Review: Superboy: The Boy of Steel hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, June 14, 2010

I've been a fan of Superboy -- Conner Kent, Kon-El, or for those who were there in the beginning, "the Kid" -- for a long time. By a long time, I mean I've got every issue of the Superboy series, every issue of Young Justice -- heck, I've got every issue of Superboy and the Ravers! And indeed, I'd venture Superboy's death in Infinite Crisis is about the first time a comics character's passing really got me (and that I truly believed he was dead). Having followed the character from the start and enjoyed his various Karl Kesel, Peter David, and Geoff Johns incarnations, I felt after Infinite Crisis that I really would miss this character.

To that end, I'd have been glad for just about any story that has Geoff Johns writing a newly-resurrected Superboy, even Superboy sitting around reading the phone book. As a matter of fact, the Superboy: The Boy of Steel collection isn't quite far off that -- the real comic book-type action of this story is relegated to a few brief pages at the end, while the rest mainly shows Superboy reconnecting with his friends and being glad to be alive. This won't, I imagine, be the most riveting stuff to every reader -- depending on your perspective, this book could very well reflect a host of problems with DC Comics -- but for this Superboy fan, it's a welcome, welcome volume.

[Contains spoilers]

The clone Superboy, in his early incarnation, largely symbolized 1990s comic book excesses; while Superboy wasn't as muscle-ripped nor his adventures as bloody as some, his sarcasm and leather jacket oozed "kewl." Similarly, Johns' Superboy reborn reflects the new twenty-first century comic book sensibilities; this Superboy, like the also-resurrected Hal Jordan and Barry Allen alongside him, is basically good and clean-cut, and iconic -- he lives in Smallville, hangs out with Krypto, is good friends with Robin (now Red Robin), and so on. It's a Superboy as easily recognizable as Superboy can be without actually being a young Clark Kent, perfect for Underoos and heralding roller coaster rides, and one that someone who comes to Superboy after experiencing DC Comics in movies or on TV can easily recognize.

I know and agree with the reasons this trend is potentially bad for DC Comics, but it works for me because I'm the target audience -- someone who has some affinity for this Superboy even more so than for Hal Jordan or Barry Allen. At one point Superboy and Wonder Girl joke around a picnic table about their old Young Justice hair styles, and it's not so much a plot point as it is Johns reaching out and shaking hands with those who get the joke -- a "welcome to the mothership" moment, if you will. Indeed, the real draw of Boy of Steel is mainlined nostalgia, if that's your kind of thing; if the story isn't reminiscing about Young Justice and enjoying the Johns-era Teen Titans gathered around a campfire, it's offering older touchtones like Superboy and Krypto or Lex Luthor in a prison jumpsuit or even the Normal Rockwell-esque Kansas sunsets provided by artist Francis Manapul.

Indeed Boy of Steel is reductive from start to finish, but I give it at least some credit for being intentionally so. The brunt of Boy of Steel is Superboy's chapters with Wonder Girl and Red Robin; each want to tell him about their brief affair, and each time Superboy's answer is that he doesn't care about "last year." Forget evolving past the 1990s -- Superboy wants to suggest a sea change at DC Comics that overcomes the rather tepid year-long lead-in to Final Crisis, including a mishandled Teen Titans and the gratuitous death of Kid Flash Bart Allen among other events. (Johns included a similar note in his Final Crisis: Rogues Revenge story, which some see as a rare moment of rebellion from a writer/executive who usually toes DC's party line.) Of course, with one hand DC suggests a renewal in Superboy while with the other hand the gratuitous deaths just keep coming in Justice League and elsewhere, but there's an undertone to this story, at least, that everything will be better now.

Frankly, it's even a little startling just how sedate this book is. Whereas the old Superboy moved to Hawaii lest boredom set in, he's now content to live in Smallville on the farm with Ma Kent. Whereas the previous Superboy series had Roxy Leech in a bikini on a good number of pages, here Superboy goes on chaste picnics with Wonder Girl. There's an amazing establishment tone to this book, when before the Superboy character was all about being anti-establishment, that again speaks to the book's nostalgia ethos -- writer Johns would've been about 19 when Superboy emerged, ready for the counter-culture himself, and is now 37; the calm Superboy and the hip un-hipness of Barry Allen, likely also indicates the growth (or rapid aging, depening on your perspective) of the audience for whom this Superboy story was written, for better or worse.

