Despite his experience with blockbuster Hollywood movies, Max Landis' upcoming Superman: American Alien isn't a bombastic tale about how Clark Kent became the super powerful hero known as Superman.
Instead, he says, "it's just about how Clark Kent became Clark Kent."
Told over seven issues beginning November 11, Superman: American Alien is illustrated by some of DC's most popular artists, including Jock, Francis Manapul and Jae Lee. And although the series features action and fight scenes — including a scene in the final issue the writer describes as "the most violent, realistic fight Superman has ever been in" — Landis says the stories in American Alien are "less about becoming a superhero and more about becoming not-an-asshole."
A screenwriter on movies like Chronicle and the upcoming Victor Frankenstein, Landis has made no secret of the fact that he's a huge Superman fan — whether via the internet, including his now-famous YouTube version of the Death of Superman, or through his Eisner-nominated depiction of the character in a two-part Adventures of Superman story last year.
Now he gets the chance to tell some of the stories about Superman he's wanted to tell for years, and Newsarama talked to Landis to find out more about American Alien.
Newsarama: Max, what's the meaning behind the title American Alien, and how does it apply to the stories you're telling?
Max Landis: The stories are thematically united by the idea of identity, but not so much "secret" identity… more "personality" identity, who we want to be versus who we are from moment to moment.
The reason it's called American Alien is that the thing that's always interested me about Superman the least are his alien origins. I think they're important thematically, but ultimately what I like about him as a character is that he was someone who was "born" in the U.S.A. and has grown up wanting to be the best kind of person.
Each of the stories is him challenging himself — while being challenged — about what kind of person he is. They're less about becoming a superhero and more about becoming not-an-asshole.
Nrama: Wow, what a description. It's interesting that you said it's not about him becoming a superhero, because I've noticed that most of the descriptions reference him as Clark Kent. Are these stories more about Clark Kent than they are about Superman?
Landis: I would say 150 percent yes. This is not a Superman comic. Superman is in it. Clark puts on the costume a couple of times, although I don't want to give away where and when, but it's more about the man behind it.
Because honestly, Superman as a hero, most of the stories involving him have been told so brilliantly, that could be told — you know, he's lost his powers, he's died, he's turned evil a million times, he's stopped world-enders and con men and aliens and robots, he's fought inter-dimensional gods, And all that was exciting, but I've seen it. And I wanted to write a comic about what we haven't seen, which is just sort of his day-to-day and the stories he would tell you if you were his friend.
Because Batman doesn't have one of those. Batman's secret identity is he's killing time until he can be Batman again. And Superman, as Clark Kent, they're the same person. Superman doesn't, to me, doesn't exist — it's just Clark in a costume choosing to try to help people. If there's an immediate call to Superman then he's Superman. You know? I don't think he ever willfully identified as Superman until he saw it on the news, and then he went, why not?
So yes, it's much more based on…. my interpretation of this mythos is much more based around Clark Kent not just as a secret identity of Superman, but as a character.
Nrama: It's interesting that you said he's trying not to be an asshole, yet so many people think of him as this squeaky clean boy scout. Yet he has the powers of a god compared to us. Does he really struggle with not being an asshole? Or is it more than you're saying we all struggle with that, and he just happens to be super-powerful.
Landis: We all struggle with that. In a big way, American Alien is about alienation. And it's grounding the alienation we all feel, being a story about a guy who actually is an alien, although his awareness of and interaction with that is limited, due to the fact that all the other ones are dead.
The thing is, though, Vaneta, that each story is so different. Each story is so different from the next one. But we're all colors on the palette of human emotion. You've dealt with situations like the ones in the comic that I wrote. You know? You may have never fought Parasite, but I didn't write an issue of a comic about fighting Parasite. Superman fights Parasite in it, but ultimately, it's about Clark Kent dealing with a bunch of unwanted attention.
I don't write any "Superman" stories. I mean, arguably, the last comic — the last issue, #7 — probably features the most violent, realistic fight Superman has ever been in, but at no point in it do we feel like it's bad-ass; it's just violent and scary and we're worried that our hero Clark is going to get badly injured.
Those are the kind of emotions I want to evoke, because as you say, Superman can be criticized as being, in previous iterations, fairly one-note. And I don't think we need to do that. And DC has given me an opportunity to do something a little different. And I think it's very brave of them, and I hope people read it. I don't think it'll piss people off.
Nrama: You mentioned Parasite, and I was going to ask you about what villains he gets to fight, but it seems like that's not the focus.
Landis: It's not. There are no superheroes or villains until the fourth issue.
Nrama: Yeah, there have been a lot of iterations of the character over the years. What do you think has to be part of the character? What are his core elements that make him Superman?
Landis: There are a bunch of elements that make him Superman. But if you're talking about the most core element of him, it's that he's a nice guy in a mean world.
You know, he's not Batman, he's not Green Lantern — he's not even Peter Parker, because you know, Peter Parker got guilted into being a superhero. And he keeps fucking up at it. And Batman, again — trauma. Hal Jordan was inducted. Wonder Woman was raised as one of these people. Green Arrow fell onto an island. The Flash, it was an accident and got turned into this.
Clark Kent was born with superpowers in Kansas. He could have done anything.
You know what he did? He went to high school, went to college and got a job.
I mean, that, to me, speaks volumes about how this character could or maybe should be written.
You know, even in Superman: Birthright, which is a comic that I really enjoyed, ultimately that comic was a run toward becoming Superman. How did Clark Kent become Superman?
My comic is not about that and doesn't even really address it head-on. It's just about how Clark Kent became Clark Kent.