Alienation, paradoxically, is one of the most universal human emotions. It is no great leap of logic that led to the fictional aliens of literature and cinema being appropriated as metaphors and megaphones for creators to opine on the subject of alienation to their audience. And as popular culture’s most well known alien, it likewise makes sense that the Last Son of Krypton would be depicted as suffering from such.
The problem with such depictions, however, is that they overlook a crucial component of the genuine article. Real alienation is experienced not in the context of comparative excellence, but of comparative deficiency. A star athlete does not wish to less physically fit. A prodigy does not wish to be less intelligent. A stunning beauty does not wish to be less attractive. The desire to be normal is not a desire to forsake one’s gifts but to minimize one’s flaws.
But Superman has always been flawless. Technically an extraterrestrial, he is by external appearances the perfect human specimen. He suffers no racial discrimination, no fat-shaming, not even the occasional pimple. He need never come second place in any athletic competition, nor ever get less than perfect scores on any academic test imaginable. He could have any job he wants, any woman he wants, any life he wants. What then could cause this All-American alien to feel alienated?
The fact that issue #1 of Max Landis’ Superman: American Alien plausibly answers this question for the first time in the character’s history renders it nothing short of a rousing success. Throughout the first several seasons of Smallville rarely an episode went by that Tom Welling didn’t lament his powers, but never once was his attitude half as believable as any few pages of this issue. It depicts Clark at a time when he genuinely did have a flaw, an aspect of his life which he was worse at than others: control.
This lack of control over his abilities didn’t merely have the potential to hurt the people he cared about; it caused actual harm, often in surprising ways. Early on Jonathan cut his foot as he rushed out into the corn field amidst Clark’s cries for help as he floated uncontrollably upward. Later Clark asks his adoptive father why he didn’t put shoes on first. Then the elder Kent replies, “I was too scared,” Clark knows it was his lack of control that resulted in both the physical and psychological harm the humble farmer suffered.
But emotional lows like this are balanced perfectly by moments which are tender, thrilling, and even joyous. When he finally does learn to control his flight, Clark’s sense of alienation evaporates instantaneously, and he speaks with all the incessant excitement one would expect of a young boy whom just found out he can fly. In finding his place among the birds and planes, he also rediscovered his place among the people on the ground.
If not for colorist Alex Guimaraes’ perfect reproduction of the heartland’s pallette, Nick Dragotta’s pencils wouldn’t be much to look at on their own. It’d be easy to mistake his art as another instance in the already tired trend of incorporating the aesthetics of children’s books and animation into comics. It seems everyone wants to be the next Skottie Young (who unlike his imitators is a truly excellent artist).
But Dragotta has something his competitors for that title don’t: storytelling. Far more so than the dialogue, it is the clear flow of action that advances the plot. There’s never a question in the reader’s mind about what took place in the gutters between the panels. They could probably even guess which verbs Landis’ used in his script, such is Dragotto’s skill.
Superman: The Movie made you believe a man could fly. Superman: American Alien will make you feel for all the times he fell before he flew.