I’m not from Krypton. . .
I’m from Kansas.
I’m always nervous when a writer from another medium moves into comics for a miniseries. It’s an irrational fear, as proven by many practitioners as recently as my last blog post, but I suppose my distaste towards Identity Crisis is still potent enough to form a bias. Compound that with the fact that the author of Superman: American Alien, Max Landis, is known in part for his YouTube video that begins with “No one gives a F@#% about Superman”, along with the flippantly ambitious advertising (This is NOT a Superman comic), and you get a book I was ready to mercilessly hate on. And in any other timeline, I totally would.
Here’s the problem: this book was good. Not just good, but maybe my favorite Superman story in years.
You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly
Ok, let me back up a bit. I think I might be coming on too strong here. For context’s sake, we’ll start at the beginning: Max Landis is a Hollywood screenwriter who has written scripts for movies like Chronicle, American Ultra and Bright. He also had 15 minutes of internet fame when he created a YouTube video explaining the entire Death and Return of Superman (which I have read and can confirm was basically as messy as he explained it). Landis has been fairly open and straightforward with his views on Superman, which is good. Through him, I think the industry is able to tap into the general disconnect that the mainstream, 21st-century audience has with the Big Blue Boyscout. This series, which ran a few years ago, was not meant to be the 1001st in 1000 origin stories, but rather a series of vignettes capturing critical moments in the Man of Steel’s early life. This works to the series’ credit, giving it a “year-one” type of feel, without using the origin reboot formula that everyone is getting tired of (sorry, Earth One). While it is an out-of-continuity tale, it’s hardly an elseworld: American Alien doesn’t break the rules so much as it simply strays from the canon timeline.
Landis wanted to add a different feel to every chapter, so he lined up seven of the industry’s best artists to do one issue each. This alone was enough to catch my attention: I wasn’t familiar with three of the names on the cover, but those that I did know were enough to sell me on their own (it’s hard not to pick up a book with Jae Lee, Jock, and Francis Manapul). The art is fantastic. Even the artists I was less familiar with showed off their best stuff for their chapter and it really added to the feel. They all captured the tone of their respective stories phenomenally. Jonathan Case and Tommy Lee Edwards’ chapters couldn’t be more different in their aesthetic sensibilities, but both perfectly fit the bill for their script. It’s also clear that Landis let the artists have plenty of control over the layouts as well; from looking at Jock’s issue and Manapul’s issue, their paneling styles are exactly what we’ve come to know and expect from them. The rotating crew ensures that there’s something in this book for everyone, and none of the artists pull their punches.
For the Man Who Has Everything
This book brings lots of everything to the table. From genuine heart and unexpected laughs to dark introspection and brutal fight scenes, the world of American Alien does it’s best to show the versatility of the superhero genre. Landis is also able to dodge the pacing issues that usually plague origin stories. By taking the 7-episode approach, he of course cuts out what would normally be considered filler. But in a series where the audience already knows the ending, it’s hard to build a whole lot of external tension. Instead, we’re given a heaping identity crisis that Clark must deal with. He’s an orphan on an alien planet, a rural farm boy in a burgeoning metropolis, a brightly-colored hero in an age of darkness.
Speaking of darkness, Landis does make one big change to continuity that can’t be overlooked. It’s a very minor spoiler but if you’d rather skip it go ahead and move on to the next paragraph. About halfway through the book, Clark is confronted by Bruce in his Batsuit. After a brief scuffle, Clark ends up with a good potion of the Batsuit left in his hands and a knowledge of who is under the cowl. Clark then uses the Batsuit to create his own black militant superhero look. It was an interesting decision to have Superman inspired by Batman, instead of having them both develop in isolation or having Batman copy Supes. In this way, I suppose, Landis kind of acknowledges that the public favor in today’s media lies with Batman due to the incredible Dark Knight movies and their impact on pop culture as a whole. He takes the Dark Knight’s prowess and pulls Superman from that in a significant and fresh role-reversal.
On my World, it Means Hope
From my perspective, Batman and Superman have always been complimentary. They act as the Yin and Yang of the Justice League and play a similar role in their own team-ups, which is why I think they’re both so enduring. American Alien shows that very clearly in this same issue, as we get some wonderful dialogue between Clark and a young Dick Grayson. They talk for awhile about the need for a more hopeful counterpart to Batman, the creation of a dichotomy where Batman frightens the evil while Superman inspires the good. Likewise, Superman is built up as a good character in every sense throughout the storyline. The chapter titles are all very fitting as well, which I wouldn’t normally comment on, but even the titles contribute to the storytelling! It’s fantastic.
I can’t finish my thoughts on this book without commenting on the characters, which are both the best part and the least-best part (I don’t want to use any negative adjectives here because I gotta stress how much I loved this book). American Alien brings a whole lotta great characters from the DCU into its pages, from must-haves like Lana Lang, absurdities like Mr. Mxyzptlk, and even non-Superman villains like Deathstroke. It balances these characters so well, in fact, that they always feel welcome. However, the situations don’t always feel organic. I mean, I know there’s some willing suspension of disbelief I have to apply here, but running into Deathstroke, Cheetah, and Oliver Queen all on a cruise ship you just accidentally crashed near? Sure, I guess I’ll roll with it. We’re given little snippets of another story in the final page of each issue, which act as a compliments to the rest of the story and really add to the worldbuilding. On the villains end, we got to see Parasite, who is one of my favorites. The best part? No General Zod! I’m fine with Zod, he just gets used far too often nowadays, and Landis’s pick is so much better. I don’t even know if I want to spoil the final baddie, it’s such a great pick and not one I’ve ever seen in an origin tale. Seriously. A perfect juxtaposition to the lawful good of Superman and an amazing way to end the story.
Final Score: 9.6/10
Superman: American Alien is a breath of fresh air for a DC character that has, recently and in the past, simply been exploited for sales. They used the multiverse to sell the death of Superman to us not once, but twice. American Alien puts away most of the gimmicks (I’m still mad about the “This isn’t a Superman comic silliness) in favor of some raw, passionate storytelling. The man from Krypton has rarely felt this human.
I absolutely loved the Mxyzptlk page.
And in case I didn’t make myself clear. . .
I loved this book.