Monday, February 13, 2017

American Alien

I heard Max Landis et al.'s Superman: American Alien was pretty good, so I finally got around to reading it. It came out late last year. Some really good stuff here. When you've got so many artists contributing, the quality will vary, and I liked some issues better than others for precisely that fact. It's a series of essentially stand-alone stories, which I also like. It has its own continuity, but doesn't seem beholden to the DC universe, which I also like.

I don't really have much to say about the stories themselves, though I did notice another example of a recent trend in Superman stories that's worth pointing out: namely, that issues dealing with a young Superman (Superboy?) have to show the tension between Clark and one or both of his parents. In American Alien, this came to the foreground at the end of issue 2 (titled "Hawk"), when Clark and Martha are on the roof talking about Clark's intervention (saving the lives of some folks, mutilating some criminals, getting injured). Clark is worried that his mother sees him as a monster; he's afraid of being rejected. This was also an emotional beat in Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Superman: Secret Origin. That time it was Clark being worried about his father rejecting him. It's also a more drawn-out theme in early issues of Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinel Francis Yu. This was never part of Jerry and Joe's Superman, to my recollection, nor was it prominent in John Byrne's Man of Steel.

As for movie versions, it's not really present in Superman '78, but it's a big part of Clark's development in Man of Steel.

It fits. Clark's an alien, and in a series whose title foregrounds that quality the tension between an adopted son and his new parents can reflect that otherness. From the examples given above, it's no stretch to say that the relationship between Superman and his adopted parents has become an important aspect of the story. It's key to understanding the current trend in the Superman myth: that Clark Kent is the real identity, and that Superman is an affectation. With the dominance of this interpretation, it's easy to see why the bumbling, mild-mannered Kent has all but vanished (it's worth noting that George Reeves didn't play Kent this way, either; his Kent varied from Superman only in wardrobe).

What conclusions can we draw based on this trend? What does it mean that Superman is not the "real" personality? I think it's a sign that Superman's American-ness is important to people. When Landis's Superman tells Lobo, "I'm from Kansas," (not Krypton) he's embracing a certain patriotism that  a lot of people feel is important right now. Kent is American, Kent is human, by choice; Byrne's Superman stories made this an important element of the character, too. At the same time that Superman confirms his American citizenship, Landis shows us that the rest of the world embraces him as well; that fight with Lobo at the end of issue seven is broadcast world-wide.

I don't think there's an intentional response to the story a few years ago in which Superman renounced his American citizenship so that he could be a citizen of the world; this doesn't feel anything like a refutation of that controversial though short and ultimately stand-alone story by David Goyer. But as the international role of the United States, and relationships between countries, change through new administrations and shifting public opinion, it's no surprise that Superman stories would double-down on these themes.

Relationships with parents, with fellow countrymen, with other countries, with aliens...these things are important in Superman stories; they always have been.

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