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 #5 capped off a busy week for the Man of Steel. Joined by various graphic artists for a seven-issue limited series billed as the antithesis of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, writer Max Landis told the story of “a guy named Clark Kent from Kansas, who is an alien.” ComiConverse’s Superman correspondent, T. Kyle King, is here with a review of the most recent issue.
Max Landis teams up with illustrator Francis Manapul this month to show us Clark Kent’s first forays into superheroics as he finds his feet and defines his role as the metahuman champion of Metropolis. Can Eagle soar as high as the prior installments in the series, however?
Six months after being inspired to become a superhero, Clark Kent is foiling crimes in Metropolis wearing his confiscated Batman cape, aviator headgear (including goggles), and a bulletproof vest with a stylized “S” on the chest. Lois Lane is among the inquisitive journalists hot on the nameless mystery man’s trail who hope the hero will speak out, but Clark only wants to do good deeds without fanfare.
Summoned into action in response to an attack by the Parasite, Clark accompanies the police into the Metropolis Mall and ultimately subdues the supervillain by flying him to the coast and dousing him in the ocean. The weakened Parasite identifies Lex Luthor as the mad scientist responsible for making him what he is, prompting Clark to confront the businessman in his office by smashing Luthor’s window and returning the Parasite to him. Lex is neither impressed nor intimidated, so Clark is forced to reassess his methods and motives. Ultimately, the mild-mannered reporter takes a stand, chooses a name, and makes his mark.
In an earlier review, I unfairly panned Manapul because I mistook his work for being part of a larger trend rather than judging it on its own merits; Manapul responded graciously to my unwarranted criticism, so I was hoping Superman: American Alien #5 would allow me to atone by offering praise for his efforts. Eagle provides just such an opportunity, because Manapul’s artwork in this issue is gorgeous.
Judging by the comic’s credits, which do not list a separate inker or colorist, it appears Manapul handled every aspect of the graphics, with splendid results. The hues are muted and subdued, as befits a book as cerebral and contemplative as this one, but the understated nature of the imagery gives it a simple elegance. Manapul’s artwork effortlessly creates the illusion of flight, beautifully conveys the impassioned intelligence of Lois Lane through body language and facial expressions, and gives grand sweep to the Metropolis skyline as Clark Kent’s clandestine rooftop lunch is interrupted by the appearance of a hurled fire truck in midair.
Manapul does not slight background details, and he makes effective use of lighting, reflections, close-ups, and overhead angles to give an almost cinematic verisimilitude even to dialogue-laden scenes. Reactions are revealed with great nuance in the set of characters’ eyes and the subtle movements at the corners of their mouths. Multiple page-turn reveals show the reader what previously had gone unseen, providing shifts in perspective that both visually and emotionally change our point of view. Manapul’s illustrations work magnificently.
Although Eagle reads as a standalone story, Landis’s separate vignettes steadily tie together, and Superman: American Alien #5 is no exception. Each issue’s portrait of Clark Kent builds on the previous installments’ portrayals, and the slowly unfolding development of the character remains simultaneously persuasively authentic and completely unique. The Superman origin story has never been told in such an innovative way, yet because of the skill in this telling, it seems inconceivable that it could have happened any other way.
In Landis’s hands, the Daily Planet intern and the inexperienced superhero are not the distinct halves of a dual identity. Rather than being an elaborate ruse meant to conceal his double life, Clark’s inarticulate befuddlement is an honest reflection of his uncertainty as a champion. In conversation with Lois, Clark speculates that “maybe he’s just a nice guy with a lot of spare time.” Calling home to Kansas, the Smallville transplant tells his parents, “I try to do one good deed a day.” When pursuing the Parasite, Clark’s bravery masks his hesitancy, and, after boldly and dramatically challenging Luthor, the hero is shaken by Lex’s insulting unflappability.
