Today, Spencer and Drew are discussing Superman: American Alien 2, originally released December 16th, 2015.
Spencer: As a rule, Superman is the last character I want to see explored in a “realistic” fashion. Superman is at his best when he’s larger than life, inspiring others by word and deed, making us believe a man can fly, not when getting bogged down by explanations of how he can fly or arguments about his inherent goodness being unrealistic. That said, there’s an exception to every rule, and I think Superman: American Alien is my exception to this rule. It helps, though, that in his exploration of a how a more down-to-Earth Clark Kent grows up to be Superman, writer Max Landis discovers that normalcy and Clark Kent just don’t mix — he transcends the reality of Smallville itself.
As Superman: American Alien 2 opens, Clark Kent is a teenager, doing what average midwestern teenagers do: drool over pretty girls and drink beer behind condemned barns. Just as he did in the script for Chronicle (one of my absolute favorite movies), Landis perfectly captures the details of teenage friendships, making the relationships between Clark and Lana or Clark, Pete, and Kenny feel familiar and lived-in despite the scant space he’s able to devote to them.
Yet, it’s clear even from this early juncture that Clark, for all his efforts, isn’t a typical human teenager. His conversation with Pete and Kenny revolves around his X-Ray vision and how good (or bad) of an alien he is, and it isn’t long before the cops pick him up, hoping he can use his alien abilities to help solve a spree of brutal murders.
The murderer is Owen, a prodigal son who returns to Smallville in order to play out a sick power fantasy with his family.
Owen’s idea that bringing drugs, crime, and murder into idyllic Smallville somehow equates to bringing the “real world” into town is exactly the kind of cynicism that drags down many writers’ “realistic” takes on Superman, but fortunately, Landis avoids this pitfall; his take on Smallville may be rustic and peaceful, but with the cursing and teenage drinking, it’s far from the kind of squeaky-clean Leave It To Beaver utopia Owen and his ilk think it to be.
Owen also feels like his presence doesn’t fit with Smallville — like he ruins its perfection just by being there — and in that respect, he serves as a dark mirror for Clark, who also seems unable to be “normal” in a place like Smallville, no matter how hard he tries. Although Clark knows where Owen is hiding, he avoids taking action at first because he just wants to be a normal human teenager, but eventually his conscience kicks in and he takes action, taking out Owen and his gang in a brutal battle — and scaring his mother half-to-death in the process.
Some of Clark’s fear is clearly implanted upon him by his parents, who just want him to be normal — but this desire is born from their wish for Clark to be safe, not from any fear of what he is or what he can do. Moreover, it doesn’t take Ma Kent long to warm up to Clark’s saving the day; it may not be a natural part of Smallville’s reality, but what Clark did saved lives, and that has immense value.
I appreciate the way Landis’ story highlights that. Clark’s situation is in no way realistic, but Landis doesn’t try to offer any explanation for his abilities, or to “normalize” them to be a more natural fit in his world — instead, Clark’s abilities are presented as strange and sometimes scary, but ultimately, as good. Likewise, the same circumstances that led Owen to lash out have instead put Clark on a path of righteousness, and I can’t help but to find that inspiring. If this otherwise average, small-town kid who sometimes feels like a monster can be so noble, what’s stopping me from doing the same? It may be the best argument I’ve ever seen for a more grounded, relatable Superman, and I can’t wait to see what Landis does with it in the next issue.
Joining Landis on art this month is Tommy Lee Edwards, whose work is a perfect fit for a story all about normalcy and the reality of a small town. Edwards’ art has a genuinely tangible quality to it, creating an environment that looks and feels real as day. He’s also able to switch up his style gracefully, presenting us with a cleaner take on Smallville one moment but then letting his inks bleed into something much messier, darker, and more horrifying when Owen and his gang enter the picture.
While Edwards’ work may be perfect tonally, though, he does occasionally have some issues with clarity. Early in the issue Clark uses his X-Ray vision to find a clue about Owen, but for the life of me I can’t make out what Clark actually sees in that panel. Is it one of those Magic Eye things? Then there’s the fight against Owen’s gang.
That second panel is another one that just absolutely confounds me. I’m not even sure who we’re looking at — is it the hostage, or his captor? What’s being done to them? It’s not even close to clear, and at least for me, it just shatters any sense of momentum or tension the scene had been building up to this point.
Drew, it’s been a while since us two have discussed Superman together, but I believe I remember you not always being the biggest fan of the character — or at least most of his stories — in the past. Does this take work better for you? Also, what are your thoughts on Clark’s brutal battle with Owen’s gang? I could look past the worst of the violence — Clark’s young, inexperienced, and scared, after all — but his yelling “you made me do that!” at a thug whose arms he’d just burnt off really rubbed me the wrong way.
Drew: That moment certainly reveals Clark to be more of a teenager than the superhero we know, but that’s exactly why this take worked so well for me. Teenagers tend to have a love-hate relationship with responsibility, which means they want it when it affords them rights or adult-like status, but fear it when it means they may be held accountable for their actions. That is, they want to be treated like an adult when that would benefit them, but like a kid when those responsibilities aren’t fun. For me, that meant wanting to earn an allowance, but not really wanting to mow the lawn or whatever; for Clark, it means wanting to help people, but not wanting to be blamed for what happens to the people he hurts. It’s a decidedly immature reaction, but it’s exactly what a teenager would do in this situation.
More importantly, I guess, is the fact that it fits with Clark’s characterization in the rest of the issue. He’s reluctant to help for the very same reasons, wishing to avoid the responsibilities that come with being a superpowered alien. It’s a master stroke, then, that the pressure to use those powers for good doesn’t come from the Kents, but from his friends. I didn’t love the “maybe being normal is more important than saving people” attitude the Kents had in Man of Steel, but I have to admit there’s some truth to it — even Superman’s parents’ aren’t going to like the idea of him putting himself in danger. Landis picks up on that notion, and while Martha’s quick conversion is a great scene, I think it’s important that the idea to intervene doesn’t come from her.
Plus, y’know, peer pressure is a powerful force for teens. I won’t go so far as to suggest whose idea those beers were, but there’s no denying that underage drinking is the go-to after-school-special example of peer pressure. For all of Clark’s powers, he’s not immune to his friends offering him a beer, or insisting that action is the right thing to do. He needed that outside push to decide to help, and he needed to decide to help to win over Ma Kent. It’s a clever way of integrating natural parental fears into the Superman mythos as we know it.
It also opens up Clark’s world a little bit. For all of the Superman origins I’ve consumed in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one where this many people knew about Clark’s powers at such a young age. This means Clark is subject to a lot more pointed suggestions about how to use or not use his powers. That may knock the Kents out of their enshrined location as the reason for Clark’s morality, but it also means Clark plays a more active role in choosing his morality. He isn’t just regurgitating what his dead parents taught him, he’s synthesizing what everyone thinks to arrive at his own opinions. It takes a village to raise a super-child.
What’s really daring about this approach, though, is that Clark unequivocally screws up here. Like, I can applaud his agency in this story all I want, but there’s no way to spin burning a dude’s arms off. That Landis is willing to let Clark make big mistakes — like teens tend to — and learn from them is brilliant. This is Clark’s version of totalling his dad’s car. The stakes are clearly much higher, but Landis takes the time to make it clear just how much everyone appreciates the gravity of what Clark has done. He’s a work in progress, but his heart is undeniably in the right place.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?