How do you solve a problem like Clark Kent? That’s the question that DC have been asking themselves for quite some time. Sometime happened after the New 52, Barry Allen must have messed up somewhere because something got lost in the multiverse when he was putting it back together. Somewhere along the way, writers seemed to lose sight of the character’s optimism and the hope that Superman is meant to inspire. Gone was the moral epicenter of the DC universe we knew and loved, in his a place a darker character, incapable of inspiring those around him. Remember, this is a character who had an entire story-line created as a critical response to the 90’s trend of creating edgier and darker characters. “What’s so funny about truth, justice and the American way?” was so beloved that they even made into an animated movie and yet the publishers seem to have forgotten the lesson it taught us. Despite a list of solid writers behind him, and an occasional noteworthy story-line like Superman: Unchained, the Man of Steel has been unable to find his feet in this new universe. The reason d’etre of DC’s latest limited-series; Superman: American Alien is to examine the man behind the myth and answer that age old question; just who is Clark Kent? If the pitch sounds familiar, it’s because Smallville ran for 10 seasons on a similar premise as did the original Man of Steel mini-series and Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright. This isn’t a Superman series per se, but rather a story about an ordinary man burdened with godlike power and how that eventually manifests itself.
Centered around Clark Kent’s first foray into professional journalism as he competes with Lois Lane for a job at the Daily Planet, our protagonist encounters a number of billionaires certain to have an impact on his destiny. This issue isn’t as standalone as those that came before, relying on your knowledge of the events of the third issue to provide context for much of the events and character development. The illustrious Lex Luthor is compared to Ayn Rand at one point in the issue as and its easy to see why. This Lex is sees himself as the John Galt of his age, the true “Man of Tomorrow” gifted with the ability to change the world. Lex has always been a narcissist, but something seems off with his characterisation. Lex may not need people to like, but there has always been that devilish charm to him that seems absent here. It is ironic that he laments the rise of pseudo-intellectuals, but his own political philosophy is equally susceptible to such claims. However, his tirades are classic Lex and his interaction with Clark, while brief, something that are quite reminiscent of Smallville.
Landis’ excels at the quite moments that reveal Clark’s wholesome background, his social anxiety and his inherently clumsiness. They are subtle, they are cringe-worthy, but they are essential to the character. Those traits are what make him endearing, ensuring Clark is more than just a Herculean figure in blue tights. He is a man, taken for all in all. The age-old story of the country boy moving to the big city and trials and tribulations that result is not lost on us. Superman is what he can do, but Clark is who he is.
We also get a unique take on Clark’s call to action, the moment that he decides to become symbol of hope. It’s certainly interesting to view Batman as an inspiration for Superman, with Clark accepting that there must be light to counteract the dark in this ever increasingly bleak world. Indeed, the theme of the issue is the quintessential question of how to become a greater version of yourself. Is it through making up for past sins? Taking a non-traditional approach to reporting? Or is it in creating an identity that allows you to be an agent for change? Each of these characters are searching for agency and paths to meaningful actualisation, providing Clark with the context he needs to forge his own path. Its a remarkably personal read and one that gives a deeper insight into the character than we have seen in a long time.
Much like the anthology series it takes inspiration from, Superman: American Alien featuring a rotating panel of artists. This isn’t Jae Lee’s first time working with these characters. Indeed, his time on Batman/Superman shines in the ease in which he falls back into drawing these characters. The interiors are stylistically rough around the edges as if coming straight from a sketchbook. The backgrounds are indicative of a location becoming a character in themselves. As we closely begin to see more and more of Metropolis, it becomes almost like a modern re-imagining of Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoons and its stunning. Design-wise things are quite interesting, we are finally introduced to Lex who seems to be closely modeled off Michael Rosenbaum’s iconic take on the character. Meanwhile, the Dark Knight makes his first full-appearance in a costume reminiscent of the original, crude design featured in his debut appearance from Detective Comics #27. This take on the Caped Crusader is a refreshing change to the militaristic designs of the New 52 and one that fits into the raw world that Landis and his collaborators have been weaving over the last four issues.
When I compare this series to Smallville, understand that is one of the highest compliments I can give a Superman story. Superman: American Alien is a beautifully composed piece of literature that highlights the fragile humanity of Clark Kent and informs us as to the man behind the shield. This is a return to form for both the Man of Steel and Max Landis. Indeed, in returning to first principles, Landis and Lee have finally managed to rediscover what makes Superman compelling on a fundamental level. It ranks up there with A Superman for All Seasons in terms of stories that truly speak to the heart of a character and act as a testament to their longevity. Let’s hope that it’s up, up and away from here.