It’s A Bird
DC Comics / Vertigo Comics
Writer: Steven Seagle
Art: Teddy Kristiansen
FC, 136 pgs, $24.95 US / Higher in Canada
Despite his status as the most famous comic book hero of all time, Superman has never been easy for me to relate to. He’s too powerful, too perfect, too…alien. It seems I’m not alone –- even Superman’s writers can’t seem to come to terms with him. Such is the premise of It’s A Bird, a graphic novel memoir from Steven Seagle and DC’s Vertigo. Partly an autobiography and partly a dissection of comics’ most recognizable icon, the story follows Seagle’s trials and tribulations as he struggles to understand the last son of Krypton, and himself in the process.
“Steve” has just been offered an assignment of a lifetime – the chance to write for an ongoing Superman title. Unfortunately, he can’t get past the inherent absurdity of the character, and tries everything in his power to turn it down. How can he come up with believable stories about an unbelievable concept? Compounding the problem, the writer’s personal life is in shambles. His father has gone missing, he’s at odds with his girlfriend and, above all, a fatal genetic disease may be looming on his inherited horizon. It’s not easy to write the adventures of an invulnerable superhero when your own mortality is made painfully self-evident.
The story unfolds like a one-man play as Seagle takes the reader on a guided tour of his life. His story is told from both first- and third-person perspectives; he interacts with the people and places around him, yet pauses to narrate directly to his audience. Picture an angst-ridden Ferris Bueller and you’ll get the idea. We are given an intimate look into his personal and professional life, his triumphs and his hardships, his loves and his fears — all with an underlying balance of sentiment and wit. It’s an impressive piece of work, frequently resonating on an emotional level when it could have spiraled into an over-dramatic vanity project.
This isn’t to say the book doesn’t have its problems. First and foremost, Steve’s selfish whining eventually gets tiresome. For every moment of genuine sympathy he earns, there’s another where you’ll want to bitchslap him. The man has been given an opportunity for which others in his field can only dream, yet he spends most of the book sulking and treating his loved ones like garbage. It’s like watching a spoiled little boy complain about the color of his new pony, and it doesn’t help that Steve looks like a pretentious coffee shop intellectual. For the most part, his character comes across just as “snide and mean-spirited” as the modern superheroes he criticizes. Maybe he’s aiming for irony there, but it makes him harder to root for, despite the horrific obstacles he faces.
The dialogue is also a little stiff at times, creating manufactured moments that take away from the more sincere and emotional elements. The relationship with his smart-alecky girlfriend is particularly annoying, right down to, “Who are you, and what have you done with my boyfriend?” If these two are like this in real life, then they deserve each other.
My only other complaint is this is vaguely familiar territory. Can you think of a high-concept movie where the main character has writer’s block, and ends up weaving himself into the story, using the assignment as inspiration? If you said Adaptation, you win a cookie. If you said Big Trouble in Little China, go sit in the corner.
Still, the pros outweigh the cons, and we’re left with a touching, frightening and ultimately hopeful story. Outside of the primary story arc, the book really shines when it focuses on Superman himself. Within the story, Seagle breaks up his incessant moping with brilliant 2-3 page mini-comics, each breaking down a different aspect of The Man of Steel’s strengths and weaknesses. One by one, Seagle exposes the flaws in the Superman mythos – his origin, his costume, his powers…everything. These things are poetry – absolutely amazing. Poignant, heartfelt, and extremely well thought-out, they do an excellent job of breaking up the story, giving readers something to look forward to around every turn. More importantly, they show us how important comic book characters can be, how they affect our lives and how they symbolize everything right and wrong within ourselves.
Teddy Kristiansen’s artwork provides the ideal aesthetic for the story. Pencils are simple and abstract, with soft, washed-out watercolors giving the images depth and detail. The result sets a melancholy mood, complimentary to Seagle’s brooding and the result is really quite striking. Some panels belong on a museum wall, while others simply serve to move the story along. Furthermore, Kristiansen isn’t afraid to experiment, altering his technique depending on the setting or mood of the story. But like Seagle, the Superman-themed “mini-comics” are his crowning achievement here. Each one is completely distinct in style and tone and all are a pleasure to look at. They’ll blow your friggin’ mind. Man.
The real question is, should you pick this book up? In my opinion, the unique perspectives on Superman are worth the cover price alone. Beyond that, once you look past its flaws, It’s A Bird is a touching blend of a writer’s past, present and fiction, one I’ll certainly read again. (Dave Brennan)