Superman: American Alien is a reminder of how great the Man of Steel can be in the hands of people who care.
Originally published 4/20/16
Despite the fact that hundreds of great stories exist about Superman, one of the worst fallacies about him is that he’s a boring character who’s hard to write because of how all-powerful and altruistic he is. All you need to do is look at the way that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman turned out—hormonally moody in the most annoyingly adolescent way—to see that Zack Snyder and the powers that be at Warner Bros believe that idea.
While there has been a persistent set of status quo ideas that aggregated around the meanings of Clark Kent’s multiple identities, Superman has always been a character who changes with the ages. He was a social justice strongman at his inception in 1938, a sci-fi father figure in the 1950s and a trustworthy TV news reporter in the 1970s. That malleability has been one of the biggest strengths of his publishing history.
Superman changes with the now, and those changes reflect how society’s conception of itself and the individuals who make it up. In older Golden Age adventures, Superman was a stand-in for the voice of authority. The biggest latter-day shift in approach to the character has made him less paternalistic and all-knowing, as seen in John Byrne’s pivotal 1986 Man of Steel miniseries, which made a point of shifting Clark Kent away from simply being a milquetoast cover identity. He remains an aspirational figure but has increasingly been characterized with more doubts, fears and regrets than in the past.
Now six issues deep, Superman: American Alien continues the tradition of a more humanized version of the Last Son of Krypton. What works best about the series—written by Max Landis and illustrated by a suite of top-shelf artists—is that it’s a series of emotional snapshots that show you how Clark is coming to grips with his extraterrestrial origins and abilities. The series started by showing readers a younger Clark who thinks he’s a freak, afraid of floating away from his parents.
American Alien concerns itself with how Clark grows up and away from the tight-knit farming community of Smallville, trying to figure out his place in a world he wasn’t born on.
So far, the series has shown him awkwardly growing up—at turns, impulsive, cocky and resolute—and has also cast him as a figure meant to be feared.
Landis’ version of Clark leans hard on the goofy bro male archetypes of the moment but retains enough altruism and vulnerability to not come off like a douchebag. Issue #3 is the best example of this, a jokey mistaken-identity romp where he pretends to be Bruce Wayne after a crash landing puts him near the billionaire’s yacht. Despite the boozy guffaws, Clark’s feelings of yearning and loneliness still resonate.
This week’s issue #6 focuses on a visit from Clark’s friends who are coming to the big city of Metropolis for the first time.
Pete Ross and Kenny Braverman know he’s Superman, and Landis spends the bulk of the issue examining how the tension of changing childhood relationships is heightened to a painful degree when you’re friends with Superman.
Landis assumes a certain amount of pre-knowledge in his audience, which lets him fold in fun references to other characters.
When American Alien started, I wondered if we needed yet another take on Superman’s origin story, especially since it was just redone as part of the 2011 New 52 reboot. But the Superman we’re getting here feels reinvigorated. He cares about people as always, but he also cares about what people think of him more than ever before. But, unlike the brooding Kryptonian dunderhead who’s shown up on the silver screen of late, this Clark Kent feels like he can rise above the controversy surrounding his very existence. Though the methods vary from decade to decade, Superman is supposed to be his best self and inspire us to do the same. In American Alien, he’s doing exactly that.