Superman: American Alien
Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock
Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge
Letters: John Workman
Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
The seven-issue series Superman: American Alien is the best Superman story published in the last several years. That isn’t necessarily saying much. While I hesitate to describe it as a great story, it easily surpasses the Superman comics being published within the current DC Universe, not to mention the character’s more morose onscreen version. It’s a prime example of how something competently written can work when not strapped to the tight stylistic constraints of a shared universe. Screenwriter Max Landis makes an impressive comics debut by simply making his Superman act and talk like a real person. This doesn’t sound particularly extraordinary until a cursory glance at the pages of a typical mainstream comic from DC and Marvel reveals how everyone likes to communicate in exposition-heavy dialogue.
Given his approach, American Alien is less like a superhero comic and closer to a YA television series featuring adolescents struggling with how to use their superhuman abilities, along the lines of the late Smallville. Landis treats each of the seven issues as individual vignettes - A peak into a day in the life of Clark Kent. Each day marks an important turning point: the first time Clark learns to fly, his first attempt to fight crime, the first time he leaves Smallville, his first meeting with Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, etc. It basically amounts to a retelling of Superman’s origin story. The novelty of American Alien is that it allows for an even more intimate look as the story charts the course of Clark’s life from childhood to young adult. The reader gets easily pulled into the arc of his personal growth as a hero by Landis’ sympathetic representation of youthful indiscretion.
The narrative effect is further enforced by having each issue be visually distinguished with a different artist at the helm. Needless to say, Clark never looks the same with each issue. But they’re all excellent at conveying the relatively grounded quality Landis is trying to express in the story. Actually, the story is light on testosterone-filled violence and heavy on goofy behavior as Clark bumbles his way through life, gradually getting a handle on his abilities and figuring out his place in the world. Though events give way to the fantastic in the later issues. There is one gruesome scene where Clark unintentionally burns off the arms of one bad guy with his heat vision that serves as a reminder that DC Comics is still being run by Geoff Johns. Thankfully, the effect is far less graphic than if this were a comic drawn in the usual house style. And the scene is mercifully short.
Landis avoids portraying Clark as the lonely outsider found in the DC Cinematic incarnation. He’s not the classic paragon of heroism. He’s not a nerd. And he’s not the activist fighting for the underdog Grant Morrison yearned for during the inception of the New 52. Apparently, this is a Superman for today’s youth. So he leans a little heavily on the bro archetype, and this means that sometimes he nudges close to the image of millennials as being too self-absorbed. Clark is full of good intentions. He wants to use his abilities for good, but is not quite sure what that means.
The title’s comic might suggest that Landis is interested in exploring the immigrant experience. Sadly, that’s so not the case. Clark’s got a whole host of freaky powers that make him feel different. And he’s carrying all the insecurities of an adopted child still searching for his biological parents. But he’s not coping with dual identities. He’s not traumatized by memories of the destruction of his native home. He’s not dealing with racial prejudice. In fact, he passes quite effortlessly for a caucasian Kansas-born American. In case none of this is clear, the last issue’s set piece is a knock-down-drag-out fight with Lobo. The Czarnian is the antithesis of Superman, and their fight only underscores Clark’s very American loyalties.
Ultimately, Landis’ iteration of the Superman origin story feels somewhat diminished. Clark’s altruism is still his defining character trait in an otherwise average personality. The comic’s facsimile of its American setting is largely inoffensive, even leaning towards nostalgia. Smallville and Metropolis appear somewhat generic in nature. The only person-of-color of any significance is Jimmy Olsen, and he shows up only briefly. No real-world politics intrude into the proceedings. Clark goes through a process of self-actualization, but doesn’t develop any accompanying robust sense of social justice. He’s a disconnected hero for a more self-indulgent age.