Today is Superman’s 75th birthday. (Lois Lane’s, too!) And, yes, that Man of Steel trailer is great. Count me among the people excited to see Superman fly on a movie screen again. But the buzz around Kal-El’s cinematic return is a convenient distraction from the fact that the Superman comics currently in publication aren’t that great. (Yes, I’ve loved Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics but that’s just ended.)
When longtime comics readers talk about favorite Superman stories, some storylines and moments come up over and over again. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and “For the Man Who Has Everything” by Alan Moore. Superman #300. But, for me, enough great things can’t be said about Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immomen’s Superman: Secret Identity.
True as it is, it’s become a bit of a cliché to say that Superman’s true vulnerability is in his humanity. He’s lonely. He worries about his loved ones getting hurt. He’s torn between two worlds. Secret Identity succeeds by making those emotions—except the last one, for reasons that will become obvious—come across naturalistically. In this story, a kid named Clark Kent exists in a world without superheroes, getting teased mercilessly for having the same name as an iconic fictional character. When Superman’s famous powers start to manifest in Clark, the resulting journey feels about as realistic as anything else ever managed in the character’s publishing history.
Busiek writes Secret Identity with first-person narration, making this Clark Kent more approachable. Some of the plot beats are overly familiar—the government wants to capture and/or use Superman to their own ends—but it’s Clark’s well-rendered worry that makes Secret Identity stand out. Stuart Immonen’s superlative artwork gives a lush, soft-toned look to the characters’ faces and body language, making the proceedings feel a lot less hyperbolic than other comics.
Speaking of worry, one of the reasons I like Secret Identity so much is that it homes in the psychological underpinnings of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation. Go back to those early issues of action from the late 1930s and you’ll see all the insecurity and wish fulfillment running around practically naked in those pages. Clark Kent really feels like a totally different person than Superman. There are things he can’t have and the ache—however awkward as it’s portrayed—is palpable.
And if Superman stands in for his creators in those early years, then Busiek and Immonen give Siegel and Shuster a heartfelt happy ending. Those things that Clark wants? Love? A family? A better relationship with his government handlers? He gets them. When Superman gets old and slows down, he can bask in the legacy he’s left behind. Decades of thorny litigation and shameful business practices prevented Siegel, Shuster and their heirs from sharing in the billions that the idea of Superman has generated. The creators of Secret Identity give Superman’s fathers a gracious retirement, which is something that Siegel and Shuster couldn’t really enjoy. Maybe Busiek and Immonen didn’t man for their story to be read that way but it’s an interpretation that feels fitting today. Superman’s more than just ink on paper. He’s a symbol of who we are and who we want to be. And this very special creation manages to celebrate that in an exemplary way. Let me know you favorite Superman stories below, won’t you?