Its a Bird ..., By Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, DC Comics, 131 pp., $24.95
Superman could never survive in the real world. It simply doesn't offer him what he needs. For all his strength, all his superpowers, all his vaunted invulnerability, Superman is perhaps the most vulnerable of all modern legends. He can exist only in a world drawn in crisp, clean lines.
He could never survive in the real world because he's too perfect. And reality will not abide perfection. That's easy to comprehend. What's harder to grasp is why the real world has made such an icon of Superman in spite of his utter impossibility.
It didn't take long after the character's creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in the 1930s, an event that also marks the birth of the concept of the superhero, for Superman to become arguably the most powerful of all American myths. One needn't ever have read a Superman comic book, seen a Superman movie, or watched the 1950s Superman TV series to know and understand the character. He is part of our culture, part of our language, an easy allusion in literature, movies, and songs.
Superman is both too much and too little for the real world. He's also just that for Steve, the narrator of Steven Seagle's new semi-autobiographical novel with graphics, "It's a Bird . . ." Steve, a comic-book writer, is offered what would seem a dream job for anyone in his profession: scripting Superman comics. Only he's not so sure he likes the idea or wants the job. Steve has never cared for Superman. He can't get his head around the character's superhuman perfection, and he's certain there's nothing interesting left to say about such a figure.
Steve is also struggling with his own very human imperfection. Because of his father's disappearance and an aunt's illness, he's forced to deal with the fact that Huntington's disease, a rare, incurable, always fatal genetic disorder, runs in his family.
"It's a Bird . . ." presents Steve's problems with his family history and its effects on his psychological health, his career, and his relationship with his girlfriend alongside a meditation on Superman's place in the real world.
Through the narrative, Seagle shifts between his protagonist's personal crisis, childhood memories overshadowed by the fear and shame that his family felt about Huntington's, recollections of his earliest experiences with Superman comics, and his attempts to assess his job offer and resolve his ambivalence about it.
Artist Teddy Kristiansen's painted panels give flesh to Seagle's fragmented narrative. Kristiansen paints in a wide range of styles, generally casting real-life drama in a sort of natural-light comic-book realism, memories in simple images and muted colors, and meditations on Superman in formats that recall everything from Golden Age comic art convention to German expressionism.
In a larger sense, the book works. Seagle tells a compelling personal story, casting a very real narrator in a painfully real struggle with his family history and himself.
Steve, the narrator, is as different from Superman as a real person has to be, perfect in no regard and flawed in ways that go beyond his conscious comprehension. While Steve fixates on his potential genetic weakness, he is beset by shortcomings in his character: He's proud, snobby, aloof, unable to resolve childhood conflicts with an older brother, unable to ask for or accept help from his girlfriend, angry to the point of lashing out physically at friends. And he seems unable or unwilling to recognize such flaws.
Seagle's contemplation of Superman, however, is uneven, honestly insightful at times but too often heavy-handed. When he looks at the very impossibility of Superman, or when he contemplates the colors in Superman's costume, Seagle fares well. But when he presents a dark history of humans' relationship to power or examines the Nietzschean concept of the ubermensch (misleadingly translated as superman), he leaves the reader feeling betrayed, forced to wonder why he would opt for the obvious when he has demonstrated an ability to engage in interesting, original thought.
Seagle, who has written Superman comics, seems to have made his own peace with the character. He has found a way to integrate the impossible superhero successfully into his real life. And, with a few imperfect moments along the way, "It's a Bird . . ." provides the reader with a road map to Superman's place in one's own reality. That may not be necessary or even valuable, but by the end of the novel, it at least seems important.