Superman: The Kansas Sightings
by J.M. DeMatteis, Jamie Tolagson
(DC Comics, 2003)

It was only a matter of time before the Roswellian-style aliens and the comic book alien, a.k.a. the Last Son of Krypton, would merge in popular imagination. In this two-part prestige format book, J.M. DeMatteis tackles the question: did Jor-El, late father of one of our most well-known and beloved pop-culture icons, send probes to Earth to get the feel of the place before he shot his only son through space to land safely in the farm fields of Smallville, Kansas?

The concept certainly does make a great deal of sense. DeMatteis brings a great deal of thought to this intriguing chapter in the Man of Steel's pre-Earth history and asks the intriguing question: Did Jor-El kidnap any Earthlings for "scientific experimentation" while checking out the suitability of the planet?

One woman, whose son has been missing since he was kidnapped by extraterrestrials many years ago, thinks the arrival of Superman had something to do with it, and Clark Kent decides to find out whether or not his biological father was involved with the boy's disappearance. In the process of investigating his origins he encounters others who claim to have been abducted by someone who could have been Jor-El. This forces Clark to face one of the most fundamental problems of his existence: the nature of his own alien identity.

The downside to this otherwise engaging story is that this issue is explored perhaps a bit too deeply: what begins as a charming and whimsical tale ends up losing its balance between insightfulness and silliness. Too many issues crowd the front burner with the same sense of urgency. The story takes on the issues of life after death, the nature of identity, the mystery of human perception, astral travel, the bonds of parent-child relationships and more. DeMatteis, normally a master hand at this transcendental kind of storytelling, seems to be trying too hard to create a whole new chapter in the history of Superman.

There's certainly room to work with, considering how poplar stories like the Roswell UFO crash have become since The X-Files made the event a pivotal part of 1990s pop-culture mythology. The story bears such an eerie resemblance to the arrival of Kal-El that it's very easy to morph one tale into another. That part of the story DeMatteis handles very well.

The problem is that he didn't quite know where to stop in terms of exploring the varying concepts behind such a possibility, going off on tangents whose weighty subject matter couldn't be fully explored in a 12-issue miniseries, let alone a two-part format. But that's where DeMatteis is most at home: asking questions without really wanting to find concrete answers. His fantastically kooky and engaging stories, like Abadazad and Moonshadow, remind us that it's not how we get there, or even that we get there; it's that we're going there that matters.

Therein lies the problem. The plot jumps all over the place. It's hard to find footing in such an abstract story, and the lack of a clear destination can be very frustrating.

What supports the story is the sharp characterization and its complete, at times almost zealous, honesty. Its earnestness can be its best feature. The best way to approach it is to just relax into it and not worry about its need to shine a light into every last corner. DeMatteis really wants the reader to think about the meaning of it all. That kind of challenge isn't always present in most comics today. Read the right way, it can be a refreshing change.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 10 April 2004

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