I’ve been looking forwards to Superman American Alien for some time now. The nature of monthly serial storytelling and the demands of the current market make it tough to do character studies. In the regular books, fans have trouble delaying gratification or having reasonable expectations, and seem to judge every scant 22-pages against cherry-picked memories spanning decades. That’s a pretty high bar to clear when the vast majority of comic books are- by definition- average or below average (or else you need to recalibrate your normalizations).
Yet, the structure and approach of American Alien allows it to mitigate these concerns. Divorced from continuity, the reader should immediately approach this with an open mind rather than preparing to drop the gavel of judgment for some continuity flub or heretical addition, subtraction, or modification. As an anthology series (which is, perhaps, one of my favorite forms of storytelling), each issue does deliver on a complete story. With different artists for each story, deadlines can be met, tone and topic can turn on a dime, and again the audience is challenged to open their mind rather than expect the same thing again and again.
They don’t have to like every artist or story equally, but the format immediately implies different approaches and angles which broadens the mind, because some comic fans and Superman fans can be fairly narrow-minded and very particular in their tastes. The approach means that even they can just pick and choose what resonates with them without having to throw out the entire anthology series. While each issue needs to relate an entire story, understanding that you’re getting vignettes allows you to skip and cut and breath more than in a standard format, which means Max Landis gets to get into character more than your typical issue.
The canonical shifting of core identity from Superman to Clark Kent Post-Crisis has always made sense to me and is, at this point, probably the more enduring interpretation of the character (with shades of nuance and variance in-between). For that reason, I’ve always loved Clark Kent and wanted to see more of him in the comics. So when Max Landis describes the series as “this is what made him Clark Kent” I’m excited, irrespective of any disagreements I may have with him on Superman otherwise. As long as he’s telling an emotionally truthful story, I don’t care if it’s “not my Superman” it’s still something that adds to the tapestry of the mythos for future fans and creators to pick and pull from.
Issue #1 is entitled “Dove” and I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not meant in the ornithological sense, beyond being a bird of flight, but more the Western symbolic tradition of doves representing love and especially peace (particularly given that the second issue is entitled “Hawk”). In that sense, this story is Clark in the peaceful womb of childhood, Smallville, and his parents’ love. It’s sweet and mostly sincere. I enjoyed it greatly and am looking forwards to the “brutal” issue two, “sexy” issue three, thoughtful issue four, and so on.
Given Regarding Clark, the comparisons between American Alien and Man of Steel are somewhat unavoidable and easy to take some parts as slights or indictments against Man of Steel, whether real or imagined, intentional or not. Nonetheless, despite the differences, I see way more similarities than Landis probably even realizes and shows these aren’t as far apart or as in conflict as some might like you to believe. Rather, there are some elements that show both storytellers looked to modernize and update their respective takes in a grounded, human, and relevant fashion.
The Importance of Flight (and Super Speed)
The power of flight is central to both stories and not to be taken for granted. Without flight, Clark’s ability to intervene and interact with the world is severely limited. However, with flight, the possibilities seem endless to 12 year old Clark in American Alien by the end of the issue and they can’t help but make Clark beam in Man of Steel. We’ve talked on show how flight was transformative and allowed Clark to be who he wanted to be, see family, avoid detection, and broaden his horizons, MOS gets to present it in a visual montage where we see him circle the globe, gain incredible speed, ally with Lois, and come home to Martha. In AA, Clark excitedly lists off all the possibilities.
As a general rule of thumb, the later in life Clark gains the power of flight (and/or super speed) the more grounded- no pun intended- the take on Superman will be. When Clark is flying around the crib, we can expect a more playful rendition. If Clark doesn’t discover flight until working as a Hollywood stuntman long after leaving the dust bowl, we’re reading the more serious It’s Superman by Tom DeHaven. Many of the traits people would like to take for granted develop in different ways depending on when Clark discovers his ability to fly. At least for the purposes of this first issue, a younger Clark suits the tone and characterization.
The joy of flight mastered is evident in both.
Out Of Control
In both stories, Clark’s inability to control his powers leaves him confused, exposed, and potentially dangerous. The same fear and lack of control is evident in being unable to command himself to land as Clark suffered in experiencing sensory overload while in class. While angry, Clark breaks a bathroom door, mirror, and wall in AA; and in MOS, Clark crushes a fence post and turns a truck into a pretzel. In both, the unintended consequences is others getting hurt, Jon cutting his foot or Clark’s teacher burning her hand. Clark is moved to tears in both because of how frightened they are.
