Odds and Ends

Things which are too long for Twitter or Tumblr go here

Thought Bubble Capsule Reviews

I went to Thought Bubble in Leeds last month. I bought a bunch of comics there. Here’s what I thought of them. 100 words a comic, no more no less. Let’s go.

The Snow Queen and Other Stories by Isabel Greenberg

Greenberg works hard, doesn’t she? The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth, is only just out, and she’s already got a follow-up (of sorts) in this book, put out by Great Beast.

Unlike Early Earth, the Snow Queen is adapted from Hans Christian Andersen tales. Greenberg’s meandering storytelling is actually put to better use here, with the strong core of the original fairytale keeping the plot flowing more directly from A to B than in her biggest work.

But that focus also means that we miss some of the sprawling vistas that were so magnificent, in favour of tighter character work.

Throw Your Keys Away by Dan Berry

Four fun tales – and a one-panel gag. The Devil’s Steps is the most wonderfully rendered of them all, with gloomy blacks and blues placing it firmly in its Halloween setting. While the colours play it serious, the line work has more of a wink to the fact that the whole story – an encounter with a devil out of Berry’s childhood – is less than it seems. (It’s certainly the friendliest devil I’ve ever seen).

Elsewhere, I love the gag panel’s great, as is the tale of how he Almost Quit Drawing Comics. Who can resist the smell of a cobblers?

Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham

Fuck, the first Multiple Warheads was explicit wasn’t it? I guess I knew the series started life as porn, so I can’t be surprised. (And hey, if porn comics are your thing, that one has more wit and character in a few pages than the six-and-counting volumes of Manara I’ve got staring at me from my shelf.)

The non-porn stuff – the vast majority of the volume – is great. Surprisingly different in tone from King City, even if the artistic style is largely shared between the two. The porny roots never quite die, and it’s sweetly sexy throughout.

Raygun Roads by Owen Michael Johnson and Indio

Colours everywhere! A plot teleported in from the seventeenth dimension presented in ways mere mortals can never quite comprehend! But if we had that 18th dimensional viewpoint would it coalesce into something less than its ambitions? There’s worse things to be than Flex-Mentallo-for-hair-metal, I guess.

(I love Grant Morrison too, guys).

Flipping the book halfway through was annoying but the middle spread was beautiful so we’ll let it slide?

I think there’s actual music too, so the album thing isn’t just a gimmick, but I read this on a train so I couldn’t listen to it.

I Don’t Like My Hair Neat, Issue Two by Julia Scheele

Bad Omen, Tell You Now and Sinking are the standout stories in this short anthology. The first is an ultra-vivid memory, with a sickly feeling washing through it, even before the actual bad omen rears its head. The second, a tale of survival told through the detritus of an abuse relationship, harnesses the power of some old Le Tigre lyrics. The third is one of the most beautiful (incongruous praise, maybe) depictions of depression I’ve seen.

Julia continues to be one of the best colourists working in the small-press scene. Look at the cover and Kama Sutra Spells!

Seasons by Mike Medaglia

I thought Mike hadn’t put his name on the book and was ready to chuckle, but it’s tucked away in the back.

Anyway, Delightful Girlfriend exclaimed that this was the prettiest book of the con without me even opening it, so the stripped back simplicity definitely works. That is a cover designed by someone who knows how to use white space!

The book itself is four very short vignettes broken up by abstract colourscapes and little quotes. The stories themselves are great slices of lives, always slightly shorter than you would need to know the whole thing, leaving you wondering.

Chloe Noonan Monster Hunter 4 1/2 by Marc Ellerby

CHLOE NOONAN BEATS UP MONSTERS. In this issue she actually gets a sugar high, falls asleep and lets all the monsters go except the chipmunk thing which doesn’t want to leave.

Noonan is one of the most rewarding little series to follow, tickling the same itch – often far better – than big yank comics with a thousand times the circulation. Even in this silly story, a limited run of 200 (Marc wasn’t even able to publish it through his own Great Beast label, which is way harsh, Tai), the plot moves a bit on. Just why are the monsters so bad?

