Max Landis and Jae Lee finally move college-aged Clark to Metropolis in “Superman: American Alien” #4. Clark Kent’s journalism class assignment finds him covering a business summit where young executives Oliver Queen, Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne are all in attendance, and it’s an assignment that turns out to be a defining day in Clark’s life. Landis’ series has been about putting fresh spin on Clark’s defining moments, and — as in past issues — Landis provides no shortage of them here in another brilliant and beautifully insightful examination of Clark and his future allies.
Farm boy Clark learns a big city lesson right away, which Landis and Lee succinctly execute on the very first page; it reminds fans that — while Clark has seen a lot of growth — there’s still room for plenty more. Perhaps reflecting the intimidation of the big city with respect to Clark’s rural upbringing, Metropolis appears not as the shining beacon it’s often portrayed as, but rather as rugged with an almost Gotham-like skyline. Lee brings a a coarser, more jagged look to the city, significantly different from his typically more stylish, smoother lines; however, there’s no mistaking Lee’s trademark layouts, which leave empty space that’s attractively filled in by colorist June Chung.
The issue introduces Clark to Lois Lane, a moment Superman fans have seen time and time again. As he has done so adeptly throughout the series, Landis makes it work with a totally different and refreshing flair; despite all the past reboots and out-of-continuity encounters, this important beginning comes across as something that is genuinely a new experience for not only both characters, but also the readers. It also has the distinction of possibly being the most hilariously awkward first encounter ever, not just for Clark and Lois, but for — well — anyone.
Landis includes a pleasant surprise through a reference to Clark’s experience last issue, when he was mistaken for Bruce Wayne. It connects in multiple ways, giving this issue a sense of being part of a whole, unlike the previous installments. This Clark a reason to engage with Oliver Queen, where Landis takes ample time to digress and provide some wonderfully revealing insight into Oliver, which in turn plays right into Clark’s own growth. There’s also some brilliant and deceptively simple insight from Luthor that puts a whole new meaning to a classic Superman tagline. Landis puts Clark in the role of a simple bystander, but one who takes in every word spoken to him, which shapes his future right before readers’ eyes.
There’s also a deeply insightful analysis of a young Dick Grayson, who immediately seems destined to spend his time somewhere far more meaningful than Lexcorp’s daycare facility. Landis takes the opportunity to remind anyone who’s forgotten that — like Bruce — Dick is also a detective, not just an orphan. Landis’ detailed showcasing of Dick’s abilities is magnificent, something rarely ever explored in such depth. Dick’s observations on how Batman’s dark and fearful persona needs balance in the form of Robin are also applicable to the brighter nature of a Superman-to-be, hinted at by way of Lee’s panel structure and Chung’s brighter embellishments. When these encounters are done, Landis reminds readers in carefree fashion that, while a lot has been said to forge a future Superman, Clark is still just a young adult — emphasis on “young.”
There’s actually one more important introduction for Clark later on, one that was not part of his assignment, and this first encounter with a fledgling Dark Knight is perhaps the most important one of all. Letterer John Workman even plays a role in Batman’s over-the-top, overly-cautionary ambush, adding the skillful element of subtle overplayed intimidation. It’s both funny and insightful to watch a pre-Superman Clark make short work of Gotham’s protector; though he overpowers the Dark Knight throughout their encounter, it’s nice to see he’s unable to shake the significance of this meeting. This leads to a beautiful and quasi-iconic wrap-up of the issue, again beautifully constructed by Lee and lavishly colored by Chung.
Landis and artist Steve Dillon close out the issue with a straightforward and standalone one-page feature encapsulating the origin of the Parasite. Like every issue thus far, “Superman: American Alien” #4 is a beautifully captivating examination of how the world shapes a young Clark Kent. It’s not the origin of Superman at all; it’s the story of a young man finding his way, learning that he just might have what it takes to be the world’s greatest hero.