Written by: Max Landis
Art by: Francis Manapul
Publisher: DC Comics
So far, Max Landis has crafted one of my favourite Superman stories in years with American Alien. It’s been fun, touching, uplifting and presented one of the best depictions of Clark Kent I’ve ever read. In this issue, Landis takes all the questions raised by Man of Steel and shows exactly why “grim dark” was the wrong way to answer those questions. He shows a young Clark Kent taking his first steps as Superman as not someone racked with guilt or deeply brooding his place in the world, but as positive, daring and even a bit naive. In short, Max Landis has shown Zack Snyder exactly how Clark Kent should be done.
As stated, this issue marks the beginning of Clark’s career as a public supehero, complete with a scrapped together costume (including a stolen Batman cape). Unlike other portrayals however, there is no Henry V style divine intervention, with Clark suddenly turning into Superman, instead the character we’ve grown to rediscover and love is still very much the one leading the action. There’s often a strong divide between Clark and Superman, but Landis demonstrates what the fans have always known, there is only ever Clark. One of my favourite moments comes from Clark having lunch on a rooftop, with his costume on, when a worker comes and sees him, only for Clark to ask if he’s allowed to be there. It’s a small moment, but it’s so endearing and perfectly summarizes Clark for me; sure he’s all powerful, but he’s also humble and would never want to step out of line or cause anyone inconvenience, even over something so trivial. Landis has perfectly shown the human side of Clark with great depth and subtlety, it’s the little actions that make Clark and Superman who he is, not the massive public saving the day stuff.
On the other side of the spectrum, Landis also shows some of the finest understanding on Lex Luthor I’ve seen. He was one of the stand out moments of issue 4, and I’m glad to see him return. He always feels ten steps ahead of everyone else in the room, and his cold authoritative presence contrasts perfectly with the naive Clark, who nevertheless has his heart in the right place. They feel perfectly matched against each other, with their relationship here being one of the most effective I’ve seen. The ending especially gets a huge fist bump, demonstrating some of the more impulsive yet still true to the character layers Landis has added to Clark, making this adaption feel distinctly his, while being 100% in character.
Towards the end of the issue, things get a little more heavy handed as Lois and Clark have an open discussion about what Superman means to people and how effective we can be, as stated in the intro, it’s similar questions to those raised in Man of Steel. While this would normally be a problem, Landis has earned the right to openly discuss such questions due to his perfect understanding of what Superman means, and the answers he gives should speak true to any true Superman fan. It shows how questioning the morals and actions of Superman can still be relevant in storytelling, without having to completely destroy everything the character stands for, or trying to reinvent him for the modern age. Those at Warner Bros. take not; this is how you make Superman a relevant and complex figure, while still staying true to his character. If Landis is not giving more Superman work further down the line then there is no justice in the world.
While I’ve focused a lot on the writing, it should be said that the work of Francis Manapul makes this the most beautiful issue of the series yet. I’ve loved his work for years, particularly on his and Buccaletto’s Flash run, but his art works perfectly for Clark and his universe. His soft style captures the gentle, affectionate nature of the character, and the design of his proto-superman costume should feel overly edgy and silly, yet Manapul pulls it off perfectly. I also want to mention the last page again, as damn is it ever good, and Mananpul makes it look absolutely awesome, so much so that when I put the book down I knew this was the perfect issue.
When I first reviewed this series I said it was pretty great, but needed to do more to set it itself apart. Over the last few issues, Landis has done just that. American Alien should be used as a benchmark upon which modern Superman stories are written. Landis has shown that Clark Kent isn’t just a “big blue boyscout” or a “boring overpowered character”, he’s a layered, complex, fascinating individual who will always see the best in people and try to do what’s right. Even if his methods are naive, he’ll always strive to succeed and not let it get him down. American Alien is the perfect Superman story, Landis may even have succeeded in his claim to make this “All-Star Clark Kent”, because in my opinion, this series is up there with All-Star Superman in terms of quality.