Before becoming DC’s Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns was the guy who DC could seemingly assign to any title and he’d find a way to make it work. His work on Teen Titans, to some, rivals the legendary work of Marv Wolfman and George Perez. He made the convoluted histories of Hawkman make sense. His work on The Flash (particularly his Wally West run) and Green Lantern are almost universally praised. He also did a little bit of writing for Superman.
Reading his work, on the proper Superman titles, it’s evident Johns invariably “gets” Superman. He understands the core of the character, what makes him tick, and what’s made him an enduring pop-culture icon. This is no less evident than in the pages of the 2009 relaunch of Adventure Comics. Beginning in August 2009, Johns would collaborate with artist Francis Manapul on a multi-part story within the anthology that serves as a definitive statement on the Man of Steel. Impressively, this is accomplished with barely a glimpse of the famed hero, but rather by focusing on the path of Conner Kent, aka Superboy.
The history of Superboy is one rife with convoluted backstory, messy legalities, and multiple incarnations. But all readers need to know going into this story is that Conner Kent had died in Infinite Crisis, was resurrected, and happens to be comprised of the genetic material of Superman and Lex Luthor. In fact, it is his genetic makeup which Johns and Manapul exploit in their examination of the Superman mythology.
It is not Johns’ words that hook readers into this story, but work of Francis Manapul and his colorist, Brian Buccellato, by opening with an ideal representation of America’s heartland. A boy and his dog playing catch. A loving mother checking in on her son’s well-being. The rising morning sun cascading light across fields of wheat and corn. These images strike an emotional chord as they represent the foundation of Superman. He may be an all-powerful being from another world, but he was raised in this setting. Who he is and the values he holds dear can be found in the soil that Conner Kent and Krypto play on. The warm hues by Buccellato play a significant role as well. The reds, oranges, and tans are warm and inviting, which signals to readers the space they’re about to enter is one in which they can let their guard down as the story unfolds.
Early in the first chapter, Johns introduces a narrative tool which will serve as the foundation for the entirety of the story: a checklist in which Conner compares himself to both Superman and Lex Luthor. At first, the comparisons are rather simple. Superman lived with the Kents. Conner lives with the Kents. Check. With the progression of the narrative, each point of comparison becomes grander in scale. Both attended Smallville High. Both joined a team of superheroes. Both will help anyone that needs it.
This reinforcement of Superman’s core not only to Conner’s benefit, but our own. The “simple” points about living with the Kents and attending Smallville High are no less as important as the others. They are cornerstones in Superman’s upbringing as Clark Kent; the foundation of his kindness and moral code. Without these elements, he never becomes Superman. In retreading these crucial elements of the Superman lore, Conner hopes to find that same goodness within himself. And for much of the first chapter, that goodness is evident. There’s a lighthearted reunion with the also-recently-resurrected Bart Allen. There’s a charming rescue of a citizen from a river. It’s easy to look at Conner’s actions and think, “That’s Superman.” However, the first chapter ends with Conner having to check a box on his list of things Lex Luthor does: Lies to Superman.
There is an interesting dynamic between Conner’s “Superman list” and his “Lex Luthor list.” As mentioned above, the list of attributes for Superman are clear and defined. This will continue as he adds to that list. Develops microscopic vision. Watched over Krypto. There is no wiggle room for misinterpretation. Meanwhile, his Lex list is full of vague and fluid attributes. The only item that is easy to point to “Goes bald.” This is because, whereas Superman has been established and, despite the occasional change, remained consistent over his publication history, Lex Luthor has not.
What’s your favorite version of Luthor? Is it the mad scientist of the Silver Age? Is it the savvy businessman of today? Is it Gene Hackman’s real estate swindler? Is it the man who perpetrated the thievery of forty cakes? Over the course of his history in pop culture, Lex Luthor has taken many different forms. And due to his character’s fluidity, it is difficult for Geoff Johns, and by extension Conner Kent, to pin down what defines him. According to the story, one of Luthor’s defining characteristics is lying to Superman. While that is true, it is not a trait that belongs solely to Luthor. Batman, Wonder Woman, Hal Jordan, and countless others have lied to Superman. They have also at various times alienated their friends – another of the story’s Lex-traits.
However, Johns points out the one trait that has remained consistent in Luthor across is various iterations: the complete and total dedication of his resources and very being to taking down Superman. This comes to a head in the story’s climax, as Lex performs an act as petty as it is evil that cements his place as the true antithesis of Superman. Much of the credit of this sequence should be given to Manapul, as he builds tension from panel-to-panel. In addition, Luthor’s rage and Conner’s horror are perfectly captured. More than that, Manapul’s pencils convey Conner’s helplessness in the situation, because if there’s one thing Superman does, it’s try to help everyone.
Superboy: The Boy of Steel is by no means a perfect story, nor is it the best Superman story. Despite its best efforts, comics the main narrative is reliant on the reader’s knowledge of past events, as is the case with most superhero comics. However, few stories define the Man of Steel better than this. This is an era where creators across various media struggle with the very concept of Superman, because he’s unlike so many of the flawed heroes that have become a license to print money (especially at the box office). Superman doesn’t require pathos or tragedy or controversy to work. It is the kindness and selflessness (with a smile) that sets him apart from others. And as the world around us grows darker, the spirit of Superman is needed more and more. Everyone has their own set of qualities that define Superman, and they can be found in this Superboy tale.