Review: The Feminist Narrative inside the Bro-tastic Superman: American Alien #3
Max Landis (Writer), Joelle Jones (Illustrator), Rico Renzi (Colorist), John Workman (Letterer)
January 13, 2016
This review is based on an advanced copy from DC Comics and contains spoilers.
Some people trace their love for Superman back to Christopher Reeve, while others grew up watching Smallville. For me, it was the 90s TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman that forever shaped the way that I see Clark Kent and Superman, and the relationship between the two. Although I’ve read many Superman titles over the years, none of them have ever seemed to capture what Dean Cain could—that combination of Clark’s innate goodness (which is not the same as innocence or naivete) and otherness (which is not the same as alienness or foreignness); the best traits of humanity in someone not human, and, more importantly, his human failings.
Superman has the moniker of the “Big Blue Boy Scout,” but Lois & Clark always made sure to include the ways that Clark struggled not only to fit in with, but also hide his secret from the people he cared about. The best Superman writers understand that Clark’s awkwardness and human failings are his true disguise, but fewer have realized that they’re not a pretense—what is precious about Clark is that the social awkwardness and self-consciousness are real, and a direct result of what happens when you spend your formative years growing up on a farm and deliberately keeping your distance from people.
It’s something Supergirl has managed to capture while but Man of Steel failed utterly to, and one of the reasons that I continually look forward to Supergirl week after week is the presence of this human Clark, who is loving but awkward even with blood relatives; who is fallible, capable of making mistakes even when he has the best of intentions—which is a real triumph, considering Henry Cavill isn’t allowed to appear on the show. It’s something I never thought I would be able to find in a comic, and then I read Superman: American Alien #3.
I was hesitant to jump into a series without having read the previous two issues, but what is wonderful about this series is that it’s essentially a collection of one-shots. The first two deal with Clark’s childhood and adolescence, and this third issue takes place with Clark at some indeterminate point after 21 but before college graduation. When I initially read the premise that Clark was pretending to be Bruce Wayne at some kind of wild yacht party I blanched—Clark Kent as a party bro? Uh, no—but we had a review copy, so I decided to dive in anyway.
I’m so glad I did. It’s clear from the first page that Landis gets Clark in a way that some writers of Superman never do, but more importantly, Landis loves Clark. He doesn’t see Clark as some kind less compelling version of Bruce Wayne, and this issue makes that abundantly clear. Despite superficial similarities, the relationship between Clark Kent and Superman is not the same as Bruce Wayne and Batman. How could it be? And this distinction is made analogously in this issue using the age old trope of mistaken identity—specifically, Clark being mistaken for Bruce.
Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne might, for the casual observer, bear a passing resemblance if you don’t bother to look deeper—just like the majority of the clueless party guests in this story. Some people will never see the difference, even when it’s staring them in the face (see Clark’s interactions with Oliver Queen). The only person to realize Clark isn’t Bruce does so immediately: Barbara Minerva, (otherwise known as Cheetah, part of Wonder Woman’s rogues gallery). This issue predates Barbara’s villainous transformation, which is interesting, but also points to how who she is (or in this case, who she will become) is less important than her narrative function.
That may sound misogynistic, but stay with me. In this issue, Barb performs the narrative role of being a mirror, sounding board, and object of desire for Clark. She is that mysterious one night stand who our male protagonist meets, spends one night with, and is forever changed by. It is as much a narrative cliche as the mistaken identity trope also found in this story. As one might expect, Barbara Minerva is far from the only woman in the DC rolodex capable of performing that role, which raises the question—why her? It would be tempting to view her future villainy as an intention to highlight Clark’s goodness, able to tempt future villains away from a tragic path, but I believe this is another smokescreen that hides what is actually admirable about Clark’s interaction with her.
Barb isn’t just a hookup. This is made clear mostly through Joelle Jones’ (Lady Killer) artwork, with many panels focusing just on Barb’s face. The panels in which we see her body aren’t overtly sexualized, and often only in a long shot where we see both Clark and Barb side by side—as equals, and not through the male gaze. The way I know that this isn’t the male gaze is that Barb is wearing a loose fitting tank top and cutoff jean shorts, which exposes quite a bit of skin, but Jones consistently draws her bra peeking through at various angles, exactly as would happen in real life if a real woman wore this outfit. I can’t remember the last time I saw a bra in a comic in a non-sexualized context.
