Review: Superman: American Alien hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Yet another Superman origin story is a hard sell. Fortunately DC Comics makes no claims to Superman: American Alien being in-continuity, and instead it's something of an objet d'art, as notable for the words of writer/director Max Landis as for the individual chapters depicting Clark Kent's young adulthood by a variety of DC's best artistic talents, including Francis Manapul, Jae Lee, and Jock.

The pervading question for a project like this is whether it significantly adds to the Superman mythos or offers any surprises not covered in the bevy of origins and re-tellings previous, and the answer is that it does. Landis offers some clever twists especially as relate to Clark Kent and Smallville, as well as some smart, unexpected cameos. American Alien reads like a fan tribute, at times hewing maybe too close to what we've seen before, but there's touchstones here to the John Byrne and "Death of Superman" eras that ought please fans of those runs.

[Review contains spoilers]

Without a lot of fanfare, Max Landis posits in American Alien a scenario where all of Smallville knows Clark Kent's extra-terrestrial origins and just keeps quiet about them. Pa Kent visits a friend with a crop-duster to help catch a young Clark who's learned to fly but can't land; the Smallville sheriff brings teenage Clark to a crime scene with a wink and a nod, hoping Clark can use his special abilities to catch the killer. Poignantly later on Pete Ross talks about worrying about Clark-as-Superman like having a friend in a combat zone. Though we've spent a lot of time in Smallvile (and Smallville), no writer's ever presented Clark's identity as an open secret before. Landis simultaneously solves why Clark wouldn't have to worry about school health records, etc., and also subtly speaks to the character of the kind of small Midwestern town that might produce a Superman, that they would indeed keep such a secret.

American Alien's other big selling point is the voices of the characters in the book. From Landis's first scene of Clark and Pete Ross kidding around, it's clear Landis is writing a Clark who speaks differently from any Clark I've read before, and more realistically as a child and young adult. Landis has perhaps the coolest Pete ever, and gets Pete particularly right when he later comes as a "tourist" to visit Clark in the big city. There is as well Landis's Richard Linklater-esque encounter between Clark and Barbara "Cheetah" Minerva, a pitch-perfect Lois Lane (as drawn by Manapul), and totally bang-up conversations with Oliver Queen and a pre-Robin Dick Grayson (drawn as the coolest kid ever by Jae Lee). Landis has strong ideas about Superman that he presents well, notably late in the book when Clark has to consider the superheroic life he's chosen for himself somewhat by accident.

Though American Alien is ostensibly a collection of short Clark Kent stories, it becomes slowly more connected in the third through seventh chapters, as long-story-short Clark accidentally impersonates Bruce Wayne, and later has that chance meeting with Dick Grayson. This unlocks a series of events that include a Superman/Batman fight and Superman's first costume incorporating Batman's stolen cape. I hadn't examined American Alien much before reading it and so the presence of a variety of Justice League members here surprised me; inasmuch as this is Landis imagining the growing pains of Clark Kent, Landis also gives a nod to Batman, Robin, Green Arrow, and the Green Lantern Corps, among others, such to suggest maybe he's got another "American Alien" story or two up his sleeve, a veritable "American Alien" universe.

Landis gets points for a number of nods, overt and not, to 1990s Superman facets specifically, from the perpetually-alive Martha and Jonathan Kent to the businessman Lex Luthor, Parasite Rudy Jones, Doomsday, Kenny "Conduit" Braverman, Clark's pretty serious romantic relationship with Lois, and Clark's very late Byrne-eseque learning of his Kryptonian origins. That the book's ultimate villain is the straight-from-the-'90s Lobo is icing on the cake. In the proto-Superman's conflict with Lex, Landis maybe riffs a bit too precisely on what came before, but for those of us who've missed these versions of the characters this is hardly the worst thing.

Though this is surely a slippery slope, sometimes the best indication of the prowess of an alt-history origin is how willing the author is to "go there." At the point in which Max Landis has a Clark not-quite-in-control of his powers accidentally burn the arms off someone threatening him with a gun, Superman: American Alien shows itself willing to take risks, and that's in addition to Landis's "new Jimmy" and Clark's early "cosmopolitan" relationship with Lois. I found American Alien mature and thoughtful, a clearly worthy "another word" on Superman; if J. Michael Straczynski ever finds himself done with Superman: Earth One, Max Landis would be a fine choice to pick up that mantle.

[Includes original and variant covers, issue sketches and layouts, Landis's original series pitch]
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  1. So, a worthwhile read then? I keep hearing good things about this story; based on that and on your review, I might just pick it up today.

    1. Yeah, I think so. It's an Elseworlds, essentially, so I don't think you're missing a lot by not reading it, but I did think it was clever. It's very specifically "What if Max Landis created the DC Universe" -- so, not even a story as much as one person's statement -- but it's a statement that I thought had interesting and unique things to say.

    2. I thought it was just amazing. It feels very much like a Superman that takes place in the unsavory and sometimes cynical world of modern fiction, but never strays from holding to the core tenets of what made Superman such an iconic mythological character.

  2. I've read a good number of Superman origin stories in my time. This was probably one of if not the smartest. And it can't be overstated (the big omission in this review, really) how critical all the dynamic art from a wide variety of talent is to the creative achievement of American Alien. This deserves to be spoken of, at the very least, in the same breath as Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween.

  3. After a "Why not" buy, I absolutely loved this! My favorite parts were definitely Clark as a kid, and Dick confronting Clark. Landis writes children so well. The only thing I didn't like about this is that it was a seven issue "semi-connected" story. I would have loved this just to be its own thing and see how it'll play out with more issues.