American Alien is the only series close to All-Star in so completely capturing so much of what’s core to the character
Originally published at The Hub City Review
American Alien #7 is not the first collaboration between Max Landis and Jock. That in itself would not unusual if not for the fact that Landis is primarily a screenwriter; his only other significant work in the comics medium was a two part story for the digital-first series Adventures of Superman (arguably two of the best issues in one of the most criminally underrated series from DC in recent years). Illustrated by Jock, it tells of an encounter early in Superman’s career with the Joker. Like Lobo in this issue, the choice to utilize a villain outside of the hero’s usual rogue’s gallery served to underscore the specific statement Landis was attempting to make about our protagonist: Superman, contrary to popular sentiment, is neither generic nor bland; pit him against as interesting a villain as Batman benefits from and the character will come off every bit as compelling.
Lobo, meanwhile, was clearly selected for his inhuman nature, both with respect to his extra-terrestrial origin, similar to Superman’s, but also with respect to his amorality, contra Clark. Sure, there are other planetary invaders with whom Superman throws down more regularly, whom Landis could have chosen instead, but Lobo’s vindictiveness allows the villain to really rub salt in the still open wound that is Superman’s sense of alienation.
Much more so than Lobo, that alienation is the actual adversary, both throughout American Alien as a whole and this issue in particular. It is the Kryptonite to Clark’s psychological wellbeing, to his sense self-worth and belonging. Fittingly, the issue begins with another alienating act to erode at Clarks ego. After telling Lois – his perfect proxy for the whole of humanity – that he loves her, she leaves his unbosoming unrequited, absconding (again) before the break of dawn.
This is the context for Clark’s confrontation with Lobo. Before exchanging blows, the two exchange choice words with one another. It is here that the Czarnian revels in revealing to Superman that Krypton and all of its inhabitants are long since dead. “Living down there, pretending to be one of them. Pathetic. You have no idea how alone you actually are. Hi-larious!”
And Clark cries. I’ve seen this impervious man with impenetrable skin bleed on countless occasions, but I cannot recall a single comic in which he’d ever cried before now. And yet, it is here, when the invulnerable man is at his most vulnerable, that the series as a whole reaches its climax. Clark’s expression is hard to read. It could be taken as downcast and dour; it could be seen as meditative and mindful. Perhaps Jock intended both. Either way, what he says next is the completion of the character arc begun in issue #1: “… No. I’m not alone.”
The obligatory fight follows, but the exchange which takes place after Superman splatters the streets of the city chartreuse with Czarnian blood is the perfect summation of Landis’ entire thesis on the character of Superman:
“Gimme… ten minutes… I’ll be good as new… and you’ll be dead. …Just like the rest of the idiots from Krypton.”
“I’m not from Krypton… …I’m from Kansas.”
Such has never been my personal interpretation of the character. Far from the nice guy just trying to do what he thinks is right, whose moral compass is imbued by a middle-American upbringing, my preference has always been for more mythologized reading. Such is why, despite being perhaps the most passionate Superman fan alive (save for Morrison and Waid), I took no compunction with the depiction of the Kents in Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. In fact, their sharing in the same flawed human nature as the rest of the race dispels the notion that Superman’s innate goodness is in any way a consequence of his upbringing. In those films, his moral convictions and certitude come entirely from his heavenly father Jor-El. Jonathan doesn’t know that he should save others; Martha claims he doesn’t owe the world anything. And yet nonetheless he gives everything to save the world. Such is perfectly consistent with Snyder’s soteriological interpretation of the character; after all, no theologian would suggest that Christ’s impeccability was due merely to Mary’s raising him right.
Morrison’s All-Star Superman strikes a better balance than Man of Steel, still showing reverence for the “kindly couple,” especially in issue #6 of that series. Yet Morrison’s Superman transcends even the Christ-motif, with Morrison calling the character “our greatest-ever idea as a human species.” Far from just a good guy trying to do the right thing, Morrison’s Superman is the platonic form of the perfect hero, the idea that’s at the intersection of both right and might.
And yet, in Superman’s seventy-five plus year history, Landis’ American Alien is the only series that comes close to All-Star in so completely capturing so much of what’s core to the character. Such is Landis’ skill as a storyteller that, despite being so far from my own interpretation, even I must acknowledge that such is invariably one of the defining looks at his life.
As it all comes to a close, the last page ends where the first left off. Lois, staying at Clark’s bedside, finally returns the “I love you” she’d previously denied him. He’d discovered for himself a sense of belonging before in his fight with Lobo, but here was the ultimate affirmation of such, the final abolition of his alienation. Few of us will ever face down bio-electrical vampires or time-traveling chronovores. Even I – who’s lived out serialized adventures garbed in a costumed-persona and defeated an archrival – can relate only a minute modicum to Superman as he’s normally written. And yet alienation is a glowing green rock which affects us all, Kryptonians and earthmen alike. Many say that Superman’s greatest gift is his ability to inspire hope. The Superman story which Landis has written is truly one which is capable of inspiring in all readers – even those who seem themselves as strange visitors here among humanity – the hope of likewise leaving behind such alienation to one day find a place of belonging.