T. Kyle King’s published work ranges from newspaper columns to film reviews and from short stories to law review articles. Most notably, he served as a site manager and staff writer at DawgSports.com, a daily weblog devoted to University of Georgia athletics, from 2006 to 2013, and he is the author of a book about the history of the college football rivalry between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers published by Clemson University Digital Press in 2013. Kyle is a lifelong comic book fan whose thoughts on comic books previously have appeared at ComicsVerse, Progressive Boink, and the Superman Homepage. Kyle is a Superman guy.
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Filmmaker and Eisner Award nominee Max Landis has teamed up with a variety of illustrators to pen a seven-part series the writer bills as the antithesis of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. In Superman: American Alien, Landis aspires to tell the story not of the Man of Steel, but of “a guy named Clark Kent from Kansas, who is an alien.” Our Superman writer, T. Kyle King, takes a look at the initial issue of the limited run.
Superman: American Alien #1 was released this week. The story, titled Dove, takes us back to Smallville in 1982 to encounter Clark Kent on the cusp of adolescence. The series’ opening installment was written by Landis in collaboration with graphic artist Nick Dragotta and colorist Alex Guimaraes.
The Kent family has learned that young Clark can fly, but he hasn’t yet figured out how. Frights, mishaps, and unproductive trial runs ensue for Jonathan, Martha, and their son. As Clark struggles with his typical human desire to fit in and be normal, his adoptive parents wrestle with the challenges of raising a pre-teen with extraordinary powers.
When Clark, clad in jeans and a red sweater over a blue T-shirt, floats up into the sky and can’t get back down to the ground, Jonathan enlists a neighbor’s aid. Going into the air in a crop-duster and attempting to snare Clark with a hook, the senior Kent succeeds only in ripping open the front of his son’s outer garment. Suddenly, with the tatters of his torn sweater flowing behind him like a cape, the boy figures out how to soar before crash-landing and jabbering excitedly to his parents about the boundless vistas of possibility opened by his newfound ability.
Strictly speaking, not a lot actually happens in this issue, but, by being light on action, Dove is long on nuance. By now, the basics of Superman’s origin story are ingrained in the consciousness of the country as an established element of American popular culture, and Jonathan Kent in particular has become somewhat iconic due to live-action portrayals by the likes of Glenn Ford, John Schneider, and Kevin Costner.
Consequently, Landis prudently eschews much in the way of backstory. A wordless one-page dream sequence economically recapitulates the particulars, freeing both the writer and the reader to jump right into the midst of the story. Straight out of the gate, we see Clark, awakened while flying in his sleep, drifting upward above the Kent house while Martha clings to his leg. From that point forward, we accompany three seemingly familiar characters as they react in enlightening yet thoroughly human ways to the surprising discovery of what one day will become the Man of Tomorrow’s most definitive power.
By skipping the delivery of the umpteenth rehash of the stuff everyone already knows, Landis allows himself to tell a fresh story that adds novel elements that nevertheless mesh with the canonical Clark. These are no cookie-cutter Kents; Matthew Clark’s otherwise unadorned double-page spread showing the cluttered workbench and bulletin board overflowing with old photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence, prescription bottles, and indicia of achievement appearing at the end of the issue arguably adds more depth to Jonathan and Martha than all the previous comic books published since the couple’s debut in 1939’s Superman #1. For the first time, it genuinely feels like Clark’s adoptive parents had a life before the Kryptonian crash-landed in Kansas.
Though the dialogue sometimes is spare to the point of being spartan, the lines are refined to pack a punch. “Don’t let go!” Clark begs his mother as they drift upward, “Don’t let me go!” After she adamantly insists they would never let scientists poke and prod at their son, Martha twice asks her husband, “Right, Jon?”, only to have her question tellingly go unanswered. When Clark punches a hole in the restroom of a drive-in theatre, the boy and his father have an insightful exchange on the long ride home, culminating in Jonathan’s accepting observation, “Maybe weird is better.” Clark’s subsequent empathy for the laborers whose handiwork he destroyed in anger, his joyous exuberance at mastering his strange new skill, and Martha’s awestruck “My baby can fly” all cast the central characters in a new light that reveals honest nuances.
