If Superman is the hero whose powers we all dream of having, many more of us can probably relate to Spider-Man. Underneath it all, he’s the regular joe whose powers weren’t a birthright but bestowed by accident. Rarely do his good deeds go unpunished, and he has wrestled with the question of how to do the right thing in a world where many don’t trust him.
So what if Clark Kent were a little more like a mega-powered Peter Parker — a teenager who gained titanic abilities overnight and then had to learn to use them for good while constantly weighing the consequences? That’s one of many things that make Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity so wonderful, but the analogy doesn’t really do this story justice. With grace and almost flawless execution, they took one of pop culture’s most recognizable figures and reworked his story into something fresh and surprising without compromising the character’s basic nature.
In a clever twist, this version of Clark Kent is a non-super teenager in Kansas whose parents thought it would be a good idea to name him after a comic book character. All his life, Clark been subjected to every lame Superman joke you can think of, and his closet is filled with unwanted Superman paraphernalia that he receives on birthdays. It’s an annoying meme he can’t escape.
But one day, the joke becomes a real thing. Literally overnight, Clark gains the god-like abilities of his comic book counterpart. If there’s a more exhilarating panel than Immonen’s splash of the character streaking across a night sky shortly after discovering that he can fly, I’d like to see it.
Of course, things get complicated once Clark begins using his gifts to save lives. The “Superboy” who prefers solitude and quiet becomes an elusive media sensation who has to stay mentally and physically one step ahead of his pursuers, which include the national media and the federal government. (This is precisely what would happen if Superman were real.) The cat-and-mouse game, which grows more elaborate and dangerous as time goes on, is one of the most compelling narrative threads.
“They’ve got a budget. They’ve got equipment, support, all kinds of resources. I’ve just got me.”
There’s also a nice take on a familiar romance. Now an established writer, Clark eventually meets Lois Chaudhari, an environmental designer who, at first, is not amused that mutual friends have introduced her to some guy with that name.
Clark, commiserating: “I’ve been set up with 18 Loises, seven Lanas and a Cat Grant.”
Lois: “Cat Grant? Is that someone from Superman?”
Clark: “Beats me. My college roommate thought it was hysterical, though, so I guess so.”
Destiny calls. As he and Lois fall in love and build a life together, Clark becomes perhaps more vulnerable than ever. There’s more to lose.
Busiek’s story soars, but can we talk about Immonen’s art for a minute? Everything from subtle facial expressions to majestic, snow-covered mountains is lovingly rendered yet somehow understated. It’s obvious that he put a great deal of thought and care into the look of the characters, who come across as real people instead of idealized, two-dimensional images. Clark isn’t particularly striking when he’s out of uniform, and Immonen gives him an ordinary quality that humanizes the character without diminishing him. By the way, he also did the coloring. Todd Klein’s lettering makes Clark’s narration a pleasure, not a distraction.
Superman: Secret Identity, recently re-released in trade after several years out of circulation, is a treasure from start to finish. Even if Big Blue and capes in general aren’t your cups of tea, you’ll be captivated by this book’s heart and soul. Grade: A+