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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Superman: American Alien, the seven-issue limited run authored by filmmaker Max Landis, continued this week with the release of the series’ fourth installment. ComiConverse’s Superman correspondent, T. Kyle King, is here with a review of the newest issue in the story of “a guy named Clark Kent from Kansas, who is an alien.”
In this issue, illustrator Jae Lee joined writer Max Landis for Owl, which traces Clark Kent’s journey through a series of illuminating encounters as a newcomer to the big city, but does Superman: American Alien #4 live up to the high standard of the previous three issues? (Spoilers follow!)
Clark Kent has arrived in Metropolis as one of the journalism students admitted to the Daily Planet’s prestigious Charlton Memorial Laureate Program. Along with such other Charlton recipients as Lois Lane, Kent covers the opening of the Cerberus Summit, a meeting of three young corporate titans: Lexcorp’s Alexander Luthor, Queen Consolidated’s Oliver Queen, and Wayne Industries’ Bruce Wayne.
Thanks to the previous issue’s case of mistaken identity, Queen confuses Kent with Wayne, paving the way for a succession of exclusive interviews with Oliver Queen, Lex Luthor, and Bruce’s ward, Dick Grayson. The last of these attracts the attention of Batman, whose attack on Clark goes awry, revealing each man’s secret identity to the other. Wayne manages to escape, leaving his cape and cowl in Kent’s custody. The rookie Daily Planet reporter begins developing some big ideas while listening to a voice mail message from Lois proposing that they work with one another as a team.
Superman: American Alien #4 features each of the three attributes that have hallmarked the series so far: Landis’s keen ear for how people speak, a distinctive artistic signature that matches the graphics with the mood of the story, and a fresh, revealing look at a familiar aspect of the venerable legend.
Lee’s illustrations purposely have an unfinished look to them, visually demonstrating that this Clark Kent is, at this stage in his life, a work in progress. Complemented by the muted brightness of June Chung’s colors, Lee’s images in this issue are reminiscent of a more angular version of Tim Sale’s work, suggesting that we are catching Clark at a point when he, literally as well as figuratively, is less well rounded than the hero of Jeph Loeb’s Superman For All Seasons. The panel layouts of Superman: American Alien #4 continue the series’ cinematic flow of pictures across the page.
As with the previous story, considerable suspension of disbelief is required, but the effectiveness with which the tale is told leaves the audience more than willing to check its collective skepticism at the door. Within the context of Owl, everything that happens makes sense, often as the culmination of events set into motion one issue earlier.
Bruce Wayne remains enigmatic, so Oliver Queen’s confusion of Clark Kent with his fellow corporate wunderkind is understandable. When Queen takes Clark with him on a helicopter bound for the Lexcorp Tower, Luthor is more than willing to give the nondescript reporter a memorable quotation. Convinced Clark is no one special, Lex belittlingly leaves him with the kids, where young Richard Grayson is prepared to prove his worthiness to be Bruce Wayne’s teammate and not just his ward.
Batman, who has been keeping tabs on Clark since the Kryptonian inadvertently impersonated Bruce Wayne at his birthday bash, acts in character by going after the man he believes is a mild-mannered reporter. What Kent learns along the way is brought home by Lois’s disembodied voice as she suggests a collaboration; after all, he landed interviews with Queen and Luthor, while she got the most exclusive interview: a sit-down with Wayne himself.
The pieces fit together, and the characters are wholly themselves right from the start: Clark begins Superman: American Alien #4 placing a call home to Smallville, talking to his mother while absentmindedly leaving his truck door open. The vehicle, naturally, is swiftly stolen, bringing home instantly the fact that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
In Owl, a story every bit as revealing as such dialogue-laden and action-light character studies as Glengarry Glen Ross, familiar figures are illuminated on nearly every page, even as they consistently make erroneous assumptions about one another. Clark expected to meet a man named Louis Lane, but the Charlton Laureate demonstrates her perceptiveness instantly, immediately identifying Queen’s press conference as a distraction intended to separate the women from the boys.
