SUPER-Stars (Part 6): Kurt Busiek talks "Superman: Secret Identity"

Many fans may think the real DC Comics Superman events begin in April, with the exciting new creative teams on the core Superman books. But since January 2004, one of the most acclaimed yet seemingly under hyped Superman projects hit the stands, with the creative team of writer Kurt Busiek and artist Stuart Immonen. In Part 5 of CBR's Superman celebration, Busiek spoke with CBR News about his Superman mini-series.

"'Superman: Secret Identity' is a series about a young man named Clark Kent, who's been mocked and teased all his life for having the same name as a world-famous comic-book character, only to discover one day that he has the powers as well," explains the fan favorite writer. "The series follows him through four stages of his life -- his high school days, as a young adult dealing with romance, as an impending father and as an older man facing his twilight years -- as he deals with life and with having the secrets he has.

"Clark is the only character in all four issues, though he does meet a 'Lois' in #2, and she's pretty important to the ongoing story and to Clark."

Known for being a devoted fan of all comic book eras, Busiek says you can trace the origins of "Secret Identity" back to one of his favorite Superman stories. "On one level, the story was inspired by an issue of 'DC Comics Presents' that introduced the Superboy of Earth-Prime (DC's pre-Crisis analogue to the real world, where the familiar superheroes were just comics characters). I thought it was such a great idea -- a Superboy in a world where Superman was known worldwide as a fictional character -- and wanted to see more, but they blew up Earth-Prime in 'Crisis On Infinite Earths,' thus destroying the context that made the character so much fun. For years thereafter, I wanted to write that character, though I couldn't figure out how.

"In the last decade or so, though, I've gotten interested in superheroes as metaphor, and the idea occurred to me that if Superman can be taken as a symbol of adolescence (the weak, powerless, unattractive-to-women Clark becoming the strong, respected, attractive Superman), then how about a story that used the Superman idea to explore other stages of life? Everybody has a 'secret identity' -- their inner self that they don't necessarily share with the world, instead having various public faces -- so what stresses get put on that inner self at different stages of life? That idea combined with the 'Superboy of Earth-Prime' idea, and all of a sudden I had something. Our Clark's inner self has super-powers, but all that means is that the conflicts that arise throughout his life are louder -- but they're still at heart the same conflicts any of us go through.

"Not much of 'Secret Identity' comes from my own life, aside from very basic stuff like that I've worked in New York City, I've gone to high school, and so on. The one real nod, I guess, is that Clark has two daughters and so do I, but mine aren't twins. Still, I've dealt with the basic issues he deals with, just as most of us do -- I just don't do it while flying around under my own power."

Despite the outpouring of honest, raw emotion and creativity being funneled into "Secret Identity," this isn't Busiek's way of saying everything he has to say about Superman. "No, not remotely. If I wanted to do a thesis on Superman, I'd use Superman -- our Clark is a different character. This is more my thesis on humanity, on what we all deal with across our lives, but in a larger-than-life way."

One of the aspects of "Secret Identity" that has impressed many fans is the maturity in storytelling, the sense that this four-issue mini-series is meant to be a more grounded look at Superman. From deep scenes of intimacy to the hard-hitting themes, "Secret Identity" is a decidedly different Superman project. "It's about growing up -- becoming an adult, a spouse, a parent -- so ideas of maturity pretty much had to be in there, and the idea of intimacy issues was there right at the heart of it, right from the start," explains Busiek.

In particular, there was a scene in issue #2 that received different reactions- Clark Kent having sex with his Lois. While the act itself wasn't shown nor was there any nudity, it was a change of pace for Superman and it makes one wonder if those who see Clark as the "All American" representing classic morality (IE: no sex before marriage) will dislike a more modern spin on Clark Kent. "Real Americans have been known to have sex before marriage," comments Busiek. "Mostly, I just wrote him as a thoughtful, introspective guy -- if he wasn't introspective, he wouldn't think about the stuff he's struggling with, and we wouldn't have as much of a story. But he's not the DCU's Clark Kent, so I didn't worry about making him like the DCU Clark. It's a romance and they're adults -- it could have been written without sex, I suppose, but I didn't see any reason to avoid it.

