Define ‘definitive’.

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.

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.