Dungeon Fun by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance

Adventure Time is really bloody influential, isn’t it? Some of its followers are great, others not so much. This falls into the former camp, with a fun tale of a girl adopted by trolls fighting out of a pit she lives in to avenge her mud statue which was destroyed by a falling sword. Naturally, she’s actually the long lost heir to the throne.

Like Adventure Time, you come for the adventures and stay for the parenthetical comments about whatever the authors were interested in that day. The plot progresses at a fair whack, and before you know it it’s done.

The Megatherium Club by Owen D. Pomery

This is a deeply silly book, let’s just get this out of the way now.

You know there’s a sub genre of fantasy starting with “X historical group was actually into black magic/superscience/the illuminati?” Well, this is “what if the Megatherium club (a real group of people) were massive pissheads who never did anything useful”, which, based on my understanding those guys, is pretty fucking accurate.

Pomery’s etched-line style comes into its own here, and if I hadn’t already read his previous work Between the Billboards, I’d assume it was put on just for the historical feel.

The Comix Reader 5 by fucking everyone

A newspaper format art comix anthology.

O’Connell and Locke’s scrappy paste-job is a new and interesting way of doing sequential art.

Parsons’ sexual memoir made me feel dirty inside.

Hickman’s strips were sadly recogniseable.

Lord Hurk’s formalist adventure didn’t make the blindest bit of sense, but I liked its style.

Ditto Cowdry’s strips.

Sina’s autobio comics were damn good autobio. And starting with a blowjob is a good call, always.

Couldn’t focus my eyes on Homersham’s (great) astonishingly detailed page.

Schalkx’s strip is the most minimalist work I’ve seen which still manages to convey a story, character and emotion.

On Reflection by Andy Poyiadgi

Talking format is always a cop-out, but: I love this format. The printed tracing paper, in particular, is a wonderful touch. And sure, if you open it out fully it’s just a long strip – but who would do that?

Similarly, beautiful page design reflects the theme of the story in the books very layout. The first and last pages are mirrored right down to the title text.

Tonally eerie, there’s not a huge amount to the plot, but the artwork brings some of the depressive gloom to the fore. (And Andy’s line-work is wonderful in its own right).

The Heroines Zine edited by Julia Scheele

Hugely varied contributions, which is precisely what you want from something like this.

I get the sense the brief was “make art about a heroine”, resulting in the range.

Subjects run the gamut from Ripley and Buffy (of course) through Ada Lovelace and Emmeline Pankhurst all the way to friends and relations of the authors. Media ranges from pure text to pure image and everything in between.

Standout works are Heather Wilson on Pankhurst, Kieron Gillen on Ada Lovelace, and Ellen Rogers on her muse Maxine. Also Julia and Tom Humberstone’s portraits.

Is it a comic? What a boring question.

Windowpane #2 by Joe Kessler

As with the last one, the standout work here is the collaboration with Reuben Mwaura. As with the last one, the physical object is a thing of beauty, with the risograph printing resulting in colour work you won’t see anywhere else. As with the last one, ‘dreamlike’ is a cop-out description, but also vaguely accurate.

It’s a bit much to expect much change between two issues of an a single-author anthology work, but there’s very little here that couldn’t have been in the pages of the first, and vice versa. Still, all the praise for that applies here.

Hitsville UK #2 by John Riordan and Dan Cox

It’s called The Difficult Second Issue. It’s been, I think, two years in the making, long enough for Marc Ellerby and Adam Cadwell’s Great Beast small-press-publisher (if that’s not an oxymoron) to pick it up. “When we picked the title of the issue, we didn’t realise quite how true it would be”, John said. But it’s worth the wait.

Whereas the first was a disjointed series of introductions, gelling together into a plot and uniform whole only in the last few pages, this is… well, still disjointed, but more purposefully so. John’s art remains pop as fuck.

