Superman: Secret Identity
Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen, 2004

Joss Whedon, 2009–

I read Secret Identity a month ago, and didn't much like it, but couldn't figure out how to articulate why I didn't like it. I think over the past few days I've finally doped it out, and the first episode of Dollhouse crystallized it for me.

Secret Identity was written by Kurt Busiek, whose work tends to really frustrate me: the underlying concepts are generally great, but the execution tends to be bland and clunky. This one is no exception though the premise is a little meta. The premise of the Superman comics is that mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent from rural Kansas is actually an alien with fantastic powers who flies around fighting supervillains and saving people from catastrophes. The premise of Secret Identity is that here in the real world, in which Superman is a comic book character, there is a guy in Kansas whose parents, David and Laura Kent, have an addled sense of humor and thought it would be funny to name him Clark. And so he grows up with the school bullies stealing his backpack crowing, "Whatcha got here, Superboy? Luthor's secret plans? Har har har!" and so forth. The twist is that in high school he discovers that he actually does have Superman's powers.

So what happens next? Nothing interesting. He soon learns that he can't go public because society wouldn't be able to handle it and the government would attempt to capture him and experiment on him. But he can't just let disasters happen while he sits at home, so he does his Superman stuff on the sly, wearing a Superman outfit so that people who claim to have been saved by Superman will be dismissed as loonies. He moves to the big city, writes a thinly disguised version of A Pattern Language, marries a woman named Lois Chaudhary, has twin daughters. And the whole exercise reminded me of something.

Back in the 90s I did a MSTing of a story called "New Year's Eve" which was about the spirits of dead people hanging out on a big sheet of graph paper and complaining that nothing was happening. To pass the time they tell the stories of their lives, and watch other lives unfold through a mystical campfire, and eventually the protagonist has an epiphany: that beneath the surface differences, all these lives are basically the same. You grow up in the city of $CITY_NAME, and go to $UNIVERSITY_NAME where you meet your dear friends $FRIEND_1, $FRIEND_2, and $FRIEND_3 before getting a job as an $OCCUPATION and settling down with $SPOUSE, etc. And indeed the characters all seem to have been created along these lines — I called it "the flip-flip-point method."

Most of the characters in Secret Identity, I recently realized, seem to have been created via the flip-flip-point method. Clark's wife is of (flip flip point) Indian ancestry, and they have (roll die) two daughters, one of whom lives in (flip flip point) Boston going to (flip flip point) med school while the other is interested in (flip flip point) photography, etc. The characterization of Clark Kent himself is not much better. It isn't flip-flip-point, but it does seem to be the sort of left-brained, outside-in, "what would a guy with this background do in this situation" type of writing that I've never been especially comfortable with. This is a big reason why I'm so pathetically slow (aside from the fact that I interrupt chapters to write about comic books): I generally don't feel comfortable writing characters until they've had a chance to gestate, to grow organically into fully realized people.

But gestation implies an initial fusion of genetic material...

I had a hell of a time getting a handle on one of the main characters in the screenplay I worked on in '07-'08, and she continued to elude me even in the first few chapters of the novel version I've been working on since, until I scrapped the "what would someone with her background do" approach in favor of doing what I did with Ready, Okay! — stick together folks I knew and let the resulting chimeras evolve into new people. This character, for instance, I restarted with a combination of a fair amount of me-at-18, an awful lot of someone I knew in high school, and a not inconsequential percentage of my mother; I implanted her in the environment of the novel and she grew over the course of a few weeks into her own person, someone I now feel perfectly comfortable writing in just about any situation.

And so I was very interested when, having just come to the realization that the apparent genesis of the characters was the main thing that rubbed me the wrong way about Secret Identity — and that I could now write about it — I watched the first episode of Dollhouse, a TV show about a secret facility where people have their personalities erased and replaced by exactly these sorts of amalgams. It's way too early to say whether the show will be any good, but as a commentary on the creation of fictional characters, it's certainly off to a promising start.

Return to the Calendar page!