Sunday, October 25, 2015

Must There Be A Superboy?

This past week or so, the wonderful minds at The Legion Of Super-Bloggers have been having a confab commemorating the anniversary of the "death" of the "original" Superboy, and what that death meant for the Legion Of Super-Heroes, and whether the Legion needs Superboy.

There's some wonderful discussion, and some wonderfully diverse viewpoints. Read here, here, here, and here, for example.

To me, though, this discussion begs a slightly different question--do we need a Superboy, period?

If you think about it very much, Superboy is a very odd concept: "The Adventures of Superman When He Was A Boy," as his book was often headlined; in later years that became "The Adventures Of Superman When He Was A Teen."

But you know what you don't see? "The Adventures Of The Flash When He Was A Boy," or "The Adventures Of Hal Jordan When He Was A Teen." Because, of course, those characters weren't super-heroes in there teens, and they didn't have many adventures. Oh, sure there were occasional surprise/hidden crossovers--Young Clark ends up sitting next to Young Hal Jordan on as plane trip, or "Look, Superboy encounters young Bruce Wayne, little realizing that they'll be best friends some day!"

But for the most part, the reason we have no "adventures" of young Barry Allen or youthful Hal Jordan is that they had no powers yet. And while you could no doubt pull off a random stand-alone issue or perhaps even a mini-series of  "events that shaped young Ralph Dibny," or even a "watch Bruce Wayne travel the world learning how to be a badass," there was certainly no clamoring for these tails.

Golden/Silver Age Superman was fairly unique, for having his powers and functioning as a hero from the moment he landed on Earth, from infancy. Well, Wonder Woman may have always had her powers, too...but attempts to portray "adventures of young Diana" never caught on, and ultimately accidentally led to the creation of Wonder Girl.

That's the other problem, of course--"the adventures of Superman when he was a child" can, like any prequel series, turn into the biggest continuity trap of all time. Not only must a prequel series avoid contradicting "current" Superman continuity, but it must avoid laying down any of its own continuity too firmly, lest that tie the hands of adult Kal-El's writers. We know that Lana and Pete Ross and Krypto and Lex can't die in a Superboy story, because they're alive in "the future." We know that this month's alien invaders can't win. This eliminates a lot of the suspense from the stories. Even though we "knew," especially in the Silver Age, that our lead characters couldn't die, in this case we extra knew it. When we already knew when adult Superman first met most of his foes, we couldn't suddenly have young Parasite or young Terra-Man showing up in Smallville.

So, assuming the writers and editors cared (which wasn't always evident), there were severe constraints on what stories could be told in a Superboy comic. Yet pre-Crisis Superboy comics were published in one form or another for almost 35 unbroken years!! As a result, many, many Superboy comics have this air of detached reality to them, even more so than many of DC's offerings of the time. They were, almost by definition, inconsequential.

Another missed opportunity, I think, is that a Superboy series shouldn't just be the "adventures of Superman when he was boy" rather, it should be the "adventures of Superman when he was incompetent and inexperienced." Seriously, you remember what we were like as teenagers, right? How often we screwed up? But as portrayed in the comics, Superboy had no adolescence, was already at full world-shaking power, and for the most part had no "learning curve"--he was just a shorter version of the adult Kal-El.

So, while I don't automatically think that John Byrne was right in throwing Superboy out with the reboot bathwater, I can understand why he did it. Having Superboy around, even as backstory, ties your hands for both versions of the character, and as had been presented for so long, gives you nothing too different than the adult adventures of Kal-El.

Yet there obviously was some longing for the character, as a run of 35 years attests. Post-Death Of Superman's Superboy hung around for nearly 20 years. And even in the nu52, there have been at least two hideously failed attempts at launching Superboy..

But, regardless of whatever problems you thought those "modern" Superboy strips may have had, at least they avoided many of the problems I talked about above. The were different characters than Kal-El, and in the same time period, so we weren't locked into tepid tales that were afraid to accidentally set in stone some portion of Superman's life story. And, not being Clark Kent, the creators felt emboldened enough to watch these youngster fumble, make mistakes, and actually grow as characters! (And become genocidal maniacs...oh, nu52, how we hate you...)

So wither the Superboy and the Legion?