Dragotta’s graphics and Guimaraes’s colors bring Landis’s deliberately laconic storytelling vividly to life. There is much careful craftsmanship to the panel layouts and their impact on the rhythm and tempo of events and the principal players’ reactions to them. The artwork effectively exaggerates for emphasis when Clark sees himself as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial with a spit-curl in the bathroom mirror, yet it also capably conveys emotion through understatement when portraying Martha’s changes of facial expression while her boys attempt flight in the cornfield. Through his hues, Guimaraes imbues the scenes with motion and stillness, with openness and confinement, with purity and grime, and, always, with life.
Inevitably, but forgivably, there are deviations from tradition. Some citizens of Smallville, such as the family doctor who gives Clark the once-over after he first inadvertently defies gravity and the neighbor in whom Jonathan obviously has confided concerning his son’s bizarre abilities, know about the youthful future Superman’s powers, but, then again, wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t the caring Ma Kent have insisted upon asking the town doc to make a house call in this situation? Wouldn’t the reserved Pa Kent have chosen to express his concern to a trusted neighbor rather than burdening his wife with his worries?
Although some comic book fans are conscientious critics of Landis, he has made it clear in his public comments that he cares about Superman for all the right reasons. Last week, I wrote a critical review of Justice League: The Darkseid War – Superman #1 that focused unfairly on the surrounding context rather than concentrating on the story’s individual merits. After Francis Manapul, who wrote that issue, patiently addressed readers’ concerns on social media, I publicly apologized to him on Twitter. Manapul wrote this kind reply:
@TKyleKing Thank you for taking the time to write this. No need to apologize for expressing your passion for beloved characters.
— Francis Manapul (@FrancisManapul) November 8, 2015
I may not agree with everything Max Landis thinks about the Man of Steel. Given the promised variety of Superman: American Alien, the series’ teen-plus rating, and the fact that the first issue’s Dove will be followed by the second installment’s Hawk, I’m sure there will be elements to forthcoming stories that trouble me greatly. Ultimately, though, what I want aren’t artists who necessarily share what I think about Superman; I want artists who care about the character as strongly as I always have.
We don’t need technically skilled writers who regard the first and greatest superhero as just another character who might as well be Batman without the pointy-eared cowl. We need creators who feel strongly and positively toward the Man of Steel. Superman matters to Dan Jurgens, and it shows in his work. Francis Manapul, who contributed the graphics for a future issue of Landis’s seven-part series, feels passionately for the Metropolis Marvel, and I failed to see it because my focus wasn’t where it should have been. When writers care about who Superman is, they will be more conscientious about what the Action Ace does.
Max Landis clearly cares about the Man of Steel. That core emotion came through in Dove, a simple story that stripped away unexamined assumptions and explored a serious situation with realistic characterization leavened by copious does of humor and heart. If you weren’t moved by the image of an exuberant Clark Kent figuring out how to fly as he shouted out to Jonathan and Martha from the sky while a tattered red fabric fluttered from his shoulders, well, then we just look at the world in fundamentally different ways.
Superman: American Alien #1 provided a peek at the entire Kent family that rang completely true while being genuinely original. In an era in which the Man of Steel too often runs hot and cold, Landis and Dragotta have introduced a Superman story given warmth by the creators’ obvious affection for the Kents. I know of no way to view this other than as a welcome development.
What was your reaction to Superman: American Alien #1?
Which penciller’s collaboration with Landis are you most looking forward to seeing in the series?
As always, we want you to share your thoughts in the comments and join in the ComiConversation!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Max Landis makes us care about the Kents all over again in this simple, sincere, and original story.