Freshly rescued from Starfish Island, Oliver opens up to Clark because he admires “the Robin Hood aspect” of the reporter’s turn as Bruce on the yacht. The maturer Queen sees the arrival at adulthood as “becoming a greater version of yourself.” Lex, convinced of his superiority even to his fellow youthful tycoons, takes an elevator ride downward while proclaiming, “I am ascendant.” As megalomaniacally irked at being interviewed by a student as Hannibal Lecter was at having a trainee sent to quiz him, Luthor maligns the masses who think “they’ve got a big S on their chest” to signify that they’re “special.” The bald businessman minces no words when confessing to Clark: “You are not important. You’re not. I am.” This is the very arrogance that robbed Lex Luthor of the ability to believe that Clark Kent could possibly be Superman.
Dick Grayson literally sizes up Clark Kent the moment he lays eyes on him — 6’2”, 175 lbs. — and the interplay between them is as golden as the austere background behind the reporter surreptitiously using his X-ray vision and the youth showing off his budding detective skills as he runs through a mental checklist of telling details. Later explaining why the (most likely mythical) Batman needs a more upbeat ornithological counterpart to serve as his counterpoint, Grayson lets Kent in on the significant secret that “darkness needs light. Fear needs hope.”
After all these miscues and missed clues, though, the masks come off in the issue’s climax, as Batman knocks the glasses from Clark’s face and the Kryptonian rips the cowl off Bruce’s head. The Gotham City detective already knows that Kent’s birth certificate on file in Smallville is a forgery, and he soon learns that the mystery man he is assailing is no mere mortal; likewise, the newly-minted Metropolis journalist experiences the dual realization that Batman is both real and Bruce Wayne. Their mutual ability to expose one another forces them to forge an unspoken trust: Clark keeps the scalloped cape but eschews the blockbuster headline; Bruce leaves the tape of Kent’s recorded interviews but also leaves the reporter alone.
Awash in the glow of Earth’s yellow sun, high up on a rooftop above Metropolis, Clark contemplates the caped superhero while hearing the voice of Lois Lane, the woman who one day will come to connect the Kryptonian most closely to humanity. “You want to do something small?” she asks. “C’mon, Clark… do something big.” If the closing image of Owl didn’t make the hair on your arms stand up, you missed the gist of the story.
Topping it all off are the sly winks and subtle touches. Lex gives a command in passing turning Oliver over to Tess Mercer. Birds routinely are seen fluttering about Metropolis in the presence of Clark, Lois, Oliver, and Lex, but not around Batman, the future Robin, or the budding Superman. Clark celebrates his interview coups with moves straight out of super-disco fever. Six pages after Kent exits the Metro at the intersection of Morrison Boulevard and Quitely Street, Luthor wonders “whatever happened to the man of tomorrow?” Honestly, I didn’t know you were allowed to put an Alan Moore reference that close to a Grant Morrison reference.
For those who thought Owl needed a little less talk and a little more action, the writer behind it all offered some wise words about the benefits of paying attention:
#americanalien 4 is not, as a surface read might seem, about people talking.
it's about Clark listening.
Thanks everyone, today was great
— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) February 18, 2016
Superman: American Alien #4 is an enlightening tale of how Oliver Queen, Lex Luthor, Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne, and Lois Lane helped inspire Clark Kent to become a superhero. That’s a grand idea that easily could be spoiled, and Owl crept dangerously close to the edge when Lex admitted to being a “little intense–yeah. Nothing personal.” “No,” Clark assured him, “it’s all good.” In the end, though, Clark was right. Thanks to Max Landis and Jae Lee, it is all good, and, if you haven’t picked up this issue, you should.
Let us know your take on Superman: American Alien #4. ComiConverse with us in the comments!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Max Landis has given readers a lot to unpack, but this revealing tale is well worth the effort.