Along the way, Landis always knows which traditions to underline, which conventions to undermine, and where to blur the boundaries between ironic detachment and heartfelt earnestness. The writer takes liberties with the mythology, but he is never disrespectful toward his source material. It is an unpolished yet sincere Superman who scoops up armed robbers and whistles cheerfully as the familiar astonished utterances drift upward from below: “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” Ultimately, though, the flying fellow dressed like Captain Freedom from Hill Street Blues is still an awkward young man from the heartland who lacks the eloquence to threaten criminals with clever catch-phrases; that shortcoming later will come back to haunt him against the smooth-talking Luthor.
Clark is airborne when we get our first clear view of him, but Eagle truly takes flight once he is back on the ground. Landis’s Lois Lane, making her first fully-formed appearance in Superman: American Alien #5, shines as the demonstrative and incredulous journalist examining the costumed do-gooder — known variously in the newspapers by such assigned monikers as Mister Metropolis and Skyman — from every imaginable angle.
Invariably shown off the clock but never truly off the job, Lois appears here in her most enthusiastic and undistilled form. She looks at the emergent hero with a gimlet eye, slowing down footage enough to spot bullets bouncing off of the Man of Steel’s forearm and observing knowingly that, the longer he remains silent, the more likely it is that someone else will step in to speak on his behalf.
The wordplay between Lane and Kent may be taken as flirtatious, but it comes across most clearly as vocational banter between colleagues working long hours in an important job — journalism, after all, is the only profession specifically protected by the Bill of Rights — who share a deep devotion to the truth.
In Superman: American Alien #5, Lois Lane and Lex Luthor both make Clark Kent think, to the point of causing him to question what purpose is served by his heroics. Each of the Kryptonian’s interlocutors offers answers that are smarter and shrewder than those he learned in rural Kansas, yet Lex’s contribution to the conversation appears superficially to be the more significant. It is the bald business mogul, after all, who bestows the name “Superman” upon the novice hero, in overt allusion to the amoral nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Lois, though, lacks Lex’s haughtiness, so she is neither as rigid in her thinking nor as accepting of surface appearances as Luthor. Lane is not tricked when Kent invents an ersatz quotation from Albert Einstein, and she remains openminded enough to change her view of Superman after considering a different perspective. Lois’s innate skepticism has not hardened into jaded cynicism; she wants the truth, but she also wants to believe: “I want him to be someone who believes in something and stands for it. Even against a monster. Even against Lex Luthor. I want hope, damn it.”
That was exactly what Clark Kent needed to hear, and Lois Lane was exactly the person from whom he needed to hear it. In a wordy and weighty comic book, Max Landis has gotten to the heart of what makes Lex Luthor so evil, what makes Lois Lane so essential, and what makes Superman who he is. That combination of Landis’s writing, Manapul’s artwork, and clarifying characterization is what makes Eagle ascend majestically.
Prior to the series’ release, Landis explained, “I kind of want to do the anti-All-Star Superman, which of course is the greatest Superman comic ever written.” The writer later explained that, “when I said I want to do the opposite of that, it’s because mine is not mythic. Mine is . . . not a big epic Superman story.” In one sense, that is true; Superman: American Alien is comparatively minimalist, especially relative to Morrison’s Man of Steel masterpiece.
Where Landis mischaracterizes his work, though, is in his assertion that a story starring Clark Kent is not also a story about Superman. This is the story of how an orphaned alien grew up on Earth as an isolated outsider who only wanted to be a normal human but was inspired by the example of those around him to become all that he was capable of being. There is no lack of epic grandeur or mythical purity in that premise, and Landis and his collaborators are executing it to perfection. Five issues into its limited run, it has become clear that Superman: American Alien is the best Superman comic since All-Star Superman.
Were you equally impressed with Superman: American Alien #5? Share your thoughts on Max Landis’s and Francis Manapul’s Eagle in the comments below and ComiConverse with us.
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Max Landis and Francis Manapul have produced an outstanding issue that confirms that this is the best Superman series in a decade.