Back when I was a kid (well, depending on how far your definition of “kid” extends) and still didn’t know much about the DC Universe, I did know one thing: I really dug Superboy. And no, I don’t mean Clark Kent when he was a boy, I mean the dude who would go on to become Kon-El and later Conner Kent, the guy who rocked a zillion belts in the strangest places before moving to a t-shirt and jeans—that Superboy. Before I knew that Wally West was the guy wearing the Flash outfit or that Dick Grayson wasn’t Robin anymore, Superboy was far and away my favorite DC character.
With the all-too-short run by Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul on Adventure Comics coming to an end recently, it made me reflect back on how much I dig Superboy, who may not be my favorite character in the DCU anymore, but he still sits comfortably in the top three.
I may have said as much in earlier posts (we’ve written quite a few of them at this point, folks), but Superboy just came along at the perfect time for me, as I was hitting my semi-rebellious (or more wannabe rebellious) early teen years and a wiseass kid with a fade haircut, leather jacket and earring who hit on chicks was the avatar of all I found cool in the early 90’s. It wasn’t a case of image being everything though, as Superboy’s creators Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett really infused him with a feel-good, “this is fun” energy that the grim and gritty years were sorely lacking and that I didn’t even realize I was missing.
As I grew up and came back to comics, it was nice to see that Superboy had matured a bit too under the pen of writers like Peter David and Geoff, but not too much. Here are some of the Superboy stories from over the years that have always kept the character on my list of faves.
Reign of the Supermen
I’ve heard in read in various interviews and accounts (including a Wizard Retrospective I helped edit) that Superboy’s creators weren’t completely shocked by his almost-immediate popularity, but at least somewhat surprised he caught on the way he did. I know hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but even at the time of “Reign of the Supermen,” I had a good feeling Superboy would stick around if only because in one of the most epic of epic storylines, he still stood out brightly among a cast of dozens. Fashion sense aside, Superboy was the breath of fresh air fans such as myself were looking for in a story where you had a Cyborg Superman blowing up Coast City, the shades-wearing Eradicator frying criminals while wearing an “S” on his chest and the real Man of Steel sporting a Fabio mullet; amidst the doom and gloom (that, don’t get me wrong, was still a killer story), Superboy hearkened back to comics being fun. I also always dug that while the other three would-be Supermen were being positioned as possible replacements, it was always up front that Superboy (or then “don’t call me Superboy!”) was a clone and not trying to convince anybody of anything. Kesel and the other Superman writers of the day did a nice job using the “The Kid” as comic relief, but also as a hero from the word go, anxious to prove himself if somewhat lacking in attention span.
In the first half-dozen issues of Superboy’s first solo series, Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett did an exemplary bit of world-building that many creators today could learn a nice lesson from. Right off, they dropped The Kid in a totally exotic (in more ways than one) locale, Hawaii, to set him apart from anybody else in the DC Universe and then set about populating this new frontier. Superboy carried over his ambitious girlfriend Tana Moon as well as sleazy agent with a heart of gold Rex Leech and his bombshell daughter Roxy from his Adventures of Superman run, but then also added sage advisor (and Jack Kirby creation) Dubbilex and sober cop Sam Makoa (Hawaii’s Commissioner Gordon) to round out a solid supporting cast. Within five issues, Kesel and Grummett provided their protagonist with the start of a unique rogues gallery in the hapless Sidearm, bad girl Knockout, crazed Scavenger, and noble yet misguided Silversword. Of all these new creations, Knockout would prove the most enduring and intriguing, taking The Kid’s propensity for ogling beautiful women and turning it against him in the worst of ways (it’s also kinda cool that she’d go on to venture outside Superboy’s world thanks mostly to Gail Simone, though I wish the two of them had been able to have one last tangle before her untimely demise). In under six months, Hawaii was nearly as fleshed out a DCU locale as at least Midway or Star City and ready to contend with the Gothams of the world (though how so many super villains ended up in the islands I’ll never understand). Oh, and I can’t conclude this section without throwing particular props to the awesome Superboy #4, featuring Rex Leech’s skewed “Superboy: The Animated Series,” as illustrated brilliantly by the late Mike Parobeck).
