Thursday, October 20, 2011

Great concepts: Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's Superman: Secret Identity

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.


  1. My favorite Superman story because it's about the man behind the cape wrapped up in a beautiful wish fulfillment fantasy. As Hollywood says it's "something different, but the same". The take on the material was completely fresh and such a wonderful surprise when I found the graphic novel years ago.

    "Superman For All Seasons" by Jeph Loeb and "For the Man Who Has Everything" by Alan Moore are other great takes on Clark Kent.

  2. Both excellent takes on Superman. Loeb's later work is somewhat hit-or-miss, but Superman For All Seasons is excellent. "For the Man Who Has Everything" is also great. I first read that in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told when I was six. To this day, there are few Superman moments more badass than "BURN."

    Most of my other favorite Superman stories are a little too mired in continuity for me to suggest them to the casual reader, but fortunately Secret Identity doesn't have that problem.

  3. Another one I think is good for casual reader, All-Star Superman. His origin covered in a page or so. Has moments that make Superman feel fresh, real. You know how Clark is bumbling? Not until All-Star did it occur to me how much work that is, how much practice it took. Moments like that make it good for long time readers too. Great story (underpinning, labors of Hercules), art and writing is wonderful.

    Stuart Immonen, artist on Secret Identity, works sometimes with his writer wife, sweet life, and their studio (for anyone who enjoys seeing artist work spaces as much as me) is here:

  4. Little bit of an obsession with comic books on this site.

  5. No, an obsession with story. You have an interesting definition of obsession if 6 comic book posts out of 600 counts. That's 1%!