Have You Read: Superman: American Alien (2015)

by Jay Hill on October 18, 2019

It’s a bird, it’s a plane… No wait, it’s an alien!

In Superman: American Alien, we’re a given a new, but familiar look into the life of Clark Kent. Although it is still technically an “origin story”, it feels less like it’s trying to rewrite the tale of Superman as much as it’s just telling you a few tales of this different iteration of Superman. It builds its own world without putting too much weight on the building of a new world. So, as long as you have a general grasp of the story of Superman, you can pick up this comic and enjoy it. Each issue is a standalone story and progresses his character a bit more. There’s never an issue that feels like, “And, this is how he became Superman.” Each issue just explores a new theme and builds Clark up like a snowball rolling downhill. The ending doesn’t feel like an end, it feels like a beginning and it leaves the door open for him to grow even more.

It takes a village.

An interesting trend in the seven issues of American Alien is the importance of the people throughout Clark’s life who help shape him into the man he becomes. In the first issue, we see his life on the Kent Farm. Jonathan and Martha give Clark the parental base that is necessary for a kid who turns into the greatest hero his world will know. One of the unique parts of American Alien is the open secret in Smallville that Clark Kent isn’t your average adolescent. Throughout the first issues, it is shown that friends of the Kents, their family doctor, and even the Sherriff know of Clark’s peculiar abilities. And this is brought to a head when a string of murders in Smallville leads to Clark trying to use his powers for good, but ultimately using them irresponsibly. This teaches him one of his first valuable lessons.

Later, we see Clark leave Smallville for the first time when he wins a trip to the Bahamas. But, before he can get there, the plane he is on crashes into the sea. Clark is then saved by a luxurious yacht that appears to be blasting Harder Than You Think by Public Enemy. Aboard the yacht, he inadvertently crashes the surprise birthday party for billionaire, playboy, and current disciple of the league of assassins, Bruce Wayne. The group of partygoers mistakes the soaked Clark Kent for the always absent birthday boy and Clark goes along with it.

Clark being off the farm and in a wildly different environment shows him a group of people with different outlooks on life. Although, most of them are quite shallow and probably reaffirm any ideas that kept him in Smallville. However, he does end up meeting one person with their head on straight (and who knows he’s not Bruce Wayne). Her name is Minerva and she shows him a genuine nature and worldliness he had been missing. After bonding with her all day and doing a little extra later that night, they recess on the deck where Clark starts having an existential crisis under the stars. He yells at the night sky and his absent alien parents. Clark tells the starry void that he knows “they left him” but that he’s happy. This entire issue reveals why farm boy Clark Kent would want to leave his hometown for the daunting big city.

In the next issue, he has done just that. He settles into his new home in Metropolis and this is where he meets Lois Lane. In an issue that is filled with great interactions, she closes the story with a speech to Clark that gives a glimpse of the vital support she will provide in this next chapter of his life. Lois goes on to help rebuild his spirits after he takes his biggest defeat. The defeat doesn’t come in a battle, though. It comes from his greatest enemy, Lex Luthor. In their second meeting (the first also ended poorly for Clark), Lex demolishes the hero in what amounts to a one-sided pummeling. But instead of his fists, Lex uses his words. It’s one of the best scenes in the series and by the end of the issue, Clark gets a new reason for being and his new name.

Another one of the highlights of the series, and a scene that is a key to why this Clark Kent becomes Superman, is an interview with the ward of Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson. The two sit down and have a discussion that they both walk away from with a better understanding of some things. Dick gets to cryptically tell Clark why he thinks Batman needs someone like Robin and Clark leaves with a better understanding of the idea of being a hero. It is one of the subtlest scenes but has one of the biggest impacts. And, later on, Clark gets a closer look at Batman and that, coupled with the interview, helps direct his mind towards heroism.

In the last few issues, Clark is now fully Superman. The city loves him, he loves Lois. He has his new career, new friends and everything seems perfect. But, a visit from his childhood friends shows that he still has much to learn about himself before he can be the best version of Superman. They ask if he even knows what he is doing and why he is doing it. These questions are valid, but Clark isn’t ready to answer them. And their attempt to bring “Superman” back to earth, ends up sending him to the moon (if you’ve read the issue, you’ll understand that I mean that literally).

Eventually, he gets closer to the closure he needs. That, and every other lesson he has learned, helps him in the culminating issue, Valkyrie. In that issue, Superman faces his, Metropolis’ and, possibly, Earth’s biggest threat yet. I won’t spoil it, but his last important interaction is with a very hostile entity. The majority of the issue is the fight that the series has been readying him for. So, when the climax happens, in the words of the Christopher Reeve’s Superman posters, “You will believe a man can fly.” Probably not the one you think, though.

