Review: Superboy Vol. 4: Blood and Steel trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 27, 2015

I read every issue of Karl Kesel's 1990s Superboy series, plus when Ron Marz took over before Kesel came back, and Superboy and the Ravers. So I feel some protectiveness of the Superboy Kon-El/Conner (here, Connor) Kent, and I've seen his stories written well. Justin Jordan and company's Superboy Vol. 4: Blood and Steel is unfortunately not such an occasion.

I hate to say it, but it's honestly no wonder why Batman has replaced Superman as DC Comics's premier superhero. Take all the innovating and different storytelling that the Bat-titles have tried over the past fifteen years and compare it with the Super-titles, still producing sub-par, generic superhero titles after all this time. Blood and Steel even introduces to the New 52 my most favorite villain duo of the 1980s-'90s, and that's still not enough to sway my disappointment over this volume.

[Review contains spoilers]

Psi-Phon and Dreadnaut were a pair of aliens who could sap Superman's powers, created post-Crisis by John Byrne and fleshed out by Dan Jurgens. At first somewhat formidable, Psi-Phon and Dreadnaut became less threatening each subsequent appearance, until Superman basically says, "Aw, these guys again?!" when they show up. If Psi-Phon and Dreadnaut might be considered nonsense characters by today's standards, they absolutely worked in that early Triangle Titles era where every issue didn't involve Superman saving the world, but sometimes it was just about his interaction with his supporting cast and a villain in the background. So I do have to give new Superboy writer Justin Jordan credit for bringing the two into the New 52 with his first issue. Jordan does not use them spectacularly -- and if anything, the issue's four artists succeed in making Dreadnaut's battle suit look even more 1980s than it did before -- but I appreciate that Jordan making a callback to the classics.

The first five of Blood and Steel's eight chapters generally tie in to Superman Vol. 4: Psi War, though you don't really need knowledge of that to understand this. Superboy, teamed with Krypto and former Wonder Woman villain Dr. Psycho, variably tries to stop psychics associated with the HIVE group or protect and control psychics that HIVE might be hunting. Though the impish figure here has mental powers and he's called Dr. Psycho, he sooner resembles Teen Titans Go's Gizmo; this New 52 version is a poor substitute for the frightening, sadistic pre-Flashpoint Psycho, though at least Jordan provides a cut-scene that affirms this character is the same as the scarier one who appears later, continuity-wise, in Trinity War.

Scott Lobdell ended Superboy Vol. 3: Lost with the revelation that Kon-El was the clone of the ailing son of an alternate Superman and Lois, meant to be used as spare parts by the evil Harvest. This was interesting, and I know from scanning various previews that it'll come into play again in the Superboy title. But though Jordan is under no obligation to use what Lobdell sets up, the story awkwardly acknowledges those events but then sets them aside entirely in favor of the far-less-interesting "Superboy and Dr. Psycho: Monster Hunters" storyline, which is not what I was hoping for.

Jordan's strongest issue is the second, issue #21, in which Superboy and Psycho try to protect a HIVE refugee haunted by a ghostly beast. The final fight, set entirely in an old-time diner, has a nice contained, claustrophobic feel to it. At the same time, fans of anything from the Twilight Zone to the X-Files will see the end coming; the girl is the beast. It's nothing to distinguish this title; the guest artists throughout provide very generic superhero work, and even series artist R.B. Silva seems inked too dark in these pages.

In the next three issues, Superboy infiltrates a high school to investigate psychic activity. We've seen Superboy in high school before, written by no less than Geoff Johns and Jeff Lemire, and Jordan hits no surprising notes -- Superboy gets in with the popular crowd until he's bullied and then he hangs out with a boilerplate "goth girl." There's a bit where Superboy gets in trouble with various administrators that might be funny except it makes no sense in terms of Superboy laying low to try to find the psychic villain. The undercover Superboy returns to school in a shirt, equally inexplicably, with an actual Superman symbol right there on it; artist Guilherme Balbi draws the same character wearing two different outfits within the same scene.

Further in, Superboy appears to fight his own doppelganger, but again what's happening is fairly obvious so it's hard to be engaged in what seems like a filler fight scene. Psycho Pirate, from Psi-War, finally makes an appearance in the last issue, but the story is mostly given over to the Pirate's incessant narration (to an extent Jordan tells the story more from Dr. Psycho and the Pirate's perspective than Superboy's). Superboy finally sees Psycho as a villain, something the audience has known since almost half a dozen issues ago.

The book concludes with the Superboy and Superman issues of the "Krypton Returns" crossover, parts 2 and 4, and with the Teen Titans Annual #2. These have been collected out of order -- the annual should come before the crossover -- and references in the crossover to the annual make for confusing reading (and not in the least because Superboy "dies" at the end of "Krypton Returns" but is then alive again a page later in the mis-collected Titans annual). Further, Jordan leaves Superboy in captivity at the end of the regular issues, and there's no explanation for how he escaped to re-join the Titans. And whereas "Krypton Returns" is overall a good crossover, the Superboy issue is the weakest, including a fight with the appearing-from-nowhere Eradicator and Superboy "forgetting" for a couple pages that his powers aren't affected by a red sun.

It's problematic in general that the first part of "Krypton Returns," Action Comics Annual #2, isn't included anywhere except the Krypton Returns collection itself. All the affected Super-books would have benefited from a text page that filled in readers what happened in the other titles.

In all Superboy Vol. 4: Blood and Steel is a disappointing package, and the story problems plus the collecting problems leave one feeling like the Super-family titles maybe just aren't a priority for DC (Supergirl Vol. 4: Out of the Past has similar problems). Superboy is cancelled after the next volume, which will be written by Marv Wolfman; I hope it's a good one, just so this series ends on a high note. But moreover, my hope is that between the Batman v. Superman movie and the Supergirl television series, that's enough to earn the Super-family comics the kind of care and attention they deserve.

[Includes original covers, sketches]

Later this week, Batman Vol. 6: The Graveyard Shift; next week we'll look at the Supergirl book that coincides with Superboy.
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4 comments:

  1. Yikes, what a mess. I understand the inclusion of Superman #25 because something major happens to Superboy in it that changes his book's status quo, but it makes no sense to place Teen Titans Annual #2 after it.

    At this point, the editors were clearly desperate to try something radically different to save the book, but if they thought Kon-El wasn't a viable character to sustain an ongoing series anymore, I think they should have just cancelled it.

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    1. >> I think they should have just cancelled it.

      Which, of course, obviously they did. Maybe they'll find a way to bring a "Conner Kent" into the new Supergirl TV series after a season or two, and that will spark some interest in a new Kon-El series in the DCU.

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  2. So, are we getting that Batman vol 6 review next week then?

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    1. Yeah. I overestimated how quickly I could read.

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