Friday, January 7, 2011

Review: Superboy #3

Superboy #3
Jeff Lemire (w), Pier Gallo (a)

I really want to like Superboy.  And I do, but let me explain:  I am a child of 90's comics.  My first experience with Superboy was with a Superboy who wore round sunglasses, a leather jacket, and a stupid haircut.  My Superboy lived in Hawaii and partied with a group of space teenagers.  Maybe it wasn't high art, but damned if it wasn't some fun comics.  So I think it's pretty safe to say that the Superboy we've been privy to since Geoff Johns's run on Teen Titans isn't quite my version of Superboy.  Sure, I guess it's the same Kon-El, but gone are the sunglasses, the leather jacket, the stupid haircut, and the exotic locales.  And, sure, I'll say it: gone is the fun of being Superboy.  Johns introduced a Superboy who was more filled with self-doubt, angst, and ennui; a Superboy who didn't party in space because he was busy whining about how he was a half-Lex Luthor clone, a Superboy too paralyzed by the fear of someday growing up to become the man he hated rather than the man he admired.  A compelling inner conflict, yes, but not one that stays fresh when it's the only sort of inner conflict that Johns put Superboy through for four or five years.  It always seemed that when he wasn't busy whining about being different from Superman he was busy whining about being afraid of turning into Lex Luthor.  Whatever happened to the carefree, self-promoting party animal who just wouldn't shut up about how great tactile telekinesis is?

Which is why I come into this iteration of Superboy with an "Okay, I guess this will do" mindset.  While I will eternally be a fan of 90s Superboy, I am pretty interested in the emphasis being placed on the weirdness of living in a small town.  The fact that it's Jeff Lemire writing it is the main selling point for me, as I hear that Lemire is who to go to for small town drama (if you haven't read his Sweet Tooth yet, where have you been?).  Having a cameo appearance by David Lynch in the first issue has already earned this book the benefit of the doubt.  Lemire's Superboy seems like the logical next step from Johns's Superboy in that he's stopped whining about the things he's been whining about since 2004 and he's moved on to other things.  Thankfully, those other things are presented in an entirely readable and relatable fashion thanks to the work of Lemire.

While it lacks the fun and excess of the 90s Superboy, Lemire's version gives us an updated presentation of stories with a silver-age feel, one of its main strengths.  We get the whole "aw shucks, being a teenage superhero is hard, but being a teenager is harder" vibe that the silver-age stories would present, but with the added emphasis on emotional impact that has developed over time in comics storytelling.  And!  Special bonus!  We get all of this without having the drama come from a tacked on drug addiction or rape trauma.  (That's the sound of my sigh of relief.)

We've got a nice handful of silver-age teen superhero tropes that Lemire works with: over-eager/mostly unwanted sidekick, love interest, wacky sci-fi elements, and unexpected guest stars.  The opening page is even a nice throwback to the old silver-age splash pages that would tease you with the action to come.  Superboy's familiarity with these tropes is one of its most charming elements, and the way Lemire wields them with confidence allows him to throw in some modern complications -- namely those that arise in the supporting cast's relationships with Superboy.  Love interests will always be a complicated thing, but Lori Luthor being Luthor's niece and Conner's sort of half-cousin gives it that extra degree of difficulty, and Conner's rejection of Simon looks like the kind of dick move that will make Superboy wish he'd just given him a signal watch and called it a  day.  It's fun stuff like these weird relationships that I hope to see more of in this book.

The hook of the series is apparently that there are some weird things going on beneath the surface of Smallville.  We're getting hints of it, but I think so far what's been driving this story is the fact that Conner Kent is just a good kid.  Yeah, he's got superhero and teenage problems, but despite all the angst, he is, at his core, a genuinely good human being.  In these first three issues so far, he takes care of Ma Kent and the Kent farm, he plans to clean up all of the damage done to Smallville after school, he sets up a charity event -- really the only less than good things he does are rejecting Simon's friendship (but that's out of that desire to protect his friends) and being skittish with Lori (and that's because any teenage boy acts weird around girls, nevermind a teenage boy who is the clone of Superman and Lex Luthor, and nevermind that the girl in question is the niece of Lex and sort of his cousin so getting together is a double taboo [or at least a taboo and a half]).  And that's what I'm liking about Lemire's Superboy: sure he's not outrageous and fun like the Superboy of the 90s, but it's nice to see a character that has evolved from both the silly 90s version and the angsty Geoff Johns version into a character who has his priorities in line, not allowing himself to be sidetracked by his own hangups about who he is and where he came from.  It's great to see that Lemire allows Conner Kent to be a hero first regardless of whether he is working in a teenage capacity or a superheroic capacity.

I do have some gripes with the series so far, though.  Pier Gallo's art being the main one.  Gallo's art is serviceable, and the storytelling is clear, but it lacks the kinetic excitement that I'd want from a superhero book, and it's too middle-of-the-road to convey the weirdness of Smallville that Lemire is trying to hint at.  Each character looks a bit plastic-y and I'm not sure that emotional moments are rendered strikingly enough to convey the weight behind some of the character moments that Lemire writes.  And while we're on the topic of Lemire's writing, there were parts of this issue as well as in the previous two issues where the largely teenage cast of characters sounded pretty far off from a cast of bored small town teenagers.  This issue in particular had a line about Simon seeing the world as a videogame that had Conner sounding like your dad after he just picked you up from the Sheriff's office or something like that.
One particular point of contention I had with this issue was its narrative structure.  Lemire opts to go for a fragmented timeline sort of approach where we start with some action and we go back and forth between the in the moment action and the events leading up to it.  I just didn't particularly understand the reasoning behind this choice, as there would have still been a mystery as to what was causing all the headaches/fainting should the story have been told literally.

But these are, of course, small gripes that can be set aside due to the strength of Lemire's promise of the underlying weirdness in Smallville and his completely enjoyable version of Superboy.  He may not be writing the Superboy I'm familiar with, but Lemire has already established such a strong mission statement with his handling of Conner's character that I am more than willing to get to know this more Smallville-centric version of Superboy.  But if we get a guest appearance by the Ravers, I'm definitely not saying no.

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