Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Books: Superman: Secret Identity


Superman: Secret Identity
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Stuart Immonen

Available now from Islington Libraries
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So - my friend Laura sent me an email asking me if I could recommend her any Superman comics. Because - apparently - she wanted to read a comic - but didn't want to anything that was too high-minded and full of itself (and I guess most of the time if you ask a comic geek what comic they could recommend nine times out of ten they'll just say Watchmen [1]) and - well - kinda wanted something Superman flavoured (quote: "I like Superman though. I like the films and I liked the New Adventures. And I don't like Batman (although I do like the batman films, I just think in principle, superman should be better"). I looked at what Superman entries I had posted on the blog (because - hey - any excuse to plug it right?) and was - I dunno - a bit disappointed to see that so far I'd only made two [2]. And then - (maybe this is what subconsciously promoted Laura to ask? You know - cultural osmosis and all that? Or - maybe just a successful victim of an underground brand awareness thingie-o-stuff?) - a few days later came two trailers for Zack Snyder's Man of Steel movie (in two exciting flavors! Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe [3]).

Now (ok): just to talk briefly about that trailer - oh my god - it looks so much like a Terrence Malick film it's almost unbelievable. And unbelievable for two reasons: one - because we all know it's a Zack Synder film and - well - Zack Synder (love him or hate him [4]) is no Terrence Malick and two - (seeing how - I would have thought - the whole point of a trailer (or teaser - whatever) is to give you a sense of what the film is going to be like) - it's unbelievable that they would make a Superman film where you'd only get little glimpses of him up in the sky and the rest is hazy childhood memories and men - erm - doing stuff on fishing boats (?).

But - gosh darn it - what it did make me think - is yeah - I would like to see Terrence Malick make a Superman film that wasn't fights and explosions - but that dealt more with characters and emotions and the meaning of power as well as taking in the bitter pains of existence and the cost of morality (ideally with an Explosions in the Sky soundtrack - if you please). And then I remembered - and watch how I expertly tie all these strands together (like so): there is already a comic book that does all these things: Superman: Secret Identity.

Now - normally my aversion to spoilers means that I don't even like to give away the premise of a book because I figure that books (and films) are always best when you can go into them completely fresh and let it unfold in it's own time and in it's own way - but in this case I'll make a small exception with the hope that it'll sound so enticing that you have no choice but to give the book a go: Secret Identity is set in a whole that's just like ours. Superman exists in the same way he does here - he's a worldwide icon and everyone's heard of him - but he's just a character and no more solid than Micky Mouse or Ronald McDonald. In the small town of Smallville there's a young teenage boy called Clark Kent who looks just like - well - Clark Kent and who's life is non-stop teasing and jokes about his namesake until one day he discovers... well.

Of course I realise that this sounds like something that Charlie Kaufman would make up - but overall it feels - well - like something Frank Capra would have devised. There's no trace of meta-story style wackinesses - it's more humble, quiet and a little bit gentle you know - like a  Terrence Malick film. 

The thing that's weird about reading this book is that with the original Superman - well - myth (can you think of a better word? "Story" just doesn't seem to properly cover it) - is that it's something that practically everyone - no: wait - screw that - everyone on the planet can relate to and understand - it's the perfect, unbeatable power fantasy - and everything else since (that would be the entire superhero genre) is basically just tweaks on that first (super) idea: the main metaphor or feeling (or whatever) behind Secret Identity seems to be nowhere near as relatable as the Superman one - rather than "hey - wouldn't it be great to be really powerful?" the drive is instead: "hey - wouldn't it be great/strange/sad if you were mocked for being what you secretly were?" Like - if everyone laughed at you because you weren't a god - but then (Ha! Little do they know!): you actually were a god (hell - it's even hard to try and describe it in a straight forward way which I guess just proves my point about what a strange concept it is for a book) [5]. But then - thinking it through - I guess everyone has been laughed at and mocked for their dreams ("When I grow up I wanna be Superman!") - and everyone knows the sorts of frustrations that can bring (and - hey - just be thankful I'm not going to drop you into the dark and twisted heart of my oh-so-tortured psyche yeah?) and so following the story of someone who is ridiculed despite actually having god-like powers - well - isn't that something we can all feel and relate to? But - hell - maybe I'm being too cynical? And maybe it's not as calculated as all this (and reading it through - it sure doesn't feel calculated - it just feels like reading something written by someone who just had a story that they really wanted to tell - which - let's face it: is the best type of story to hear).

Like Kevin Costner says in smoky voice-over in the Man of Steel trailer: "You're not just anyone." And that's something - oh the unbelievable irony! - that we'd all like to (already do?) believe.  

[1] Which - I dunno - is that a good idea or bad idea (ha)? I mean - good - because yeah - Watchmen is great - and can show the newbies that comics can be "serious" and blah blah blah. But also: maybe a bit bad because - it helps if you read around a bit and maybe get a sense of what superhero comics are before you read something that deconstructs them so thoroughly (but then - doesn't everyone know what superhero comics are like anyway through the mighty and mysterious power of cultural osmosis? And - in order to get the full effect of Watchmen wouldn't you have to go back and live in 1986 again? And wouldn't all this stuff be better said on the post I've already written about Watchmen? I dunno).

[2] All Star Superman and Red Son - which - yeah - are the best two Superman comics out there - but (and I cringed a little when I looked back over them) - both of which are really poorly underwritten (at some point soon I promise I'll go back and bump them up a bit). 

[3] Whose name I can't hear without also involuntarily adding "You've got dead ears mate." 

[4] And I'll admit - I still don't know quite what to think of him. That Watchmen film aside (urg) - I did quite like the opening 10 minutes and the credits sequence of his Dawn of the Dead remake and his 300 (as lung-headed as it was) sure did look pretty. In fact - what I was hoping from Man of Steel was that same kind of "This. Is. Sparta!" energy and over-the-topness testosterone energy ("This. Is. Metropolis!") : like the way Frank Miller tends to portray Superman: Schwarzenegger-style bugling muscles. So less "ah shucks" boy-scout-ness (which is how America usually likes it think of itself) and more "Don't mess me" Rambo-in-a-cape (which is usually more how it tends to come across). But then - well - I guess when it comes to dreams of power - people like to think of themselves as not going crazy and megalomaniacal but more using it wisely and benevolently in order to be nice and do good (at the risk of getting all Zizeky about this: it's like the point of the fantasy would be that you would have so much power that you wouldn't even need to use it or - rather - make any vulgar displays of it): but - hey - whatever

[5] And - in fact - another way to think of it would be that it's Superman - but with the persecution complex turned waaaaaay up. (Because - hey - it's the 21st Century - and we're all victims nowadays - so just being Clark Kent isn't enough damn it). 

Links: The Comics Reporter ReviewComics Worth Reading Review

All comments welcome. 

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