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An Extraordinarily Human Life

When I was little, I would ask my mom to safety pin a towel around my neck and I would run around the house talking in a voice that was somewhere between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Christian Bale’s Batman.  I wrote the longest essay in class when my 2nd grade teacher asked us to write about what superpowers we would like to have.  I used to and still occasionally have dreams of flying.

Like anyone who’s ever held a comic book, I used to dream of being a superhero.  The Halloween market is flooded with replicas and costumes to let kids play out their fantasies of being their favorite heroes. In the story we’re talking about today, one normal kid gets that chance.

This is the story of a kid named Clark Kent.  This is Superman: Secret Identity, by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen.

In Clark’s world, there are no superheroes.  Superman is a fictional character, and Clark has grown up reading the same Superman comic books that we have.  He’s from a small town in Kansas, has the last name “Kent” and had black hair, so his parents thought it would be funny to name him Clark.  As with any kid with a name that links to pop culture will tell you, the jokes get old real quick.

One day, Clark realizes he has Superman’s powers.  He begins using his powers to help people, and the book follows him as he grows older, moves to Manhattan to become writer, meets a girl (named Lois), gets married, and starts a family, while the military is trying to discover his identity and contain him as a potential threat.  This is not the same story about the same Superman that we’ve known for almost a century.  There are plenty of surprises and genuinely moving moments to be had, so I’ll leave it at that.

Let me begin by saying that this is one of if not my favorite graphic novel of all time. I still go back and reread it every few months, and every time I finish it I feel completely moved.

One thing I really love about it is its realism.  It’s fun to read stories about men and women with powers who fight crime in masks and capes, but imagine for a second if there was someone in real life who put on a bat costume and ran around a city at night with a grappling hook fighting muggers, or someone who could run faster than the speed of sound.  In actuality the government would probably send the military to contain people with superhuman abilities, while non-powered people might go between seeing him as a savior or a villain. This is the backdrop this story takes place in.

Also, Superman ages in this book. The Superman that we know is never going to get older.  He’s been the same age since his debut in 1938, and he’s most likely going to stay that way.  But because this isn’t the Superman we’ve known and loved, we get to follow him as he goes through the normal stages of life: adolescence, adulthood, and beyond, and it is genuinely heartwarming.  We see moments of everyday truth and beauty set beside spectacular events, and they accent each other rather than take away.  We see the beauty of life through the eyes of someone extraordinary yet very human.  This version of Superman seems like he’s someone we’ve known personally his whole life.

The art in this story is nothing short of incredible.  Pages are often dripping with visual symbolism, and the panels feel like faded photographs; the characters are photorealistic, but there’s a quality about their renderings that feels nostalgic, like looking at them through a foggy lens.  But rather than being distracting, this style creates an effect: not perfect, but vivid, like an impressionist painting of a memory.  It draws you in because it feels familiar. On top of that, this book has most of my favorite two page splash panels in all of comics.  Immonen’s art is composed with immense care.  It conveys a sense of scale and grandeur that is a juxtaposition in itself; that the most powerful person in the world is small compared to the world he lives in.

The writing in this book is truly unique.  It’s quiet when it needs to be, wordless when it’s appropriate, and cinematic in its execution.   In the text boxes, Clark narrates through a journal. It’s written as though the events we’re seeing take place in the past, which makes it feel like a memoir. And the narration is not overdone; we’re often given the chance to experience the events for ourselves with minimal interference from the narrator, and it makes the story seem much more intimate. The writing often shows without telling, and so we have a visceral reaction to the what’s happening, which makes everything we feel while reading much more personal. We see what Clark sees, and we feel because Clark gives us a chance to feel.

There is one more thing thematically that draws my attention when I read this book.  A kid who inherits the powers of Superman never thinks twice about using them to help people.  In fact, in several parts in the book, he views it as a treat that he gets to help save lives, and despite the government trying to contain him, despite being called a freak or a monster, or even the opportunity to use his abilities for personal gain, he continues to use his powers to help other people.  I think it speaks a lot to Superman’s legacy and his significance as a character in that even as a work of fiction, he can inspire people to be greater.

Superman: Secret Identity is the story of an extraordinary life that is still human at its core. It is the portrait of a life well lived, a subtle reminder of the beauty of life’s small miracles, and an exemplification of what Superman is. People often get disillusioned with Superman because they view him as unbeatable. He has the ability to do just about anything, can solve just about any problem, and is too morally perfect. But the strength of a Superman story doesn’t lie in him conquering overwhelming odds. It’s in showing how an extraordinary being is still human in all the best ways.

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