Review: Superboy Vol. 3: Lost trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

I thought Scott Lobdell's first New 52 Superboy collection did fairly well by everyone's favorite clone; the second volume, even interrupted by the "Culling" crossover, also worked well enough up to its end, marred only by a standard "villain of the week" story by Tom DeFalco and a handful of guest artists. Unfortunately, Superboy Vol. 3: Lost ultimately goes wrong too; it starts out fine with DeFalco and art by series regular R. B. Silva, but it gets mired in the over-long "H'el on Earth" crossover, and again a variety of guest artists fail to impress.

Near the end the book gets really substandard, mainly as the current team tries to wrap things up before new writer Justin Jordan comes on; only some hints of what Jordan might do make me optimistic for the next volume.

[Review contains spoilers]

Again, Superboy Vol. 2: Extraction's final issue (excluding the interesting Zero Month chapter) was a stumble, as Tom DeFalco seemed to introduce a peer group for Superboy including a stereotypical rich jock, a stereotypical rich "brain," a Paris Hilton-type, and etc., depicted by two guest artists and three inkers in one issue. It's a pleasant surprise, therefore, that DeFalco's opening chapter deals with some of these same characters -- now depicted by R. B. Silva -- and succeeds.

This new chapter has a vibe that the earlier one didn't, reminiscent of Jimmy Palmiotti and Dan DiDio's (making his DC debut) Superboy stories from the early 2000s, positing Superboy as a twenty-something landlord in a kind of superhero domestic comedy. That may not be for everyone, but Superboy as a "twenty-something stranger in a strange land" works here, and again Silva's art helps mightily.

The initial "H'el on Earth" chapter also works, again by DeFalco and Silva. DeFalco had a good issue last time teaming Superboy and the Teen Titans' Bunker; he achieves the same good interplay between the characters in this issue. The rest of the Titans get involved, and DeFalco has a good mix of the old and the new here -- it's Superboy fighting alongside the Titans, reminiscent of the pre-Flashpoint universe, but at the same time it's always clear the Titans don't completely know or trust Superboy, adding a greater dimension to their interactions.

From there, "H'el on Earth" begins in earnest. It's not a terrible crossover as they go (the Superman issues by Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort are pretty solid), but Silva steps out for most of the Superboy issues, replaced by a variety of artists with differing styles and talent levels. There is some good stuff here, especially as regards Superboy's interactions with Superman and the members of the Justice League, many of whom he's meeting for the first time; as with the Titans issue, DeFalco offers a good mix of something that feels both familiar and fresh. At the same time, the crossover is much too long -- thirteen issues (I read it going back and forth between the third Superboy, Supergirl, Superman trades) -- and a lot of repetitive fight scenes and information recaps tend to slow it down.

Most egregious in the thirteen-part crossover is the Superboy annual collected here. In it, a Fortress of Solitude weapon shunts Superman and Superboy to a pocket dimension in the midst of fighting H'el, and they have to interact with an alien landscape to get home. The banter between Superman and Superboy is at times amusing, but there's only so much the reader can take before it begins to grate, and also the story factors not at all into the rest of the "H'el" crossover (what we had here, I'm guessing, was the idea for an annual in search of a story to tell in it); had I bought this on its own, I would have felt cheated. Also there's an "artist," two "pencillers," and two inkers on this one, and it really marks a nadir for the art in this volume.

In terms of writing, the Superboy issue that follows the "H'el" crossover is the lowest point, written by DeFalco, Lobdell, and Tony Lee (the additional hands suggesting trouble, I think, not extra effort). The issue commits two sins here, the first of which is that it re-introduces the villain Plasmus as a hulking beast with a terribly hackneyed German accent, and Wonder Woman's fearsome enemy Dr. Psycho, now a buffoonish fortune teller; neither presentation does those villains justice. Second, the issue spends much of its time on this ridiculous Dr. Psycho taking a trip through a kind of dreamscape of Superboy's mind, though this neither forwards the plot nor reveals anything the reader doesn't already know; the chapter is filler, essentially, and obviously so. It ends with Psycho finding Lex Luthor in Superboy's head, something the next and final issue reverses offhand in such a way that suggests that wherever this issue was originally going, it's not where it ended up.

For all of these reasons, it's therefore also a pleasant surprise that the book's final issue is perhaps the best of the bunch. Lobdell finally tells the origin of Harvest, whom Lobdell created in Teen Titans and Superboy, and the way the origin weaves through events of Action Comics and Superman is plenty engaging. We also meet Jon Lane Kent, son of Superman and Lois Lane; I thought he would turn out to be Superboy but Superboy is his clone instead. Either way, I know Jon Lane Kent is due to appear in this book again; it would be interesting enough to read about Superman and Lois Lane's son, but I'm especially curious given they're not even a couple in the New 52.

