Review: The Feminist Narrative inside the Bro-tastic Superman: American Alien #3

Review: The Feminist Narrative inside the Bro-tastic Superman: American Alien #3

Superman: American Alien #3 Max Landis (Writer), Joelle Jones (Illustrator), Rico Renzi (Colorist), John Workman (Letterer) DC Comics 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

Superman: American Alien #3supermanaacover

Max Landis (Writer), Joelle Jones (Illustrator), Rico Renzi (Colorist), John Workman (Letterer)
DC Comics
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.

SAA1

Bonus points for it being a plain bra.

And when given a post-coital setting, Jones actually hides Barbara’s body behind Clark’s.

Yes, good.

Yes, good.

There’s also a shot towards the end where we see Barb from below.

SAA3

I shudder to think what an artist like Frank Cho would have done, given this opportunity.

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 asstories 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. 

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  • Libby
    January 13, 2016, 6:35 pm

    This article didn’t effectively convince me of the issue’s successful subversion of problematic tropes. One could just as easily read the focus on Barb’s appreciation of Clark as the narrative using her attraction to him, less to develop her character, and more to build him up as an appealing man. Yes, we get her point of view, but it serves the man’s story and develops his stature and allure, so to speak, within that story. Barb also doesn’t do much beyond slot into Mary Sue and Manic Pixie Dream Girl roles; the author neither interrogates nor examines these tropes with any sort of depth. In fact, the author acknowledges that Barb functions as a Mary Sue, yet dismisses that criticism simply because she’s a character unfamiliar to DC fans. How exactly is lack of familiarity an antidote to the problems of Mary Sue characterization for female characters? Moreover, the author explains that Barb is her wish fulfillment character only because she is the vessel through which she got to admire Clark Kent. If I’m understanding the author correctly, she is arguing that, by crafting a female character that allows readers to appreciate Clark more, the issue served its female character well? Shouldn’t it be the other way around: the writing should allow us to appreciate Barb more as a person? Ultimately, I felt the article didn’t engage in enough critical analysis that first clearly defined, then thoroughly examined and disputed, the problematic tropes and other issues involved with this story.

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    • Mary@Libby
      January 13, 2016, 8:10 pm

      Libby, this is a fantastic post and you nailed what really bothers me about the book and I completely agree with your critique.

      Not only do I not think that this comic subverts any tropes, but I actually think it enforces them.

      Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that Barbara is no random character. On the contrary, she’s one of Wonder Woman’s most iconic villains who has, sadly, often been given little to do in recent years. It begs the uncomfortable question: just how many times do we need to see Wonder Woman’s mythos re-purposed as to a woman in awe of/a love interest of Superman? Does Wonder Woman’s core characters not deserve better than to be slotted into a role where she goes to bed with Superman? It’s intensely uncomfortable.

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    • Ardo Omer@Libby
      January 13, 2016, 8:14 pm

      I think she did do that! Also Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) is a known character to DC fans if we’re defining a DC fan as a fan who reads quite a few DC comics.

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      • Mary@Ardo Omer
        January 13, 2016, 8:37 pm

        Yes, Barbara is a character who belongs to the Wonder Woman mythos and is usually sidelined or ignored. And now she, like poor Wonder Woman herself, is another love interest in awe of Superman. Frankly, I would rather an original character than poaching yet again from Wonder Woman’s story to make Clark look good.

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    • Kate Tanski@Libby
      January 13, 2016, 10:41 pm

      I disagree entirely with the dismissal of Barbara as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the derogatory tone towards this term and Mary Sue. To me, the encounter between Barbara and Clark was like Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise. I spend a lot of time in this review talking about how I feel Barbara and Clark are treated as equals. If you don’t find my argument persuasive, that’s fair–but it does not also follow that my argument lacks critical thinking or analysis simply because you think characters are feminist, or a review is feminist, only if they act in ways you approve.

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      • Johanna C@Kate Tanski
        January 15, 2016, 5:31 am

        THIS.

        Frankly, having seen Mary turn up on several comment sections whenever the subject of Lois/Clark is brought up, I’m surprised she didn’t fall back on her personal favorite passive aggressive stratagem “if you disagree with me about Lois & Clark you’re a victim of institutionalized misogyny/sexism”. A term that has become extremely problematic in recent years. It’s no longer used as a term to describe actual institutionalized misogyny and sexism but rather to silence, demean, dismiss and disregard the opinions of feminists with whom other feminists disagree.

