Over the last couple of decades, various postmodern salves have been applied to the battered body of superhero comics, including gritty violence, sex and drugs and political deconstructions. And now, in a semi-autobiographical tale called It's a Bird . . . (Vertigo, $24.95), Steven T. Seagle -- who has in fact scripted Superman comics and Uncanny X-Men -- writes a book about writing a book about Superman.

When his narrative alter-ego, Steve, is recruited to do a Superman story, the assignment revives childhood memories of reading his first Superman comics in a hospital where his grandmother lay dying of Huntington's chorea, its genetic implications still an unspoken family secret. The book follows Steve as he meditates on the meanings of Superman in thematic sequences interspersed with a more earthbound narrative: the writer's struggles with love, adulthood, his family's disease and his girlfriend. As his life falls apart and comes together again, he realizes that "that's what Superman is all about. To remind us that . . . we have hurdles . . . but as long as we keep jumping them . . . we're in the race."

But his attempt to examine the superhero genre is marred by some of its defects. All of his characters speak in well-worn proclamations and homilies, effectively draining the human dimension from the story. And Teddy Kristiansen's painted visuals are not the most narrative art, substituting lushly painted environments and static compositions for acute characterizations. With It's a Bird, Seagle and Kristiansen have only outlined a penetrating analysis of superheroes and the writing life. *

By Dan Nadel, who is writing a history of comics to be published in 2005.