Thursday, September 16, 2004

Must There Be A Superboy?

Every interpretation of Superman makes him super-powered by the time he's a teenager. While most don't put him in the familiar red-and-blue costume until adulthood, for about 40 years in the comics he did have a career as the teenaged "Superboy."

Much of the Superboy stories' appeal came from their fleshing-out of a known character. This is obvious from the tagline -- "The Adventures Of Superman When He Was A Boy!" It all but admits that if Superman weren't so popular, there wouldn't be a demand for Superboy. (It is also tempting to theorize that Superboy was created because the adult Superman couldn't realistically have an adolescent Robin-esque sidekick, but could have heretofore unrevealed teenaged adventures, and so help younger readers identify with him that way. In 1993, a perpetually teenaged "Superboy" was created as a sometime sidekick for, and ostensible clone of, the adult Superman, and his adventures continue to this day. I'm not so concerned with him here.)

In the 1950s, the Boy of Steel added much to the overall Superman legend and inspired the creation of the Legion of Super-Heroes, a group of superhuman teens who lived 1,000 years in the future. Matt Rossi argues persuasively that Superboy is critical to Legion mythology, because no other figure in history would have grown up to be the galactic legend that Superman became.

This is the source of my cognitive dissonance over having a teenaged costumed Kal-El. Superboy is significant mostly because he grows up to be Superman -- but on his own, I'm not sure anyone has really delved into the dramatic reasons for Clark putting on the costume as a youngster. Because Clark as Superboy would seem to make Clark as Superman anticlimactic, few adaptations have dealt with Superboy. The biggest exception, the "Superboy" TV series (1988-92), focused neither on Superboy's emergence nor the transition from "boy" to "man." (The 1985 Bob Rozakis/Curt Swan miniseries Superman: The Secret Years dealt with the latter, but not so much the former, at least from what I have read secondhand.) Here are the issues I see raised by a Superboy career.

The Secret Identity

Before the 1986 revamp, Superman disguised himself as mild-mannered Clark in order to convince people that Clark was the last person anyone would suspect of being Superman. According to writer Elliott S! Maggin, Superman considered Clark an elaborate fiction that took on a life of his own. In other words, Superman saw Clark as a separate person whose identity he assumed. This might have made it easier for "Clark" to endure the perpetual humiliations the identity required. Of course, Clark was precious to Superman for connecting him to the people of the Earth, so Superman protected Clark from these slings and arrows. Clark still took a lot of lumps.

Now imagine a teenaged Clark submitting himself to similiar torments in a small-town school environment. It would take a lot of internal fortitude for him not to crack under the strain. Allowing himself to be pushed around could alienate his classmates, encourage their taunts, or both. This ground was covered fairly well in the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko issues of Amazing Spider-Man, where Peter Parker was constantly frustrated by having to conceal his powers. However, where Peter was an outcast before receiving his abilities, and felt trapped by circumstances, Clark would have chosen such a life consciously; and that might have put even more pressure on him.

We see this for a few moments in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie (1978), with a teenaged, Superboy-less Clark as the butt of the Smallville football team's pranks. Clark, the equipment manager, can outperform anyone on the team, but Pa Kent reminds him of the consequences of using his powers openly, and emphasizes that Clark was not sent to Earth to win football games. Whether a Superboy career would have helped Clark deal with these frustrations is debatable. Peter Parker coped by becoming Spider-Man, but the teen Clark of Superman didn't have to contrast his personality with a Superboy's, and so wouldn't have had to play the role with such dedication. Therefore, the classic model of the self-denying Clark may not be plausible for a "modern" Superboy. A different approach to Clark might be needed in order to make such a Superboy workable.

Somewhat ironically, the 1986 revamp of Superman's history omitted Superboy but made Clark a football star. This young Clark was also unaware of his extraterrestrial origins, until Pa Kent "scared him straight" by showing Clark the rocket in which he was found. This inspired Clark to spend the next seven years wandering the Earth, using his powers in secret as a mysterious "guardian angel." (Even this was frustrating, as shown in the first two issues of Superman: Birthright.) Only being exposed in public, and receiving a crush of unwanted publicity, compelled Clark to create the Superman identity. Therefore, the "fictional" identity is reversed from the previous status quo.