        Frankly, I’m tired and oh-so-over feminist gatekeepers like the ones turning up in this comment section. Feminism and sexism in media/pop culture is nuanced and it won’t be examined appropriately as long as smug, condescending, didactic, reactionary feminist gatekeepers get in the way of interpretive, thoughtful, friendly discussion.

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  • Rollo
    January 13, 2016, 5:24 pm

    I think we can give an opinion about this without saying Kate is a bad feminist as if all feminists have to like the same things and can’t like things another feminist doesn’t.

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    • Mary@Rollo
      January 13, 2016, 5:39 pm

      I never said Kate was a “bad feminist.” i said I didn’t agree with her POV on the story. I disagree with the value she took from it. I may actually write a follow up blog piece where I break down further why I don’t agree with what she’s saying here. But I never said she was a “bad” anything. The other commenter above has a language barrier so keep that in mind….

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    • Kate Tanski@Rollo
      January 13, 2016, 10:30 pm

      Rock on.

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  • Mary
    January 13, 2016, 5:03 pm

    Kate, there are several great feminist blogs that have some great recs/lists of feminist and wonderful Superman stories. Arcs by Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, Bryan Q Miller and more. If you are looking for something that speaks to Clark’s humanity (and also addresses romance and sexuality) I would really encourage you to follow some of those rec lists. i would start with the FyeahLois tumblr of the FyeahSupermanandLoisLane tumblr but there are others as well. I agree with you that All Star Supermam does not deliver in that way but there are many other stories out there that do. And, IMO, they are much much better more worth the attebtion than this. Check it out!

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    • Kate Tanski@Mary
      January 13, 2016, 5:17 pm

      Thank you for the recs! Everything I’ve read with Superman post: Birthright has been an intense let down, which was why I stopped bothering to read it, and it is always a challenge to figure out where to start. Much appreciate the assurance that there are other good Superman stories that value Superman’s humanity out there.

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      • Mary@Kate Tanski
        January 13, 2016, 5:44 pm

        You have missed some great stuff! Much of it, like “Lois and Clark” with Lois at the forefront as a woman with far greater narrative purpose and complexity than what we see here. And there’s plenty of sex there too and lots of it very much not male gazey. The current Superman offices are terrible and it’s very unfortunate but there are some lovely things out there. hope you enjoy!

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    • Johanna C@Mary
      January 15, 2016, 6:26 am

      I feel compelled here to point out that people do have a right to pick up any random comic that sparks their interest and write about it without having to be a expert on that particular characters history or read what others deem to be the definitive stories of that particular character. That’s what entitled bro fandom gatekeepers traditionally do to women. Good lord. The petulance and fan entitlement is off the charts, saying that this comic should not get any attention or that Kate would be “better off” writing about something else. “That’s right, dear. You read something else. Don’t read this, it’s not proper for young ladies to read such things. You just let me pick something you would enjoy much more. ::headpat:: now scoot.”

      I mean, do you hear yourself? Oh, right. I forgot. You are the only one you do hear. I’m seriously about to go ballistic on some of this gaslighting, paternal BS.

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  • veronica
    January 13, 2016, 3:53 pm

    There is nothing feminist here. let someone who understand feminist write a good article about this

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    • Claire Napier@veronica
      January 13, 2016, 4:15 pm

      No, I’m sorry, we only let people who do NOT understand feminist write BAD articles, here.

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      • Mary@Claire Napier
        January 13, 2016, 4:55 pm

        Pretty sure that commenter has a language barrier, ladies. Just a heads up.

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        • Ardo Omer@Mary
          January 13, 2016, 8:08 pm

          That might be the case but the point remains the same. The question of whether or not the concept of feminism is being understood here is being called into question.

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      • Johanna C@Claire Napier
        January 15, 2016, 6:13 am

        Ha! I like Claire. She knows her sarcasm. 😉

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    • Kate Tanski@veronica
      January 13, 2016, 4:32 pm

      It says feminist right in the title…

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  • Oli
    January 13, 2016, 1:02 pm

    This is such a great article. I’m really surprised that Landis was able to write with such respect for women because of his online reputation.

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    • Mary@Oli
      January 13, 2016, 4:08 pm

      I don’t think he did. To be honest, I am baffled by this review. Baffled.

      Here’s what I agree with: the art was beautiful. The art softened a lot of the problems with this book. Kudos to Joelle there. I also agree with the writer’s overall take on what makes Clark interesting and fallible. I, too, grew up loving Superman from “Lois and Clark.” But that’s where my agreement ends.

