Ask Chris #333: The Three Faces Of Superboy
A: Here's the thing about Superboy: he's one of those characters who had to happen. It's like the Royal Flush Gang, or the Wrecking Crew. Sooner or later, someone was bound to put pencil to paper to come up with a bunch of playing-card themed villains or evil construction workers who tear everything up with crowbars and wrecking balls, and if Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster hadn't sat down to answer the question of what their most famous character was like when he was a kid, someone else would've had to. It's right there.
And I think there's evidence of that in the fact that over the past 72 years, we've gotten three completely different versions that actually all work. So let's see if we can't figure out which one works best.
The good news is that if we're starting chronologically, we're still starting with the worst version.
Don't get me wrong; Original Recipe Superboy --- The Adventures of Superman When He Was A Boy! --- is by no means bad, and he actually stars in some of my favorite stories of the Silver Age. That said, if we're talking about how he works conceptually, the fact of the matter is that he doesn't really do much of anything that Superman doesn't do already.
There are small twists to the established formula in there --- you get him roaming around Smallville instead of Metropolis, and his interactions with Ma and Pa Kent do give him characters that he can talk to about his double identity, which the adult version doesn't have. But at the same time, everything is sort of built on the same foundation.
You'd think that the appeal here would be in seeing a younger version of Superman who maybe wasn't quite as unbeatable, or who was still growing and learning about his powers and himself, but in practice, that's not really what we got. The teenage version of Superman is just as invulnerable and super-strong as his grown-up counterpart, and he doesn't act appreciably more childish, either --- unless some Red Kryptonite comes along, I mean, and that's something you could do with Superman, too. Even the world around him is restructured as a mirror of Metropolis, with Lana Lang neatly sliding into the role of an ersatz Lois. They even give him a teenage Lex Luthor with teenage baldness to complete the set.
Yeah, you've got Pete Ross, but... I mean, let's just be real here for a second: Nobody cares about Pete Ross. I don't care about Pete Ross, and I know the members of the Kandorian Superman Emergency Squad by name.
The only thing you really get out of Superboy that differentiates him from the older model --- and I'll be the first one to admit that it's a pretty good argument in his favor --- is the Legion of Super-Heroes.
The idea that the Legion is made up of teenagers is one that sits at the very core of their concept --- the franchise occasionally wanders away from that so that Starboy can grow a beard or whatever, but at the end of the day, there's nothing that works quite as well as having them literally and metaphorically represent the Future --- and it's also pretty important that they're inspired to do good by the great heroes of our time. To that end, the desire to go back and find out more about what Superman was like when he was their age, so that they can understand the journey he took to becoming this grand, mythical figure that they still talk about a thousand years from now is really solid.
And it also doesn't work if they're going back to meet Superman as an adult. I mean, it does, he can certainly still be an inspirational figure, but if he's going to be involved in more than just the meeting and actually stick around as part of the team, he can't do that as an adult. Grown-ass Superman hanging around a bunch of teenagers is just weird, in a way that, "Superboy spent spring break in the 31st century fighting Computo" somehow isn't.
Superhero comics, y'all.
But with all that said, here's the nail in the coffin: Everything that makes Superboy work as a character is completely irrelevant once Supergirl shows up, because she does it all way better.
You want a younger character for readers to relate to who still has Superman's powers and gets to wear that very marketable logo on their chest? Here's Kara Zor-El! You want that character to be less experienced than the adult Superman so that the stories are different? She's a newcomer to Earth who, unlike Superman, hasn't had these powers for her entire life! You can drop her off at the Kents', give her the dog, and give her the same struggle of keeping her identity a secret from Lana Lang --- or Dick Malverne, I guess, the only character that people care about less than Pete Ross --- and you lose nothing.
Heck, you can even retrofit the Legion to be based around her, rather than Superman. They can still be inspired by Superman's legendary heroics, but the core idea works just as well if they're traveling back in time to recruit a character who is also a teenager inspired by Superman to use her powers for good, to find out what it's like to be in that situation and be mentored by this legendary figure.
Again, I love Superboy stories, but I can't think of many that wouldn't be just as good or better if Supergirl was in the starring role. And if that's the case, well, why bother keeping Superboy around?
If you need someone to keep the name around, though, we've got our current Superboy, Jon Kent.
In all honesty, I'm not really a fan.
It's not the the character himself is bad, or has been in particularly bad stories --- except for that one where he Learns A Difficult Lesson About Power after literally vaporizing a cat with his heat vision, because why would you do that --- but something about Superman and Lois Lane having a super-powered son who hangs out with Robin just doesn't sit well with me. You'd think it would, but here we are.
It might just be that it's too new, and that his exceptionally complicated even by DC Comics standards origin story has essentially tied an anchor to any of my attempts to understand him and then dropped it into an ocean made of apathy. In case you forgot, he's the son of Superman and Lois Lane from a previous version of the universe who survived into the current version because the Brainiac of another dimension put them in a bottle city where Superman didn't have any powers that was then put into conflict with bottle cities from other dimensions, which then involved Superman, Lois, and Jon surviving (while everyone else in their Metropolis died, I guess?) and being shunted to the current version of the DC Universe, where they then lived on a farm under an assumed name with Superman just straight up deciding not to be Superman for five or six years because this other guy probably has things under control. That's his origin, and that doesn't even get into the other weird stuff about his parents.
Eventually, I guess, we'll be far enough removed from all that nonsense that it won't matter anymore, but in the meantime, every time I think about him I get a headache and have to go think about something easier, like the Grey-Summers family tree.
So who does that leave us with? Ah yes.
I know, I was really surprised that I ended up liking the mid-'90s DC legacy character too! What a swerve!
Seriously though, the Kon-El Superboy is such a great concept, because he delivers on every promise that the original model doesn't. He's not just Superman as a teenager, he's this weird version of Superman who is only a teenager --- who popped out of a clone tank and then immediately got a leather jacket and a fade and started telling everyone that they're not his real dad. It's great.
I'll admit that part of the reason that I like him so much is that he's the product of Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett going back to a bunch of Jack Kirby stuff that nobody in the mid-'90s seemed to care about, but even that works really well. It's the same idea that you see at the end of All Star Superman, right, that someone, for some purpose, is working on a replacement for Superman should the worst ever happen. The thing is, he's brought out before he's needed, in a world where Superman turns out to be very much alive.
The result is that you have this new character with the mind of a teenager who emerges into a world where he has this overwhelming legacy to live up to, but where he is himself not necessary. He's aimless, overshadowed, worried about never having the potential to live up to what's expected of him, and while it's been a while since I was a teenager myself, I do feel like that's a motivation that a lot of young people can identify with.
And the way he reacts to all that stress is kind of perfect for a dirtbag teen version of Superman: He goes to Hawaii, tries to make out with a bunch of attractive people while occasionally fighting crime. It's pretty brilliant.
Plus, tactile telekinesis is a great power, and that costume is legitimately great. It's only when he starts moping around in cargo pants that you start running into problems.
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