The Superman stories that have always appealed to me the most are the various origin stories that have been told over the years. There is the popular opinion that Superman’s beginnings have been told too many times too often because of the repitition of it, but that repetition is precisely the reason it appeals to me. After all, a new version of the origin story is the chance to read another writer’s interpretation of the character updated for its own time, a series of contemporary variations on the same theme. The idea is that an origin story, in revealing the formation of a character’s outward presentation of themselves, subsequently reveals that character’s true self, the core of their person-hood.
This wasn’t something I began to think about until I developed an eagerness to think more deeply about storytelling – the psychology of its characters, its inspiration in classical mythology and the cultural re-appropriation of it – and that happened during my secondary school years. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that I found the most interesting parts of Superman’s origin story to be Clark Kent’s Smallville school days. I saw a lot of myself in him and was reassured by the idea that someone like him could become destined for greatness in adulthood. This was when the Smallville TV series was being shown on ITV2 at the same time as it was rerunning The Wonder Years. I was, strangely, anticipating the nostalgia I’d surely come to feel in later years for the life I had at that time.
Some years later, and here I am: a graduate. There’s no way for me to say that I’m not an adult in the proper sense of being an adult. I just am an adult. I am no longer a child in any arguable way. A long time ago, I grew up being told about midlife crises and the impending sense of time running out when one reaches 40 years of age. What no one ever told me is that all of that is already happening by the time you reach your 20s. Maybe not as much, but thinking about being 19 gives me an overwhelming existential dread. The water’s running out and I’m not doing anything. In other words, I think my adolescent obsession with a kid in a comic strip destined to become a superhero ultimately gave me unrealistic expectations for my own life. Turns out, origin stories perpetrate a myth.
Being a social outcast, I always rebelled against the culture of social media whenever I got the chance. Not against social media, just against the culture of it. I always liked to think that I could see through the facade of it all. We already know about the negative effect that Instagram and Facebook can have on the perceptions of people using them and I was aware of that from an unusually young age. But what I didn’t realise was that, in a strange way, Superman comics were doing the same thing for me. Superheroes don’t really exist so it’s pointless to compare myself to one. It was more than just enjoying the stories. It became a personal fantasy. Sure, being like Superman probably would be pretty great. People wouldn’t mess with me and I like to think that I’d be able to inspire people. But in my case it turned into a semi-sexual power dream that I couldn’t possibly achieve.
Since completing university, I’ve felt a general sense of dissatisfaction about my life. I haven’t really done anything of note or conquered the world in the way I imagined I would. This is, of course, a ridiculous thing to be worried about. My graduation was less than a year ago, what exactly am I supposed to have done in such time? Comic strips provide great amusement and exciting action-adventure stories, but in the real world, there’s no such thing as overnight success.
This is the idea that informs the themes of Kurt Busiek’s Superman: Secret Identity. Supposedly, it’s a story set in our own reality about a boy named Clark Kent actually gaining the powers of the comic book character Superman. It’s an intriguing marketing gimmick but isn’t really what the story is about – and so, after the first issue, is put on the back burner. Instead, the actual premise is much simpler: what if Superman were a human being? The existence of Superman comics in the story seems to be more a way of thematically differentiating the Superman we already know from the new approach to the character being taken here.
Being a story set in “reality”, Superman is the only fantasy element to the world and so there are no traditional super-villains to fight or great adventures to be had. With no wish fulfilment for the reader, the only story that can be told is Clark Kent’s own, human story. Of meeting and falling in love with the person he comes to call his wife, of his career as a writer, the excitement of becoming a father and the experience of raising his two daughters. During this, there is still Superman business to attend to, such as doing what he can to prove his good intentions to the government, lest they pursue him and his family. As the story develops, it becomes apparent that his super-heroic feats in protecting humanity and keeping the earth as safe as possible are all analogies for everything he’s come to be: a husband and father.
It all comes together at the very end as he’s flying as an old man with his daughters, knowing that his time will be up eventually, but also knowing that he’s left a mark on the world which is far more important than ever saving it or being revered by it: he’s brought two people into it and feels far more pride about that than anything else. The Clark Kent character, over the course of this story, lives an extraordinary life. He becomes the one person in the world to actually develop superpowers – and he does it as a teenager. He leads the most unlikely of lives, and surely reflects on this more and more as he gets older. But none of it matters compared to how he’s led his human life.
Previous panels are re-shown, depicting the key events of his life, all the way back to the day that changed his life forever when, at the age of 15, he miraculously defied gravity and would never be like anyone else again. He remembers himself as a boy trying to find his way in the world, and then – all of a sudden – I’m him. I’m in the comic. I felt a connection that I’ve never felt before; one that transcended the medium and put me right in the mind and soul of a character. Because I’m that boy, trying to find my way in the world. So was he. But his payoff didn’t come as the climax to a young man’s epic saga that would live in history. It was a long game that he could only appreciate in hindsight.
That’s what I want now. Not fame or fortune, not even admiration. I don’t hope I die before I get old. We’re instinctively driven to leave our mark on the world, but too many people interpret it as being the drive to define their generation and not live to see 30. Don’t define a generation. Create the next one, and show them how to be the best people they can be. Emotionally and spiritually, that will do infinitely more than fame or respect ever will. The adoration of millions will never compare to the love of one person.
I spent my whole young life escaping it in Superman comics. But I’m already Superman. I can already do things no other mortal is capable of. My superpowers might not be obvious, but they definitely exist. All this time I wanted to be free of my own boring existence, which paled in comparison to fiction. But I’m already a part of an epic adventure. It’s happening right now, just slowly. But in time, it will seem like no time at all.
So I’d better get going.
Superman: Secret Identity is the greatest comic book I’ve ever read.