"I'm glad [readers] liked it, though -- #2 was the breakthrough issue where it really started working, to my mind."

Though this series is a product of passion, it doesn't mean that writing "Secret Identity" was a piece of cake for Busiek. "Those damned opening scenes with the Superman images through history! That was Stuart's idea, and every issue we had to figure out not only a good image, but a way to use it to start the story, to remind us of what we needed to know and a way of using it later in the issue. Still, I think we made 'em work. Other than that, the hardest parts have been the first acts in general, setting up the story, introducing Clark at this stage of his life and reintroducing whatever needed to be reintroduced. Once the first act worked, the rest tended to go much more smoothly.

"And since we knew going in that we were going to look at four stages of Clark's life, it wasn't a problem doing it in four issues -- it's not like we found a fifth stage that we wanted to get in there but couldn't. It'd have been harder if we didn't have 48 pages per stage, but that was a part of the initial plan, too, so it worked out fine."

An important part of the series' appeal is artist Stuart Immonen, who brings a particular strength to "Secret Identity" that Busiek feels is invaluable. "I think Stuart's great strength is credibility. Not the overly-detailed 'realism' of many artists who are considered realistic, but who are actually doing cartooning with a lot of detail on top, but a physical and emotional credibility. His people look believable. Their expressions, their body language, their clothes, their hair. The settings, the backgrounds -- everything looks right, and Stuart's almost-photographic use of shadow makes it all solid. He draws everything so credibly that when one of the characters flies off into the sky under his own power, you believe it a lot more than if you were seeing it in more traditional comics art. That's a strength that made him ideal for this series, of course, considering what it's about.

"That, plus the fact that his pages are beautifully laid out, his compositions striking and bold, his panels well-composed and his storytelling superb, well -- what's not to like?"

The depth of Immonen's work has stunned some fans and even Busiek, who knew the kind of talent he was working with, happily admits to enjoying Immonen's art every time he sees it. "I'm used to Stuart's work being terrific, and I'm used to seeing stories I've written come to life through his art -- but that doesn't make it any less surprising each time it happens, because it's always new. Particularly here, where Stuart first took full control of the art for the first time, doing both line-art and color and giving it exactly the look he wanted. When he first described it, I couldn't quite picture what he meant, but it was a treat to see it on the page, to see how the restrained color works with the pencil art. And it's been a treat every issue -- even in the last batch of pages on #4, he was still finding new ways to enhance what he'd drawn through the color.

"In case it's not coming through, I think he did a fantastic job. From early on, I've been saying this is Stuart's triumph, and my job has been not to look too bad standing next to him."

If you haven't been paying attention to comics for the last few years, you might have missed the fact that Busiek is writing the hot-selling "JLA/Avengers" (or "Avengers/JLA" depending on who you ask) crossover from both DC Comics and Marvel Comics, pairing the greatest superheroes together. Superman has enjoyed his time in the spotlight, decimating an opponent some might not have expected him to beat and when asked if the Man of Steel will have some more exciting moments in the final issue, Busiek teases, "Oh, maybe a few. It's been a long haul, and I wish we'd finished up on time, but still, it'll be good to see #4 finally come out and get reader reactions to the whole story. And then we're on to the collected edition..."

While "Secret Identity" is finishing up in April, you can expect more work from DC, though it won't include Busiek's recently cancelled series. "No more 'Power Company,' at least not for the foreseeable future. But I've been talking with Dan DiDio, Mike Carlin, Joey Cavalieri and others up there, and I'd say the chances of more DC for me to be pretty solid. Plus, of course, they publish 'Astro City' and 'Arrowsmith' through Wildstorm, so I'm part of things even if I wasn't part of the DCU."

So can Superman fans look forward to more Superman work from Busiek? "That'd be nice," he admits. "No concrete plans, though we've talked about me doing some Super-stuff -- and for some reason, I've been getting ideas for Superman stories recently, from nice little one-issue tales to big honking epics that'd take years. I just jot 'em down and file them for future use..."

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