Trading Up: It's a bird ...

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Trading up revisits 2004 when Superman got handled by superstar writer Steven T Seagle - mostly known for his Vertigo projects - and Denmark artist Teddy Kristiansen, a fine art painter with his own idiosyncratic view on life who first met Superman in Superman of Fredsbomben (Superman and the Peace Bomb), the first non-American officially licensed Superman album.

Admit it, I had you at Superman of Fredsbomben? Right? But be warned, this story doesn't feature Superman in the flesh. It's a bird ... tells the story of Steve, a comic writer specialising in the 'real world'-angle. While living through a particularly bad period in his life concerning a disappeared father and the family's secret called Huntington's disease, he gets offered the job of writing the Superman comics. But how can he deal with such a power fantasy when all he wants is for the real world to just straighten itself out?

It's a semi-autobiographical tale of when Seagle got hired to write the Superman books, fumbling along because he just can't seem to find the right angle to approach the content of an alien Übermensch living among mortals. And at the same time he struggles with his feelings on the matter of being handed one of the most enduring icons of our cultural history and dealing with Huntington's disease - a genetic disorder - in his family. As the main character himself notes in the story: 'There are two things your average comic writer wants to hear in his career: Can I have your autograph? and We want you to work on Superman.'

I got to say that Seagle sure has come up with a great way of telling the story. His protagonist continuously breaks the fourth wall while having an internal monologue going on on the page, he intersperses all this with flashbacks and has the protagonist take 'notes' about his various thought processes concerning the Man of Steel. I mean, come on, that almost sounds like cheating! Why before you know it the thought balloon is back! But Seagle, scriptwriter, novelist and veteran writer of the House of Vertigo pulls it off fluidly.

Seagle also makes the right choice in his approach to the content. He very superficially skips the origins of Superman and the comics market because, you see, this is Vertigo land and Vertigo deals in the real world, fanboy. He firmly places Superman in a mythical context, in a philosophical context, examines his relation to legends and Greek and Roman myth, the psychology of the mask (uhm ... glasses) and even analyses the color scheme. This can also be called 'making the artists' life hell'. Kristiansen renders each approach in a different style, a process that led to a 'making of' of almost two years. The effort shows though and it really enforces the point Seagle lets his characters make.

Kristiansen deservedly won an Eisner for his painted art in this book. He keeps his regular open style reserved for the real world scenes, encapsulating them in heavy black borders. He thereby grounds the reality and gives weight to the real world events. For the flashbacks he opens up his line work even more and drops the panel borders, giving reference to a more innocent style when possibilities were endless and new horizons always beckoned. Then he takes a good look at all the vignettes Seagle has assembled for Steve's Superman musings and approaches them each with a different style. And then he went mad.

'The outsider' is a great tale of how both masks of Kal-El feature him being super, the cape as a super man, the glasses as a everyday man without the baggage of being f.e. poor, black or Jewish; it is illustrated in an innocent 1940s style. 'Kryptonite' looks at the existence of this material as the ultimate Deus ex Machina. The chapter 'Red, yellow, blue' takes on the different cultural meanings of colours, injected into his costume; nicely punctuated by a static image of Superman while his costume changes colours. And did you know that 'El' is a Hebrew name? A suffix meaning 'ascension' or 'god'? The book is filled to the brim with great little tales, firmly ensuring Superman's place as a relevant, contemporary icon.

It's a bird ... is a book that has a deeply personal story to tell. It is straight from the heart of its creators and it is a touching tale of self-acceptance and not being able to live in a vacuum. Living in a world, we are part of relationships and processes we can't control, at most accept. And maybe that is what Steven T Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen want to convey. We are all heroes with our own weaknesses and our own kryptonite. But it's always worth the fight.

It's a bird ... is published by  Vertigo and retails for $ 17.99 You can read a good interview with Steven T Seagle  right here where he talks in depth about his autobiographical take and how exactly those Superman comics he eventually wrote turned out. For more of Teddy Kristiansen you can check  his blog with (admittedly) sporadic posting.


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