Superman: American Alien is a frustrating not because it's a bad project (it's not), but because the story's unevenness keeps it from being a great one. For every beautiful Superman character moment, there is an awkward cameo by a DC hero. For every clever re-imagining of Clark Kent's early heroics, there's too-clever-by-half reference to his future. For all its surface-y originality, there's an inherent disappointment in the book's willingness to put its emphasis not on young Clark's journey, but on his all too familiar destination. I like the idea of learning what makes the ever mysterious Kryptonian tick, but I'd much rather do so without being forcibly reminded that he, and everyone he interacts with, will someday be heroes or villains. Case in point is issue number four, which follows Clark on his first days in Gotham as he attends a summit between Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, and Alexander 'Lex' Luthor. Also in attendance are Lois Lane (who Clark having misread her name in print, expects to be a man), and, for some reason, a pre-pubescent Dick Grayson. The issue bounces Clark between different heart-to-hearts with future DC-greats, first Oliver, then Lex, and finally Dick (and one more in the final pages who isn't surprising but I won't spoil). The conversations are, on an individual level, interesting reads, but there's a definite forced quality to having Clark meet with, in rapid succession, three future allies and foes.
Perhaps this would be less of a problem if there was a central theme to tie everything together, but it doesn't feel like there is. Each discussion revolves in some way around heroism, and one assumes moves Clark a little closer to Superman. But while each conversation has some interesting ramifications for Superman (Oliver Queen shows him, for example, how successful a dual life can be), but they mainly seem intent on foreshadowing. Lex talks about his own superiority and starts his antagonistic relationship with Clark, Oliver discusses his experiences on the Island, and Dick Grayson talks about Batman's psychology. This last conversation is the most problematic mostly because Landis is unable to believable capture the voice of a child. Even for a child as intelligent and odd as Dick Grayson, it's off-putting to have him saying lines like 'Fear needs hope'.
But with all that said, there are some things working just right in this issue. Clark Kent comes off believably like a hayseed out of his element (his car is stolen and Lex's vocabulary confuses him) which is exactly the sort of detail that separates this origin story from others. Further, while their place in the story may be awkward, Lex Luthor and Oliver Queen are both written very sharply with a good ear towards their specific egos.
And not enough can be said of Jae Lee's art, which manages to look very different than his normal work. He's toned down the spider-y line work and shadows (though both are still present) in favor of softly impressionistic cityscapes contrasting with sharply detailed character work. I was curious how Jae, whose work is usually very serious and grim would adjust to the lighter tone of Superman's world, but he does so with apparent ease (though June Chung's colors help). The only off moment in the whole issue is the decision to draw Lois Lane looking Asian-American (not in itself a problem, but it clashes with the prequel-nature of the rest of the book).
Thanks in large part to the art, this issue feels like one that could have been excellent with some polishing. As it is, it comes off as the ambitious but self-indulgent work of a young writer (and impression not hurt by Landis' public persona). Early on, a once again too-cute reference is made to Quitely and Morrison's All-Star Superman, which is a sad reminder of what can be done with a Superman re-imagining. I remain excited to see where things go from here (there is some hint things will be more serialized going forwards), but I hope that future issues will focus more on Clark and less on the DC universe.
Superman: American Alien #4 Author: Max Landis Artist: Jae Lee Publisher: DC Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 2/17/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital