Today, Patrick and Taylor are discussing Superman: American Alien 5, originally released March 16, 2016.
Patrick: You don’t really think of Superman having a learning curve of any kind. He’s basically invincible, faster than a speeding bullet, and stronger than, like, anyone. But there’s more to being Superman than just being a perfect physical embodiment of heroism. Like anyone, Clark needs to decide what he stands for and how he stands for it. These early days of “The Black Cape” (or any of those awful names) demonstrates just how much the character needs guiding principles. Hell, one of the biggest problems publishing this character is that the guiding principles need to be compelling on their own — the action doesn’t make Action Comics, as it were. Max Landis and Francis Manapul’s supurb Superman: American Alien 5 explores the origins of those guiding principles by emphasizing the “man” over the “super.”
In fact, just about all of Superman’s heroing in this issue is brushed off as a matter of course. It’s frequently spectacular course, but course nonetheless. The issue’s big action center piece is a battle with the energy-absorbing Parasite. Usually when we see this character, it’s to give Superman a puzzle he has to think his way around: there’s no punching an energy-absorber into submission. The fight is mercifully quick and uncomplicated, characterized hilariously by these four panels.
Yeah: Superman gets slammed through a wall, and the cops thing he’s a goner, but only for a split second. And then he’s able to douse Parasite by unceremoniously plunging him into the bay. Easy peasy.
Manapul uses that WHOOSH trick several times throughout the issue (a nice nod to his tenure on The Flash), and it always has the same effect: leaving regular folks in the dust. In demonstrating one of the great strengths of Superman, Landis and Manapul are really demonstrating one of the great weaknesses of Clark Kent. He’s an alien in the most literal sense: not a part of the society that surrounds him.
Which is what makes that Lex Luthor scene so much fucking fun. Luthor points out every way Superman’s anonymity hurts whatever causes he’s able to fight so ferociously for. Luthor, by comparison, is a business man, with a name and money and a social security number and an established role in this society. That role may be “corrupt business man,” but even labeling him as such gives him more authority, more of a right to have an impact on Metropolis than Superman does. I normally loathe superhero name origins — like someone just happened to see a dude in a cape and mistake it for some kind of Bat-Man — but this American Alien rests so comfortably in Clark’s namelessness that the identity is practically begging to be expressed. Bravo Team calls him “cape guy,” Lois calls him “Skyman” (but only so she can make a joke about it). Clark assumes that being a man of action will define the character of his superhero persona for him — that’s why he makes the measured decision to do “one good deed a day.” But, as Lois warns and Luthor confirms, that’s just not enough.
That ends up being kind of tricky, and Landis isn’t too quick to hand out solutions to the Superman identity problem. When Clark breaks down as flat out asks Lois what she thinks Superman should be, she artfully puts the decision back on to him.
Sorry about the awkward editing there — I just wanted to get Clark’s desperation and Lois’ response without posting the whole page. Manapul is absolutely incredible with his use of space throughout this issue; Landis’ script has some very talky sections, but the visual storytelling is always dynamic and meaningful on top of it. Which isn’t to discount the power and fluidity of Landis’ writing either: his characters speak their convictions to the best of their abilities, which is sometimes very well and sometimes very poorly. The most charming example I can think of is Clark insisting that he is a great pile of things, and that that is something Einstein said. Lois calls him out right away, and her confidence makes that quote untrue. Like, I could look it up, but I’m sorta happier taking Lois’ word for it. Clark is, both in that moment and up until the final page of the issue, too unsure of himself to assert the veracity of his statement one way or the other.
Taylor, I loved this issue. Manapul is such an amazing fit for Landis’ insistence on Superman’s humanity. I think it’s telling that my favorite single panel in this issue is that of Clark, dressed up as his goofy superhero, eating lunch alone out of a Chinese takeout container.
That’s humanity — fragile, awkward, lonely humanity.
Taylor: The fact that Superman is all of the things you just listed, Patrick, is part of what makes this issue so much fun. Landis does such a good job of showing us how Clark is more man than super. Despite his success in defeating Parasite in this issue, it’s pretty clear that overall Clark fails, given his confrontation with Luthor. This is just such a satisfying take on Superman. Finally, Clark is being given the true heroic cycle treatment, which of course means that before he succeeds, he must fail. In short, Joseph Campbell is smiling in his grave (ok, that’s kind of spooky).
It’s not that I like seeing Clark fail, but I can’t stress how much I love the scene where Clark confronts Luthor. After finding out that Parasite was created by Luthor, Clark is quick to break through Luthor’s windows for what he envisions is will be some grand confrontation. What he gets, however, is anything but that.
Like you said, Patrick — wordy script. But, I love this first showdown between two arch rivals. We all know Superman’s skill set and the logical question is how can anyone ever stand up to him. Here, it becomes apparent exactly how an antagonist does that. Clark could so easily bash in Luthor’s brains here but he knows he can’t. He would be labeled a villain because at this point, no one knows who he is. Further, he hasn’t thought this whole thing through with bringing Parasite directly to Luthor. Luthor makes argument after argument successfully demonstrating why Clark is powerless to do anything against him. Whereas Clark has muscle, Luthor has influence and brainpower. These are, of course, the skill sets that each has always possessed in virtually every version of Superman. However, I love how there is literally nothing separating the two here except the knowledge of what would happen if Clark tries to do anything heroic. It’s a genius boss battle where no fists are thrown.
Again, this scene shows us Clark failing because that’s where he’s at on his heroic journey. He’s still on the road of trials. His final confrontation with Luthor will come later, but only after he’s learned some valuable lessons — and hopefully gotten a better costume.
That alone makes this scene excellent, but there’s more that makes it compelling. Patrick, you talked a lot about Clark’s identity as a hero, and I think that same theme is present here. All superheros have their arch-nemesis. Batman has the Joker, Spider-Man the Green Goblin and so on. Superman of course has Lex Luthor. In an issue where Clark’s identity as a hero is the theme, it seems telling that Luthor is the one to give him his name. “A Superman,” he sneers as insult to Clark. Little does Luthor know, however, that Clark will take this supposed insult and make it his actual hero alias. I don’t think this is by accident. Superheroes are very much defined by the antagonists they face and you could make the argument that without them a hero would lose much of who they are. After all, who is Batman without the Joker? By having Luthor name Superman, I think Landis is showing us that villains are just as much a part of making a superhero as the hero themself.
The theme of what type of hero Clark is continues elsewhere in the issue and is also on wonderful display in Manapul’s artwork. After a quick battle, Clark throws Parasite into the ocean to de-charge him.
After we see Clark do this in the first panel, there are three panels showing Parasite sinking. It’s only in the fifth panel that we see Clark grabbing Parasites arm to lift him back up to safety. But those three panels. What was Clark doing while Parasite sank to the bottom of the ocean? Contemplating whether to let him die or not? Forgetting that he needed to prevent Parasite from dying? I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that this is not the type of behavior mid-career Superman would engage in. He would dunk Parasite in the water but then get him out immediately. Killing isn’t in his bones. This Greenhorn version of Superman, on the other hand, isn’t quite as practiced. It takes him some time to realize what he needs to do. All of this subtly hints at a version of Superman who doesn’t quite understand who or what he is yet. All of these nuanced reminders about Clark’s development as a hero make for a comic that is at once funny, insightful, and just damn entertaining.
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