And when given a post-coital setting, Jones actually hides Barbara’s body behind Clark’s.
There’s also a shot towards the end where we see Barb from below.
But Barb’s value as something other than merely eye candy is also found in the narrative itself. The reader is invited to place themselves in Barb’s point of view. We see her observing him when he doesn’t, and we see her thinking about their day together when he’s asleep. We also learn a great deal about Barbara Minerva’s life in her own words and about her personality through her dialogue with Clark. This highlights the way Clark is able to see people for who they are in a way that is astonishingly insightful, and seductive. It’s not really a surprise when they end up having sex, but it is important that the post-coital musing is done by Barb and not by Clark.
Clark isn’t a “nice guy” who gets to have sex with the hot girl because he says the right words. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and the comic values her reactions to him as much as his reactions to her. Through this combination of artwork without the male gaze and narrative importance placed on Barb as a person, I came to view the “anywoman” nature of Barb’s role in the narrative not as a misogynistic trope, but as an invitation for readers to see themselves in her. I’ve never felt invited into a Superman comic before, but now I am there, being charmed and seduced by Clark Kent. Barb is my wish fulfillment—not quite a Mary Sue (though it can be argued she fulfills that function too)— andthe fact that she is unfamiliar to many DC fans and new readers is what allows her to perform this function without criticism.
[pullquote]Clark isn’t a “nice guy” who gets to have sex with the hot girl because he says the right words. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and the comic values her reactions to him as much as his reactions to her.[/pullquote]It’s for these reasons that Clark’s interactions with Barb are far more engaging and significant than the actual “climax” of the comic, which involves Clark drunkenly kicking Deathstroke’s ass. Tonally, that portion of the comic is exactly what I was hoping this comic wouldn’t be. And not only does its comedic tone clash with the previous pages, it also feels like a narrative afterthought, or at the very least, a let down compared to the emotional scenes we’ve just read between Clark and Barb. My best guess for why this scene exists at all is that someone said that this comic wouldn’t appeal to bro readers without at least one example of Superman kicking ass and the fact that he does it while essentially drunk makes it even more bro-tastic.
But that’s part of the charm of this issue, too. On the surface, it absolutely succeeds as a bro-book. Landis, before the series debuted, described it as “stories Clark might tell you if you were having a beer together.” I have no doubt that’s exactly how he pitched this story to DC editorial. It may even be the story he thought he was writing. But it’s not the only story that’s here, and that is the power of art, and especially feminist art. What was actually shocking for me to realize was that hidden inside this story filled with bro-friendly antics, girls in bikinis, and comedic, drunken violence is an unabashedly romantic story of two strangers who meet by chance and are utterly changed by each other.
It’s because of this equality in the changed-ness that I feel that all readers are invited to see themselves in Barb, utterly caught unawares by someone who offers insight into their identity, and who is seductively honest about themselves. The narrative could have been told using Ollie as the one who notices and given the entire story a bromantic homoeroticism that would have been typical, even expected. To tell this story with Barb allows Landis to demonstrate how such encounters generate intimacy and can lead to a romantic and sexual conclusion. Heteronormativity hides what is, at its core, a reaction to Clark that is felt by everyone, regardless of their gender or sexuality.
Landis was also quoted in that article as saying that the Superman story he wanted to tell was “the opposite of All-Star Superman,” which, really, if I’d known that, I would’ve picked it up ages ago, since All-Star Superman is pretty much the opposite of what I would consider to be a good Superman story. After I read this issue, I went back and read the first two, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, largely, the opposite of All-Star Superman is exactly what Superman: American Alien is shaping up to be in the best ways.
This isn’t the traditional Superman narrative where Superman, or Clark Kent, saves the day, effecting change based on his moral compass. This isn’t an origin story, either, which is good, because everyone, even people who aren’t fans of comic books, know Superman’s origin story by heart by now. What Superman: American Alien does that is so different and so wonderful is show us the moments in Clark’s life that were monumental in their importance in shaping who he will become, though they likely didn’t seem to be at the time; those moments in life where, when facing a crossroads, you choose to go one way because you wouldn’t be able to stand yourself if you didn’t. Those moments when, looking back, you realize were fundamental to how you became the person you are now. It makes me excited for a Superman title in a way I haven’t been in a long time, and though it wasn’t on my pull list before, it is now.