By Jarrod Jones. “This is not a Superman comic.”
Those are the words that have brazenly hovered over advertisements for DC Comics’ latest miniseries, Superman: American Alien, for the last couple of months. And for just as long those words have been sticking in my craw. Why so grumpy? Mostly because it feels patently wrong that the publisher would appear so comfortable being so cocky standing behind their latest contracted celeb-scribe, Max Landis, when there’s nothing subversive, or even — god help me, I’m about to use quote-fingers — “cool” about putting a heap of cash (and hype) behind a comic series that brags about not being a Superman tale, when their ongoing Superman books have been languishing for years under editorial neglect.
Now I’m met with Superman: American Alien #1. And I’m just gonna go right ahead and unclench.
Because whether or not American Alien is about Superman (and, at its core, there’s no way it wouldn’t be), Max Landis and Nick Dragotta just gave us one of the strongest debuts this year. How did they do it? By focusing on the two most unsung heroes in the entire DC Multiverse: Jonathan and Martha Kent.
Never once did I think that a comic written by Max Landis — the screenwriter of the fairly astounding Chronicle, and the fairly abysmal American Ultra — would effectively stick a lump in my throat. But it’s been so long since we’ve seen the Kents in any Superman book, that it was hard to shake the feeling that the whole world was beginning to forget their vital importance to the Superman mythos. The cocksure and casually abrasive Clark Kent we’ve come to know (and moderately tolerate) since the inception of the New 52 could only exist in a world where the Kents no longer drew breath. Up until this week, the Kents had become nothing more than a footnote in the annals of history. And Max Landis said, “no more.”
So that’s what American Alien did. It stuck a lump right in my throat. From the very first page.
Picture this, if you will: a star-filled night sky slowly dwindling into morning (delivered beautifully by colorist Alex Guimarães), where a mother clutches at her beautiful young boy… as he elevates towards the heavens with no signs of stopping. Obviously, the child is panicking, but his mother (who is probably seconds away from suffering a coronary, because how could she not) holds fast and informs her son, “stay calm, I’m here!”
Any doubt I had in Landis immediately evaporated upon that moment. Everyone knows that the Man of Steel can change the course of mighty rivers and hover above the surface of the Sun, but the one thing that has always informed the power of Superman has been the guidance of his folks. Landis (a self-professed fan himself) has shown that he understands this by placing the focus of this incredible first issue on the Kents. And that was an audacious move in itself: It’s a precarious thing to depict two people struggling with the realities of raising a child — especially when it’s apparent that at least one of them doubts that they actually want to — but Landis and Dragotta deliver every moment with an aching honesty most of us wouldn’t normally associate with a superhero book.
The biggest surprise about American Alien isn’t that it’s a damn fine Superman story (because it toootally is), it’s Landis’ sobering depiction of the two people responsible for the greatest hero the world has ever known. As a complete entity, Superman: American Alien #1 is a lovely valentine made for two people who wanted one thing and were given something else entirely. (Landis’ final double-page splash with art by Matthew Clark might be one of the loveliest — and saddest — things I’ve ever seen in a DC book.) Life is never easy. Love is even harder. Maybe that’s why Landis titled his first-ever Superman story “Dove”. It’s his none-too subtle way of showing us that even symbols of hope can still put a hole through your roof.
Written by Max Landis.
Art by Nick Dragotta and Matthew Clark.
Colored by Alex Guimarães.
9 out of 10