I Got Comics #1 by John Miers

Miers is probably the foremost formalist working in the British scene today. His Babel requires a manual to comprehend, which isn’t the slight it seems.

There’s nothing as balls-out experimental in this volume, nor is there anything as straightforwardly innovative as Round Man in Square City (I don’t think it has a name) from A Collection of Comics by…, aka I Got Comics #0. My favourite piece in the book is probably two-pager The Mechanical Elephant, a musing (both in terms of what it is and what it says) on perspective. Interested in seeing more of Sisyphus, though.

Doctor Who and the Hipsters by Abigail Brady

Another zine, and this one’s proper old school (it’s actually photocopied and stapled and everything). A short piece of Doctor Who fanfic featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace. I had to google to check it’s actually the Seventh Doctor so you can tell the level of background I’m going in with.

It’s an utterly delightful premise: what if the Doctor went back to the Shoreditch street where the very first episode began fifty years ago? And what if, when he went back there, he was actually taking his companion forward?

Fast, funny and some cracking hipster-bashing. And free online.

Supergods could really use an editor

By coincidence, I finished Supergods the same day I read Laura Sneddon’s interview with Grant Morrison. (I was on holiday at the time, on the terrace of my mother’s ex-husband’s house in Corsica, if it matters. These things often do. Still not home as I write this, in fact. Though I am as I upload it.) The latter helped crystallise my thoughts about the former. Crystallise, specifically, into this sudden realisation: Grant Morrison’s not a very good writer.

That’s not quite my fully-though-out, final line on the book, of course. Morrison is my favourite author of comics(/graphic novels/sequential art/funnybooks, whatever), and reading his slightly weird views on, say, the ethics of work-for-hire hasn’t changed that. And even in Supergods, the prose is often wonderful, and his take on what many think of as somewhat “closed” subjects (the greatness of Watchmen; the awfulness of the 90s) is interesting and insightful.

But really, and in the nicest possible way, he shouldn’t have written a non-fiction book. He’s just not particularly good at it. His strengths become his weaknesses, and his weaknesses become the reasons why I simply can’t recommend it to anyone without a deep interest in Morrisonalia.

To give just one example of the sort of amateurish weirdness the book contains, frequently the introductory paragraph on a new personality in the book will happen several pages after they first appear. This may be intentional, of course, and I’m certainly not asking for every new face to enter the text with a journalistic description of them, their work and their lives. But there are a number of pages which would simply make no sense if I didn’t already have background information about the person being discussed. Steve Yeowell, for instance, is introduced twice in one page, and at other points, I found myself wondering if I’d missed the first mention of someone. Was he discussing an artist? An editor? A co-writer? He often spills the beans told halfway down the next page, leaving me tempted is to jump back to the top and reread with that new information.

Of course, in Morrison’s fiction, that’s precisely the effect he goes for. Multi-layered stories, twist endings, revelation piled on revelation, what seems like a confusing mass of ideas coalescing into a coherent whole. And if he were trying to do that in Supergods, it would be impressive, even if it did fall slightly flat.

But honestly? It doesn’t come across at though he is trying to do that. It seems he really does just think in a different order to most people. It’s all stuff which ought to have come out in the edit, but I guess just didn’t.

This feeling – that they just printed the manuscript as delivered – extends to other aspects of the book as well. For some bizarre reason, the only images in it are black-and-white versions of the covers to the DC comics he talks about. I can understand the black and white, just (although I really doubt that Jonathan Cape/Random House couldn’t afford to spring the extra pennies per copy for colour printing), but what seems to be excessive paranoia over copyright to the images in question genuinely hurts the book. Not a single image from Marvel is included, for instance, despite Morrison talking at length about his work on Marvel Boy and New X-Men. And these are no mere overviews, either. Just as with the much-excerpted passage about the cover of Action Comics #1, Morrison goes for extreme close-readings of various aspects of these comics; close-readings which simply don’t make sense without the image to refer back to. I can only imagine that nobody even tried to clear the images for use, relying on Morrison to gain permission for the few that were published by DC directly, and passing over the rest. How else to explain, for example, the bizarre failure to include any panels from The Authority, discussed at length and actually owned by DC? And even if they weren’t cleared, such images are certainly covered by fair use/fair dealing, reprinted at tiny resolution in what is absolutely a valid work of criticism.

