portrait of a young man who becomes a hero. Character comes first in Secret Identity and though the story takes some turns, the comic's appeal is less about what Superman does, and more in who Clark Kent is. There's more depth and development given to this Clark than just about any character who's headlined a superhero film in the last decade.
The story really explores what it might be like for a Superman to exist in "our" world. But this isn't the story of Superman so much as it's the story of Clark Kent. If you removed every reference to Superman, you'd still be left with a very strong, three-dimensional character in Clark. Busiek's Clark has real depth and it's wonderful to watch him mature over these issues. Clark's arc is the backbone of Secret Identity, and as the story heads into its final pages, it has one of my favorite lines in all of comicdom. (I won't reveal it, as it doesn't quite have the same power out of context. It's a sentimental line, I'll say that much.)
The story had been collected in a trade paperback that has long since fallen out of print. DC Comics had decided to reprint the four-issue miniseries in two volumes. The first volume was released this week, and for a mere $7.99, you can get the first 96 pages of the story. Run to your comic store and ask for this. You'll see how even the most familiar of heroes can be reinvented in a way that makes him accessible to people who probably aren't usually attracted to superhero comics.
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