Book Reviews

An Unconventional Superman Tale: Why Kurt Busiek’s 2004 Series Is Still One of the Best

Image Credit: DC Comics

Image Credit: DC Comics

I first read Kurt Busiek’s and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity when it was released back in 2004 – yes, I am aware this dates me, but the longevity of my readership loyalty and immersion within the confines of this wonderful medium is, I promise, relevant (more on this in a bit). It was a pretty terrific year for the industry. Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man was in its third year of publication and J. Michael Straczynski had just released his inaugural issue of Strange, which in my humble opinion is quite possibly one of the best – if not the best – Doctor Strange stories ever written. I had read the solicitation summation for Busiek’s upcoming miniseries in an issue of Comic Shop News a few months prior. It was an altogether alternate take on the Superman mythos, but with one small caveat: it wasn’t about Kal-El. Well, not in the conventional sense anyway. The premise was to be this: what if a teenage boy awoke one morning possessing the powers of Superman? Additionally, what if that same boy lived in our world, where Superman and comic books existed, and shared the same moniker as the famous Kryptonian’s civilian identity, Clark Kent? Have I snagged your undivided curiosity yet? I sure hope so. But stay with me.

So, a few months passed following the initial solicitation, and the first issue of this four-issue series was finally released to the general populous, right into my grubby, Hobbit-sized little hands. The story – as it began this very different tale – sucked me in almost immediately. I’m not all to aware of which it was: the beautifully rendered, almost-photo-realistic art, or the words themselves. But either way, it was good stuff. To say that I “liked” this series when I first read it is an understatement; I absolutely loved it. What Kurt and Stuart did was take the core principles of the character – the underlining emotional epicenter of our famous alien-visitor, and spun a tale about a kid who shared them. The story also resonated with me for a singular reason. As an adolescent, and like Secret Identity’s Clark, I too was mocked and teased (“short and chubby” are ripe ingredients for childhood harassment). I didn’t have any friends for the whole of my eighth-grade year of junior high school. So, like our superhero-protagonist, I also found solace in my alone-time, away from the harsh words and judging-eyes of my youthful peers. When Clark realizes he can fly, and subsequently learns of his shared Kryptonian-like abilities (while out in the night during his alone-time), the moment is perfectly captured through his inner monologue; and Stuart’s double-page spread showcasing this first-flight is pretty damn awesome to boot.

A more specific reason to pick this gem-of-a-book up is this: it nails the very things that make an honest Superman story great. I say “honest” because over the years I’ve read enough stories that intend to give us an “alternate” and “different” take, yet miss the mark by a wide margin (I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder). And with DC in the midst of rebooting their titles again, it’s nice to know that there are other options available for readers who are tired of being disappointed by the comics publisher and Hollywood alike. Great stories never decompose into literary carcasses; they stand the test-of-time and endure. This is because, despite being beholden to the time-period they were written in, they encapsulate an element which never tires from age: the human experience. Superman has always been a great vehicle for expounding upon our mishaps as a species. But we don’t often get a story which humanizes him – or in this case, a character like him – and places the reader firmly within his red boots. That’s the simple genius of what Busiek and Immonen have created.

In the years since Secret Identity was published, we’ve seen many more books which follow a similar formula: taking superhero tropes and injecting them into a story which tells a tale from a more “human” perspective. Mark Millar is a name that jumps to mind. He’s a whiz when it comes to this. But Kurt and Stuart were two of the first to do it. And “do” it well, they did. A deluxe hardcover of this series was recently released, collecting all four issues snug within its embrace. There’s also an afterward from Kurt himself, explaining the events and process which led up to, and produced, the story. I emphatically recommend that you pick it up. With all of the great books currently out there from the non-Marvel-and-DC publishers like Image, Dark Horse, IDW and BOOM!, it’s nice to go back to the beginning and read the ones that kick-started it all.

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