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.
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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