Today, Michael and Ryan M. are discussing Superman: American Alien 6, originally released April 26, 2016.
Michael: It’s incredibly difficult for me to not let my opinions on the current DC film adaptations spill over into my Superman-related write-ups. Likewise, it’s difficult for me to write about Superman: American Alien and not repeat myself month after month by saying that Max Landis has proven that you can make Superman relatable without compromising the core of the character. What I’m getting at is that unlike Henry Cavill’s Superman, Superman: American Alien 6 demonstrates that you can actually tell a worthwhile story where Superman just happens to be…kind of an asshole.
Pete Ross and Kenny Braverman take a trip to Metropolis to meet up with their old Smallville pal Clark in his new big city home. Clark gives his friends a taste of his life in Metropolis: choice eats, swanky photography art displays and of course the city’s unabashed love for their new hero Superman. The crux of the issue comes down to an argument between Pete and Clark. Pete accuses Clark of not understanding the scope of what Superman means for the world at large, and that Clark has turned into an egotistical jackass who is too concerned with making his unknown birth parents proud. Clark flies off enraged, proving to himself/his friends that he can fly to the moon. Just as he starts to suffocate in space, he’s rescued by Green Lanterns Abin Sur and Tomar-Re who give Clark one important word: “Krypton.”
Superman: American Alien 6 is a very talky comic; as is this series overall. While some readers might disagree I don’t have a problem with talky comics – especially when they are talking about important ideas the way that this series has been. This whole issue is a conversation on what Superman should be as a symbol and how Clark’s perception of that symbol is just important as the general public’s.
This is the first issue of the series where we see Superman as we have traditionally known him – as Metroplis’ favorite adopted son. Notably however this issue is visibly devoid of Superman in costume; barring Jonathan Case’s Superman street art in the opening pages. My take is that Case doesn’t depict Superman in action as a reflection of the Pete/Clark argument: Superman is nowhere to be seen because he doesn’t actually stand for anything.
I really don’t want to call the Clark Kent of American Alien “the millenial Superman” (because that makes me want to vomit) but I think in this issue in particular he’s pretty reflective of the culture of 2016. Clark’s narcissism and self-obsession are totally in line with our social media-based lives. You can post something about the environment on Facebook, but what are YOU actually gonna do about it? Pete similarly criticizes Clark for being short-sighted as far as his Super-solutions are concerned. Not that Superman hasn’t done any good for the city/world but Pete is asking him “what more could you do?” Clark’s gotten complacent in his self-indulgence, so that’s a question he probably hasn’t considered.
On a more grounded level, I found the story angle of “reconnecting with old friends” to be all too real. Clark realizes that he completely missed Kenny’s multiple communications announcing his engagement, excusing the oversight because he’s “been busy.” As we grow older we often lose touch with old friends – maybe because we’re busy, or maybe because we’re too self-important. I think there’s a perfect storm of big city ego, superiority complex and Mommy/Daddy issues at play in Landis’ characterization of Clark that we can all relate to. And while I may have extremely characterized Clark as being “an asshole” he’s not unreasonable or unrelatable. Clark’s narcissism isn’t over-the-top, it’s just an extreme confidence/belief in himself. But in the context of Pete’s criticisms, that confidence might come off a little abrasive and presumptive.
Quick segue to yet another medium of superhero storytelling: The Flash on CW. Initially I wrote off The Flash for a couple reasons, one of which was The Flash’s rag-tag “team of nerds” – the scientists who help him solve crimes and strengthen his powers. The need for every superhero to have their own IT team irritated me, but American Alien‘s Pete Ross makes me appreciate that type of “civilian sidekick” role. Clark has been using his powers with the best of intentions as Superman; but he is still just one man with one mind, one heart and one will. Pete provides his friend with an outsider’s perspective on how Clark needs to prepare for the bigger and badder things that will inevitably come his way. In that way Pete reminds me of Cisco on The Flash, Randy from Scream or any character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: it’s like he’s omniscient fanboy whose comic book reading has finally paid off.
Ok her are last thoughts that struck me but I didn’t really get to cover. With his alternative haristyle, manic facial expressions and desire to create a narrative with his work, Jimmy Olsen is Max Landis. I love the idea that the Green Lantern Corps has to clear a planet for “annexation” – like how Starfleet deliberates to make first contact in Star Trek. I like how Pete labels Clark and Lois’ open relationship as “cosmopolitan.”
Ryan! How did Superman: American Alien 6 find you? Did you find Jonathan Case’s art to reflect the pop art style of Jimmy Olsen’s showcase? Do you think I was too easy/harsh on Clark in my assessment of his narcissism? Do you think that in this issue, Landis has presented us with a Clark Kent that is almost as much of a presence as Superman himself?
Ryan: Landis’ Clark is quite a presence and I didn’t miss Superman in this issue. Clark and his growing conflict with Pete made for enough of a compelling story that an appearance of the cape could only be a deflation. Michael, I think your take on Clark Kent as kind of an asshole is right on. There’s an arrogance that comes with talent and a belief in your own hype is dangerous. That’s why it’s so good to have old friends. Pete does not let Clark get away with anything and that’s just what Clark needs right now.
The small moment above illustrates that dynamic. After Clark delivers one of the worst slurs of a snobby urbanite by dropping the “tourist” bomb, Pete doesn’t take it to heart. Instead, he mocks Clark and both diffuses any tension and lets Clark know that he’s being a bit of a jerk. Case’s art in that final panel reinforces the comfort among the crew. For the first time in the issue, Clark looks genuine, all traces of his smirking smugness gone.
Landis uses Jimmy’s art show worked to draw some clear contrasts between the characters. The most clearly textual contrast was between Clark and his Smallville friends, their discomfort evident. On a more thematic level, Jimmy’s self-consciousness about his art is very different from Clark’s attitude about his work as Superman. He chooses not to think about the meaning of his role as hero. Jimmy expresses honest regret that the work that he’s put out in the world may send the wrong message whereas Clark doesn’t want to see how Superman has an importance beyond himself. In his argument with Pete later in the issue, Clark reduces Superman to a hobby that enables Clark to help people and publicize his whereabouts to other aliens. Little does he know that he’s already on the radar of at least one non-human.
It’s no wonder that after a issue of mounting aggressions with Pete, that Clark would try and escape. He tries to fly to the moon, even though he explained to Kenny earlier in quantitative terms why he couldn’t make it. After a issue full of an arrogance and self-satisfaction, Clark is made intensely vulnerable in a series of panels.
Case transitions Clark from full speed determination to a distant speck in the fetal position. Case uses reds and yellows to show how explosive and traumatic Clark’s exit through the atmosphere is. There is a mania to Clark’s red face as he chokes on the lack of air and then we shift to a tiny fading body against the vastness of space. The following page further strips away whatever confidence Clark was displaying as he becomes truly desperate to know more about his planet. It’s a powerful character turn, especially as we haven’t seen Clark so open about what he wants.
For an issue that was so full of conflict, it’s nice that the issue ends with a confirmation of Clark’s friendship with Pete. Though, really, if you have a friend who finds you naked on the roof, brings you inside, dresses you and puts you to bed, don’t let them go. Clark needs Pete to keep him grounded, but Superman may need to look outside himself to reach his potential.
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