You'd get from Boy of Steel's back cover copy and such that Superboy's central concern is negotating his dual heritage as a clone of both Superman and Lex Luthor. The story starts with Superboy hunting Luthor, but even that dotters off a bit; ultimately Superboy's chatting up a new friend when Luthor finds him. What follows are some Luthor scenes that hearken more to the John Byrne businessman version than the Johns "crazed supercriminal" version, which I like; but end of the book puts unexpected closure on Superboy's conflict with him confidently denouncing his Luthor heritage. No doubt Superboy will end up facing Luthor again, but I was surprised to see such a tidy resolution to what I thought would be Superboy's ongoing conflict; perhaps this offers more of a clean slate for when writer Jeff Lemire takes up a new Superboy series not too long from now.

We're far beyond the era where comic book deaths have meaning (probably something we'll talk more about when the Blackest Night collections come around) but I actually believed Superboy was gone and wouldn't be back, even as he's resurrected not much more than a couple years later. Silly me for falling for the oldest trick in the (comics) book when I should've known better? Maybe. Has what began after Infinite Crisis with a kinder, gentler twenty-first century DC Comics now made our heroes a little toothless? Also maybe. But gosh -- the clone Superboy is back in the DC Universe. Undoubtedly there will be time to worry about the implications of DC endlessly chewing over its own history later, but for right now, I don't care. Superboy's back, and I'm going to bask in the cotton candy nostalgia of it all a little while longer.

[Contains full and variant covers, Secret Files and recap pages.]

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6 comments:

  1. I'm not much of a Superboy fan, so I think you're selling short the appeal of this book. Written with love and fantastic craft, this is a great character piece that is easily my favorite purchase of 2010.

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  2. I was a massive Superboy fan for years--his was the first comic book that I ever got on a regular basis (from issue 30 to 100, every month, thanks to the DC mailing subscription service), and followed him from there to Teen Titans. Honestly, I've felt that his Teen Titans personality was too simplified, and that Johns was missing the appeal of the character from the years he'd existed prior to that. Knowing that Johns literally took an idea that editorial had rejected when he himself was reading the book, to make it Superboy's new origin (being a clone of Lex Luthor--a young "Geoffrey Johns" actually sent a letter with that theory in, and it made it into the lettercolumns!) didn't really help me with that. I sort of came to the conclusion that, for someone who literally grew up on the 90's Superboy series, this new "Connor Kent" just wasn't a character I wanted to read about.

    I understand why he did it--under his penmanship, Superboy (and the other characters of his generation--Cassandra Sandsmark, Tim Drake, Bart Allen) have gone from being C-list characters in their respective franchises to major players in the DC universe. And "the clone of Superman and Lex Luthor" is a much easier sell to the general public than "the clone of, uh, a not nice scientist, he doesn't actually have Superman's powers, he's got a telekinetic field that replicates them, also he lives in Hawaii". Unfortunately, I just wasn't the target audience for this streamlined Superboy.

    I've since come to appreciate the short-lived Johns/Manapul run, though. I've accepted that the Superboy I grew up with wasn't going to come back, but his portrayal here was probably the best compromise I was going to get, and Manapul sure does some pretty pictures. It's still not the exact Superboy I want--but then again, that's what back issues are for. I'm content enough with this Superboy, and with Jeff Lemire's upcoming run. On its own merits, this volume really is rather good--like Hix said, a fantastic character piece that can be enjoyed by new and old fans alike. Despite all of my reservations and complaints, I'd recommend it in a heartbeat.

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  3. I don't mean to apologize for this Superboy story (indeed, I don't think this Superboy story has anything to apologize for) so much as I tried to express some of the uneasiness that Shane describes so well. Whereas I instinctually loved this story and felt it entirely lived up to the homecoming that I at one point thought Superboy would never have, in examining the story to write about it, I was struck by two things. The first is just how far away this Superboy story is from the basis of the original Karl Kesel Superboy series, while at the same time true to the character; and second, how remarkably sedate this story is, one of the most sedate stories I've ever read.

    Comics Reporter writer Tom Spurgeon recently posed three "arguments" comics people could be having, the third of which was (as I understood it) what are superhero comics saying either about the comics industry or culture in general. The more I thought about this Superboy story, the more I realized how steeped in nostalgia it is -- and I liked it. It's a story about teenagers, but in fact the characters are considerably long-lived and they spend the story looking back on their younger days; it's a story about teenagers, but it's written by an author remembering his younger days specifically for fans also remembering their younger days. Given that the author is now a higher-up at DC Comics, that has some significance.

    I'm glad to hear from Hix that this story resonated to someone who isn't necessarily a Superboy fan; indeed it is a great character piece overall. But it struck me that the way in which this story puts to lie the timelessness of comics (Superman may be perpetually 39 years old, but his readers are not) couldn't be overlooked.

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  4. Greetings - long-time reader, first-time commenter. Love reading your blog; we almost always agree on which trades are worth it, and which are not.

    Perhaps, then, this comment is vastly out of place on a blog about collected editions, since I bought this story in its original six-issue form (having missed #0). But I couldn't help myself; the idea of Johns effectively rebooting a character, combined with Manapul's absolutely gorgeous artwork (which, reminiscent of Sale/Hansen on "Superman for All Seasons," is the only reason I'm still reading "The Flash" in single issue), was just too good to resist. I almost wish I'd waited for trade on this so I could have a beautiful hardcover to hold what may be my favorite non-Batman run in comic books.

    The single issue format, though, helped me to realize that AC #6 is among my favorite single issues of all time; Johns's characterization of Luthor is spot on, and the moment when Luthor "gives and takes away" brought genuine chills down my arms. I had to read the issue twice in a row - there was just so much to like about it.

    I get the sense that your reaction was sort of lukewarm, which I can understand. Johns has been writing earth-shattering epic after earth-shattering epic - Infinite Crisis, the monthly Green Lantern, Sinestro Corps, Blackest Night - and this is a change-up, more akin to his one-off Rockwell-esque JSA issues. Readers looking for a game-changer will be disappointed, but for a moment's pause amid the crossover culture in the offices of DC I think this is among Johns's best work.

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  5. The comparison to Tim Sale's Superman for All Seasons is spot on, and I wanted to include that in the review and it just didn't make the final cut. There's an extent to which even Superboy's final conflict with Luthor echoes For All Seasons, and I'd very likely recommend one to a fan of the other.

    Personally I wouldn't characterize my reaction as lukewarm (though I entirely see where that comes from) but rather "conflicted"; this could entirely be one of my favorite books, story and tone-wise, except for some of the funny implications of its backward-lookingness. I did like that Luthor moment, but for me it was more of an homage to John Byrne's businessman Luthor that would crush someone just for fun; I haven't much liked Luthor being kicked around by Brainiac or General Lane (or having such "soft" paternal instincts for Superboy) and I delighted at this seeming "return to greatness" for Luthor.

    Glad you chimed in, Zach. Hey, all the rest of you lurkers -- say hello already! :)

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  6. I really enjoyed this book. I picked it up on a lark while my LCS was having a sale, totally unaware that Superboy had even had a short lived series (Action Comics, I remembered when I saw the Dinosaur cover) and I found this to be thoroughly enjoyable.

    I agree with your assessment that it's very different than the Superboy in that red/blue jumpsuit that hung out in Hawaii. But when I read it, to be honest, I didn't think too much about Young Justice until that gorgeous full page spread of Wonder Girl at the doorstep (You really need to give high props on the art in the book, that helped it very much). Then I remember that I was introduced to Superboy as the Ego to Robin's Super Ego and Impulse's Id. It's fascinating to see him, having come back from the dead, having fought a twisted version of himself, having brainwashedly tried to kill his friends, a very mellow person.

    But, like someone comparing it to Superman For All Seasons, this threw up ties to the early episodes of Smallville for me. I remember watching the first season and the mentality is very similar here.

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