Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Essentials: Supertboy by Kesel & Grummett

In talks with my comic book-reading chums, they’ve pointed out—mostly Kiel pointed out—that whereas many young fans tend to gravitate towards characters whom they could relate to or empathize with such as Spider-Man or the Tim Drake incarnation of Robin, I seemed to go the opposite way as a kid and adopt alpha male types who were definitely cooler than me and whom through I liked to somewhat live vicariously through like New Warriors era Nova or Guy Gardner.

In no case do I think this was truer than with the Superboy of the 90’s in his original iteration.

From the minute “The Kid” showed up courtesy of writer Karl Kesel and artist Tom Grummett in the closing pages of Adventures of Superman #500, I was hooked on the character. The leather jacket, the shades, the fade cut, the earring and every one of his two dozen unnecessary belts—loved it all. But more than that, I dug his brash attitude, his insistence that nobody call him Superboy his uncontrollable flirting with every woman he saw and underneath it all the naiveté of a young man literally bred to be a hero but who had no idea of sacrifice. That was the dude I wanted to be.

Following Reign of the Supermen, Kesel and Grummett took The Kid out of Adventures and into his own series, titled Superboy as he finally consented to that name. Over the next two or so years, they would create some of the more enjoyable comics of my youth and stories I still remember fondly and hold dear to this day.

Kesel has always been pretty open about his devoted fandom to Jack Kirby, and I believe it shines through in very positive ways through those first 30 issues of Superboy. With the rich Superman mythos to mine and cherry pick villains and supporting cast from, Kesel and Grummett instead elected to relocate Superboy to the uncharted-in-the-DC Universe waters of Hawaii, giving them the chance to create from scratch their own world in which their character could play, much as “The King” had done so many times during his decades forging his legend.

And make no mistake, the surrogate family Kesel and Grummett would build around Superboy was a major component in what made the series stand out from the pack. The Kid’s primary love interest Tana Moon seemed to start out as merely a multicultural Lois Lane for a new generation, but her Hawaiian roots and moreover her complex feelings towards dating somebody a few years younger than her physically but who was quite honestly a newborn in terms of emotional experiences provided her significant depth. Hawaiian police chief Sam Makoa was a young Jim Gordon with far more orientation towards action, but his duality of annoyance that Superboy brought so many super-powered threats to an area that had gone years without any balanced with a subtle enjoyment over his now-interesting job was gold. Slimeball manager with a heart of gold Rex Leech and his bombshell daughter Roxy—the third point of the Superboy-Tana love triangle who was always lagging way behind—were tremendous fun. And the DNAlien Dubbilex, a telepathic demon-looking fellow with a demeanor more befitting Mr. Miyagi and a Kirby creation himself, provided both guidance and additional comic relief, particularly when he started wearing Hawaiian shirts and board shorts on the regular.

The villains Kesel and Grummett created for Superboy were a mixed bag, but the point again is the effort they put forth in dreaming up new threats for their hero to face, only peppering in familiar foes like Parasite, Killer Frost or Black Manta and making those appearances seem all the more like events as a result.

Of the new baddies, King Shark has probably gone onto the most longevity—though not much—as a general DC Universe villain, appearing regularly in Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis and more recently Secret Six. However, whereas he’s become chattier and a bit of a Killer Croc knock-off of late, King Shark originated as a silent savage who only Makoa had taken down in the past and who presented a genuinely creepy threat in his original appearances guest-illustrated by Humberto Ramos; he also had a pretty cool and grisly origin as the son of a shark god and regular woman who allowed him to feed off her own freaking arm!

Scavenger was an intriguing recurring foe if only because a cranky old man seemed a natural opponent for Superboy and his crazy paranoia and never-revealed motivations provided a bit of mystery. Silversword had some promise as the native Hawaiian who resented Superboy becoming the hero of the islands and ended up a villain despite his best intentions, but his design was cooler than any of his actual appearances. And good ol’ Sidearm, Superboy’s first villain from back when he was still going by Superman, was fun for the occasional comic relief appearance before his untimely demise during the too-serious-for-him “Watery Grave” arc.

None of them, however, had anything on Knockout.

While fans of a more recent vintage probably best remember Knockout as Scandal of the Secret Six’s recently-deceased lover, she got her start as the super-strong serial sexpot who drove Superboy nuts during his early years. A stripper named Kay with a mysterious past teased out over the better part of two years, Knockout was the only woman who truly flustered The Kid, alternating between ultra-aggressive sexual advances that put his boyish flirting to shame and brutal physical attacks in which she proved more than his equal.

Knockout would prove to be a huge part of Superboy’s development in the larger arc Kesel and Grummett were building over the course of her tenure. She’d show up often and baffle our hero with both her skewed morality as well as her not-at-all overtures towards the libidinous Boy of Steel. Whereas Tana represented Superboy’s innocent first love, he thought Knockout stood for the wild and unrestrained type of romance he saw as being truly “grown up” and had to learn that sometimes a bad girl is just that in the hardest lesson of his young life.

