Today, Michael and Spencer are discussing Superman: American Alien 3, originally released January 13, 2016.
Michael: Here are two words for you: Max Landis. It’s likely that you have one of the two following reactions: A) “I heard that guy is a conceited ass” or B) “I have no idea who that is.” Consequently, I’d bet that Max Landis himself would say that neither of those reactions bother him all that much. Nevertheless, when it comes to Max Landis I can assure you of this: the man knows Superman.
Superman: American Alien 3 tells the kind of over-the-top coincidence story that can only occur in the realm of comic books. Clark Kent has won a trip to the Bahamas and, after his plane crashes in the ocean, he finds himself aboard Bruce Wayne’s party yacht where everyone believes that he is Bruce Wayne. Clark takes advantage of “being someone else” and cuts loose with the party people and engages in a thoughtful, intimate relationship with pre-Cheetah Barbara Minerva. Oh and Deathstroke tries to kill him at one point too.
This is less of a note about this particular issue and more of an odd personal projection, so I’ll keep it brief. The cover solicits for Superman: American Alien showed us images of young Clark Kent’s mug shot and crazy yacht-time parties. Consequently, I got this preconceived notion of this story of a modern-day rebellious youth Clark Kent stuck in my head. I think that that is an interesting concept if done right, but I keep finding myself surprised by how traditional Landis’ Clark Kent is and how viable the character still is.
Clark Kent is a simple character, which is not to say that he is a boring character. He’s simple because he has clear convictions and always tries to do the right thing. Modern comic book fans and creators alike often express a disinterest in Superman because this simplicity makes him boring. In fact, there are several times where the two-dimensional yacht partiers don’t know how to respond to Clark’s sincerity in this issue. They interpret his dated clothing as ironic and his revelation of “I’m not Bruce Wayne” as an attempt at poser philosophy. Another famous complaint about Superman is his “obvious secret identity.” Landis expertly confronts this alleged flaw by turning the onus back on us. We can’t bother to see who Clark Kent really is because we’re not really paying attention; we’re too absorbed in our own shit.
We’ve had “Dove,” “Hawk,” and now Superman: American Alien 3 is subtitled “Parrot,” as Clark is learning the benefit of “being someone else.” Barbara Minerva tells Clark it’d be easier for him to just go with it and pretend to be Bruce Wayne. “You can be yourself, even while being someone else. Hell, it might even be easier.” I’ve always subscribed to the belief that Superman is completely inseparable from his Clark Kent personality, as obvious as that may sound. The idea that Clark can still be Clark while simultaneously being someone else (Bruce Wayne or Superman) makes me give a resounding cry of joy. And let’s just think about this for a minute: Max Landis has created a world where the freaking Cheetah helped mold Clark Kent into Superman…and it completely works.
I’ve really enjoyed Superman: American Alien so far, but I was thrilled to see the chapter of the story where Clark interacts with the larger DCU around him. Landis and artist Joelle Jones interestingly insert background players like Sue Dibny (but where’s Ralph??) and Mr. Zsasz as well as Deathstroke and pre-Green Arrow Oliver Queen. OF COURSE Oliver Queen is going to be on a party yacht with the rich and clueless — it’s practically his trademark. I’m not complaining, but I’m curious as to why Landis decided Cheetah was going to be the woman that Clark finds. I suppose you could say that Barbara is the magnificent creature that is trying to hide among the less remarkable beasts that surround her.
Landis plays with that animal metaphor a bit with yet another so brilliantly obvious Superman idea: Clark wants to be a veterinarian. Yet another argument against Superman is that he is too powerful. When you look at that immense power through the veterinarian lens however, Superman is a benevolent god in all the best possible ways. Clark wants to take care of creatures that might not be able to take care of themselves and says “Natural selection’s garbage once you introduce compassion.” Clark doesn’t believe in the notion that only the strong should survive. Clark, as “the strong,” pledges himself to help “the weak” survive. I opted to not label Barbara as Clark’s “love interest,” because that phrase is very loaded and kind of reductive. I liked that no matter how enamored she was with Clark, Barbara was still very much her own person with her own future.
Clark is more intimate with Barbara than we’ve seen him with anyone else thus far in the series (Lana Lang is still a question mark as far as I’m concerned.) Without spilling the whole otherworldly truth, Barbara is the only person in this issue that he is completely honest with. As he gets more comfortable (due to Deathstroke’s neurotoxin) with Barbara, Clark starts to let more alien stuff slip but doesn’t stop to address it. Think about it: even in your most intimate of relationships there are parts of ourselves or secrets that we don’t want to share. That’s what I like about Superman: American Alien — the alien of the book is practically the most human character of all.
