Superman: American Alien #3: “Parrot”
Written by Max Landis
Illustrated by Joëlle Jones
Colored by Rico Renzi
Lettered by John Workman
Before we jump into this review, let’s look at that cover. I like some of the details, like the Batsymbol in the boat’s wake, but take a look at the central figure, the primary focus of the image.
The dark glasses.
The open red shirt.
The jovial attitude.
You know what I see every time I look at that cover?
That is straight up Eel O’Brian.
Unfortunately, this issue is not about Plastic Man’s Wacky Adventures on Bruce Wayne’s Yacht. That’s a shame, because even with 2016 still in its infancy I could guarantee you that would wind up on my Year End Best Of list.
Instead, Max Landis tells the story of a young Clark Kent accidentally winding up on an absent Bruce’s birthday cruise and the results are… mixed, at best.
For one, the whole premise of this American Alien series seems to be muddled and unclear. Landis himself has said it’s the story of “Clark Kent becoming Clark Kent,” but other than a few bright spots here and there it’s still pretty cynical and has a long way to go before Clark isn’t a jerk. The first issue, by far the strongest so far, gets a pass because he was a little kid, and the second installment was an effective take on the moral choices Clark would have to make with his powers, but there really isn’t much emotional grounding.
One of the strongest aspects of Superman’s character is that, really, he’s a humble farm boy who loves his mama and takes his daddy’s advice to heart; the fact that he has such unimaginable power is almost an afterthought to him, something that he uses to do the right thing simply because that’s what he should do. In recent years, that’s been driven further and further into the background, with writers instead choosing to focus on his alien nature and Kryptonian heritage, when what really makes the character work the best is that unlike, say, Batman, he’s Clark first, Superman second.
But maybe I just need to divorce my personal feelings of what the character should be from what he is right now. Looking at this issue, in this microcosm that Max Landis has created, there are a few glimmers of the Superman that we (or at least I) know and love, and even more than that it’s actually a pretty cutting look at Bruce Wayne’s identity.
After winning a trip to the Caribbean, Clark’s plane goes down over the ocean. He and the pilot are rescued, only to find themselves in the midst of a lavish birthday party.
Turns out it’s Bruce Wayne’s yacht, and as he never shows up to these gatherings, everyone’s forgotten what he looks like and assumes that Clark is the long-absent billionaire finally making an appearance. From a storytelling standpoint, I think Clark is the wrong fit for this, but for the sake of the review I’ll move past it and say instead that this is a brilliant idea for a story. Bruce obviously couldn’t care any less about his public perception, instead choosing to devote his life to training for his crusade against crime, and the idea that socialites and sycophants would hold parties “for him” at his expense is absolutely great. Just the thought of some guy being swept up in the revelry is really funny, and there are some genuinely great laughs to be had here.
One of the most distracting missteps is the name-dropping once Clark gets on board: Oliver Queen is there, which at least makes sense on a social level, but Sue Dibny makes an appearance (either without Ralph or they forgot what a maiden name is), and “Vic Zsasz and his wife”. Initially, I was completely befuddled by his inclusion, but it’s actually a nice detail because I had totally forgotten that he was head of his own corporation before becoming a serial killer. Twelve points to Landis for that little obscurity.
Sue’s inclusion is still weird, though, but that might just be the romantic in me wanting comics’ sweetest couple back.
Clark, of course, tries to deny this case of mistaken identity, but nobody’s having it. They either don’t know or don’t care, and it fits in with the “hanger-on” mentality of these people just wanting to rub elbows with the rich and elite.
Clark goes on to hook up with Barbara Minerva, who will someday become the Cheetah, and they have a long conversation about Clark’s dreams and desires before having a one-night stand. That’s another pretty egregious misstep for me, having Clark just nonchalantly hook up with somebody, but again, that’s my personal bias of what I want to see in this character.
The best bit of dialogue is small, but completely redeems pretty much everything going on here that I don’t like: after discussing that he wants to be a veterinarian to look out for something weaker than him, Clark claims that “natural selection’s garbage once you introduce compassion.”
I love this. Everything I was saying about the Kents having less of a focus in recent stories, any lamenting about Superman being portrayed as a brute instead of a guy who does what he does because it’s the right thing to do are dashed right there. This is a guy who realizes that no matter how strong you are, no matter how many mountains you can move or how many alien despots you go toe to toe with, if you’re not protecting those who can’t protect themselves then you’re not any different than the villains you defeat. Clark is a man of heart and compassion, and with one simple line Landis shows he gets it.
Eventually, Clark feels tipsy and heads to the bathroom, only to encounter the Weird-Orange-And-Black-Masked Assassin.
He was sent on board to kill Bruce and monologues about a deadly neurotoxin that was in “Bruce’s” glass that will kill him in seconds. Instead, Clark just gets a bit drunk, and dispatches
Swordy-Stab-Man Deathstroke, that’s right, in the funniest panel I’ve seen in a long while.
Props to Joëlle Jones and the vibrant colors of Rico Renzi. Everything looks like it comes from one of those late-night Absolut Vodka commercials, and believe it or not I mean that in a good way.
Now, even though Batman’s presence is felt throughout this book, why are we featuring it if he isn’t actually in it? Well, Batman hasn’t been in his own comics for almost a year now and we’re still covering those.
Just kidding; he’s on the last page.
There’s also a single page story about Mr. Mxyzptlk at the end with some pretty interesting visuals from Mark Buckingham and José Villarubia, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the issue and the script is derivative of something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s about ideas being just as real as flesh and blood beings, perhaps even moreso because they are known by more people and will outlast everyone who reads about them. I don’t know. Maybe Futurama? Probably not.
Anyway, my feelings on this issue actually improved as I was writing this. I know there were a lot of nitpicks, but I tried to approach it with a slightly open mind (and, let’s face it, failed miserably) and appreciate it for what it’s doing. The problem right now is I’m not entirely sure where it’s going or what Landis is ultimately trying to say, but for an issue that pokes fun at Bruce’s billionaire status and offers a brief but excellent look at Clark’s feelings about strength it works pretty well.
- You like the idea of playing with Bruce’s identity.
- You want a different kind of Superman story.
- You want to see Deathstroke taken down with ease.
- Cameos galore, I guess? I get that they’re all characters of wealth and privilege, it was just pretty distracting.
- You want to see some pretty nice art that captures the hedonism and excess of the party lifestyle pretty well.
Overall: Like I said, even just writing about it improved my mood. Most of it is the fact that this is part of a still incomplete whole, but while I may not totally agree or even like everything that’s being done with Clark’s character at least it’s something a bit different. If nothing else, it’s a great spin on the typical Superman/Batman story, and any time we can get one of those where they don’t punch each other I’m ok with that.