      I am not seeing or feeling anything feminist or respectful here. This comic read like a dudebro fantasy story from start to finish. And it’s yet another example of an AU where a male writer is trying to prove how “cool” Clark is by having a hot babe coming on to him and in awe of him. It’s a response to this awful idea that Clark wasn’t a “real man” before because he didn’t like to have sex unless he was in love. It’s toxic masculinity at its core permeating into one of the few male characters that didn’t used to have to be a “bro” to prove his manhood.

      Is the book all bad? No. There are a few cute moments and the art saves it. But I disagree entirely that this story is remotely something for women to celebrate.

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      • Kate Tanski@Mary
        January 13, 2016, 4:28 pm

        I disagree that the purpose of this issue was to have Clark have sex with a hot chick in order to prove his masculinity. I do think that there is a bro narrative, but I think that the point of Clark at the center of a bro lifestyle he is well aware of as a lifestyle he could never actually be a part of is to demonstrate how he’s not part of that culture of toxic masculinity, and I feel most of the story successfully gets that across in large part due to the art, which manages to not be male gaze-y. I don’t go so far as to say this is something that all womenkind should celebrate. This comic resonated with me. YMMV.

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        • Mary@Kate Tanski
          January 13, 2016, 4:53 pm

          The story centers around Clark Kent washing up on a boat and immediately being approached by a mysterious babe who is fascinated by him, wants him and can’t wait to have sex with him. The next morning, she is in awe of him and still clearly stunned by him. The story is written by a writer who himself has a questionable history with treating women like people. I agree with you that the art does its best to bring nuance to the set-up but are you genuinely telling me that you don’t understand why the concept of this book and the subsequent plot is cringeworthy to some? Particularly in light of DC’s recent problems with the Superman office and the toxic way that Clark’s entire narrative has been torn down and restructured to make him more friendly to men and less “feminine?”

          Also, out of curiosity, you got a review copy of this. Do you get a review copy of Superman: Lois and Clark by Dan Jurgens? Bc if you want a book that focuses on Clark’s kindness and humanity…that’s it. It’s also the only book DC is publishing right now that is about a working mother let alone a marriage. I would love to see that book given some attention on this site….

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          • Kate Tanski@Mary
            January 13, 2016, 5:10 pm

            That was actually the impetus for my review. I went into it thinking it was going to be a cringeworthy bro-tastic romp, but I spend most of my review talking about how the art and the way the narrative utilizes Barb subverts this because that’s how I felt when I read it. I was predisposed to not enjoying it, but enjoyed it, and I wrote about why. I do not make any claims beyond this. Re: Your other point–I haven’t read Superman: Lois and Clark, but I do genuinely appreciate your rec! It’s because of the reputation the Superman office has that I haven’t been reading any Supes titles, but I will definitely check it out if we have a review copy.

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          • Ardo Omer@Mary
            January 13, 2016, 8:03 pm

            Or it could be read as Clark washing up on a boat full of obscenely rich people and Barb finds someone to to discuss the ridiculousness of this fact. They’re two young people taking advantage of the time and place of this situational encounter that never feels like Clark succumbs to the dudebro mentality or Barb is stripped of her personhood or agency. She initiates sex as a young woman with confidence in herself as a sexual being and sure she’s intrigued by Clark as a person but ultimately decides to keep this moment in the moment. Max Landis brings with him baggage of course but this issue never felt like a dudebro story but that’s alternate readings for you! What gets covered on the site is one part what our contributor and staffers are interested in and one part what our readers would like us to cover so I’ll pass along the Superman: Lois and Clark by Dan Jurgens interest to the crew. If you feel like you have something worth saying about that comic, pitch us!

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          • Laura Harcourt@Mary
            January 13, 2016, 8:31 pm

            I don’t think there’s anything inherently anti-feminist about an independent lady getting it on with a cute stranger for a fun night, and I’m uncomfortable with the idea that there’s something shameful about a one-night stand that was clearly enjoyable for and wanted by both parties, or that it was only a ploy to prove Clark’s masculinity and gave zero agency to Barb. Is it a perfect scenario, or how I would expect grown-up Clark, with a grown-up relationship, to act? Not really, but I do appreciate the fact that it utilized consensual casual sex in a non-male gaze-y way, without sacrificing Clark’s character or Barb’s personhood.

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    • Kate Tanski@Oli
      January 13, 2016, 4:16 pm

      The issue surprised me too! That’s why I felt compelled to write about it.

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