Secret Identity Week: Superhero book, or a way of selling a broader story to superhero fans?
by Alex Hern
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.
Is this a story about superheroes, or a story about ordinary people told with the trappings of the superhero genre?
Before I think about whether this is about superheroes or not, I can answer one question: It’s not about Superman. No ill feelings towards the book – I don’t feel tricked, and am in fact slightly relieved – but the title is misleading, to say the least. This Clark Kent is emphatically not Superman. He’s not even Superman to the extent that the leads in books such as Red Son are, since his entire existence as a character hinges on Superman being a concept external to him.
I mean, this is comics, and we see identical bait-and-switches on a pretty much monthly basis (Superman: The Black Ring comes to mind as just the most recent example), so I don’t really mind. But Secret Identity would be a more accurate – and, I think, better – title than Superman: Secret Identity is.
As for superhero or not, I rather reject that divide. Certainly if we’re looking at it as a genre thing, I don’t believe there is such a genre as “superhero”. It’s a setting, which can be used to fit a number of genres, albeit mostly action-adventure. But you can also get horror, comedy, mystery, romance; there’s not as big a market for them, and so they tend to be rare, but they’re absolutely within the spectrum of superhero books.
So I think this is a superhero book, but it’s one that is about family, life and love more than the “traditional” superhero focuses of problems that can be solved with hitting them hard.
That said, I don’t even think I need to soften it that much. Even as a normal superhero story, this still hits many of the beats – explosions, fights, intrigue and danger – that would be required. There are superheroics.
As a structure, it’s similar to Busiek’s earlier work Marvels, in that they both mould the superhero story around a much more personal story of one man’s life. The only difference is that in Secret Identity, Kent is both the normal man having his life story told and the superhero.
Insofar as a distinction can be made between “superhero book” and “book featuring superheroes which is nonetheless about something else”, I think this contains enough of the genre trappings to be the former. But obviously, it covers a much broader subject area than your traditional superhero comics do.
Then again, so does Hickman’s Fantastic Four, which again covers the nature of family, of the need to sacrifice an easy life to do the right thing, and so on; no-one would seriously suggest that Fantastic Four isn’t a superhero book though.
Since that distinction can’t be made with any real strength, however, I reject the question. This book has superheroes in it. It is a book about the a man trying to deal with unique problems while still living a normal life. Those two statements are not contradictory, and it is embracing that union that makes it so strong.