(Incidentally, if you do want to hear this sort of deep examination of the craft of laying out a page or a cover of a comic, a far better place to turn would be Kieron Gillen’s podcast DECOMPRESSED. For all that authorial intent is bunk, Morrison goes far too far in the opposite direction; the symbology of the appearance of all four elements on the front page of Action Comics #1 is interesting, but also feels unbelievably forced. Far more insightful is Morrison’s explanation of why the first page of Watchmen works so well, but that sort of thing is now done on a weekly basis – with, shock horror, the pages under discussion excerpted under fair use – by Gillen, in conversation with the author(s).)

But looking beyond how the information and arguments are presented, how do they rate?

The most obvious comment about the book – one picked up on by reviewers who were more timely than me – is that it is two books in one, and sold to readers as being different from either. Except for a chapter at the end, in which Morrison discusses the impact of ever more personal applications of technology and branding, very little of the book is a discussion of “OUR WORLD IN THE AGE OF THE SUPERHERO”. Instead, it is firstly the aforementioned collection of close examinations of seminal comics, and secondly Morrison’s autobiography as told primarily through the comics which were important to him.

That first aim is hit and miss. Where it succeeds, we have a master of the craft elaborating on what makes other greats work so well. Where it doesn’t, we have little more than expertly applied pareidolia.

Grant loves his hidden symbology (his annotated script to Arkham Asylum was my first proof of the fact that sometimes, my schoolteachers weren’t bullshitting when they said that authors deliberately included the subtext which we were all so painfully extracting for our GCSE coursework), but not everyone does. At times, the book becomes little more than someone painstakingly elaborating on all the slices of toast in which they have seen Jesus’ face.

As an autobiography, however, the book is far more interesting. Morrison’s chaos magic, alien abduction, and mysticism, despite being presented in as sympathetic light as possible, still come across as a bit mad, but intelligently so – he knows how he sounds to non-believers, and doesn’t really care.

And even taken as nothing more than an excuse to hear Morrison discussing his early life in the Scottish alt-comix scene, the creation of Zenith, and his part in the British Invasion, it’s something I would be happy to read again. Which is good, because much of it I have already read – these are some of the most-discussed aspects of his life, well-trodden in prior interviews.

The strength of the biographical aspect of the book is immediately obvious when considering Morrison’s discussion of the Golden Age of comics (those made, roughly, from the late thirties to the fifties). This section, which opens the book, lacks any personal stories for the unsurmountable reason that Morrison wasn’t actually alive then. When added to the flop that is his over-detailed, underwhelming examination of the covers of that period, it drags by.

In fact, the only reason I made it through was my curiosity to read the much-discussed “betrayal” of Siegel and Shuster. Morrison commits nerd-heresy by suggesting that maybe, in selling Superman for $130, the two men knew what they were getting into, and thought that they’d got a good deal.

The answer is somewhere between the received wisdom of DC’s original sin and Morrison’s near total absolution of the company. It’s certainly important to note that work-for-hire is a trade-off, not a rip-off. It’s how I make my living, for one thing, and while I will lose out if any of my “creations” attains Superman stature, I make up for it with the fact that without the New Statesman promoting my work, I be no-one. (Still am, of course, but a different kind of no-one)

At the same time, the deal DC offered to Siegel and Shuster was more exploitative than most. The work was done when the company bought the creation, which normally entails a higher pay-off (because the purchasers are taking less risk); and there seems to have been less clarity in their contracts than Morrison implies.

