05 March 2005

Free Trade Guerrilla: Superman: Secret Identity (TPB)

Intro time: My name is Oscar and where once I was a rabid collector and all-around comic fiend, I have had to calm my obsession down to where I now visit nationwide bookstores and happily use their cafés to help me catch up on what's happening in the comic book world through trade paperbacks. Not the most precise way to stay in the scene, but it sure is economical!

My last such trip saw me pick up Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek & Stuart Immonen.

This limited series starts with a rather ridiculous idea, what if there was a kid by the name of Clark Kent in the real world who was actually Superman?

Chapter 1 - Smallville
Well, actually Picketsville, Kansas, which for anybody who lives in the big bad city might as well be Smallville. It's the fall of 1990 and the school year is not starting out well for our typically troubled teen, laughingly named Clark by his (presumably hippie parents) David & Laura Kent. Clark epitomizes the square peg personality as he is not so much a loser as overly pensive and daunted at what the future holds. He gets picked on regularly by the kids in class, is in love with the hottie that sees him as a really good friend, and his parents remain oblivious throughout, his only comfort coming from an ancient Selectric typewriter. Before this issue turns into a bad Dawson Creek episode - were there any other kind? - Clark gets away from it all with a good ol' fashioned solo weekend camping trip and comes back to Picketsville with superpowers reminiscent of the Big S. At this point, Busiek seriously borrows a number of elements from Amazing Fantasy #15 (no, Clark's uncle does not bite the big one) and Amazing Spider-Man #12 - if you're gonna steal, at least steal from the classics! - and Superboy #1, the most recent series (which I know is not a classic,) to help wrap up the intro issue.

Chapter 2 - Metropolis
A twenty-something Clark finds himself in the Big Apple with a staff position at the New Yorker. His literary skills have not gone unnoticed as his boss pulls some strings for "Smallville" and gets Clark a book deal. Things couldn't be better for our hero as his "good" friends see fit to set him up on a blind date with Lois. She isn't thrilled about it either but Ms. Chaudhari (born in India, thank ya very much) makes the best of it and the two fall in love. Clark still helps avert a disaster every now & then in his Big Blue get up since the only thing that is even more unbelievable then seeing a man fly is seeing him fly in Christopher Reeve's old duds. To everyone except those men in black suits and Ray Bans that have set their sights on "Superman." Busiek gets a little more original here but I still can't help but think I've seen it all before. It's not such a bad thing as the gimmick of a real life Clark trying to negotiate the fact that he has to stay under the FBI/NSA/CIA radar lest he be put in a Petri dish, while trying to be fullly honest with his newfound soul mate keeps the story fresh.

Chapter 3 - Fortress
Life is sweet for the Kents in northern Maine. Both are living the fine freelance life as Clark's books are selling well, and Lois is a successful environmental designer. Clark has his "cat and mouse" routine with the government down to a science as he is the planet's secret guardian by day, pumping out manuscripts by dusk, and having dinner ready by night. All that's missing from here is a dog named Krypto (not!), the station wagon and, oh yeah, some kids. Sure enough, Lois drops the bomb and Clark stops thinking about earthquakes in Fairkbanks, Alaska, and starts wondering just how much jeopardy Lois and the little "S" would be in if the Men in Black ever caught up to him. Throughout the series, Busiek tries to answer some of the questions only the most anal of fan boys would have about Superman's ability to successfully hide his identity. For the most part he hits but his best bits are when we see the all-too-human side of Clark try to balance the scales between being the defender of Earth and his new found responsibilities as a father-to-be.

Chapter 4 - Tomorrow
It's Christmas-time and the whole Kent clan is together sharing holiday cheer, even though Clark is in a bit of a mid-life crisis as he begins to accept the fact that he may no longer be able to continue playing as "Superman." His powers are fading and that fact that he has never been able to fully investigate the true origins or exact nature of his powers, for fear that the gov't may catch him snooping, leads him to the conclusion that it's just old age catching up with him. And here is the pitfall of the whole limited run as Busiek can only have this much fun with DC's flagship mythos as long as it's a one-shot deal. Instead of leaving room for this storyline to grow naturally (and most likely by another team), he has to tie up all the loose ends with not just a pretty bow, but also a candy cane and gilded greeting card in one of the most saccharine endings possible.

In the end, Superman: Secret Identity is a fun read and a great departure from the normal Superman we know and sometimes love, and a chance to meet a much more down-to-earth Clark that does all the things we would do if we could, but also has a moral center that leans more towards bright idealist than beatified saint.

Strong kudos to illustrator Stuart Immonen who never overreaches in the entire series. His art remains just as grounded as Clark while still delivering the "faster than a speeding bullet" goods. And an extra wink goes to whoever put in the classic silver age Superman frames as a start to the chapters.

Free Trade Guerrilla gives Superman: Secret Identity a cigar leaning up.

Superman: Secret Identity (DC Comics, 2005; $19.95) Written by Kurt Busiek; Art by Stuart Immonen.

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