I'll tell you straight up, I couldn't care less about Superman. I never understood him. His adventures were boring to me, because there was no sense of danger surrounding a guy who could do anything. "Oooh, that bank robber has a gun...to fight a guy with skin like steel." "Oh, look, an evil robot...with tank treads...fighting a guy who can fly."
This is the same problem that writer Steven T. Seagle faced when he was asked if he wanted to write a title starring the character. Sure, it was a good gig, but he had no connection to the mythos. He had to find a way to say "yes" to the assignment you just don't say "no" to.
The result is IT'S A BIRD..., a metafictional dissection of the most recognizable figure in comics. Seagle has created his own doppelganger, a comics writer named Steve. The big job drops in his lap at the most inopportune time -- his father has gone missing, and Steve is wrestling with his fears about Huntington's Disease, a genetic nerve disorder that runs in his family. As he sorts through all the disparate components of Superman -- his costume, his secret identity, his fascist overtones, etc. -- he weighs them against his personal problems, and both sets of troubles begin to make more sense.
Most of the time when comics are self-reflexive, they are clumsy about it. A character says, "This is just like in comics!" or the author steps into the story for no reason except to be "cute." Seagle's approach is more sophisticated. He doesn't show you where the lines are, but blends them. This isn't a story about a man in a cape, but a man with a pen and a pad with very real problems delving into the idea that literature can inform life.
IT'S A BIRD... is a painted graphic novel, and Teddy Kristiansen has given as much energy to his brushstrokes as Seagle has to his narrative tropes. The main story is presented in an abstracted style, with a color palette that employs a lot of grays and browns. Steve's world is not a bright and gaudy one where people fly. On the other hand, when we are shown Steve's visions of the different parts that make up the Kryptonian whole, Kristiansen lets each metaphor dictate his approach. The Kryptonite chapter is green, the one about the costume a dazzling array of primary colors. Only as things improve does the brightness spill over, when Steve's girlfriend paints their apartment yellow.
As we talk more and more about comics as serious literature (and have more websites devoted to the idea), it seems almost necessary that we'd have books like IT'S A BIRD... that get inside the medium and figure out why it works. I imagine, however, that they will rarely be this good.
Jamie S. Rich has edited comic books for ten years, over half of them as editor in chief at Oni Press. In 2000, he published his first novel, Cut My Hair, and is currently exploring his second. When it's done, he swears his website, confessions123.com, will make a lot more sense. In addition, he has written film and music criticism for various publications, and has worked on scripts for far more Tokyopop manga translations than he cares to count.