Time to get back to work…
How many different versions of Superman’s origin have there been? In my library alone I’ve got copies of John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” reinvention from the 80’s, Mark Waid and Lenil Yu’s maxiseries “Birthright,” and Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s “Secret Origin.” If you’re being generous, you can also count Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ first volume of “Action Comics” from the “New 52” in that bunch as well. My point is that retelling Superman’s origin has effectively become its own sub-genre at this point. It’s this thing that attracts A-list creators who are looking to make a mark on the character. But why not write one of the character’s ongoing titles instead? By going back to his origin they’re freed from the burden of having to deal with current continuity and they can actually tell a story about Superman that gives him a significant character arc as he learns the hard lessons involved in becoming a superhero.
Enter Max Landis. Son of director John Landis, he’s best known for writing the film “Chronicle,” along with “American Ultra” and “Victor Frankenstein.” He’s also done a lot of internet videos, the most relevant ones to this review being the ones he did regarding “The Death and Return of Superman” and “Regarding Clark” about Superman’s decision to kill in “Man of Steel.” Landis is also a fairly controversial figure in fandom for a number of reasons, with his thoughts about Rey being a Mary Sue character in “The Force Awakens” being the most recently notable lightning rod. When you consider that his previous “Superman” story for DC was alright and the spotty track record Hollywood writers have for transitioning into comics writing, there was genuine reason to be nervous about how this would turn out even with the stellar assortment of artists that were lined up for this project. That makes the fact that this is one of the best (if not the best) takes on Superman’s origin all the more satisfying.
Landis’ original pitch, included at the back of this volume as an extra, was originally called “Seven Stories.” While the issues collected here eventually come together to present a cohesive portrait of Superman’s journey from boy, to man, to superhero they’re also a series of done-in-one tales that spotlight a particular time in his life. We see Clark Kent as a boy learning to control his ability to fly. As a teenager, he gets his first experience with taking the law into his own hands and the kind of harm he can inflict on regular humans. Subsequent stories show us how he comes to recognize the need for a secret identity, his first steps into journalism and Metropolis, and how to control the message he sends as Superman.
This approach works because of how we see these stores feed into one another as they go along. You need to have him get his ability to fly under control, or else how will he be able to do anything else? Having Clark see what his powers can do to ordinary people is necessary for him to develop a mindset where he doesn’t kill. Being chastised by Lex Luthor for storming into his office to hold him to account without a plan helps him understand how Superman needs to go about making sure justice is carried out. By the time we reach the final story, and get the Superman vs. Lobo fight I didn’t know I wanted, he’s emerged as a fully-realized character who you believe could handle any threat that comes his way.
Adding to the appeal of this approach is how grounded Landis has Clark/Superman appear as a character. While seeing a younger version of the character come of age is one of the primary appeals of this kind of story, the writer really strikes the right chords in his characterization here. It’s charming to see Clark as a boy, after having mastered flight, go on to his parents about how he’ll be able to fly them anywhere for a vacation now. Or when he’s a teenager and getting heckled by his friends about how he uses his X-ray vision. There’s also a really fun moment when he starts dancing with excitement after verifying that his recorder has taped conversations with Oliver Queen, Lex Luthor, and Dick Grayson. This isn’t a Clark Kent who started out as a paragon of moral virtue. We see him as a regular human with his own charms and vices. Much has been made about the flimsiness of his “Clark Kent” disguise over the years. Yet when he tells one of his friends that whenever he takes his glasses off people say, “You look just like Superman,” there’s a cocky charm there that makes it work.
There’s a similar charm to be found in the supporting cast as well. Yes, even Luthor. I mean that in the way that Landis shows him to be someone who genuinely believes himself to be one of those great individuals who is capable of moving humanity forward and is therefore above everyone else. He’s also demonstrated to have a great understanding of how the system works, which is why it’s so fun to see Clark give it a playful nudge both inadvertently and not. Pete and Kenny fill the role of Clark’s friends from Smallville, providing some fun as they rib him over his unique situation and some credible drama when they call him out over his failings. Jonathan and Martha Kent don’t get much of a role in the story beyond the first issue, but their stress and joy over raising this special boy is quite evident on the page. While it was nice to see Oliver Queen’s transition from rich douchebag to grounded businessman in the two issues he appeared, Bruce Wayne’s big appearance was the real superhero highlight for me. After years of “Who would win in a fight?” between Batman and Superman drama, it was actually refreshing to see the latter completely own the former here.
I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more done with Lois Lane, however. She gets some good scenes where she discusses what this new hero “Skyman” means and what his agenda is with Clark. Yet when it’s revealed that they’ve become a couple later on, there’s no real explanation as to how they came together. That probably would’ve warranted its own issue, to be honest.
Some of the dialogue can get a bit expository and on the nose as well. Particularly the bits in the sixth issue where Clark hashes things out with his friends. I also imagine some people will have issues with a teenage Clark who sneaks away to drink beer with his friends and almost curses (and does apparently curse off panel at one point). Personally, the idea of Clark’s abilities being a kind of “open secret” amongst certain individuals in Smallville does kind of rankle me. I mean, they’re supposed to be a secret even though I can understand that keeping them that way would probably be next to impossible in such a close-knit community. So while these issues do nag, I’ll cop to the fact that they’re more than likely the result of nitpicking.
As I mentioned above, a stellar contingent of artists was assembled for this series. Nick Dragotta gives us some delightfully energetic work that captures Clark’s exuberance as a boy, while Tommy Lee Edwards gives us some grittier art that’s in line with the character’s teenage years and the darkness of the story. Joelle Jones and Jonathan Case turn in the most grounded work, with the former really nailing the fun party at sea vibe of her story and the latter crafting a believable depiction of the scenic side of Metropolis and male friendship. Francis Manapul turns in some terrifically detailed superhero work in his story as Superman takes on the Parasite, and Jock brings his always-welcome high-energy style to the Superman vs. Lobo fight.
The only outlier here is Jae Lee, who turns in some work that is dramatically different than what I’ve seen from him before. While I haven’t seen what he’s been doing at DC in projects like “Before Watchmen” and “Batman/Superman” there was always this appealing spookiness to his art and a precision to it that made him a perfect fit for “The Dark Tower” miniseries he illustrated and brought an appreciably different aesthetic to superhero projects like “Inhumans” and “The Sentry.”
None of that is here as he turns in work that’s looser and sketchier than I’ve seen from him before. Between this and the bright colors from June Chung, the spookiness that I liked about his work is gone. Yet he’s still great with the characters, delivering an imposing rendition of Luthor, making Clark’s gleeful dance moment come off as likeably goofy, and rendering Batman’s swift defeat at Clark’s hands eminently believable. Yes, the difference in Lee’s current style versus his past one is striking, but it says something about his skill as an artist that he can still turn out strong work even as he ditches the characteristics of the style I know him for.
As it says on the back of this collection, this is not a Superman comic. It’s a fully-realized look at the formative years of Clark Kent as he grows into the superhero we all know and love. From the writing to the art, the progression of his life is thoroughly believable and captivating. And a whole lot of fun to take in as well. There are plenty of takes on Superman’s origin already out there for your consumption. Whether or not this is your first or your fifth, “American Alien” definitely warrants your time and money.