Steven T. Seagle’s It’s a bird is a comic that reflects on the figure of Superman and on the author’s life to pose a question: Do we need heroes? Through a personal story, Seagle provides the reader with a brilliant, meaningful and moving work, a cathartic experience that transforms him into the hero of his own epic.
With superb mastery and sobriety, the autobiography combines the deconstruction – a typical (but not exclusive) device of postmodern art – with traditional epic. One of the characteristics of postmodernity is the deconstruction of “meta-narratives” and myths. In It’s a bird we witness the deconstruction of, arguably, the greatest myth in comics –Superman, the symbol (among other things) of the American Spirit: “You’re as much America as jazz, baseball or comic books”(p. 41), Seagle says, and throughout the comic the validity of the superhero is challenged as the representation of the American way of life, as the personification of masculinity, of the exemplary citizen, of the immigrant who longs for the land of liberty, of “the metaphysical ideals – truth, infinity, faith…” (p. 42), etc. Superman presents himself as the self-made man, the winner, the embodiment of the American dream, and Seagle cleverly destroys it.
Within the autobiography, Seagle includes a set of short-stories that serve as reflections about the superhero and other personal issues. For instance, the one entitled “Outcast” ridicules Clark Kent’s and Metropolis’ apparent perfection. A homogeneous, almost aseptic world, with no place for people of different races, sexual orientation or with disabilities. In short, a superficial world personified by Clark Kent – the white man that “fits right in” with his “suit and tie, hat and glasses” (21) within the imposed canons of a patriarchal and conservative order. It thus subverts Clark Kent’s image as the poor clumsy alter ego to stress the governing ideology in that comics series.
Superman’s dissection is not only an attack on the American way of life but also on the superhero myth in comics. In the short story entitled “Kryptonite”, the narrator’s voice comments: “Are you a villain trying to defeat the ultimate man?; Are you a writer trying to unlock the corner you’ve written yourself into by creating a superman?; A being so mighty that the only way to defeat him is to trump up a deus ex machina that can make a god un-godly?…¡Kryptonite!…Takes the ‘Super’ out of the ‘man’ ” (37). This and other stories uncover Superman script’s weaknesses and its apparent simplicity to undermine what, arguably, is the greatest (and, for some decades, the most profitable) myth of the comics industry. The demythologization process is, moreover, a reflection on the shift from a subject matter based on the extraordinary (American superheroes genre, European adventure comics, fantasy, etc.) to another based on the ordinary, the everyday life (for instance biographies and autobiographies) in comics world.
The superhero’s demythologization and the everyday life in comics is a trend that seems to spread in most of contemporary production. For instance, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Chris Ware), opens a narrative that masterfully portrays the everyday by killing the superhero figure. First, it divests this archetype of its characteristic halo of glamour and bounty by introducing a ridiculous man disguised as Superman. He is just a bad actor that has come down in the world and who seduces Jimmy’s mother. He is both the embodiment of the hero and of the absent father for the child, but he ends up abandoning them too, as the biological father did before. The contrast between the child’s innocence and the “superhero” actor’s pragmatism, is a parody of the protective nature of this figure as a defender of the innocent and the weak, especially in the eyes of a child like little Jimmy Corrigan. In addition, a few pages later we witness how a man disguised as a superhero commits suicide throwing himself from the top of a building opposite to the offices where Jimmy works. The ironic reinterpretation that this work and others carry out not only of the superhero archetype but also of its role within the comic industry could arguably be considered as a trend that spreads among new, current works.
Thus, the market has widened to include other kinds of narratives and, consequently, of readers, who do not purchase (only) superhero stories. Seagle himself could be one of these consumers for, as he tells, as a child, he and his brother “got some kind of weird spiteful joy out of turning down the comics they offered us…We read real books instead” (7). The theme of the superhero interwoven in the author’s life in It’s a bird constitutes an interesting comment about this shift in the comics industry.
In fact, It’s a bird starts as a deconstruction and a destruction of the Superman myth, but it finally shows itself as a rescue and re-evaluation of it. Although Seagle’s autobiographical persona states repeatedly his aversion to the superhero and he provides countless instances to justify his rejection, all these arguments lead to the final recovery of the myth, to the discovery of the most important side of every traditional hero – hope. This is the feature that finally saves the protagonist (both of It’s a bird and of Superman).
As Ernst Bloch argues in his epic masterpiece The Philosophy of Hope, fairy tales, myths and popular culture all contain emancipatory moments that offer the possibility of progression and change. For him, “virtually all human beings are futuristic; they transcend their past life…and regard the inadequacy of their lot as a barrier, and not just as the way of the world”. The ‘next’ in Superman comics consists of looking to the future with enlightenment and hope. Seagle’s reading of Superman is actually a ‘Blochian’ interpretation of the hero, a philosophy of hope. From this moment, Seagle becomes the hero of his own personal epic – he overcomes his childhood trauma, his fears regarding Huntington’s disease, and he accepts the work as a writer for the Superman saga. Thus, Seagle finds a place for the superhero in his life and in the market. In this sense, It’s a bird can be considered a discourse about the superhero archetype in comics, about his role, relocation and relevance within the medium.
Bloch, Ernst. (1986). The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Seagle, S. T. and Kristiansen T. (2004). It’s a bird (New York: DC Comics).
Ware, Chris (2000) Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (New York: Pantheon).
Esther Claudio Moreno is a PhD student of English and North American literature at Complutense University, Madrid and her current thesis research deals with the reception and readership of contemporary comics. She has presented papers at international conferences such as “Marjane Satrapi’s Postmodern Feminism” (Comics Forum, Leeds, 2010), and “Jimmy Corrigan: Breaking the reader’s horizon of expectations” (Växjö, Sweden, 2009) but also on Postmodernist literature, notably at the University of Brown (USA) with a paper entitled “Metafiction as Hyperreality: A Baudrillardian approach to Robert Coover’s works”(2010). At the moment, she is preparing the First Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels at the Instituto Franklin – University of Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Spain, to be held on November 10-12, 2011. She is a founding member of The Comics Grid, a collaborative blog dedicated to comics scholarship.