The Secret Identities anthology is just the sort of ambitious project that the comic book industry and the audience should be embracing. The endeavor of creating a shared universe out of thin air within the confines of a single graphic novel takes chutzpah, and the creators involved in the project have it in spades. To do so under a unifying theme exploring some of the darkest aspects of American history without giving over to overwhelming despair takes skill. Does Secret Identities succeed on all these different levels? No. But it comes damn close, and it is a worthy start for what could be a truly memorable long term project.
There is plenty to like in this anthology. Greg Pak and Bernard Chang’s “The Citizen” and Gene Yang and Sonny Lieu’s “Blue Scorpion and Chung” are two of the standout tales which demonstrate the range of stories which can be portrayed within the superhero genre. Secret Identities provides its creators the opportunity to present action, comedy, and drama stories.
The handling of the history of Asian Americans in the United States varies between creators, but it is overwhelmingly honest. This does lead to the darkness that permeates most of the book, and in some stories it fits well. There is, after all, nothing light and cheery about Japanese American internment. The problem here is not the darkness, or the ham fisted nature of some of the stories as they stand on their own, bur rather the cumulative effect on the reader. The theme of otherness is beaten on so repeatedly that it runs the risk of numbing the reader to its importance.
This is, perhaps, simply the nature of anthologies. Each creator is attempting to contribute to the conversation and there ends up being a lot more repetition. Perhaps a single voice would have been more effective in judging and handling the theme. And there is much to be developed here, the idea of Asian Americans having more of a “secret identity” as presented in the introduction lacks development, giving way instead to well meaning but repetitive attempts to highlight the unique place of Asian Americans in US society.
The attempt to create a shared, interconnected superhero universe, while valiant, could have been more coherent. The connections are tenuous and often confusing, and this is acknowledged by the flow chart provided to clarify where each character and story fits in relation to the others. A more cohesive endeavor by a smaller group of creators might have yielded better results in that respect, but it might have come at the cost of the diversity of story provided by the this anthology’s format.
The creators behind Secret Identities are to be commended for their ambition, and the excellent work put forth by most of them. The anthology is worth the cover price simply for one of the least publicized appearances by Barack Obama in recent publication, and certainly the most hilarious. The anthology presents the basis for a rich new shared universe. It may be flawed, but great comics have come from much humbler origins.