Most of the old Legion had the same predestination problem--we knew Superboy couldn't die. And folks from the future couldn't reveal anything of what they knew about his future as Superman, because once again that would lock in writers of Superman. So, to avoid that, they frequently had to resort to "records of the era were lost" and/or mindwipes of Kal-El hand-waving to make sense of the concept. And since Clark had Lana as his "girlfriend," and Lois in his future, the Legion book couldn't even have Superboy get involved in a relationship with anyone, even though the other Legionnaires were hooking up like mad! Everything that could have made Superboy an interesting character in a Legion book was taken away!

Also, Superboy being in the Legion created the good old "power imbalance" problem for a team. Seriously, if you've got Superboy AND Mon-El AND Ultra Boy on your team, how can you really need the others? Very frequently, the creators had to resort to increasingly absurd gimmicks to either take Kal-El out early, or out of the story entirely, lest the story be done by page 3. There was an awful lot of Kryptonite and/or magical artifacts/creatures laying around the 30th century, is all I'm saying...

Did hanging with the Legion make Superboy a better hero? Fair question. Maybe in the Legion books, although my read is that he was more likely to make the other Legionnaires better heroes.. But, as he's presented as practically perfect in every way in his own title, it's hard to see how the Legion's influence was crucial to his development.

I think we need to remember that the Legion was founded before they even met Superboy. They were inspired by him, or by legends about him. But did they need him? They performed well without Superboy. They saved R.J. Brande without him. They stopped the Universo Project, and really old Ra's Al Ghul without him. Does anyone believe that 5YL would have been better with Superboy? I think that Superboy had the unfortunate effect of often sucking the attention away from a lot of the (frankly) more interesting members of the team, long after they needed any sales boost from Superboy to survive.

Ans at this point, given DC's apparent inability to sell a nu52 Superboy book, it's hard to see how including young Kal-El in the Legion would help bring back that book. Indeed, longing for Superboy might even be a hindrance to that goal with the current DC power structure.

I'm not diametrically opposed to Superboy, any version, in the Legion. But for better or worse, DC has (for now) permanently burned the bridge for any nu52 Superboy to participate in 31st century adventures--unless they pull one out of another dimension, or just create a new Superboy again, or bring back Superboy-Prime, or....

Now, the question of whether Supergirl belongs in the Legion is an entirely different matter...


Siskoid said...

Obviously, there is no Legion without Superboy and I'm not talking about the whole inspiration thing. They spun out of his adventures, being just another "Clark meets another superpowered teen" story (as Mon-El's was, long before he was ever admitted into the Legion). They proved popular enough for repeat appearances, showed up in Superman (often as an Adult Legion) and Supergirl (as the kids of the originals, that first time), and it took a few years before Adventure Comics actually published a straight-up "Tales of the Legion" strip where Superboy wasn't required.

Once they moved up from the "guest-star" roles, they started to evolve and frankly no, didn't need Superboy. Unless they couldn't maintain sales without him. What actually happened is that by the time they got their own title, as opposed to back-ups in Adventure and then Action, Superboy was in danger of losing his, so it became Superboy AND the Legion, a conflated "all-Adventure" book. They kept HIM alive and in publication. Does the Legion need Superboy? No, and at their most popular (arguably the Baxter series), Superboy wasn't featured much at all. But Superboy needed the Legion. It's that old thing when a solo star loses their book and gets folded into a team book so their story continues.

Mista Whiskas said...

Great analysis.

Martin Gray said...

May I just disagree with, well, everything? I think you're severely overthinking the original Superboy after the fact. He had fun adventures that were generally no more inconsequential than the Superman stories of the time. They didn't tie down the future Superman, they enriched his stories by giving him a backstory. I loved that he'd known Lex most of his life, and they been friends. It was great that Lana had more history with him than Lois. And if he occasionally met a superhero as a teen, wow!

I loved the smalltown backdrop, the intimacy of many of the stories. And the idea that he inspired an entire movement, and could then join that movement, was amazing. I didn't care that he'd never be in real peril, it's not like he would be as Superman. And the 30th century menaces could be bigger, so he wasn't automatically going to be able to clean everything up by himself. The LSH lost a lot when they lost Superboy's occasional interactions.

Kon-El - the original - was a great character, but not being young Clark Kent, having different powers, being in the present and not living in Smallville ... why was he even called Superboy? I liked Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett's long run, but I adored the Jeff Lemire/Francis Manapul Smallville-set stories. The New 52 Superboy is just a mess and needs throwing in a wormhole. I want young Clark Kent back, and in the Legion.