Right as I sat down to read and review Max Landis’ American Alien #6, the familiar tone of the James Bond theme song emanating from my cell alerted me to the fact my best friend was calling, evidently to discuss plans for a bachelor party in New York for our other college roommate. The task had fallen to him and me as best man and groomsman, respectively, but also because we’d become the most cosmopolitan of the old college crew, and thus most competent to show the native Montanan around midtown Manhattan. Such was not always the case. While not exactly Smallville, we were both native sons of suburban sprawl. When we met the first day of undergrad it was at a miniscule Midwestern university flanked by fields and farmland, populated with more cows than college kids, as is typical of rural Wisconsin and central Kansas alike.
That was over a decade ago now, and the vast majority of our post-collegiate friendship has been spent living in different states from one another. It’s only by chance that we’ve grown as individuals in the same direction, all the while growing apart from our other college comrades, now relegated to Facebook friends and acquaintances. The first time I threw a bachelor party, I was still a senior in the same school, and the entire evening consisted of a trip to the shooting range, burgers at an Applebee’s rip-off right down the road from our dorm, and a drunken Street Fighter II tournament afterwards. This time around we’re in the penthouse suite of the Carlton with plans to dine at one of Zagat’s top rated steakhouses followed by a rooftop pub crawl – among a weekend’s worth of other entertainment. The point being, there was a natural progression to our tastes and sensibilities, a refinement which seems just as essential to our maturation into adults as the mundane milestones of birthdays and graduations.
And yet unlike those universal benchmarks, few individuals actually progress along that path. Absent of any supervillain, such is the real conflict of American Alien this week. Clark’s emigration from Smallville to Metropolis changed him as profoundly as his escape from Krypton to Earth*. Yet his friends, love them as he may, have left neither Kansas nor childish things behind. When dining at the kind of non-descript Irish pub ubiquitous throughout New York, Clark’s friend Kenny raves about the basic burger, opining about returning there on his honeymoon. Later, attending a gallery opening, Clark dresses appropriately urbane, sporting a stylish suit jacket and slacks combination, while Pete and Kenny dress in flannel and denim more suited for milking cows and mending fences. Clark comments as to correct their fashion faux pas, chiding, “You look like tourists,” but Pete obliviously retorts, “We are tourists.” At the gallery itself, Clark is able to smartly critique the art, observing the photographs to humanize villains more so than glamourize them. The philistine Pete and Kenny, meanwhile, can only muster a “Pretty weird” and “Yep.”
Where they are more observant than Clark is in his need to find a new entourage of close confidants less like the farmhand from Smallville he no longer is and more similar to the Superman he’s since become (a group of Super Friends, if you will). As the divide between Clark and his friends grows ever more evident, Pete becomes increasingly direct, pointedly telling Clark “You are flyin’ blind, man… You aren’t Superman, but you’re not even Clark Kent anymore.” It’s easy to see where Pete is coming from. The Clark he knew wasn’t a celebrity, much less would he revel in it. The Clark that pined monogamously after Lana Lang is a far cry from one content to be among several suitors to the sexually liberated and inexclusive Lois Lane. And despite Kenny’s Asian ancestry, Kansas is comparatively monochromatic relative to Manhattan, explaining the shock on the duo’s faces in discovering “Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen” to be black and flamboyant (whom Landis, in an interview with Kinda Funny, confirmed as gay in this interpretation).
That Clark is no longer the provincial proletarian prototypical of the flyover states is hardly cutting criticism, but despite Pete’s reasoning the point is valid: Clark does have an identity crisis. Part of it surely is spawned by the secret identity. From my own brief career as a costumed vigilante, I can testify that trying to maintain a duel identity can leave a man feeling as if he has none at all, as if every persona is just a shadow of a self which no longer exists. But another aspect comes from Clark’s adoption, leading him to ask questions regarding where he comes from which I’ve never had to ask (well, that’s not entirely true, but that’s a story or another day). He actually does find one answer in this issue, that he hails from a planet known as “Krypton,” and Landis’ decision to have a Abin Sur and Tomar-Re deliver the revelation is among the most inspired ideas in an issue brimming with such.
Other highlights include a disappointed denizen exclaiming “Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! …Oh, it’s just a plane,” as Clark walks right past him. In the very same panel, when Kenny asks if Clark can never take off his glasses in order to maintain the secret identity, Landis places in Clark’s mouth the most plausible explanation ever: “I take my glasses off all the time. And you know what everyone tells me? ‘You look just like Superman.’” After Henry Cavill wore a Superman shirt in Times Square with not a single individual recognizing him, I fully accept such an explanation. Moreover, throughout the issue, both the line work and colors of artist Jonathan Case lend an appropriate Archie Comics vibe, with the familiar friendship of the Riverdale gang easily transposed onto the three Smallville high alums.
During his interview with Kinda Funny, Max mentioned plans with DC Comics for an entire Landis-verse, with further series set in the same worlds as American Alien featuring other familiar characters. Given the quality of this series as a whole and this issue in particular, such is surely the biggest and best news for the comic community in 2016, eclipsing even the entire DC Rebirth line. If we have even one issue on the racks each month of this high quality, the Postmodern Age of Comics will be a highpoint in the history of the medium.
*though Krypton might still be slightly more habitable than Kansas.