Superman: American Alien remains one of the best series ever written about the Man of Steel—despite the fact that the latest issue is the weakest yet. Though this is writer Max Landis’s first major series, his storytelling up to this point has had surprising focus and complexity. Each issue has made a very specific point about how Clark Kent became the superhero we all know. That’s not the case here.
The basic set up is that two of Clark’s childhood friends, Kenny and Pete, make a visit from Smallville. While each artist who’s worked on the series (it changes every issue) has helped their assigned stories feel like their own unique journey, Jonathan Case’s work in this issue is especially fantastic. It has a a somewhat quaint, almost Golden Age feel. It’s all bold lines and primary colors and it feels like looking at Metropolis through the eyes of Clark’s friends. The visitors are at turns overwhelmed by Metropolis’s bustling energy (Kenny) and filled with small-town condescension (Pete). As it always does in these kinds of stories, Pete’s passive-aggression soon turns to outright hostility and he and Clark get into the kind of fight where both of them say regrettable, hurtful things until one of them storms off.
Landis rather cleverly subverts the expected narrative and bases Pete’s hostility not in deep-seated jealousy of his friend’s success, but a fear of it. In essence, Pete is struggling with watching his good friend face increasingly dangerous threats and he fears what that means for both Clark and the world at large. And while that feeling must certainly be a fundamental part of the Superman mythos, it’s unclear what lesson Clark is supposed to learn.
On some level, it’s impossible for Clark to understand Pete’s fear. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be anything but invincible. By the same token, it’s impossible for Pete to understand that no matter how well Clark integrates into the human world, he’s forever an outsider. He has a right to–as he explains–seek out his origins. While Landis is likely trying to make the point that Superman (as well as the other superheroes popping up around the world) may be escalating the danger as much neutralizing it, what it seems to say is that Clark needs to be more mindful of how helpless his friends feel in the face of his power. And that is just so selfish.
What makes Superman admirable is his selflessness. He uses his power to help when he could easily become a tyrant instead. He gives people hope in the face of unimaginable evil. Who cares if that makes some of his buddies feel uncomfortable? The question of whether Superman may also have a negative influence is valid and interesting, but by approaching that question from such a personal angle, that greater point is lost. It’s a rare misstep for Landis and one that hopefully won’t happen in the final two issues.