In discussing the intricacies of the contracts of the Superman creators, as well as the twists and turns of his own life, Morrison seems to be targeting his book at the faithful; those, like myself, who want to go deep into the mind of a man we already respect. Clearly this aim was against the wishes of the publishers, hence the more mass-market subtitle, trade dress and marketing; but it also seems to be contradicted by some of the book itself. Parts of it are – and there’s no other word for it – shockingly under-researched. For instance, on a chapter on superhero movies, Morrison describes the then-upcoming Spider-Man reboot – which became Amazing Spider-Man, and came out this May – saying:

Oddly enough, and only three years after the Raimi series, Marvel started work on yet another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin.

It is in fact an rather important aspect of the recent history of superhero movies that the Spider-Man franchise is owned by Sony, not Marvel. It was the former’s success which motivated the latter to create their own studio, which went on to produce the Avengers series of films, culminating in what was, briefly, the most successful superhero movie ever.

Even at the time the book came out, the first few movies in this series had come out, and contained a number of aspects which ought to have been of interest to Morrison – the first genuine attempt to create a cinematic equivalent to comic book continuity, a more mature approach to making “realistic” superheroes than the Nolan Batman series, and a renewed focus on character over plot – which barely get a mention. And as for the “bizarre” decision, it was an entirely reasonable decision, albeit based on commercial rather than creative factors. If Sony didn’t make a new Spider-Man movie, and soon, the rights would revert back to Marvel. With the franchise having been largely killed by Spider-Man 3, they had no choice but to start again.

This sort of thing gives large chunks of the book the impression of having been written of the top of Morrison’s head. It’s an accusation which has also been levied at his fiction; he is an “ideas man” who throws a lot at the page and hopes it sticks. Whether or not that is true for the comics, it feels like it must be the case here.

But the proof is in Laura’s interview with Morrison. The same topics, covered in conversation with herself acting as mediator and translator between us and Morrison, become crackling, flowing and coherent. The bits of his attitude to life which stem from his class – those which he tries so hard to bring out in the book – are made clear as day; and the Siegel and Shuster discussion, which is brought up again, is clarified, contextualised, and made stronger the second time around.

Of course, it doesn’t absolve all problems. Even when parlayed through Laura, Morrison comes off as alarmingly blasé about saying one thing and doing another, particularly for someone who has made so much of his career out of being an ideologue; and, as David Brothers picks up on, he performs a couple of nasty rhetorical tricks to minimise what is in fact real disagreement.

Still, Morrison is at his best when someone else – an interviewer, an artist, or a friend – is telling us what he thinks. If Supergods is a direct pipe to his brain, it allows some of his greatness to come through in sputters and bursts, but ultimately fails to justify its own existence.

Yes, I know I could also use an editor, w/e.

Ways in which Tom is like Ed Miliband

The other day, my friend Tom Phipps started posting all ways in which he is like Ed Miliband. It may look like a breakdown – and to be honest, I’m not sure it isn’t – but with his permission, I’m collecting them all here.

Tom Phipps is a BAFTA Rocliffe New Comedy Writing competition winner, and a very funny man. You should follow him on Twitter here

Batman: Secret Identity?

Another month, another graphic novel book club. This month, Seb and James (and me, I guess) are looking at Superman: Secret Identity. As in previous months, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the book, guided by their discussion questions, over here.

5. How well might this concept translate to other characters, especially in light of the announced plans for a thematic sequel about Batman?

Simple answer? I feel like this concept needs actual powers to work. Without that instantaneous change – one I was normal, now I’m special – it’s not the same concept. How can you just wake up to find that you’re Batman?

I’m sure that Seb and James will have some big new angle that I won’t have considered (they always do), but it seems to me that Secret Identity has two major elements to it, that make it’s concept unique – or more so than a generic “what if super-heroes were real?!” story.

The first is the existence of Superman in the “real world”. That much is obvious, and that is a story which has been done over and over, with almost every superhero possible. Essentially, any superhero story with a somewhat revisionist flair featuring the “first” superhero fits, to some extent, this description.

In comics, Batman: Year One fits, as does the recent Superman: Earth One. Watchmen is famously, at least partially (certainly the part that every comics creator for the next 20 years focused on), an examination of superheroes in general in the real world.