Man oh man, enough gushing from me. Spencer! Did you find yourself as heavily enthused with this issue as I was? How about that great moment where Clark forgave his birth parents? Did you see some Bizarro in Clark’s neurotoxin-induced haze? I didn’t get to cover the excellent Mxyzptlk meta mini at the end of the issue either, so please share your thoughts on that!
Spencer: Oh man, that one-page Mxyzptlk strip is excellent, and I’m glad you prompted me to start there. Let’s take a look at this thing in its entirety.
I don’t really feel the need to break this story down, as Landis/Mxyzptlk lay their ideas rather bare on the page as it is — I’m more interested in what it means for Superman: American Alien as a whole. Last issue’s back-up introduced us to Doomsday and seemed to be setting him up as an imminent threat — are we going to see these various villains in future issues, or is Landis just having a bit of fun with the Superman mythos? Either way, Landis also uses this story to defend the existence of Superman: American Alien and his reimagining of Clark Kent. If ideas are agency, are gods, and readers and writers are just puppets, than does that mean that Landis feels compelled to tell this story, as if it’s just using him as a puppet to make its way into the world? If Clark Kent is real because he lives in the imaginations of his billions of fans and will continue to long after we’re all gone, than writers need to keep updating him for future generations, right? Based off what I’ve seen in these past three issues, Landis certainly seems like the man for the job.
Checking in on this incarnation of Clark at various points scattered throughout his life does occasionally leave a few ideas feeling rather sparse — I still can’t quite figure out what the deal with Clark and Lana is — but it also allows us to see pivotal moments in Clark’s evolution and how they all add up (or will eventually add up) into Superman. The first two issues showed us how Clark’s wholesome Smallville upbringing helped develop within him a powerful sense of justice and a desire to help others — probably the most essential element of Superman — but that still leaves him with an awfully limited worldview. In a way, Clark needed this cruise to firmly establish his moral ideas as something that the entire world would benefit from. We can see it when Clark recoils in disgust at the ungodly excess of the $4,000 apiece gold-sprinkled caviar; he can only think of how much good he could do with that kind of money. It’s not hard to imagine this moment being one of the impetuses for Clark taking on a persona meant to inspire people to be better and help those around them.
This cruise is also what finally gets Clark over his fear of leaving Smallville.
Smallville is all Clark’s ever known, and as a nice, mild Midwestern kid, I can understand why he might be nervous to see what’s beyond. Moreover, it looks like Clark had a pretty comfortable life planned out in Smallville: keep helping the town as both superpowered Clark Kent and as a veterinarian. But this cruise widens Clark’s perspective. It shows him that there are so many more people who could use his help. It shows him that he has a lot more to learn about the world, and that those new perspectives can help him to be better in areas that are important to him. Hell, it may seem petty, but it even helps Clark to appreciate the fun to be found outside of Smallville, and all that’s exactly what Clark needed to push him further towards his destiny. In a way, the sudden influx of characters from the greater DC Universe even seems to represent the world opening up to Clark as he moves beyond the protective walls of Smallville. The world can be both exciting and scary, but it’s nothing Clark can’t handle.
I wasn’t familiar with Joelle Jones’ art before this issue, but I think it’s safe to consider myself a fan now. There’s a lot I appreciate about her staging, such as the way she chooses big, standard panels for pages like the one above that need more room to breathe, but switches to smaller panels with thick borders during scenes that rely on snappy repertoire. I think my favorite moment comes early in the issue, when Clark first makes his appearance on Bruce’s boat.
Clark’s introduced to a massive amount of new faces, all while squeezing through even more people who crowd the panel, overwhelming the reader the same way they overwhelm Clark. But standing off to the side is Barbara Minerva. She’s separate from these panels, immediately standing out as someone important we should pay attention to, and the way she overlaps with all three panels shows that she’s keeping an eye on Clark and everything that happens to him. It’s also an effective character moment for ol’ Minerva — she wants to be an archaeologist, and Clark even mentions that he feels like she studies the rest of the guests, and here she is doing just that. Barbara feels separate from the rest of the guests, like an observer, not a participant, and Jones’ art manages to convey all that in just half a page.
Then there’s Landis’ dialogue, which provides a powerful emotional anchor throughout the entire issue. The dialogue is never so “realistic” that it gets caught up in vocal fillers or repetitious phrases, yet it always feels genuine and based in character, never outlandish. Really, I suppose that’s the balance Landis brings to Superman: American Alien in general — he grounds Clark Kent in relatable human experiences, not a fantasy world, yet still allows Clark to be a compassionate, empathetic, heroic figure. If anything, seeing the man behind the “S” only makes Superman more aspirational to me. As someone who had the same initial reaction to the announcement of this series as Michael did — “oh no, ‘young rebel Superman!'” — that may be what I appreciate about this series most of all.
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