On My Shelves: Secret Identity



Clark Kent is a teenage boy living in Picketsville, Kansas, a boy who has dreams of being a writer, and a well-developed ability to endure the constant teasing – both well-meaning and malicious – that comes with being named after the secret identity of the most famous superhero of all time. For he lives in our world, or one very like it, where there are no superhuman beings, only stories of them.

But one night, while camping alone, he awakens to find himself actually floating in midair. He can fly. He has super-strength, and super-speed, and invulnerability, and heat-vision, x-ray vision…

The powers of Superman.

Clark may not be a supergenius, but he is far from stupid; while he enjoys the powers, he's cautious about them, and doesn't tell anyone at first. A thousand questions surround him – where did these powers come from? Will they go away? Why did this happen? Does anyone else have them? – and he has none of the answers.

Clark Kent also, fortunately, shares one other characteristic with his fictional counterpart: he is one of the overall most decent human beings around. Others granted such powers could easily abuse them in ways ranging from the petty to the terrifying; Clark's abuse amounts to a couple of peeks into the girl's locker room before he decides it's not only wrong, he doesn't know if X-ray vision might be dangerous. He only uproots one tree because he thinks of it as rude.

This basic morality, of course, means that he has no hope of keeping it a complete secret forever. When a flood strikes another nearby town, Clark finds himself flying above it and just in time to rescue another boy from being dragged down under the floodwaters. He tries to fly fast enough so that he can't be seen, but underestimates just how well people can see even quite fast objects; there are witnesses now, though none that could recognize him.

The rumors and one blurry photo are not enough to uncover him, but a very curious reporter – tracking other reports of his activities – eventually becomes the first person he contacts. Clark does not reveal his identity, but does talk about what he can do, what he hopes to find, and so on. However, just as he is considering revealing himself, he finds a concealed low-light camera put there by the reporter; this betrayal of trust severs any connection he might have.

At the same time, he is tired of the double life, and resolves to reveal himself publicly. But on the night he has chosen, there is a sudden set of explosions – a gas main – and he finds himself rescuing people but still concealing his identity, and at the last moment chooses not to reveal himself. He also wonders whether the explosions themselves might not have been an accident… 

Kurt Busiek is a well-known comic book writer, probably best known for his own Astro City series (note: Kindle link there is, at least for the moment, free!), his work on Marvels (a series retelling various Marvel Universe events from the point of view of non-empowered witnesses), and his work on other books such as his several-year run of The Avengers that culminated in the Kang Dynasty arc. In Secret Identity, originally a four-issue limited series, Kurt – along with illustrator Stuart Immonen – explores the question of what a real-life Clark Kent might do – and encounter – when blessed or cursed with the very powers of his alter-ego.

This is in a way not all that far from some of the questions raised by Marvels, which examined the emotional, physical, and personal consequences and perceptions of people who, rather than being superheroes, were merely bystanders, the ordinary men and women who happened to be present when beings more like unto gods clashed in their midst. Both juxtapose the familiarity of life like ours with abilities and powers utterly impossible here.


But this is a single person's story, and an exploration of what it means to become special rather than being born that way. Busiek was originally inspired by the first Superboy-Prime story, but I think this story is stronger for having no connection to the "real" DC universe. Clark lives in a world that never had superbeings of any sort, where suddenly there is one (and later more than one), and that first one echoes the very first "true" superhero in so many ways.

As Clark gets older, he both parallels, and avoids parallels, with the fictional Clark Kent. He works for the New Yorker, but not as a reporter – just a staff writer. He ends up on a blind date with "Lois" – who is just as tired as he is of the Superman jokes. This is already something of a bond between them, and they quickly develop a romance.

But romance isn't the only thing new in his life. His writing begins to draw attention… and so do his heroics, which he has continued. He quite deliberately performs these acts in a Superman costume, figuring – correctly – that even if people see him, it will make their reports sound that much more ridiculous.

Unfortunately, Clark's vague suspicions about the explosions in his hometown were well-founded. One day the organization seeking him out manages to trap him, bombarding him with carefully-selected and designed weaponry, and bringing him to a concealed laboratory. Only great good fortune allows Clark to escape with his life and secret intact – but he is now very, very frightened, especially since in his escape he saw evidence that these people might have been experimenting – lethally – on others, including children.

It is in this sequence that it's made clear that while Clark has a package of powers that are very "Supermanny", they are neither identical with, nor as strong as, those of his namesake. This really isn't a surprise; anyone writing a Superman-analogue set in the real world, or a world very like the real world, would rather have to do so. Most versions of Superman can shrug off virtually any weapon with ease; in some ways, this version of Clark goes back to the roots of the concept, who could run faster than a locomotive and "nothing short of a bursting shell could penetrate his skin". He has what is now considered the classic package of powers, but their strength – while certainly very formidable – is not nearly the nigh-infinite level that the modern conception of Superman generally has.

I really enjoyed reading this; I've had conversations with Kurt online, off and on, but this was the first piece of his work that I've owned (I knew someone who had Marvels and read it once, long ago, but I'd actually forgotten that was Kurt's work until I got Secret Identity), and the first one I've read in a long, long time. It won't be the last.

I found it amusing that some scenes in Secret Identity echo a few in my own (not yet published) superhero novel Stuff of Legend, especially the hero startling the mundane he's about to talk to by speaking from outside her not-ground-floor window. I guess some images just are too obviously cool not to use.

Ultimately, Secret Identity is a positive story, one that doesn't end on a grim, but rather on a bright and hopeful note. For anyone who loves superheroes and stories that delve into their origins, their meaning, and their effects on their worlds, this is a must-read.




Your comments or questions welcomed!