Review: Smallville Season 11 Vol. 1: Guardian trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 20, 2014

It's been a good season for media tie-in comics of late, between Brian Woods's "New Hope" Star Wars continuation, Joe Harris's X-Files Season 10, the rumored Heroes comic, and especially the digital Smallville Season 11 series, of which the first collection of the paper reprints is The Guardian.

Writer Bryan Q. Miller, with artist Pere Perez, writes the new "season" of a television show that fundamentally changed with its finale. Whereas Harris can relatively easily plug Mulder and Scully back into their old roles, Miller must take ten seasons of Smallville and extrapolate from them what kind of Superman Tom Welling's Clark Kent would be, without any direct on-screen cues to indicate how to do so.

What emerges is a good comic -- the best of the DC Comics direct-to-digital comics I've read -- though one that feels more like a Smallville comic than a Smallville show (Guardian is a better comic than X-Files Season 10, too, though the X-Files book is more evocative of its show). Those of us who never thought we'd see "new" Smallville again, however, will hardly be disappointed.

[Review contains spoilers]

The Guardian might've lead Superman fans to think Millerw ould be introducing Jim Harper to Smallville's version of the Cadmus Project. Instead, in true Smallville style, Miller takes the "Guardian" name and applies it to an orbiting defense platform created by Lex Luthor and manned by one Hank Henshaw -- and with Henshaw's introduction, Superman fans definitely know where this one is going.

The story is "Smallville enough" -- Clark first encounters Henshaw as an interview subject, where the two bond over world-saving tendencies. In this, Henshaw would seem to function like characters Milton Fine, John Corben, and Davis Bloom before him -- recurring characters whom the audience gets to know as members of the cast before they transform into Superman villains.

As it turns out, however, Miller structures the story more like a comic than like the television show. Henshaw's "big scene" to interact with the cast is his interview with Clark, and it's not long after that he transforms into the Cyborg villain. What Miller covers in the first volume might've taken the Smallville show a half or whole season. Granted the Cyborg might be back and Miller might indeed be playing a long game, but in the first volume of Smallville Season 11, Hank Henshaw's storyline feels truncated, and he lacks the ties to the cast that were indicative of Smallville to make us care about Henshaw as a character.

At the same time, it may be that Hank Henshaw really isn't the point of The Guardian. The story's real villain, as might be expected, is the newly-resurrected Lex Luthor, and Miller pulls off a Luthor scheme that's right up there with the early days of John Byrne's Lex Luthor. Miller's Superman/Lex Luthor relationship has a classic feel, but also stays true to Smallville -- at the end of the story, Superman goes to Lex in praise of Lex's good deeds, still believing in his old friend despite himself, only to be once again surprised at the depths of Lex's machinations.

Miller doesn't delve so deeply into Smallville continuity that casual watchers will feel lost, but there were a couple references that sent me to the internet, including the alternate "Earth Two" dimension that I barely remembered. Miller also works to smooth out some Smallville continuity issues, like whether or not General Lane knows Clark's identity; on one hand I appreciate this patch-work, but on the other I think trying to understand the glitch might have confused me more than the glitch itself, which I had forgotten.

Again, given that Tom Welling was barely Superman in the series, Miller must create the Smallville Superman almost whole cloth. Miller's Superman is believably a "young Superman" in his self-consciousness and tentativeness, but I wouldn't say Miller's Superman "sounded" like Tom Welling necessarily -- we're not used to hearing the Smallville Blur speak quite as much as Superman does here. (In contrast, Harris keeps the dialogue short and choppy in X-Files Season 10, which I think better mirrors the customs of television.)

Artist Pere Perez's slightly animated style is perfect for this superhero comic. One of the most distracting things about media tie-in comics can be artists trying to achieve resemblance between their images and the on-screen characters, often with disastrous results; Perez, fortunately, only does this occasionally, and mostly with the Superman character. In fact, I was surprised at how off-model, to an extent, Perez's Chloe Sullivan and Tess Mercer were, though I'd prefer this versus trying to swing the pendulum too far the other way.

I felt the Arrow digital series used its episodes poorly, telling too-short and simplistic stories; I liked the ongoing story told in Injustice better, though even there I felt I could tell too easily where the various digital chapters ended and began. Miller gets it just right, cutting the digital chapters (presumably) between scene breaks; with plenty of variations in panel size and layout, I never felt like I wasn't reading a print-first comic.

Bryan Q. Miller and Pere Perez were the creative team of the much beloved Stephanie Brown Batgirl series and it's great to see them on another book; Miller's humor and Perez's fluid lines are each quite right for Smallville's continuation. Smallville Season 11 Vol. 1: The Guardian is more a Superman story told under the auspices of Smallville than a Smallville story proper, but after ten seasons, it might be about time for that. I'm in for the next volume, for sure.

[Includes print, variant, and digital covers; cover sketches; character designs]
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  1. i want to buy this but i don't know if i have to be informed on smallville (the tv show) to get the references?

    1. Probably so. I watched every episode of Smallville, even, and I still felt like I really needed to go back and re-watch the final episodes to fully get what was going on.