“Watery Grave” (Superboy #13-15)
This three-parter from 1995 was actually my very first exposure to the Suicide Squad back before I was aware of much beyond that there had at one time been a team and book with that name. It’s pretty neat stuff as it places the happy go-lucky Kid in way over his head amongst a group of unrepentant thugs and murderers who stand in stark contrast to his bluster and general optimism. The story itself has Superboy and the Squad going after perennial string-pullers the Silicon Dragons in the culmination to much of what Kesel had been laying down over the book’s first year; Kesel also does a great job playing out the intrigue of a traitor within the group, a common theme, but one he nicely misdirects more than once. The action is top-notch as expertly done by Grummett and by the end of the story Superboy has definitely grown up a little following his first real solo epic—but not too much.
Sins of Youth
Superboy Definitives or not, I heartily recommend Sins of Youth just because it’s a fantastic and wonderfully entertaining story with more actually funny humor than just about any comics event ever plus Todd Nauck outdoing himself again and again, but it is cool that at its heart, this is a DCU-wide story that centers around Young Justice and, more specifically, Superboy. The gimmick of adult super heroes becoming teens and the young good guys getting older is a neat hook, but it’s also central to the through line of Superboy’s big character arc: that he can never grow up even if he wants to. Amidst the laughs and visual hilarity of this adventure, Karl Kesel and Peter David in particular give Kon some incredible pathos as well as one major turning point event that made the 11-year-old in me shed a tear for certain.
It seems like I do nary a list for this blog without mentioning how perpetually skilled and underrated Joe Kelly is as a writer, but hey, you can’t fight truth. Back at the turn of the century, Kelly had another one of his too-short oddball runs on a book when he took on Superboy with artist Pascual Ferry and had a good ol’ time mixing smart comedy with straight up weirdness involving gorillas, robots and the like. His first issue was a particularly witty bit of meta-textual storytelling, as Superboy realized that he had somehow become considered “uncool” within the confines of the DC Universe and sets about giving himself a makeover that dragged him visually beyond 1993 and into 2001. As Kon muses on how he lost his hipness and chats with guest stars over how to regain it, Kelly does nice work picking apart the character and explaining why he is in fact timeless regardless of whether or not he needs a new costume.
Teen Titans Annual #1
If Karl Kesel, Peter David and Joe Kelly were Superboy’s principal stewards as he got to enjoy his early teen years, Geoff Johns was the guy who stepped in and started prepping him for real world responsibilities and an adulthood that may never come (this is comics), but never lost sight of the youthful exuberance that made the character stick to begin with. Nowhere does Johns’ “growing up” Superboy ring more true than in his Conner’s relationship with Wonder Girl, one of my favorite comic book romances of the past decade. While The Kid has always had a lady on his arm, what he had/has with Cassie feels more “real,” both in the way it’s been portrayed and in the sense you get that this is the first romance of his that could really go somewhere; in that latter regard, Geoff has always done a nice job making the relationship reflect the more heartfelt ones we have in our late teens or early 20’s as opposed to the flirtations of youth. This issue is maybe the best and most heartstring-tugging Conner/Cassie story in a pretty impressive pantheon that includes not only everything Geoff did with them on Teen Titans, but also the adorable “will they or won’t they?” routine Peter David had going for years in Young Justice. In the midst of Infinite Crisis and coming off Conner getting his ass kicked by Superboy Prime, he and Cassie share their feelings and memories, recalling all they’ve been through together and ultimately consummating their relationship before the world ends; it’s touching, poignant, and yet not too dire, as this is still a Teen Titans story starring Superboy after all.