The biggest difference between Superman and Superboy, besides the completely, blindingly obvious difference, is that while Superman’s stories tend to be related in some way to big-city Metropolis, Superboy’s solo stories really need to take place in small-town agrarian Smallville, Kansas.
There have been some attempts to create Superboy comics over the years that don’t take place in the small town – the ’90s series that took place in Hawaii was a heck of a lot of fun – but there’s something at the core of this character that demands that his stoies be set in small town America.
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate writer for a small-town superhero than Jeff Lemire, who created the haunting Essex County Trilogy. Essex County was a gorgeous, evocative depiction of small town life in Canada, a vivid and haunting story that used exquisite symbolism and perfect scene setting to present an amazing graphic novel. My collaborative review of Essex County, written with Charles Webb, is posted here if you’re curious to read it.
Superboy #1 opens with a page that’s evocative of Essex County. An elementary school age boy runs through waist-high wheat fields wearing a mask and a cape, dreaming of being a super-hero. Readers immediately get a nice sense of setting and of small-town life while also creating a nice contrast with Conner’s heroic actions later in the issue.
The setting of this story is essential to the story, as this first issue thoroughly revels in small town life. Pier Gallo does a wonderful job of evoking agrarian life with his art in this issue, from the lovingly drawn wheat fields to the sturdy Kent farm-house to the quiet and peaceful Main Street of Smallville. When you see the way that Gallo draws a tractor or the inside of a barber shop, it seems clear that the artist shares Lemire’s love for classic Americana.
But this comic isn’t just about small town life. Conner is a hero but he has his own unique sets of problems. He’s confused about the strangeness of going to school with Lex Luthor’s niece – what is the etiquette of being friends with the relative of a man from whom you’re cloned? – so the one-page scene between Conner and Lori Luthor is clever. Will Conner keep being a dick to Lori through no fault of hers, or will he finally grow some confidence and treat her like a friend? There’s potentially a really interesting character-building moment between the two of them in the future, which should be fun to read.
Another major problem for Conner is that his best friend, Simon Valentine, has figured out Conner’s secret identity (though one has to wonder how much effort Conner devotes to keeping it a secret – his glasses are tiny and Superboy looks just like him) and Conner’s not sure how to react to that. Silver and Bronze Age Superboy fans will remember Clark’s friend Pete Ross who knew the hero’s dual identity; Simon is a nice nod to the old days. The fact that he’s apparently a super-genius should also make Simon a lot of fun to watch.
It’s actually kind of surprising how odd the super-hero stuff feels next to the small town life of this town. Early in the issue the Phantom Stranger appears to Superboy, sounding for all the world like an oracle of Superboy’s destiny and mumbling about coming storms and sinister forces that rest inside the fields of Kansas.
The prophecy is intriguing enough, but it feels awkward. It’s the one aspect of the book that seems completely out of place in the small town (and yeah, that includes the villain of the issue – I’ll get to the Parasite in a second) , and fits one of my pet peeves in comics: the all-knowing man who appears and reveals everything important to our hero. I suppose that the Stranger will become more important as the series rolls along, but here he just feels too out of the ordinary.
But somehow using the Parasite as villain in this issue doesn’t feel strange. The villain in purple is obviously part of the villainy that the Stranger prophesizes for Conner, but there’s something that makes it seem appropriate for Superboy to have to battle the Parasite. The Parasite is such a classic Superman villain that he somehow seems to fit the small town milieu of the story, since he’s so adaptable to the hero’s story.
I’m not so sure the same is true of the villainess who shows up at the end of the issue, but we’ll see how she plays out. At the very least, she’s a villain of the Earth and that fits the setting.
I thoroughly enjoyed this issue, especially the really nicely evocative writing of Jeff Lemire. He’s the perfect writer for a story about small town life, which makes him the perfect writer for Superboy.