Unite the seven. A.K.A. Does anyone get this reference?

Another important aspect of the series is the use of different artists for every issue. It’s not just some cheap gimmick, ever artist lends their voice to the story thought best for their style, and it shows.

Issue #1 – Dove: Nick Dragotta. One of my favorite artists starts the series off strong. If you know his work on Image’s East of West (read this comic!), you know his strength in drawing children and alien tech. These are both highlighted in the variant cover he provides and in a scene that haunts Pa Kent’s dreams. He also frames his panels in a brilliantly artistic way. Towards the end of the issue, there is a reveal of some iconic imagery and a great shot of young Clark in the sky that is one for the Superman history books.

Issue #2 – Hawk: Tommy Lee Edwards. Edwards is amazing at creating a rustic, small-town feel. Scenes of Clark and his pals driving through Smallville, having a drink in some abandoned lot and multiple scenes at farmhouses are perfect for him. The story involves evil coming to the quiet town and in another comic he drew, Marvel 1985 (read this comic!), a similar situation happens and his art fits just as perfect here as it did there. He has a Norman Rockwell-esque sense of nostalgia to his art that feels like a warm drink on a winter day.

Issue #3 - Parrot: Joëlle Jones. If Edwards’ art is a warm drink, then Jones’ is a slushy margarita on a sunny beach. Her art gives a wispy charm to this issue and a refreshing departure fitting for the change of scenery. Her group shots are great, and her wavy lines feel at home with this story set on the sea. Rico Renzi’s colors also pop in amazing ways.

Issue #4 – Owl: Jae Lee. The legendary Jae Lee lends his pen to the first issue set in Metropolis. His backgrounds and shots of the very industrial feeling city, filled with crowds, helps us get into Clark’s mind of being overwhelmed by his new home. And, in an issue full of characters and speeches, his expressive faces and changes in how to draw and frame them keep it interesting. He is also a master of unique layouts. I have always been a fan of his Batman, and, as the variant cover shows, this is the issue he appears in. Lee is no stranger to working on the pair of characters since he drew for the 2013 series Batman/Superman (read this comic!).

Issue #5 – Eagle: Francis Manapul. In the most “superhero” feeling issue, Manapul gives the most heroic-looking art. His Metropolis is friendlier than Jae’s giving the sense that Clark now feels welcome. And, he does some amazing and immense backgrounds. His art for the sprawling city is what Edwards’ was for sleepy Smallville. The body of his characters has a weight to them that match with the tone of the story told. And, he lays out his panels in a deceptively slick way.

Issue #6 – Angel: Jonathan Case. It’s fitting that part of this issue involves a pop art showcase because that is how I’d describe Case’s art for this story. It has a metropolitan feel to it; four-color and Warhol-esque. His illustration of Clark’s new personality via his fashion and environment is another of the matches made in heaven that this series seems to achieve with each change of artist. His bold and sharp lines and use of silhouettes remind me of the Hernandez Brothers’ art in Love and Rockets which, even though the colors are perfect, make me want to see this issue in black and white. Throughout the issue, I couldn’t help looking at the great hair of his characters and in the last panel we get a close up of Clark with the “s” shaped spit curl peeking out.

Issue #7 – Jock. In the brutal finale, Jock brings his signature visceral art style. His drawing of Superman in his finished suit is a cool take on the character. He gives him a sleeker body and thinner face that is in contrast to the enemy that he stares down. That enemy’s design also lets Jock’s scratchy black lines shine. The bulk of the issue is a big fistfight. And, when it’s time to throw some punches, his art makes sure you feel each one.

Ryan Sook also provides the main covers for each issue. He’s another of my favorites and, other than that, I think he’s legitimately one of the best active artists. His style undergoes slight changes in each issue. For Owl, it’s more experimental and symbolic. For Angel, it has a pop art flair. And for Parrot, he shows Clark, or should I say, Bruce, living it up in an aloha shirt that has the bird the issue is named after on it and a familiar symbol in the ocean spray behind the yacht.

Cue the John Williams Superman Score.

American Alien is the comic book equivalent of seeing Clark Kent crawl, walk, run, and finally fly. His entire life story isn’t told in these seven issues, but it paints one of the best pictures as to why he would choose the life he did. At one point he says, “Superman isn’t even a real person… It’s just me in a costume.” But by the final issue, as he hears the voices of Metropolis thank Superman for what he’s done, he finally realizes why he dons the cape.

If you haven’t done it already, you should read this comic!