This teen Clark is the model for TV's "Smallville." I am far from a "Smallville" scholar, but broadly speaking, it shows Clark learning more about his origins as his powers develop over time. The producers stated early on that "Smallville"'s mantra was "no tights, no flights" -- that is, Clark won't learn to fly until the end of the series, shortly before he assumes the Superman identity. "Smallville" therefore tracks the development of the Superman persona, presumably as one which does not require the degradation of Clark's.

Again, I believe it would be easier on young Clark for "Superboy" to be the fiction. Still, we need to know how Superboy is going to operate before we can decide how he should be different from Clark.


The first Superboy story was published in 1945, 7 years after Superman's debut and almost 20 years before DC began dividing its heroes among several parallel universes. Still, eventually it was established that Superboy grew up to be the Superman of "Earth-1," the universe in which most of DC's comics from the mid-'50s through the mid-'80s took place. Because that Earth had few, if any, prominent superheroes before Superboy appeared, and because Superman has always been given a pivotal role in the emergence of superheroes, I presume that Superboy was intended to be the first prominent superhero of Earth-1.

(Your mileage may vary. This site places such historically significant figures as Zatara the Magician, J'Onn J'Onzz, Captain Comet, and the Shadow ahead of Superboy in the timeline, but that may have something to do with the need to make Superman's history indefinite and thereby preserve his youth. Furthermore, those other heroes either operated in secret or eschewed fancy costumes. Still other heroes like the Guardian and Manhunter wore costumes and operated publicly but had no superhuman powers. The wartime heroes Commander Steel and Robotman were more products of technology than superhumans; and the costumed superhumans TNT, Dan the Dyna-Mite, and Plastic Man were just not powerful enough to have the impact that a Superboy would. Thus, I recognize the qualifications about Superboy as Earth-1's first "prominent" superhero.)

As I mentioned in the earlier post, the appearance of a superpowered teenager is perhaps more unsettling than that of a superpowered adult. The teenager should only get stronger as he ages, and is less emotionally stable than an adult would be. Earth-1 might have seen a handful other costumed superhumans in the 1940s and 1950s, but Superboy was orders of magnitude more powerful than any of them. His appearance would signal a new age for the planet.

In the current unified model of DC's timeline, superheroes first came to prominence in the late 1930s and early '40s, in much greater numbers than on Earth-1. Many of these men and women formed the Justice Society of America and protected the homefront during World War II. These heroes were forced to retire by a McCarthyesque Congressional committee in the early 1950s. Decades later, Superman, Batman, and their more familiar contemporaries debuted, at an undefined "10-12 years ago." This generation of costumed crimefighters has been consistently portrayed as more powerful and more influential than their predecessors, with Superman at the top of their particular pyramid.

In either situation, it seems that Superboy would immediately head to the top of the pyramid; but in the unified timeline, at least the world could draw on its collective experience with the Justice Society (and powerhouses like the Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, or the Spectre) to gauge the impact of a Superboy. On Earth-1, Superboy's appearance would have been a quantum leap ahead of the first superhumans. There might even have been back-room conversations about how to neutralize the Boy of Steel. Superman: Birthright showed how Superman first gained the public's trust, but it also demonstrated how public sentiment could be turned against him.


In the comics, Clark becomes Superboy pretty much because he's itchin' for action and his parents think he's ready. By contrast, the Superboy-less Clark becomes Superman mostly in order to deal with a traumatic event -- the death of his foster parents in the 1938 origin (and in subsequent revisions until 1986); in the 1978 movie, Pa Kent's death and the contemporaneous discovery of Jor-El's crystal; or the need for privacy in the revised 1986 origin.

The 1986 origin is significant because it didn't just omit Superboy -- it also allowed Clark's foster parents to survive past his high school years. In the 1938 origin, Clark swears to use his powers only for good as the elderly Kents lie on their deathbeds. The Earth-1 Superman's origin has the Kents contract a fatal disease for which Superboy can find no cure; and they die around the time of Clark's high-school graduation. (The Secret Years miniseries then has Clark go to college and face similar failures as Superboy.) Because the 1986 origin is the first to let both Kents live, it has to find a new justification for Clark's heroic career.

