Cover by Ryan Sook

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Superman: American Alien #1. Written by Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra) with art by Nick Dragotta (FF, East Of West), and colorist Alex Guimarães (Lord Of The Jungle, Lords Of Mars), the issue is a sterling example of why superhero publishers should loosen the reins of continuity and allow creators to put their unique stamp on iconic characters. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

With Convergence and Secret Wars, 2015 has been a year of big continuity experiments at DC and Marvel, providing temporary glimpses at what the superhero comics landscape would look like if publishers relaxed continuity restrictions and allowed creators to play around with different versions of established characters. The two events are far from perfect: Convergence has very uninspired creative teams on the majority of books, and Secret Wars has lost significant momentum due to the delays of the main title. But it’s fascinating to see how these publishers change when they stop worrying about how books connect to one another. With its history of Crises that wipe out older versions of its characters, DC pays tribute to its eradicated history in Convergence, bringing on board many creators that helped shape the publisher’s past. Secret Wars is similarly rooted in Marvel’s history, but creators aren’t caged by it, instead given the opportunity to reimagine classic concepts through their distinct perspective.

Convergence: Superman art by Lee Weeks and Brad Anderson

Unfortunately, a shared universe with a clearly defined continuity is the norm for the Big Two, and they’ve returned back to the status quo after these events (or during, in the case of Secret Wars). While the post-Convergence DCYOU initiative has taken steps forward with a new focus on stylistic and creative diversity, “All-New, All-Different Marvel” has stumbled by failing to live up to the promise of its name, turning to familiar creators and proven properties instead of taking risks. There are some unexpected Marvel releases like Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur and Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat coming down the line, but the first month of the relaunch lacked the excitement that defined the best Secret Wars miniseries.

DKIII art by Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson

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DC and Marvel understand the benefits of unshackling creators from continuity, but these stories typically unfold in contained miniseries rather than open-ended ongoing series. The most famous example is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns: DC giving Miller free rein on one of its most popular characters ultimately changed the entire course of superhero comics. The necessity of this year’s new DKIII: The Master Race is questionable, but it’s still cool to see Miller expanding on his own interpretation of Batman, albeit now with some help from co-writer Brian Azzarello and artist Andy Kubert. While it may not be an interpretation that readers are comfortable with (see: Miller’s All-Star Batman & Robin), it’s one that reflects Miller’s changing creative sensibility, allowing him to make a strong artistic statement he wouldn’t be able to if he were working within a tight continuity framework. Those artistic statements don’t necessarily lead to good comics, but the fact that Miller can make them at all speaks to how a continuity-free model could reinvigorate superhero comics.

That model has resulted in some of Superman’s most powerful stories, including Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Seasons, and Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity. It’s too early to tell how Max Landis’ new miniseries, Superman: American Alien, will stack up to these past works, but this week’s debut issue makes a big impression with a heartfelt story about a young Clark Kent discovering his ability to fly. Each issue partners Landis with a new art team for a self-contained story set during a different period in Superman’s life; that structure is possible because Landis doesn’t have to align his version of the hero with anyone else’s.

In an interview running in the back of all DC’s titles this week, Landis mentions that DC reached out to him around the time he released his opinion piece “Regarding Clark,” in which he details the qualities he values about Superman and the ways he’s disappointed by the treatment of the character in Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel. Landis has a smart perspective on the character, seeing him as an ordinary guy from Kansas who chooses to do good with his extraordinary abilities. The first issue of American Alien drives that idea across by focusing on the relationship between Clark and his adopted parents. In “Dove,” Landis makes Clark’s unpredictable, uncontrollable ability to take flight a metaphor for puberty, exploring how the sudden changes in his body force him to interact differently with the world. He’s confused and afraid, but luckily he has two loving parents who will do everything in their power to help him, even if they’re confused and afraid too.

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Art by Nick Dragotta and Alex GuimarĂŁes

Artist Nick Dragotta and colorist Alex Guimarães are the perfect art team for this coming-of-age tale, bringing a youthful sense of wonder to the page while grounding the story with clear emotional storytelling and finely detailed environments. The cartoonish exaggeration of Dragotta’s characters gives the issue a playful atmosphere, but he handles the dramatic moments with subtlety and nuance that bring depth to the script. The artist’s talent for bold composition is regularly showcased in the ongoing East Of West, and he begins American Alien with a dramatic splash page showing Clark Kent floating high above his house with his panicking mother tightly grasping his leg as he ascends. The body language of both mother and son reveals their shared terror, and small details like Martha’s falling slippers intensify the danger of the situation by drawing attention to the steadily expanding distance between Martha and the ground.

American Alien is Guimarães’ highest-profile assignment as a colorist, and DC would be wise to give him more work based on the strength of this issue. He has a firm handle on using color to create a specific mood, and he makes confident, intelligent choices that elevate Dragotta’s artwork. His coloring is actually very similar to Dragotta’s East Of West collaborator Frank Martin, particularly in the texturing and the contrast of warm and cold colors. Making blue the dominant color for the first scene creates a point of contrast for the bright explosion of reds and oranges when Jon Kent dreams about his son’s crash landing, using colors to accentuate the tension between father and son. There’s a part of Jon that is afraid of his alien son, but he doesn’t let that diminish his affection for Clark, an idea that is also reinforced in the coloring. During one of the issue’s most touching scenes, Jon carries Clark over his head and runs through a cornfield in hopes that he’ll trigger his son’s flight powers, a moment that is colored with a harmonious balance of warm and cold tones to emphasize the comfort and closeness of their bond.

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Art by Dragotta and GuimarĂŁes

Landis does exceptional work with Jon and Martha Kent, delving into the complexity of their relationship with their son and fleshing out their backstory with “The Castaways,” a two-page spread at the end of the issue that uses letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other assorted items to detail major events in the Kents’ lives: the move to Kansas to maintain the Kent family farm when Jon’s father dies, the drunk-driving accident that causes a pregnant Martha to miscarry, the process of forging records to explain their new adopted alien child. Featuring art by Matthew Clark and colors by Rob Schwager, “The Castaways” cleverly delivers a huge amount of information, and it defines Jon and Martha more fully as characters as a result. The back-up adds new layers to the main story, and it’s worth rereading “Dove” after learning about the Kents’ past.

Art by Matthew Clark and Rob Schwager

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With a poignant story, expressive artwork, and sleek lettering by industry legend John Workman (whose skill for evocative sound effects is unparalleled), American Alien #1 is one of the best Superman comics in a year when the character has already experienced some major changes for the better. But unlike the current story unfolding in the main Superman titles, this issue isn’t memorable because it takes the character in a bold new direction. It’s memorable because it gets at the heart of what has made the character one of the world’s popular heroes. Because he’s not restricted by continuity, Landis can commit to his ideal version of Superman.