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 for a seven-issue limited series the writer bills as the antithesis of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. In Superman: American Alien, Landis aspires to tell the story of “a guy named Clark Kent from Kansas, who is an alien.” ComiConverse’s Man of Steel writer, T. Kyle King, takes a look at the latest installment.
Superman: American Alien #3 was released this week by DC Comics. Parrot pairs Landis with illustrator Joelle Jones and colorist Rico Renzi to show us Clark Kent in his early twenties. The future Superman, who has not yet established his secret identity, experiences a case of mistaken identity.
Clark, who still lives in Smallville despite having graduated from high school and been dumped by Lana Lang, wins a vacation in the Bahamas. When the plane carrying him there crashes in the Caribbean, Clark rescues the pilot and climbs aboard a passing yacht. The cruise ship is filled with drunken young partygoers celebrating the 21st birthday of Bruce Wayne. Because no one has seen the Wayne Enterprises heir for nine years, Clark is confused with Bruce.
Only free-spirited Barbara Minerva realizes Clark is not Bruce, and the two spend an enlightening afternoon and an impassioned evening together. The experience helps Clark reach important realizations about his larger place in the world just before Deathstroke attempts unsuccessfully to assassinate the apparent young Wayne. Despite being drunk off of champagne and the neurotoxin Slade Wilson has slipped him as part of a contract killing for Carmine Falcone, Kent defeats the villain and parts ways with Minerva after she declines his offer to come with him. On a distant mountaintop, Ra’s al Ghul shows trainee Bruce Wayne footage of Clark Kent adopting his identity from the yacht’s security cameras, piquing Bruce’s interest.
Superman: American Alien has shown Landis’s keen ear for descriptive dialogue. He so smoothly shows, rather than tells, that his explication appears effortless. He subtly slips in necessary details in a naturalistic manner, so no character is forced to utter a line that feels forced. For instance, we learn the crucial datum that Lana broke up with Clark because she thought he wasn’t outgoing enough by piecing together an oblique allusion by Pete Ross on the story’s second page with Clark’s drunken mumbling 14 pages later.
As in the previous two issues, Landis presents a Clark Kent who is at once entirely recognizable, completely fresh, and unwaveringly authentic. The Kryptonian’s lonely journey from his orphaned alien origins to his ultimate Manhood of Steel has never been presented in quite this quirky way, but his fits and starts along the road to true humanity and superheroism ring true. Maybe the fully formed Action Ace of, say, Cary Bates wouldn’t behave exactly in line with Landis’s portrayal, but a young Clark Kent figuring out his place in this world believably would.
Clark does not intend to deceive the guests who mistake him for the birthday boy; he keeps trying to tell everyone he isn’t who they think he is, and, when he finally succeeds in proclaiming “I’m not Bruce Wayne”, the spoiled little rich kids’ only response is: “Deep.” In their defense, though, they don’t know who Clark really is because Clark doesn’t know, either. In the course of the story, however, he starts to figure out the answer to the complex question of his fundamental identity.
Drunk on deck, Clark shouts up at the nighttime sky, “You left me behind, but I’m okay! I’m happy!” Barbara catches, but does not comprehend, the contradiction when he says his crash landing in the ocean was his first trip in a plane but confesses he once flew from Kansas to California. Minerva mistakes for metaphorical Kent’s straightforward statement that he is “on this planet for a reason,” then she answers his admission that “I am a super-weird alien” with an erroneous yet appropriate response: “It’s okay. I’m a super-weird alien, too.” Landis does a lovely job of adding his innocence and her ignorance to equal insight.
Parrot opens by throwing both the audience (figuratively) and the protagonist (literally) into the deep end: Landis begins this latest in a sequence of interconnected vignettes in medias res, as Clark brings us up to speed through his abbreviated reverie while his plane goes down. Although each issue of Superman: American Alien is a standalone story told in its own distinct tone, the writer interjects references to the two prior stories while name-dropping future mainstays of the DC Universe among the party cruisers. Yes, this requires some suspension of disbelief, but, since I signed on for a story about an alien from Kansas who wins a vacation in the Bahamas, that ship (you should excuse the expression) has sailed.
It remains a hallmark of Superman: American Alien that the imagery matches expertly with the story. Jones and Renzi depict an improbable scenario with convincing plausibility. The idea of a young Oliver Queen and Sue Dibny partying heartily on the high seas may raise an eyebrow, but the artists make it look not merely credible, but genuinely fun, especially in the full-page montage in which Clark energetically embraces the notion of pretending to be someone else. The visible attraction between Clark and Barbara crackles with electric expressiveness, and why wouldn’t he fall for an extroverted redhead while still pining away for the lost Lana?
Perhaps Landis’s roots in the movies provide the foundation for Parrot’s cinematic look. Ryan Sook’s cover shows us Clark Kent in shades, looking for all the world like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, while the bat symbol shimmers in the ocean waves behind him like the form of the Phoenix appearing in Alkali Lake at the end of X2: X-Men United. Aided by John Workman’s lettering, Jones leads us visually on a walk through drunkenness reminiscent of Paul Giamatti’s in Sideways. The ending leaves us looking at Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins.
Admittedly, Parrot is a stretch, even if you don’t think about it for very long. Unless there were some sort of merit-based system for determining a winner like writing the best essay, it’s hard to believe anyone raised in the Kent household would enter a Caribbean vacation contest that sounds suspiciously similar to gambling. From there, the future Superman making a water landing beside a Wayne Enterprises yacht on which the future Green Arrow and the future Cheetah are celebrating the birthday of the future Batman is enough of a leap to clear a tall building in a single bound.
I prefer to think of these story conceits as the hyperbolic plot points through which we arrive at a sincere and satisfying verisimilitude. Besides, since when have we treated chance encounters on cruise ships involving Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne as undue strains on credulity? After all, the twosome first met when they shared a cabin on an ocean liner in 1952, and, really, was Superman: American Alien #3 honestly a tougher sell than the notion that the Metropolis Marvel would let the Caped Crusader hog the covers?
Parrot is both fun and illuminating. Let’s leave it at that, and let’s look forward to Owl, for which the title gives us hope that there will be nods to Watchmen. Certainly, Max Landis’s track record in the first three issues of Superman: American Alien gives us confidence that the next chapter in Clark Kent’s continuing maturation will again be crafted masterfully and with veracity.
What was your reaction to Parrot? We’d love to know your thoughts, so ComiConverse with us in the comments below!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Suspend your disbelief at the dock and enjoy Max Landis’s latest delightful and insightful escapade with the young Clark Kent.