The best example of this concept, though, is in movies. Pretty much every recent superhero flick applies it, as do most earlier ones. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is built around this concept. So too are Iron Man, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. I believe (I haven’t seen them) that Green Lantern and Hulk are as well. Conversely, Captain America emphatically isn’t; the superscience exists from the off, and there is no real feeling of shock at the extent of Cap’s power.

But this element is only the first of the two, and it’s definitely the one that has been used most frequently. The second is the one that is more important to the feel of the book, and that is that Clark lives in our world, right down to the existence of comic books.

(Parenthetical: I can’t enter into this discussion without linking to this relevant, and fantastic, entry into the New Yorker caption competition. If I could, I’d just embed it. This also plays back into my discussion of the knowledge of zombies in zombie media)

When Clark gets his powers, he thinks “I’m like Superman now!”. He dresses up like Superman. He saves people like Superman. He does this because he knows what Superman is, because he is even named after fucking Superman.

I really like this as a concept generally, by the way. I’m a big fan of stories just saying to the audience, “Look. There could be a scene here that you’ve seen a thousand times – be that the hero working out that he should help people with his powers, the protagonists discovering that these weird rotting people are zombies, or the two remaining teens thinking that they should split up with the scary killer on the loose – but we’ll just save time by giving our heroes the sort of knowledge that they’d have if they knew what you know.” It can be done explicitly, as with Secret Identity, or Scream, or implicitly, as with The Walking Dead, but when done well, it frees a genre story from the rote of repeating what came before it.


That element is crucial to Secret Identity, and it’s something that I just don’t think could work with a Batman parallel.

How do you wake up one morning, and discover that you’ve become Batman?

Do you lose your parents at age eight, and then think “I’m Batman now!”? Well, while that would make for a fascinating tragicomic story – and I bet someone is writing it right now – it’s hardly the conceptual twin to Secret Identity.

Do you lose your parents, swear revenge, train yourself up to take on crime and then, just as you’re deciding what to wear on your first patrol, think “Huh, I’m basically Batman, maybe I should dress up as him”?

Do you reduce the character of Batman to “rich guy who fights crime”? Or just “guy who fights crime”? Because if so, Kick Ass has you beat on that, especially the movie, where Nick Cage’s Big Daddy is pretty clearly an homage to Adam West’s Batman.

I’m sure whatever spin is eventually put on it will be entertaining. And if DC has a good team, the resulting book might be good too. But I can’t see it really being a twin to Secret Identity.

But to answer the more general question, about other characters? Absolutely. Any character where powers can come out of the blue could be ripe for this treatment. But why bother? You’d be rewriting Secret Identity, but – oh! – he webswings instead of flies!

Comics are better than that.

Ass-kicking lady reporter or supermum?

Another month, another graphic novel book club. This month, Seb and James (and me, I guess) are looking at Superman: Secret Identity. As in previous months, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the book, guided by their discussion questions, over here.

4. Does Lois work as an analogue for Lois Lane, or does she serve a different role in the story?

As I said yesterday, I’m not entirely sure I know enough about Superman to talk about the role Lois Lane normally serves in his stories. I can talk in vague terms about her role in the most recent movie, and I’ve seen as many covers of Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane as anyone. But for specifics, I have to fall back on the few Superman stories I know in any real detail, so apologies if I miss a story which is defining in terms of her character.

One of the biggest effects of my lack of knowledge is that, even though the ‘real’ Lois spent most of the last fifteen years married to Superman, in my mind the silver age paradigm of the Clark-Lois-Superman love triangle reigns supreme.  This is reflected in All Star-Superman, which is my definitive Superman story, as well as almost all of the other Superman media I’ve consumed.

This aspect of Lois is absent entirely from Secret Identity. She meets, and falls in love with, Clark long before she even knows Superman exists, so there’s no tension there. In addition, there isn’t the fun competition between Lois and Clark in the workplace, because she’s not a reporter in SI.

