When it comes to listing the best Superman stories ever written, there are a few obvious names that come up. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? All-Star Superman. For The Man Who Has Everything. Red Son. But to that list, I’d add a slightly less well-known suggestion – Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity, a comic that’s unique among “best Superman stories” in that it isn’t actually about Superman at all.
It’s an immediately, brilliantly high concept story – a Kansas-based teenager named Clark Kent, who’s grown up with all the jokes you’d expect about his name, discovers one day that he suddenly does actually have super powers. He decides to follow in the footsteps of the famous fictional character and become a superhero, dressing up in a Superman fancy dress costume – reasoning that people are far less likely to believe in his existence if the rescued are always claiming to have been saved “by Superman”. What follows are four elegantly-constructed, often moving chapters in the life of a more “real-world” superhero than just about any other interpretation you’ve seen (even in the likes of Kick-Ass and Watchmen). It’s an utterly lovely comic – with gorgeous art by Stuart Immonen in a completely different style from the one you’d see in his day-to-day Marvel work nowadays – and deserves to be far more widely read.
And as the comics and movie worlds wait with baited breath to see just how Zack Snyder’s take on Superman will turn out (I’ll be honest – I’m not optimistic) I’ll keep on with my insistence that there’s a perfect Superman story just waiting to be turned into a film – and it’s Secret Identity. It’d be a breath of fresh air for a genre that – while not exactly tired yet – is perhaps starting to reach a point where people have seen it all before. What superhero movies haven’t really done yet is a film about superheroes as cultural artefacts – and this would be the perfect starting point. The spin is a unique one – and unlike the similarly-plotted Superior (which does already have a planned movie version in the works), it would immediately resonate with the casual viewer as everbody already knows who Superman is; the meaning behind Clark’s name and subsequent superheroic career would be immediately apparent.
There’d be problems with an entirely straight adaptation of the narrative – for one thing, the story alights on Clark across four or five decades of his life, so either multiple actors would have to play him, or you could possibly get away with two (one as the teen version, and one adult) with some makeup and/or CGI jiggery-pokery. And no, I don’t have any specific ideas for casting, either – but crucially, you wouldn’t be looking for a “classic” Superman figure (so no Jon Hamm), but someone who looked a bit more everyman. Clark is an ordinary guy who happens to be able to fly and stuff, rather than an actual superheroic figure.
A charming, gripping and ultimately inspiring comic, I have no doubt that in the right hands, Secret Identity could be a charming, gripping and ultimately inspiring movie as well – and one that audiences would take to (in the process taking to Superman in a way that the public at large arguably hasn’t, really, since the Christopher Reeve days). The chances of it happening, of course, are slim – even less so with the Snyder film on the horizon – but I hold out hope that maybe next time someone’s looking to reinvent the character onscreen, it might strike them to think a bit more left-field and look into adapting Busiek’s really rather brilliant piece of work.