In both, the Kents are protective and come to the rescue, even at their own expense. Mars risks life and limb climbing into the sky with Clark, Jon finds himself hanging out of a biplane. Martha rushes to school and stands defiant against Zod, while Jonathan faces a tornado and gives his life so that Clark can have a few more years of normalcy.
Flashbacks As Thoughts
Both storytellers use flashbacks as a cinematic way to inform the audience of the characters’ contemporaneous thoughts. In MOS, the flashbacks served to show what Clark was thinking, feeling, or experiencing in the present. In AA, the flashback serves to show what Jon is dreaming that evening.
Allowed to Grow Up
Both sets of Kents do not subject Clark to a battery of scientific tests and recognize that as inhuman to do so. Mars says, “We’d never [get him looked at by some real scientists], Jack. Never. He’s our son. Right, Jon?” Jonathan never goes any further than to have the Command Key tested. Both are aware of the import and consequences of involving “real scientists” into Clark’s development. Instead, both sets of Kents impress upon Clark the necessity of keeping his secret, simultaneously with the desire to allow him to grow up before seriously using his gifts. “No, duh, people would see me! I’m just kidding. But maybe I could later… when I’m older?”
Driven By Necessity
It may be easy to romantically cast Jon as more readily embracing Clark’s nature than Jonathan, but both fathers were driven by the necessity of keeping Clark’s secret. Jon didn’t explore Clark’s ability to fly until he was 12. Clark says, “I mainly happens when I’m sleeping.” That means that this has happened more than once and enough times to create a pattern for Clark to observe. That means that Jon and Mars knew Clark had ascended into the sky, terrified and uncontrolled, on multiple occasions before involving Dr. Jack. It would be unkind to call that negligent parenting considering the otherworldly circumstances without precedent, but note that even after visiting Dr. Jack, there was still no change in parenting.
It isn’t until Clark uncontrollably floats in public that Jon is forced to take a different approach. This wasn’t some kind and romantic embrace and endorsement of Clark being alien. It was a necessary approach after Jon was at the end of his rope of suppression, expert examination, and neglect. When the power manifested publicly, Jon had no other choice but to embrace Clark learning to fly. Arguably the emphasis changed from “don’t fly” to “learn to fly” but the impetus and the goal remains (learning to fly is also how not to fly). Clark flying meant preserving his secret, his safety, and all the blessings of flight. It made logical sense for Jon to push Clark to learn. However, don’t forget that even though Jon and Mars knew Clark was nigh invulnerable, they put up with Clark floating multiple times and didn’t train until Clark’s power went public. Jon did not embrace flying the moment Clark discovered he could float.
Similarly, despite people casting Jonathan as unnecessarily restricting Clark’s nature and powers, the challenges faced by Jonathan and Martha were also driven by necessity and love. Their Clark was in pain from a young age and capable of inflicting harm on others. By necessity, Jonathan and Martha had to train Clark to focus, restrain, and suppress his powers for his own sake and for those around him. In AA, if Clark gets hit by a car or accidentally floats, no one gets hurt. In MOS, a young Clark would experience the same agony that caused a war-hardened adult Zod and Faora to crumple unless he could learn to focus; if Clark didn’t restrain and suppress his powers, people could die on the other end of his heat-vision.
So Jonathan and Martha intervened and trained Clark far earlier and Clark mastered his abilities far sooner; such that he wasn’t experiencing the same uncontrolled powers at 13 that AA Clark had at 12. The danger and the necessity pushed Jonathan and Martha to be better teachers which meant Clark could live a normal childhood longer and not have the same terror or public incidents AA Clark did. In AA, Jon had every incentive to push Clark to master a known power, floating, in order to keep his secret and for all the benefits of flight. In MOS, the Kents already did that job years prior; Clark mastered his known powers and could keep his secret and keep himself and others safe from them. There was no incentive or logical necessity in pushing MOS Clark to test his limits or crazily assume he might fly. In AA, Jon knew what he’d be getting if Clark mastered flight, moreover he needed to for Clark’s safety and secret. In MOS, Jonathan would have no idea what would happen if they pushed Clark to test his limits or powers and didn’t need to.
Both stories approach the parenting from parents who love their sons but raise them differently based on need, not because of some romantic meta-narrative about embracing Clark’s identity. Neither shies away from understanding that Clark is an alien with powers but also, “You are my son.”