Given those changes between Lane and Chaudhari, it’s not surprising that Lois’ role in this is far more of a supporting character than it is in books starring ass-kicking star reporter Lois Lane. Thinking about it, the best example of that Lois is probably the one in DC: The New Frontier, but again the ASS Lois covers the base.

Secret Identity, as I’ve said before, is very much Clark’s story. Lois serves to give him motivations to do things a certain way, to give him (as I discussed yesterday) a weak point, and – and putting it this starkly is probably harsher than I mean it to be – to make super-babies.

With only 192 pages to cover the whole story, it is understandable that Busiek focuses like this. And within that narrow role, Lois is certainly not weak-willed. But it does seem like, for the most part, noting – albeit feisty – wife is the extent of the part that she plays.

Define ‘definitive’.

Another month, another graphic novel book club. This month, Seb and James (and me, I guess) are looking at Superman: Secret Identity. As in previous months, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the book, guided by their discussion questions, over here.

3. As an exploration of the character and ethos, how does this compare with other “definitive” Superman stories?

Owing to what is (I think quite a common) British dislike of the character of Superman – who, in representing “Truth, Justice and the American Way” can be rather offputting to non-Yanks – I’ve not read a huge amount of Superman stories, definitive or not. Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Brian Azzarello’s Superman: For Tomorrow, and Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman are basically it, with Mark Millar’s Red Son as well, if it counts.

ASS is the only one of those that could realistically be called definitive, I feel. FT isn’t even generally accepted as good, let alone great (and I’m not entirely sure I’d say it was that good either – Jim Lee’s art leaves me completely cold, and I’m not sure I could pick a writer less suited to him if I tried).

That said, it still gets something crucial across about the character. Specifically, I really liked its interpretation of his relationship with Lois. Azzarello’s solution to the age old superman conundrum – he’s so strong that nothing can really hurt him, and in a genre where most problems involve, and are resolved with, fights, that makes storytelling tricky – is to focus on her, as many writers before and after have done. However, he manages to make her not just Superman’s weak spot, but the reason he does what he does. It’s a good spin on the character (and I’ve oversimplified it slightly). I’m not sure it makes up for the book overall, though.

WHttMoT (there must be a better acronym than that) has a better chance of being definitive. Certainly it is well known enough to be an influence on many creators who’ve come after it, but I feel that the Superman within it is a bit of an enigma. The story is far more a whistlestop tour of all of the silver-age Superman’s friends and enemies than it is an involved character piece. The big problem, of course, is that it only covered two issues. It was never going to be the take on Superman’s character for that reason. Ditto for What do you get the man who has everything?, Moore’s other noteable take on Superman. It sheds some great light on him, but it can’t be definitive simply because of the paucity of space.

That objection rings slightly hollow when you look at the first page of ASS, in which Morrison and Quitely famously tell everything you need to know about Superman’s origin in just four panels and eight words, but it is still very much the case that the twelve issues of that series are jam packed with exploration of Superman’s character, and even then it barely scratches the surface. (Look, for instance, at all the things that aren’t in the comic). But I really do feel like it is definitive.

Which is slightly useless in this analysis, since owing to the crumminess of causality, it’s unlikely Busiek and Immonen were influenced by a book which came out a couple of years before theirs.

The most important difference between Secret Identity and all the rest is that it is allowed to be self-aware. For the first time, we can have the character of Superman in possession of full knowledge of what his character entails. We don’t actually get much of that, however, owing to the fact that Clark rejects his name and its baggage relatively early on. Although he still chooses to operate in the Superman costume, his explanation of why he does is strictly practical, and so for the most part, his story is unconnected to the prior existence of Superman in his world.

I’m not even so sure that this is a book about Superman. It feels like it’s a book about Clark Kent, a person with superhuman powers, but there’s very little that I would recognise as key to the character of Superman in Kent’s personality. We have his love for Lois, and his need to help people, sure. But we don’t have the more god-like side of him that is demonstrated in ASS.

