Deconstructing the Deconstructions:

Hyper Drama and Realism in Superman: Secret Identity

Part of the essence of the superhero genre lies in hyperbole; by this I mean to say that in a superhero “story” (here referring to the output of Marvel, DC and they many succors and imitators) everything in the story world is taken to nth degree: the obvious would be the superficial, surface notes – the overtly colorful costumes, the on-the-nose names[1], the clear moral divide… But I am referring to the components of drama.

Think of that classic “first-they-fight-than-they-team-up” plot device: Two (or more) do-gooders meet, have a misunderstanding, proceed to have a super powered slugfest[2] over it before teaming up and going after the true threat of the day. This is a plot device that still happens even when the two characters ALREADY know each other – how many times have Wolverine and Cyclopes fought? Consider – the entirety of the Marvel Universe between the Civil War and Heroic Age events was basically this: two sides disagreeing on an issue and punching one another[3] while actual supervillains run around before, rather arbitrarily, kissing and making up.

This is just one symptom – in superhero comics everything is always presented in its most extreme case: people don’t talk, they shout; they don’t stand, they pose; they don’t have family issues, they have long-lost brothers / fathers / evil uncles. Everything is LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME. This isn’t a the simple “drama” of day-to-day interactions, this is Hyper-Drama – when every single facet of life is overblown.

Now, understand, I am not faulting the genre for this. Hyper-charged drama is in the nature of these characters. If you have two colorful looking individuals disagreeing, I don’t want to see them talk about it – for that, I have real life and political talk-shows – I want to see them punching each other because it is much more visually exciting, because I understand that the punch is simply a metaphor for a well made argument and because if you have, say, Bryan Hitch drawing something then stuff better blow up or I’ll want my money back. You can have a “quite story” every once in awhile, a flow-breaker, and these tend to get very good reviews by people who seem to miss the fact that they appear so good because they surrounded by explosions all around them. A whole string of quiet-character-drama would go from “innovative” to “boring” pretty swiftly – if no other reason than because the reader can get this type of story in most other mediums.

The result of this classic superhero storytelling conditioning is the rise of the deconstructionist superhero. This type of story (spearheaded by Watchmen) often showcases, supposedly, the “real life” consequences of superheroes. What would the existence of gods-amongst-men look like? Well, if you went out and bought Watchmen, Marvelman, The Authority, No Hero, The Ultimates, Black Summer, The Boys, Squadron Supreme etc… you would often get the same answer – things would be very bleak. Aside from how boring reading the same idea over and over (though the individual comics tend to be good) I never get the feeling of realism from any of them.

Mostly because to me, as a person in the real world, realism is identified as being low-key; and these stories, all of them, have the exact same hyper-dramatism of their less-sophisticated brethren. Watchmen (which, again, is one of the greatest comics ever written) starts of with the subtle effects of superhumans and vigilantes on society but quickly progress to an apocalyptic showdown, with THE FATE OF THE WORLD HANGING IN THE BALANCE. There are fights, hidden conspiracies and a giant squid made from genetic engineering. Realism?

Even Kick Ass, the self proclaimed first and only truly realist superhero tale, gives just a few short glances into how someone in the real world would do as a superhero before introducing the ten year old girl that cut clean through a grown man’s head with her sword and survive a hail of gunfire simply by wearing a bullet proof vest[4]. The reason the film of Kick Ass was superior was that it dropped all pretensions of realism (not to mention Millar’s autopilot cynicism) for some sweet pop violence.

All these stories offer the idea of realism, but they never go farther. It is because they are stories that they are committed to the hysterisicm of drama. But not Superman: Secret Identity; which is what made this story so hard to read for me. In this deconstruction of deconstructionist stories, a young boy in the “real world” is born to a couple called the Kents; because they have a (bad) sense of humor, they call their boy Clark, thus making him forever the subject of all the lame puns and all the obvious jokes kids can think of. And then, one day, Clark discovers he can fly…

The lack of regular-story drama is found in the character of young Clark: while other writers would have surely use the set up to give us an extreme psychological wreck, a person tormented by the demons of mockery and impossible expectations set by his name, but Busiek gives a regular boy. His Clark is not the least popular boy in school, nor is he the most popular; he is not a jock, or a nerd or any other ready-made category. He has personality (the overtly serious, somewhat out of place, dreaming-of-something better that is Busiek’s trademark[5]), but is not one you buy from stereotype teen store at the discount fiction shelf.

When he discovers his power(s) he does what most of us would do – he utilizes them excitedly (flying through the air for fun, saving people at super speed when he can) but he also keeps them a secret, weary of being a lab rat. And when the US government discovers his existence and tries to hunt him down, there is nothing malevolent about it – it’s just people in suits and uniforms doing their job, not even in a banality-of-evil sort of way – from their point of view, the guy with the super powers is terrifying in being and implication.

After they first capture Clark and he escapes, I assumed that this is when the “story” going to kick to high gear – that I’m going to see “Superman” vs. the government but no: Clark is angry, sure, but he is not stupid / crazy enough to start a war over a bad incident (especially when he can understand the motives behind it). Indeed, by the middle of the story Clark and Agent in charge over his “capture” even reach a sort of understanding (I help you every once in a while, you keep of my back).

This keeps throughout the story – there is the constant feeling of “shit’s about to go down” only for it to dissipate because none of the characters is bound by the rules of drama. There’s an old saying in Israel, “don’t be right, be smart,” which this comics exemplifies completely: Clark doesn’t do the things the reader wants him to do (lash out in exciting action scene, brood and navel gaze) but what would be right for him as a person (and not as a component in a story); I don’t see myself acting any differently than him in those exact circumstances.

In this, Superman: Secret Identity is truly the most “realistic” super hero story of them all: not because it presents something they could, technically / scientifically, occur in reality but because the way the characters act make sense[6]. In a way, Superman: Secret Identity is the final word in the debate over “superheroes in the real world” type stories: it shows us the end result of our desire to maturity in storytelling – the story without the drama[7].

… now can we please have some more guys in capes punch stuff?


[1] Not only the various aliases that the super-people choose themselves (or have it bestow upon them by the public), but often their regular birth names already have within them the seeds of their future

[2] And remember – while the reader knows that nothing bad will come of it to either of the good characters, as far these people are concerned they are in a deadly struggle with a person that can punch through walls/ shoot lasers / kill stuff with their mind.

[3] There was a short streach of time during which every comics I’ve read seemed to contain some other hero beating / berating / beating AND berating Iron Man post-Civil War – it got real dull really fast.

[4] Seriously – I am not some expert on modern warfare but even I know the bullet proof vests aren’t actually 100% “proof”, and that even if you survived the kinetic charge of the impact would probably leave a small girl with some broken bones. Realism requires research, and I doubt Millar had done his.

[5] See also – Fletcher from Arrowsmith, Alter Boy in Astro City: Confessions, Alejandro from Shockrockets

[6] At the same time I’d like to make a point that although this is novel and interesting it is not necessarily something I would like to see more of. There is a reason Superhero stories don’t have everybody act like sensible human beings – because it would be boring as hell.

[7] OK – the story without the BIG, world ending, drama – but since superheroes are often a lateralization of metaphors (The Hulk is repressed rage, Superman is idealism etc…) heaving their stories contend with small-time-life-affairs seems… wasteful, is probably the best word for it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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