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May 25, 2017

Fatherhood and Strangeness


Superman: American Alien 1
(DC Comics January 2016)
Writer: Max Landis
Review by DG Stewart 16 January 2016

“Superboy” was a title first published by DC Comics in 1949. The title focused on the adventures of Superman as a young teen. It was a popular title that was only cancelled in 1984, its appeal to teen readers who could perhaps better identify with a youthful version of their adult hero. Superboy had entirely mastered his powers throughout the series and wore an identical version of the costume made famous by Superman, with the only discernable difference in appearance being that Superboy was slighter of frame and possessed a rounder face. (Subsequent “Superboy” titles beyond 1984 dealt with the adventures of youthful clones of Superman.)

In 1945 DC Comics introduced Superbaby, the occasional adventures of Superman as a baby. This series of stories consisted of the antics of a toddler version of Superman, baffling adults with his powers (squeezing coal into diamonds, for example) and speaking with mangled grammar (“Me am flying to Mars!”). Superbaby was more than once displaced in time, and on one occasion was babysat by a flustered Lois Lane (a character which was the love interest of Superman for many decades).

“Superman: American Alien” 1 (the story is entitled “Dove”) is conceptually very different to these dated tales. This story deals with Clark Kent, perhaps eight years old, struggling with the onset of his ability to fly and trying to conceptualise being an alien. The boy is scared and worried that he will harm people around him.

Some of the scenes are very well thought through. Clark cannot consciously control sudden spurts of levitation. At one point he hovers at ten storeys in the air, not able to work out how to get down, and eventually falls asleep. At an open air movie, Clark gets nervous talking to his crush Lana Lang and shoots up high into the air before collapsing to the ground (the adults about him attribute the event to a gas bubble explosion). A local doctor examining Clark notes the electromagnetic activity radiating from Clark’s skin. These details delineate the story from the usual adventure-packed fare to be expected from a Superman-branded title. The reader sympathises with the boy and his fear of what he is, his inability to control the manifestation of his powers, and his apprehension of harming his parents and those around him. When Clark says, “Dad… I’m so unhappy,” that sentence evokes a deep emotional response. No boy that age should express such a thing. The character which becomes the world’s most invulnerable hero is a vulnerable little boy.

There is also that part of the plot which addresses the title: Clark knows he is an alien. Aliens from space in popular culture are very commonly depicted as threatening, repellant, and strange. Clark struggles with this, too, wondering out loud during a movie whether a real alien would be the subject of government imprisonment. Clark, staring unhappily at his reflection in a mirror, has a vision of himself as a green-skinned version of “ET” from the famous Steven Spielberg movie, and smashes the mirror and the wall in a flash of fury, his repulsion towards the alien and strange directed towards himself.

But the character which carries the story is the boy’s father, Jonathan Kent. Kent is quiet, haunted by nightmares of how he and his wife first found their adopted son, wired into the interior of an alien spacecraft. Kent’s silence carries the story to a significant extent. His flashbacks of memory suggests a trauma or shock associated with finding Clark in the crashed spacecraft – the horror of seeing a boy hooked into a tentacled mess of living machinery, pushed into the air by puckering inhuman lips entirely too remiscent of a grotesque alien birth. Kent contemplates in his silence handing over his son to scientists for examination. Clark’s mother Martha gives their son solace when he is terrified and apologetic: Jonathan Kent instead tells the boy off for being a “jerk”. Kent is both detached and struggling. Clark seems to unhappily pick up on his father’s sense of distance.

And then there is a change, captured in a look. Kent contemplates his son’s sadness and has a vision of Clark’s face as a baby. The solution to Kent’s own uncertainties is suddenly clear: a recalibrated acceptance. Being weird is “better” than “normal”. From there, Kent tries to assist Clark to overcome his anxieties by learning to cope with the spontaneous bursts of flight. Kent as a character progresses, and becomes a supportive instead of an uncertain father. Clark vocalises to his dad the philosophical consequences of breaking the mirror in a way which is almost Buddhist and which demonstrates the boy’s fundamental depth of character. Kent recognises it and corrects himself: “No. You’re not a jerk.” And the boy smiles up at the praise from his father, as if struck by sunshine. Mr Landis draws down emotion from the reader with admirable skill. It is a far place from the pointless antics of “Superbaby” and the blandness of “Superboy”.

It is also plain that the local community supports the Kents in dealing with their son. The local doctor knows that Clark is unique but does not ask why. Ben the cropduster pilot is Kent’s confidant and knows about Clark’s building array of strange characteristics. And Clark’s crush Lana shoots Clark a look which entirely suggests that she knows Clark is an alien. This together paints a picture that Clark’s community is in on the secret, but, perhaps in the way of small rural towns, they do not ask and do not tell.

The last two pages of the comic have their own title: “The Castaways” as if the one panel occupying the two pages are their own self-contained story. This is an image of a desk and wall, covered messily in letters, certificates, newspaper clippings and more. In these two pages we learn more about Jon and Martha Kent as individuals than we have from decades of reading their dialogue in hundreds of stories. Jon is a lawyer: Martha is a vet. There is the suggestion of a baby lost in a car accident, one of the characters using Prozac, and more. There two pages take require more reading and thought than the balance of this otherwise exemplary story.

In DC Comics’ promotional blurb for this title it seems that the series will be limited to seven issues. This is a shame. Mr Landis is masterfully mining out a particularly rich vein previously overlooked in the Superman mythos. It is not just good writing: the story exudes a care and love of the character. This title is very worthy of perpetuation.

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About DG Stewart

DG Stewart is the editor of WCBR and is a content contributor. He completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in literature at the University of Western Australia in 1989, and is an Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University in Australia.