Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It’s a Bird… owes its title to the classic exclamation of Superman spotters everywhere (“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”), and on one hand is a dissection of the author’s relationship with the iconic hero. Seagle was given creative control of the character, and this loosely autobiographic graphic novel chronicles his struggle to understand the true appeal behind a character often considered boring despite his fame. Seagle uses Superman to explore what draws people to comics, and in a wider sense, how they use art to cope with personal and social issues.
Comics are often seen as a form of escapism, and Seagle uses various two-page stories about Superman to discuss what sorts of things people escape from and the efficacy of superheroes in actually bringing comfort to those who escape to their brightly colored pages. In one story, Seagle discusses teenage bullying and how the illusion of importance imparted by the dawning of the Superman suit on Halloween is fleeting and honestly, kind of silly. He also uses Superman to explore the idea of otherness: although Superman is thought of as a Boy Scout and the ideal American hero, he is an alien, the last of his kind, an exile who can never return to his true home.
The comic is an incredibly personal work for Seagle. It is loosely autobiographical, and his exploration of Superman is accompanied by his own personal dealings with Huntington’s disease. It’s a Bird… discusses the incredible power of fiction to help people deal with tragedy, and Kristiansen is unafraid to graphically represent a debilitating medical condition. Author and writer use reoccurring flashbacks and the “S” motif (both the first letter of Superman and the last letter of Huntington’s) to peel back the social stigma associated with illness and reveal society’s attempts to hide and disempower ill people.
It’s a Bird… goes on to confront social problems that exist in the world at large that are subtly reinforced in the world of superheroes. The story from which the above panel comes explores the lives of the unsung workers of The Daily Planet, the news agency at which Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, works. These people belong to marginalized social groups — racial and religious minorities, gays, disabled people, and so on. Seagle draws our attention to their conspicuous absence from comics from the media in general. He mentions at one point that the comic industry is small and people know each other, so he is also bringing attention to the dearth of these groups in the creative teams behinds mainstream comics. DC recently came under fire for the demographic make up of their creative teams for the new reboots — they’ve gone from four female creators out of 78 to two out of 107, and many comics continue to reinforce negative body image stereotypes about women while suffering from a severe absence of minority characters (the Batman universe’s Amanda Waller recently went from an imposing, heavily set woman to a thin pixie with large breasts and wide hips). It’s a Bird… does not negate the prevalence of inadvertent stereotyping in comics and the media at large, but it does bring issues of discrimination into the light while remaining a gorgeous, enjoyable read.