Pa Kent Comes Around
In AA, Jon embraces Clark’s weird and they endeavor to learn how to fly. In MOS, Jonathan accepts that Clark’s safety isn’t enough and that it’s time to try something different. Jon has a five-year head start on Jonathan because he has the benefit of certainty that Clark is invulnerable- at least enough to survive potentially getting sliced in half by an airplane at speed, getting thrown from a truck, smashing through the roof, etc.- to allow him the grace of such recklessness, especially with the gift and the prize of flight as the reward for their efforts.
Moreover, if Jon was in a universe where the Justice Society of America existed, or any public super human precursor to Superman, the pressures of being outed are entirely different from the ones Jonathan had to contemplate. However, Jonathan had the advantage of a more mature Clark. Jon was dealt a kinder hand with flight as the problem power, compared to Jonathan having to deal with Clark’s sensory overload and heat-vision. Again, the differences in parenting are the plausible and reasoned product of their situation, not simply some arbitrary character choice.
Clark Is Transparent With His Parents
Accordingly, his parents are caring, not arbitrary or capricious, and for that reason Clark can understand their point of view and share how he feels, even when he doesn’t agree or even when he’s at his worst. Both Man of Steel and American Alien present the kind of parents Clark can run to and show that he’s afraid and hurting; or confess to, that he’s unhappy or angry; or disagree with, wanting to be himself and being frustrated with safe. This transparency means he can forge relationships with others in his adult life.
Letting Others In
Speaking of transparency, both stories show people being let in on the secret. As important and critical the secret is, it isn’t preserved at the expense of Clark’s well-being. Jon and Mars trust Dr. Jack and pilot Ben. Even after Clark’s bus rescue, Jonathan kept the family in Smallville rather than disappearing in the middle of the night, because despite the consequences, he felt his family could trust their neighbors not to turn Clark in. Accordingly, Clark trusts Lois and Martha doesn’t blink when she comes to the farm calling his name.
“Why am I so different from them?” Clark sees an Extra Terrestrial looking back at him in his reflection. Both fear being rejected for their alien nature and experience some isolation from that secret.
Caught In Class
Both Clarks are caught not paying attention in class.
Children of the 80s
In MOSAIC 15, the impact of popular culture and E.T. on Jonathan and Clark’s upbringing was discussed. In AA, it gets illustrated.
Hint of Something With Lana
Both give us only the most subtle of hints of something more with Lana at this early stage.
Others Explain The Situation
Both have others providing their own explanations for the extraordinary things being witnessed. Rather than ascribe them to Clark, it’s a pocket of gas or a divine act.
Knowing He’s In Trouble
Both Clarks are in tune with their parents’ values and discipline, and therefore know they’re in trouble even before their dad tells them they are.
Breaking Stuff While Mad
Both Clarks break stuff while mad. While one may immediately rush to judge the 33-year-old’s temper tantrum more harshly than the 12-year-old’s outburst, consider that whatever 12-year-old Clark lacked in terms of maturity and impulse control was more than made up by daily experiencing his parents’ love and guidance in a peaceful childhood home. 33-year-old Clark is 16 years removed from Jonathan’s guidance and he’s suffered under two-decades of unfulfilled promises which is a mite more frustration than 12-year-old Clark ever had to deal with. In both cases, Clark’s action occur outside the influence of his parents.
The single clumsiest part of AA is Clark believing that collateral damage hurts “everyone who made it the way it was.” Which isn’t true in fact or metaphorically, but I’m willing to chalk it up diegetically as Clark’s 12-year-old naivety and Landis attempting- but failing- to say something profound. It’s easy to overlook for now and we’ll see if we get a call-back to it diegetically; or whether Landis is trying to say something more symbolic; or if it just gets dropped entirely.
Both feature young Clark wearing something that with hearken to his eventual costume.
Both have intricate details which hint at elaborate backstories and timelines which do not ultimately end up in the film or the story, but show the care and consideration of the storyteller. It depends on your personal disposition but, to me, “The Castaways”- which is a single page of documents, memories, scraps, and the like, scripted by Landis- is worth the price of this issue alone. Sifting through the memories of Jon and Mars presents an entire life condensed into a single page. These are colorful people and lives well-lived, who I want to get to know better just from this voyeuristic peek. The power of implication and imagination makes this richer and greater than the sum of these trivial details, which, to me, was very much the philosophy behind Man of Steel, where so much demanded your attention and imagination rather than explicit explanation and exposition.