Superman: The Secret Years
(1985 - four issues, DC Comics)
Writer: Bob Rozakis. Pencils: Curt Swan. Inks: Kurt Schaffenberger.
Superman: The Secret Years takes place during Superman's university days -- a period previously only touched upon in comics. Readers had been treated to decades of Superman stories, and decades of Superboy stories, but given little glimpse of the transition period from "boy" to "man".
The project was conceived at a time when the regular Superman comics featured recurring back up strips. Writer Bob Rozakis had begun a few instalments of "The In-Between Years" of Clark Kent's college days when DC decided to drop those features entirely. Undaunted, he then pitched the idea of a 12-issue maxi-series. What was okayed was this considerably shrunken 4-part series.
As this was at a time when DC was already gearing up for Crisis on Infinite Earths, the story which would eliminate the very concept of Superman having started out as a Superboy, the top brass presumably liked the concept, but wanted the series short so it would be over and done with before Crisis was completed. (In addition to the ads for Crisis, another interesting novelty in these comics is an editorial referring to both the Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns -- still in their planning stages!)
A long time production manager at DC, Rozakis' writing credits tended to involve back up features and the occasional short-lived series. Probably regarded as a workmanlike writer in general, Rozakis' creative peaks include the well-regarded, humorous 'Mazing Man and, I'd argue, this -- 'cause Superman: The Secret Years is really quite good.
It might be better described as Superboy: The Secret Years, because the story is about his growth into Superman by the end. The "In-Between Years" back up feature had already produced a few instalments, so we are basically plunged into the college milieu, with already established room mates. But in most ways, the mini-series acts as a relatively self-contained series.
Sure, there are aspects that assume the reader's broader Superman knowledge, such as when childhood friend Pete Ross drops by for a couple of scenes and Rozakis doesn't bother explaining that Ross knew Clark's secret, but Clark didn't know he knew. Or a scene where reporter Perry White, when told he's in line for the editor's job at the Daily Planet, muses that it'll please his wife Alice...when in then-contemporary Superman comics, editor Perry's marriage was on the rocks partly because he put in too many long hours at the Planet. Bits like that last give the story a bit of added resonance, without being employed too often to make the comic cutesy or too self-aware.
The plotting is largely original, but Rozakis pays enough attention to established continuity to work in Clark's pre-established college-age romance with Lori Lemaris as a sub-plot.
The Secret Years explores similar themes as the later, critically acclaimed Superman for All Seasons, in that one of the underlining themes is Supes coming to grips, not with his powers, but with the limitations of his powers. And I would argue, the Secret Years is actually a better, more compelling tale than the overly pretentious Superman for All Seasons. That's because Rozakis maintains a nice, human, soap opera-y feel to the comic -- keeping it real and grounded in the characters of Clark and his roommates. Though just half the length of Superman for all Seasons, there's actually more going on, a lot more story being told -- from the, admittedly, goofy and corny (Supes lifting an entire island out of the way of a tidal wave!) to bits of gritty realism. There are some touching, even poignant moments. This doesn't tell one single plot, but various episodes, the issues not "to be continued" per se, even as threads and sub-plots carry over from issue to issue.
And when nowadays too many Superman comics can amount to no more than a twenty page fight scene, here Rozakis tells four issues full of grand deeds and super feats, married with character drama, social realism, and amusing humour -- but with a shocking minimum of violence! A lesson to modern Superman scribes that when a character has the abilities of Superman, you're actually wasting his potential if all you can think to do with him is have him slug it out with another super being.
It's also an interesting look at the pre-Crisis Superman, a character who, despite his "simplicity", actually concealed a kind of poignant core. He's a multiple orphan (having lost both his world, his birth parents and his adopted parents) whose good natured heroism hides a melancholy loneliness -- or as foe Lex Luthor snaps at him at one point in the series "we're both...outcasts of society...you just haven't realized it yet!"
The art -- appropriate for a transition tale -- is handled by Curt Swan, inked by Kurt Schaffenberger. Though both men had drawn Superman and Superboy over the years, Swan is definitely more associated with Superman, and Schaffenberger Superboy. I can't say the combination brings out the best in Swan's work, and he may even have been having trouble settling on a proper look/age for his "inbetween" protagonist, but it's still nice art, reflecting Swan's trademark low-key realism. A weakness with the art is that this was at a time when DC was experimenting with a supposedly better colour process -- but clearly a few bugs still needed to be worked out, as there are times where the colour ends up off-centre at bit.
When a character has been around as long as Superman, there's an appeal when you can come across projects which aren't really meant to carry on into future stories, so it can seem like a work onto itself, where sub-plots aren't left dangling and where the themes can be brought to fruition in the climax. As one of the last gasps of the Superman who was about to be eliminated by the Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Secret Years nicely blends the silly and the sublime, the corny and the complex.
It's worth seeking out.
Some (maybe all) of the Superman: The In-between Years stories were reprinted in issue #51 of the then publishing Superboy series, presumably to act as a prologue for this mini-series (the Superboy issue featured a cover by Frank Miller, as do the issues of this series, further suggesting it was intended as a companion piece, and might be worth collecting with this -- although the In-Between Years pieces are not on the same level of ambition as the mini-series itself).