Because the heart of what Kesel and Grummett were doing with their first run on Superboy was telling a story of growing up and how it can be both the most you’ve ever had the most terrifying thing you have to do. The colorfully carefree standalone stories of Superboy’s early issues would give way and give weight to more serious sagas like the aforementioned “Watery Grave” and the creative team’s swan song, “Losin’ It,” in which The Kid finally succumbs to Knockout’s charms and ends up alienating the people he cares about in the process, destroying the life he’s built for himself, and then having to earn it all back.

When Superboy first came to prominence during Reign of the Supermen, he was the idealized teenager living all his dreams with incredible powers and no parental guidance to speak of. Shipping off to a tropical paradise only served to amplify this as suddenly The Kid lived in a world where hot girls in bikinis were lining up to meet him and the only threats he ever faced were easy enough to dispatch because no real bad guys ever come to Hawaii. He had friends, he had a great girl and he had awesome adventures with nary a consequence to fear—being Superboy was the coolest gig in the world.

But that was only the first part of the story Kesel and Grummett were telling.

It was masterful the way things slowly got tougher for Superboy bit-by-bit as opposed to all at once. A kid wearing his costume for a personal appearance he couldn’t make ends up getting killed by a villain aiming for him. He goes on a mission with the Suicide Squad as a favor to Makoa and learns about shades of gray. He’s unable to save Valor’s life and has to ship him off to the future. The pressure continues to build because he was really only built to handle success and is expected to shoulder the responsibility of a seasoned hero despite only having lived for a couple of years. And all the while Knockout is in his ear telling him to ditch the shackles of a life filled with duty and go off with her to just have a good time.

People scan the covers of those early Superboy issues and they see the earring and the shades and a lot of goofy fun—and the book had all that, but it was also telling a pretty damn powerful story about growing into adulthood whether you’re ready or not.

Up to this point, I’ve mentioned Grummett’s story contributions, as while Kesel was certainly the driving force behind the narrative from all I’ve heard it was a true collaboration, but I’d be remiss in not emphasizing how much his skill as an artist brought to the series. I’ve always loved Tom Grummett’s work as he is very much the ideal for a super hero artist, able to draw ladies who run the gamut from cute to gorgeous as well as dudes who look ready to do damage, but it’s his design sense and knack for having fun that really shined in the Superboy series. No villain’s costume ever looked bland, no supporting cast member ever faded visually into the background, and no battle lacked a tangible energy with Tom Grummett guiding the art chores on Superboy.

And speaking of energy, I think that’s the best topic to close this little essay on.

A buddy of mine and I were speaking just today about how the 90’s get derided a lot—and often with good reason—but it was also a period of incredible creative energy. So much of that period was throwing wild new ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck; not everything or even a lot did, but the stuff that succeeded was really something special. Nowadays that energy is still present in a lot of comic book work, but there’s also an increased emphasis on mining what worked in the past with reverence and trying to find a way to retool it for a modern time; I’m not saying that’s a bad approach or trying to praise one over the other, but there’s certainly something about that unbridled race to break away from what came before that I miss.

Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett’s Superboy was all about that wild energy and forging forward with new ideas, tossing them out rapid-fire in the spirit of Kirby and seeing what worked. From the main character to the unique setting to the quirky supporting cast to the bizarre array of villains, Superboy was all about taking a name that was familiar and building something completely new around it. The love those two guys and their collaborators put into the book really showed through the page and gave me a sense of consistent enjoyment I still cherish.


The Melter said...

so good, shame that the character is gone.

Matt D said...

This is one of the comics that really got me into DC when I was a kid. I started reading DC comics at 14 or 15 right after Zero hour and had to get some back issues to fill in Superboy 1-25 and it's a really great run that has been utterly wiped off the map. I think the Lemire Superboy will be good, but it'll be so different. I wonder if he even knows who Roxy Leech is.

You know what's the most underrated comic ever? Superboy and the Ravers. I'm not sure anything else even comes close. Things like Chase are only ever talked about positively, but Superboy and the Ravers is generally mocked by people who haven't read it. Great comic.

Speaking of underrated, why the heck doesn't Karl Kesel have that Fantastic Four book he wanted already? Hickman's doing an awesome job but In a world with 6 Avengers titles and 5 Captain America titles/minis, there's room for at least a Kesel FF series of minis. Joe Casey gets to do it with the Avengers.

Anyway, great write up!

Patrick C said...

Completely agree, I love the Kesel/Grummett Superboy and I go back and reread this issues often. As The Melter said, it's a shame that for all intents and purposes - this character doesn't exist anymore.

I really hope Jeff Lemire does look at these early Superboy issues and does some sort of homage to them. I still can't believe there hasn't been any comment from The Kid that Dubbillex has died - as 'Ex was the closest thing he ever really had to a father.

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