Superman American Alien works is a fun and heartfelt ongoing comic book 7 issue mini series, conceived and written by Hollywood screenwriter Max Landis, the writer of 2012 sleeper hit Chronicle. This series is a re-imagining of the early days of Superman – beginning as a frightened yet sweet 10 year old boy struggling to get a handle on his other-worldly powers, and, presumably, ending as the bright, optimistic superhero we all know and love.
Or maybe don’t love.
It’s conventional wisdom by now that Superman is bland; he’s a nice guy with a steady job, unwavering in his devotion to his journalistic principles, is prone to smiling, and is driven to heroics by impulses that are healthy.
In terms of popularity, what chance does he have against more “relatable” heroes? Ie the neurotic and the unstable. The common argument, and one that I adhere to, is that Superman isn’t supposed to be relatable in the shallow sense, he’s supposed to be aspirational. He’s supposed to make you want to be better. Like, if this guy, albeit fictional guy, who can do anything and see everything is so fundamentally kind and compassionate, then why aren’t I kinder and more compassionate?
It causes a self reflection that may be uncomfortable for some. And so it’s easier to enjoy a hero that is aesthetically far cooler, who wallows in fairly terrible and unhealthy impulses, and stories that often lend themselves to fascinatingly macabre and psychotic themes. Stories that have the tangible details of more “adult” aspects, but probably won’t lead to you examining your life in any serious way. Of course, I’m talking about Batman. And with all that in mind, of course he’s far more popular.
But in the last few decades, superheroes have found a new lease on life on the big screen because nobody buys comic books. If one compares Batman’s batting average against Superman’s in this arena it is, sadly, no contest.
It is fair to say that Superman has only had one great movie. A movie that is bolstered to greatness purely from the power of a classy and iconic performance from the late Christopher Reeve.
In 2006 Superman Returns, The Man of Steel’s first foray to the big screen since 1987, was met with an almighty, colossal, meh. In 2008 The Dark Knight was met with the kind of critical respect that was heretofore unheard of in the genre. It was also the first superhero film to crack a billion.
Hoping to repeat the magic of The Dark Knight with Superman, we were bestowed with 2013’s Man of Steel – a grimy, depressing movie filled to the brim with apocalyptic imagery and moral ambivalence and ended on a neck-snapping Superman (just in case you were enjoying yourselves, Superman fans). It wasn’t an answer to The Dark Knight’s dourness but rather a doubling down of it. It was met with a mixed response but made decent coin.
This was just enough to, once again, double down on the unpleasantness and so we were gifted with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Which brings us to American Alien, the latest interpretation of the myth of the Man of Steel, a myth that is undoubtedly a part of American DNA. Doomed planet. Desperate Scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. Superman. As writer Grant Morrison so eloquently put in the first page of what is also the all-time masterpiece of comic book storytelling, All-Star Superman. What more can be said? Well, if American Alien is any indication so far, you can make Superman aspirational and relatable.
Max Landis approaches each issue here as a character-driven short indie film. Each issue follows a day in the life of Clark Kent. One issue will follow him as a boy, the next will see him as a young man – stories don’t barrel along from one issue into the next, but rather each one stands alone with its unique tone and theme. Each piece contributes an answer to a larger question – What makes Superman wonderful? (And no, it’s not the abilities he was born with).
A quick recap of the first issue and what makes this series special.
The first issue begins with little Clark Kent flying for the first time with his mother Martha Kent holding onto his ten year old ankles for dear life. The image is almost primordial – a child is now old enough to be a threat to himself and others and his parents are scared to death of that.
But this a series that embraces the hopefulness that is inherent in Superman since time immemorial and so instead of telling their kid to hide from everyone and always be afraid of his unnatural powers, his parents just try and raise him to be a good kid. Clark understandably gets frustrated at his freakishness and he takes this frustration out on a piece of property.
Jonathan Kent, not being some kind of super articulate saint with speeches at the ready, imparts some morality into the boy the best way he can.
“Clark, you can’t – you can’t just break things. That’s what jerks do.”
It’s hard not to remember the final 40 minutes of Man of Steel, where Superman nonchalantly contributed to the apocalyptic imagery of buildings falling down.
Near the end of the issue, Clark tells his father he smashed a mirror during one of his freak outs. He then adds he thought about the people who made that mirror, and the people who took the time to fit that mirror onto the bathroom. He realises something that will inform the core of his morality:
“When you break something, you’re not just breaking the thing…you’re like, hurting everyone who made it the way it was.”
It’s a beautiful, elegant piece of writing that fully embraces Superman’s “all life is precious” creed without being as obvious and literal as Superman shouting “all life is precious.”
It’s a call to arms to our better selves sans the preachiness.
By the end of the issue, Clark gets a handle on his flying ability. He expounds on the exciting possibilities. One of the possibilities is that he can fly his Ma and Pa to the trip to Europe that they always wanted, but never had the money, to take.
There is no villain to punch, no convoluted scheme to foil, nor pose to strike. It’s a stunningly simple story of a couple of scared but loving small town folk, raising their adopted child the best that they can.
Superman American Alien is a distillation of an icon – a comic free of the decades of continuity and story baggage that muddies these characters and renders their appeal to none but the most hardcore of comic book readers.
It’s true that films plunder from the most well-regarded comic book stories in order to appeal to the masses.
But if you want to experience the truth of Superman, or were severely disappointed by the latest cinematic effort, consider the antidote that is Superman American Alien.