What I mean by that is two-fold. Firstly, his superpowers are at the lower end of what we see Superman do in other stories. He flies into space, he catches planes, but there’s no spinning the earth backwards, or hopping out to Jupiter to play golf on Io. But secondly, and more importantly, he’s not perfect. This is not a Superman who would be able to help Regan on the roof, I feel. He’s just too human.

Now, I like that, and feel it works for the story, but it certainly isn’t something I recognise from any of the other definitive takes on the character. It’s necessary to make him a character who can be hurt by human threats – both physically, because he’s not too strong, and tactically, because he’s not too smart. He can be outwitted, and he can be beaten, and that tension is what drives the story onwards.

There are aspects of the book which hew to the ethos of Superman. The non-violence stays. Not once (that I can spot) does Clark actually attack anyone else. Instead, we get his cheeky infiltration of high-security sites, his deactivation of weapons, and his one-stop accident rescue service are all classic Superman manoeuvres, with nary a fistfight in sight.

And wonderfully, Clark remains a journalist (although not a reporter). Whereas in the older comics, this is used as part of Clark’s cover, here it allows the fluent narration we get, as well as giving him a job that, when he makes it big, gives him the time he needs to do his heroic activities on the side.

But for the most part, these are separate characters. I don’t feel we get much added to the Superman mythos from Secret Identity, and I’m not sure we should. There are interesting questions possible about the “real” Superman that could be answered along the same lines – what would happen if Kal-El’s rocket landed in a world with no superpowers? – but this book doesn’t answer them, because it’s not really about asking them.

“This book is set in the real world” *Literally has Men in Black*

2. Ostensibly, the book pitches as a “superheroes-in-the-real-world” story. How much does this actually hold true, and how does it compare to other entries in the genre? Does Clark’s world feel like the real world, or is it actually as fictional as the DC Universe?

This question gets at a real issue that rubbed me all through the book, which is that while we get Clark’s elation at being the ‘first’ superhero, we don’t get the full punch of the world’s realisation of the same fact. That’s what I was really hoping to see from this, and I was a bit sad not to get it.

Just as an example – and I’m sure my title hints at where I’m going with this – the “real world” that Clark lives in already has genuine Men in Black in it. By the start of the book, a clandestine agency devoted to tracking down manifestations of super-powers exists, and is hugely powerful and aware.

Now, I can reason it away. We see those bodies in the morgue, for instance, so maybe it’s taken twelve prior, weaker, Clarks to get the agency to be taken seriously and funded well. But I’d have liked to see Clark as the real first, not some bullshitty, New 52, “he’s not the first but he’s the first that’s acted publicly and in the open in a costume which sort of makes him the first”-first.

This is sort of matched in the glossing over of superheroes going public. I get that Clark never does, and as his story we don’t really need to see the rest, but again, it feels like a crucial part of the story of the first superhero in the “real world” is the reaction of the “real world” to the first (‘first’) superhero.

On the flipside, of course it isn’t as fictional as the DCU. Aside from the MiB, it really is basically our world – and given the public wouldn’t know about them, it is to all intents and purposes the same. Busiek is clearly eager to make sure that nothing that would dispel that illusion makes it in, and so we get frequent references to real things. The New Yorker, Pantheon Books, and so on. Slightly irritating that Picketsville doesn’t actually exist, but given I had to google to confirm that, it hardly dragged me out of the book.

I’ve reached the stage these days of trying to second-guess what Seb and James are going to talk about so that I don’t step on their toes, so I’m now also going to complain that the book ending in the future threw me out a bit. I’d have liked it more as a proper historical novel, ending in the present, but I suppose Clark rather had to be born after Superman was a Big Deal, or his name-thing wouldn’t make much sense.

Still, some of the flying car stuff felt a bit weird in the book, and I wasn’t quite sure if it was a Watchmanesque “look how much superpowers have changed the world” thing, or just a “now it is the future” point. I feel it was the latter, and I do wonder whether Busiek has ever read any near-future SF before. Because writing about flying cars when the scene is set, what, 20 years in the future? That just looks silly, man.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.