A longtime Superman fan gives us his version of the story.
Superman: American Alien #1Publisher: DC Comics
Length: 32 Pages
Contributors: Nick Dragotta (illustrator)
Author: Max Landis
Publication Date: 2016-01
With a story as renowned and iconic as the origin of Superman, one that has been told and retold numerous times in television, movies and comics, it might seem daunting at this point for a writer to try and give his or her own, original interpretation in a way that is faithful, fresh, and relevant all at once. Yet this is exactly what Chronicle screenwriter and longtime Superman fan Max Landis seeks to do with his new comic, Superman: American Alien. Instead of simply again telling Clark Kent’s story growing up in Smallville (a story which has already had an entire television show dedicated to it), Landis has chosen to write a seven-issue series detailing seven significant moments in Clark Kent’s life. The first issue, what Landis has deemed the “sweet” issue, details an adolescent Clark in Smallville struggling with his newfound ability to fly. With this first issue, Landis has managed to write a Superman tale that, while not groundbreaking, is a pleasantly fresh, emotional, and thoughtful take on a familiar story.
The issue begins with a terrified young Clark rising into the air while his adopted mother, Martha, holds onto him for dear life. Clark’s adopted father, Jonathan, runs outside as Clark and Martha all of a sudden start to fall, thankfully landing safely in the farm’s cornfields. Back in the house, Clark sits ashamed at the kitchen table while his parents comfort him. The next day, a doctor comes to inspect Clark at the house, but finds nothing wrong with his health. He does mention to his parents, however, that Clark is emitting a strange amount of radiation. When the doctor suggests Jon and Martha take Clark to see some actual scientists, Martha responds they would never do such a thing.
“He’s still our son, right?” she asks Jon, who stares tentatively out at Clark as he boards the school bus.
From the get go, one refreshing aspect of Landis’ script is just how young Martha and Jonathan Kent are portrayed (looking to be in their early to mid thirties, at most), and therefore the depiction of their struggle as youthful new parents, much less the parents of a superpowered alien. And like any regular parents, Jon and Martha just want to keep Clark safe both from himself and the outside world, but are slowly coming to the realization they have little ability to do so. Clark’s struggles represent the perfect example of every parent’s greatest fear: the moment you’ve lost control of your child.
Just as two parents might struggle with how to restrain a growing, maturing young man or woman, Martha and Clark struggle with a frustrated young boy who has no understanding of his own abilities, or the potential harm he poses to himself and others. For the Kents, this fear has been realized particularly early, as they are realizing how they’ve never had control over Clark. As with any parents, their greatest fear stems from just how little influence they now have over their child’s safety and wellbeing, aside from the life advice, lessons, and nurturing they can provide.
Clark’s next flight fiasco occurs at a drive-in movie with his friends. The movie, cleverly enough, is E.T.. At the pivotal moment when the government comes to seize E.T., Clark begins to panic.
“Would they really do that to an alien?” Clark asks his friend, and crush, Lana. Suddenly, Clark again begins to float into the air again, only to fall just soon after. The embarrassed and terrified Clark runs to the nearest men’s room, where he punches down a mirror (and the wall behind it) in frustration.
The issue’s most memorable moments involve a conversation between Clark and Jonathan in the aftermath of Clark’s outburst.
“You can’t break things whenever you want,” says Jonathan, “that’s something a jerk does.”
“I was mad,” says Clark
“Well, here’s a tip, Clark,” replies Jonathan, “when you get mad, don’t act like a jerk.”
Clark proceeds to tell Jonathan that he’s unhappy because however much he wants to, he’s afraid to be himself.
“I just want to be normal,” he says.
“Who needs normal?” says Jonathan. “Maybe weird is better.”
Later, Clark has an epiphany about his breaking the bathroom mirror.
“I was thinking, somebody had to make it. Like, somebody at the factory took time to make it. Then somebody had to sell it to the movie theater, then somebody had to fit it to the wall, which somebody else built before them.
“When you break something, you’re not just breaking the thing, you’re like, hurting everyone who made it the way it was.”
This dialogue from Clark is the most standout, characteristic moment in the book, and a beautiful illustration of what makes Superman who he is: his empathy. Despite his abilities and origins, qualities which so often seem to isolate and distance him from humanity, these qualities allow him a level of compassion and consideration beyond what most “ordinary” people regularly consider in their thoughts and actions. This ability to sympathize, even with people he can’t see and hear directly with his powers, but simply imagine through something as commonplace as a bathroom mirror, is what makes him such a standout among heroes. With Superman's greatness, it has never just been about his powers, but how he thinks with them and what he does with them.
Jonathan tries to help Clark adjust to his flight through a variety of means, including throwing him in the air and driving him in the back of his jeep, but nothing seems to work. Finally, one night, Clark has another incident and ends up trapped in the sky. Jonathan takes extreme measures and revs up his biplane to grab Clark from the air with a hook. Jonathan misses, just tearing Clark’s shirt, but turns around to see something incredible: Clark, freely and joyfully soaring through the skies, having finally gained control, with his red shirt trailing behind him in an all-too-familiar way.
The comic ends on a heartwarming note, as the Clark who has looked so low and sullen throughout the issue is suddenly ecstatic. As he tirelessly rambles about all the things he could do with his abilities, whether flying to school or taking his parents on vacation, Jonathan and Martha sit quietly at the kitchen table, smiling. If the issue’s opening scene represented parenthood’s greatest fear, the ending depicts (what should be) one of its greatest joys: watching a child discovering his or her self, and who’s delighted at the prospect.
Superman: American Alien #1 provides a thoughtful new take on the story of Clark Kent, and does so with style and heart. Landis’ background as a screenwriter definitely shows in his story structure and imagery, such as the upside down sign of the broken men’s bathroom door resembling a falling man, or Clark seeing himself as E.T. in the mirror. Even humorous little scenes, such as a farmer who sees Jonathan running with Clark above his head and comments “goddamn hippies,” are great little cinematic moments. The art by Nick Dragotta is animated enough to capture both the gloom and joy of the issue, particularly in Clark’s face alone. With all of the updates and reboots of characters coming left and right from both DC and Marvel, this comic is a comfortable, nostalgic reminder of am immortal origin, and why it’s so powerful even to this day.