Review: Superboy: Smallville Attacks trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Look, I'm still riding high on writer Jeff Lemire for his stellar debut volume of the DC New 52 Animal Man: The Hunt. And certainly it's a joy and a wonder to be holding Superboy: Smallville Attacks, a collection of eleven issues of a standalone Conner Kent series, twenty years after the character debuted and ten years since his last series ended. Certainly, if this were an ongoing series with another volume on the way, I would buy it.

I just can't quite come around to agreeing that this title deserved its "Best New Series" Eisner nomination.

Superboy: Smallville Attacks is an excellent showing for the Conner Kent character, and exactly what the character needed. It is a pitch-perfect story of supernatural weirdness in a small town -- but unfortunately, it is so on-level as to fail to really hold any surprises other than being a good platform for the title character.

[Review contains spoilers]

As in Geoff Johns's Superboy: Boy of Steel, Smallville Atacks makes reference to Superboy's fade haircut-and-jacket days. This was, again, about twenty years ago, and it's amazing how the character has evolved since then. Created whole-cloth (for the most part) by Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett, the character has continually appeared in one DC Comics title or another ever since. Superman and company have been around over seventy years, long enough that it's easy to think of them as ever-present; to see a character like Conner Kent emerge, however, and then subsequently become enough a part of the DC Comics mythology that he grows, changes, and even continues into the DC New 52 is wholly fascinating. "Whatever they touch turns to myth," indeed.

To Jeff Lemire's credit, Superboy: Smallville Attacks picks up right where Johns's story left off, with Superboy relishing his life in Smallville alongside sidekick/potential arch-nemesis Simon Valentine and love interest/genetic cousin Lori Luthor. Johns offered some basic Superman tropes to underline Superboy's Smallville life, and Lemire plays them both toward and against type -- Simon seems poised to become Superboy's Lex Luthor at every turn, but in the meantime functions as his Jimmy Olsen (Valentine's the red hair, which Jimmy and Lex shared, poses significant confusion). Lori Luthor could as easily be Superboy's Lois Lane or Lana Lang, if not for the fact she and Superboy are related, something that fits into the story's general "small town weirdness" aesthetic.

In the first pages, Lemire enters the Phantom Stranger, giving Superboy a supernatural vibe we haven't seen in the Super-titles since Peter David's Supergirl. (With the Phantom Stranger's renewed role in the DC New 52, fans might want to take note of one of his final, rather continuity-heavy appearances here.) Most of Superboy's adventures in the book are not magic-related until the conclusion, but definitely the book has a "spooky" aspect that differentiates it from the Superboy series previous. In the book's conclusion, Lemire uses the sorcerer Arion and the Viking Prince; combined with Phantom Stranger, Superboy begins to mine the less-visited corners of the DC Universe in a way, again, we don't often see from a Super-title.

What's in between that beginning and end is a mixed bag. Superboy has fairly routine battles with the Parasite and Poison Ivy, and invaders from the future. There's a race with Kid Flash, possibly the best issue of the bunch not for the race, but how Lemire sets as its background Lori's common small-town loneliness. The Return of Doomsday crossover interrupts; there's a one-off "alternate reality" issue that sets up stories that never quite play out, and then the book is into its conclusion. The superheroic conflicts are mundane largely because they're besides the point; more time is spent on Conner talking over his partnership with Simon or discussing his relationship with Lori, or pondering the darkness that the Phantom Stranger warns is inhabiting the town.

All of this adds up to a lot of talking and not much else. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a chatty comic (see two personal Greg Rucka favs, Gotham Central and Checkmate), but Smallville Attacks is written in single-issue style; any number of chapters have Superboy thinking back over the events of previous stories or wondering about the location of the mysterious "Broken Silo" (something he's simply told toward the end of the book) without much progress being made. Even Superboy's major conversations with Simon and Lori only re-establish the status quo, though perhaps more might have been in the offing had this series not ended with the DC New 52.

Lemire offers a nice Court of the Owls-type jolt when he finally reveals the zombie city that's supposedly existed under Smallville for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, however, the city of zombified farmers are no different than your average Walking Dead clip, and while I give Lemire points for using Phantom Stranger Tannarak, he emerges as just another Ming the Merciless-eqsue sneering villain. As with Smallville Attacks's Silver Age elements -- a character names Psionic "Lad," thought balloons -- the book does what it does well, but it never surprises nor achieves much more than what appears to be on the surface.

Still, however, Lemire and artist Pier Gallo achieve what many creative teams have not -- to write a respectable, readable Superboy character; Gallo is another of those treasured artists who refrains from making the men ridiculously buff or the women gratuitously sexy, just drawing people. The list of guest appearances Superboy has made in titles where he's portrayed as a sarcastic buffoon might be second only to those lists for Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner. The fact that Lemire writes a mature Conner Kent, one who could hold his own series, will be sufficient for most of the characters' fans.As with (Red) Robin Tim Drake, in the DC New 52 we keep Superboy but largely lose this current incarnation, and Superboy: Smallville Attacks is a wonderful send-off for the character despite what misgivings I might have about it.

[Includes full and variant covers.]

We'll complete our two-week send-off of the sidekicks of the "old DC Universe" next, with the Collected Editions review of Teen Titans: Prime of Life. And don't miss the earlier parts of this series with our reviews of Teen Titans: Team Building and Red Robin: Seven Days of Death.
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2 comments:

  1. If I'm not mistaken, Lemire had plans for 16 issues or so, but he had to rush the conclusion once DC decided to reboot the character. I was especially interested to see where he was going with the Psionic Kid subplot, but it fell by the wayside.

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  2. I liked this quite enough.
    It was pretty fun as an on-going, made me think what a cartoon series on Conner Kent would feel like, the weirdness of smallville, etc.
    Definitively one of the books I was most sad to let go due to the New 52...

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