This, plus the promise of writer Justin Jordan coming on, is enough to bring me back for the next volume. Superboy Vol. 3: Lost did not end well, and based on this volume it's not a great surprise the title has recently been cancelled. Between Jordan and then Marv Wolfman, however, I'll give the final books a shot, if only to see "the Kid" out the door.

[Includes original covers, though not the full "WTF" gatefold cover]

Next week, Supergirl Vol. 3: Sanctuary and more Action Comics.
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  1. It was actually Lobdell who wrote the issue that concludes this volume, and I agree that it's better than what came before. He seems to be the one writer who can make this new version of Kon-El work for me. Unfortunately, after this issue, all we get is a string of arcs by different writers who weren't able to stay on the book for longer than 5 issues. No wonder it's getting cancelled.

    1. Oops, you're right. Modified those lines. Yes, for all the flak Lobdell gets, my only exposure to him has been at DC, and I thought his first Superboy collection worked very well, and I've felt generally favorable about his Superman and Red Hood, too.

      That the creative teams shift after this is unfortunate, sure, but Justin Jordan and Marv Wolfman seem like two good names to go out on.

  2. I think Superboy lacked any direction after the first volume, which is a shame. The Culling didn't do much for me, and I believe it ultimately hurt all the titles involved in the crossover. Hopefully, Lobdell can get a chance writing Superboy sometime in the future. Despite all the Internet hate, I think Lobdell is a pretty decent writer.

    1. You're definitely right. "New 52 titles that had a good first volume and then faltered" is a category all to itself. And I think -- Culling and etc. -- we can say something went wrong in that the "Young Justice" titles quickly dwindled down to just Teen Titans, and even that's being relaunched. Or do "teen team" titles just not have the cache they once did?

    2. Teen teams aren't a dead concept; Jeff Lemire's "Teen Titans: Earth One" looks great and "Young Avengers" was one of the best comics of 2013. It's less to do with the concept and more the readership.

      The launch of the New 52 alienated so much of the pre-existing Titans fans between ditching Wally and Donna and the controversy about "Red Hood" that readers who want to read a DC teen team title simply don't trust the company. I know it's been three years since that, but fan hatred can last a long time. Just ask any given member of HEAT... or go watch Linkara's "March of the Titans" series of reviews, which sum up much of the Titans fans' complaints.

    3. I think the "Young Justice" genre reached its peak in the 80s. Similar to what we're seeing with the Harley Quinn monthly, I think TNTT came out of nowhere and surprised everyone with its overwhelming success. I'm not taking anything away from Wolfman/Perez & Palmiotti/Conner --all are outstanding creators-- but I think the timing was just inexplicably there in the 80s for the Young Justice genre. Look at how well Legion of Super Heroes fared, as well as the Brat Pack/Breakfast Club-type teen movies did during that time. Were creators capturing the zeitgeist brought on by the MTV era (this just spewed from my fingertips and may be an apple/oranges comparison, so take it as you wish)?

      Since then, DC has been trying to reclaim that glory, but to swipe an old adage, "You can't go home again." Reboot after reboot of the Teen Titans and the LSH comic in all its formats/roll calls has gradually diluted the effectiveness of the brand. I would be in favor of giving these franchises a 5-7 year break, rather than seeing them have consecutive runs that are greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm and garnering less and less success. Give these properties some dignity, and leave them alone for awhile.

    4. I say this admittedly having never read an issue of Young Avengers, but going to what Doug said and also Darren about the zeitgeist, I think DC titles have struggled for a while, especially in teen team books, with actually being stories about teens instead of stories about miniaturized adult superheroes. This is somewhere that I think Marvel with Young Avengers and etc. succeeds.

      In essence, Teen Titans ought be the comic book reading equivalent of watching a show on the CW (itself a good representation of how to write teen drama for adults), but it's been a long time since that's been the case.

  3. Any concept can work if the talent writing it/drawing it is good enough. Unfortunately D.C. made some poor decisions for some of the creative teams when the New52 launched. Having a bad creative team is usually something that can be fixed just by removing the creative team and continuing on, it happens all the time in comics, but when you are launching a brand new universe like they did with the New52 the opening story arc is so important because you are defining what the character and direction is goi9ng to be for that that character and that title. If you sputter out of the gate it is much harder to get traction again. Basically you can make the character toxic for any future use. It's going to be that much harder to get these characters back in a positive way because there is already a "stink" to them. Look how long it took to rehabilitate Hawkman back in the old universe.