An all-star creative team delivers one of the most approachable and heartwarming reimaginings of young Clark Kent in “Superman: American Alien” #1. Max Landis knows that, despite being an alien, Clark is more importantly a kid who strives for the same thing as other children his age: to be normal. Artist Nick Dragotta gives Clark a literal wide-eyed kind of innocence, and colorist Alex GuimarÃ£es immerses Smallville in lush pastels for a timeless sense of idyllic Americana, even as Landis’ story firmly plants Clark’s youth in a specific era. There are few who don’t know the basics of Superman’s origin, so — with this in mind — Landis glosses over the details and instead shapes his story into a delightful examination of Clark’s desire for normalcy, which eventually gives way to embracing one’s own individuality — something that’s especially unique and important for the boy who will be Superman.
Landis’ story doesn’t contain the usual environment of ignorance-based fearmongering and a dangerous sense of fragile secrecy, both of which often pervaded past incarnations of Superman’s origin. While Clark spent a decade harboring his own secret in “Smallville” and Jonathan Kent discouraged open displays of power in 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” Landis provides a refreshing sense of dismissal that keeps the story from turning into one with raging villagers bearing torches and pitchforks. It allows for an exploration of Clark’s personality, more so than his powers: by his family, friends, townsfolk and — eventually — himself. It’s not about believing a boy can fly; it’s about why he doesn’t want to.
Landis does convey a bit of a fearful tone early on, especially from Clark himself when he first finds himself floating away like a hot air balloon on a windy day. Martha’s concern is expressed via Landis’ words, while Jon’s is more expressed more fearfully by Dragotta and GuimarÃ£es, particularly in one of Jon’s nightmares. Dragotta also visually conveys Jon as being more distant from Clark, via Jon’s expressions and his body language. In fact, Dragotta’s art goes just as far as Landis’ script to express Martha’s open unconditional love vs. Jon’s more guarded feelings for his son.
The tone softens later on in a wonderful and defining moment in the issue. The evolving dynamic between father and son is what makes the issue shine, as Landis doesn’t try to mold Jon into a father who’s trying to use his son to save the world or save his son from the world. Instead, it’s not about the rest of the world at all; it’s about a father who does everything he can to help his son be the person Clark wants to be, not who Jon wants him to be. It’s a refreshing take on “Pa Kent,” who has probably never been portrayed as a better role model than he is here.
As envisioned by Dragotta, Jon and Martha no longer look like they were lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting; gone are the bespectacled grandparent archetypes and in their place are a much younger couple who look much more convincing as modern parents of a young boy in 1980s Kansas. Coupled with “E.T.” references, a mullet-endowed Pete Ross almost looks modeled after Sean Penn’s character in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Dragotta provides an almost toned-down manga-like look for the characters, adding to the genuine sense of innocence in Landis’ story.
Dragotta and GuimarÃ£es provide other great imagery throughout the issue, beginning on the opening page, where they capture a clearly dire moment with a balance of seriousness and lightheartedness that sets the tone of the issue without diminishing the impact or importance of the scene. Dragotta seamlessly transitions between scenes, effectively using storytelling standbys like seasonal changes to evoke passage of time, which requires no words from Landis or captions from letterer John Workman. Dragotta brilliantly foreshadows Clark’s future role as iconic superhero with a wonderful and inventive visual near the end of the story.
Landis, Dragotta and GuimarÃ£es tell a beautiful and delightful tale about a key segment in the life young Clark Kent. A single illustration by Matthew Clark and Rob Schwager at the end of the issue is ripe with insight into the history of the Kents, which both deserves reader scrutiny and contains some curious oddities that demand future explanation. If you’re worried “Superman: American Alien” #1 is just another version of Superman’s origin, don’t be — it’s even better.