Bizarro Back Issues: Superboy And The Alien Death Wish! (1980)
We've seen an awful lot of reboots over the past few years, and when it comes to giving a long-running character a new #1, there are a lot of choices you can make. The obvious one, of course, is to give readers a back-to-basics approach that makes things a little more accessible and lets new fans get in on the ground floor. Or, if you're aiming for the hardcore fans, you could pick something from past continuity and bring it back, casting it in a new light to reward and intrigue long-time readers.
Or, if you're Cary Bates and Kurt Schaffenberger kicking off The New Adventures of Superboy in 1980, you decide to open your first issue with some complete and total weirdness that references the obscurest pieces of old continuity and ends up with a story about an extra birthday candle, an eight year-old with a big decision to make, and a couple of aliens who long only for the sweet, sweet embrace of death.
To be fair, The New Adventures of Superboy wasn't exactly launched as a reboot. See, Superboy had been running pretty continuously since 1940, but by the end of the '70s, the Legion of Super-Heroes had become so popular that they essentially booted Superboy out of his own book and took over for themselves. The same month that this issue hit stands, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes officially became Legion of Super-Heroes, in a story where Superboy decided to stop hanging out with his weirdo future space friends because the whole thing was bumming him out.
That story, incidentally, is called "Psycho-War," and yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.
As for this series, it picks up on the momentous occasion of Clark Kent's 16th birthday, and once Lana Lang's done being a total jerk about the candles (seriously!), Pete Ross notices that there's something off about the cake. There are seventeen candles, and when he's asked about them, Clark says he doesn't know why. And for once, he's actually not lying to his friends.
It turns out that the candle is actually there because of the Kents, and it's something they've been doing ever since he was eight --- which, not coincidentally, is the year he officially became Superboy. Cue flashback!
Yes: This is a story that takes place in the past that contains a flashback to even further in the past, in which the people in the flashback look older than they do in the regular past, because of magic space drugs that made them younger. Comics!
Anyway, back when they were older, the Kents decided that it was a good idea to just let an invulnerable eight year-old who can shoot fire out of his eyes just fly around doing whatever he wants to. In their defense, though, I don't imagine that they would've had much of a choice in the matter. If that kid wants to be Superboy, there's not much they could do about it.
Keep it to yourself, car weirdo.
Fortunately for, well, everyone, Little Clark's a good kid --- but that doesn't stop him from being attacked by an alien spaceship on what is literally his second day as a superhero:
Quick sidenote: Wouldn't superhero comics as a genre be a whole lot better if everything that happened in them was narrated by some mustachioed air show commentator in a straw boater? Give The Dark Knight Returns another read with that in mind sometime, I promise it'll change your outlook.
As the attendees of Smallville's air show watch, Superboy is abducted by the UFO. Once he's inside, a voice over a speaker assures him that the aliens mean him no harm, but since they're currently keeping him restrained with a "bio-magnetic grapplers" and scanning him with mysterious laser beams --- and since he's, you know, eight --- Superboy is having none of it. He quickly breaks free, shocking his alien captors with how powerful he is, and heads home just in time for a birthday screening of home movies.
The thing is, the aliens were being honest: They actually don't mean any harm to Superboy. Quite the opposite, in fact!
See, Myla and Byrn here are themselves the last survivors of a lost planet, but theirs didn't explode. Instead, their people were wiped out by a "Space Plague," and they only survived thanks to a sort of universal cure that they made. Unfortunately, it worked too well --- now, thanks to what they explain away as the sheer force of their altered minds, nothing can kill them. Which, I imagine, sounded pretty good until they got to the part where they can still experience pain and disease, but just can't die.
Fortunately, they have a solution.
You know, as superhero comic readers, I think we all get to a point where genuinely absurd phrases like "power ring" or "healing factor" just start sounding normal to us. But somehow, some way, "aging factor" does not make the cutoff.
Point being, they want to use some space technology to steal Superboy's ability to age, so that they can finally just die already. The flipside to that is that Superboy will himself be made immortal, and will be stuck for eternity as an indestructible eight year-old with the ability to throw a tank into the sun.
Clearly, there's absolutely no downside to this.
It's at this point that Jonathan and Martha Kent's laissez-faire parenting style comes back into play. At Byrn and Myla's urging, they leave the decision of whether or not to acquire immortality entirely to their son. Who, again, is eight years old.
Thus, Tiny Baby Superboy flies off to decide whether he wants to live forever, leaving his parents, and two aliens with a literal death wish, to watch. And to their surprise, he does it, pulling the trigger and donating his aging factor to the aliens.
Or does he?!
I am a pretty big fan of Cary Bates (and Kurt Schaffenberger is secretly the best Superman artist of the Silver Age), but there's not a whole lot of tension in this story. I mean, we know from the cover that he's aged at least eight years, and even if we didn't have that, well, there's this entire Superman franchise going on around him that's sort of built on the idea that he eventually grows up. Still, I was pretty intrigued about how it was going to play out. My pet theory was that Superboy would give up a year's worth of his "life force," somehow jump-starting Byrn and Myla's aging and thus justifying the extra candle.
He just tricks them into thinking they can die because their immortality is completely psychosomatic, and then they shoot him with an amnesia beam so that he doesn't remember it. The extra birthday cake candle is just there to commemorate Superboy's decision to forego immortality --- and to help some aliens die by convincing them that they can.
Kind of a weird spin on the whole "believe in yourself" moral, isn't it?