Since the Kents helped get Superboy off the ground, a revised Superman origin which includes Superboy could take a similar approach. Smallville is not a big community (duh), but it is out in the middle of nowhere. The teenaged Clark could be content to fly around doing anonymous good deeds until a catastrophe forces him out in the open. As with the 1986 origin, he would then use a gaudy costume to "hide in plain sight." He might not even have to protect his secret identity that much, it being a sort of "open secret" that the townspeople trust each other to keep; and that could lead to tragedy.

If I were revising Superman history with a Superboy career, I might visit some horrific event on Smallville itself, destroying the town and most of its inhabitants, as part of an attempt to destroy Superboy. With Superboy refusing to lose another set of parents, the Kent family would survive, but Clark would retire his heroic identity. In Clark's mid-twenties, events (perhaps the alien invasion that brings together the Justice League?) would naturally force "Superman" back into the spotlight, but as previous Supermen had to deal with the deaths of the Kents, this Superman would rededicate himself to insuring that a Smallville-type disaster never happened again.

Having a clear break between Superboy and Superman seems to me to be a good way to distinguish the two periods. Giving Superboy a carefree childhood which isn't just Superman's in miniature also provides a thematic distinction. (The scenario does sound like a twist on the backstory of Kingdom Come, but I didn't intend it as such.) Virtually wiping out Smallville's population might seem more drastic than just having the Kents die, but to me it gives Clark a happier childhood and adolescence, surrounds him with a community which loves him for who he is, and makes him re-examine the depths of his Clark Kent identity.

In my mind, this approach makes Superboy the fiction while Clark is young, and then makes Clark the fiction while Superman is an adult. Because Clark is one of the few "Smallville survivors," he is naturally worried that someone might figure out he's Superman and start the process over. Thus, he throws himself even more into playing "Clark" to reduce that likelihood. The differences between Smallville Clark and Metropolis Clark can be explained as Clark's reaction to the disaster, which wouldn't be too far from the truth.

Of course, it's simpler just to say, as the current models do, that Clark was never "Superboy." There is probably even a simpler solution than I have proposed. I definitely wouldn't mind seeing what somebody wanted to do with the Boy of Steel if he or she got the chance.


Matthew_Rossi said...

Actually, you don't even need to destroy Smallville for your idea to work: you can make use of the scrap of Byrne's attempt to fit Superman into the Millennium storyline. In that story, Lana Lang and indeed almost all of Smallville turn out to have been mind-controlled dupes of the Manhunters, who created a storm to keep outsiders out of the town while they took control of the inhabitants in order to have a continuous surveilliance network aimed at Clark Kent as he grew up. Since I don't think anyone would mind if they retconned Millennium, you could have the carefree adventures of young Superboy be cut short by the horrific discovery that everyone in town was mind controlled by alien robots because of him: he then goes into hiding as you outlined above.

Very interesting article, by the way. I personally think the Superboy as young Superman concept is workable, and would love to try and prove it.

Tom Bondurant said...

Thanks for the kind words. I did think about using the Manhunters, but wanted to make Smallville an idyllic place that would be a genuine loss, and not just a "loss of innocence."

Hate Filled Poster said...

I love the old Superboy stories. I even have the one where he's running with the wolves.

Have you read Busiek and Immomen's Secret Identity. It touches on some of the points you made above with a young Superman being a danger to his surroundings and the government looking into ways to stop/use him. I can't recommend it highly enough. The only thing to keep in mind is that it's an "elseworlds" type book.

Tom Bondurant said...

I'm eagerly waitin' for the trade of Secret Identity. I have heard nothing but good things about it.

Dean Wilson said...

I haven't read all of Birthright yet, but in Loeb and Sale's For All Seasons (my favorite "origin story"), there is a tornado which nearly destroys Smallville and influences Clark's decision to be heroic. Did you know about this? If not, you did a good job of parallel thinking.