This year, some of DC Comics’ biggest stories circle at a distance around a transformational moment in the story of Superman. This article gets in close.
1) Two Ways To Be Doctor Manhattan
It is 1958. Clark Kent is a lonely teenager. The girl knows his secret. She is joined by the two boys he saw earlier. The three begin to undress in front of him. Something has changed.
It is 1958. Clark Kent has had a hard day at work, reporting for the Daily Planet. The buzzing penetrates his window. His parents step from the vessel. His heart is to be broken.
Cosplaying Doctor Manhattan could either be seen as very brave or very lazy. Whichever it is, crafty old Geoff Johns has ducked the question. He’s finding another way to explore his personal relationship with the character. Eschewing the blue body paint and public indecency charge, Johns has instead written a series, Doomsday Clock. In it, various deficiencies in Johns’ earlier work are revealed to be the fault of this iconic fictional character.
2019’s Doomsday Clock #10 tells the story of Doctor Manhattan visiting various different iterations of ‘the DC Universe’ and ‘Superman continuity’. He fiddles about with these nonsenses to make them worse. This ultimately creates the ‘New 52 Universe’, a fictional reality we saw ushered in by Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns in 2011. Many have found that universe unsatisfying and ugly and, since 2011, given some thought as to why it might be so. It’s now, in 2019, that Johns can, at last, reveal that full responsibility lies with none other than the dastardly Doctor Manhattan. One of Manhattan’s stops on this calamitous journey through DC history, was Adventure Comics #247, a Superboy comic from 1958. It’s one where he made a decisive and ruinous intervention.
It is a popular destination. Brian Michael Bendis began his stewardship of the Superman books with a ‘Man who Destroyed Krypton‘ storyline. Bendis’ menacing Rogol Zaar being the latest in a procession of baddies to have claimed responsibility for that one, starting with Klax-Ar back in a Superboy comic from 1958.
Since then, Bendis has been busily and enigmatically moving around certain items of furniture in the current books. He made abrupt changes to one of the two Superboys in his care. Why he made them seemed a bit of a puzzle. The popular Jon Kent was ushered offstage to be abused for five years before being returned to the story’s present, aged-up and now lacking the key dynamics between him and certain other characters. But to what end? This seemed such a peculiar choice. Much was lost and nothing obvious was gained. What was Bendis playing at?
“[I]t’s not just a, ‘Ha ha we ruined your favorite thing.’” Bendis assured CBR in May, “There’s a story being told that we think will be additive to that thing you liked about him, a big one. And we haven’t gotten to the big reveals yet, but we’re getting there.”
We are there now. This has all been done to reenact and re-stage certain story elements from Adventure Comics #247, a Superboy comic from 1958.
Frank Miller, meanwhile, is not interested in reenacting specific story elements from Superboy comics from 1958. But he’s on their turf, and not for the first time. The New Adventures of Superboy #51 collected the stories of a young Clark Kent bringing his time as Superboy to an end. Although perfunctorily followed by issues 52 to 54, it closed the book on Superboy as an ongoing concern. Frank Miller provided the cover. It’s no small thing when Miller comes to Smallville. Last time he was here he shut the place down.
Superman: Year One #1 deals with the same period in Clark Kent’s life that covered by the books Johns and Bendis are eyeing. Growing up in Smallville, being raised by Jonathan and Martha, having a relationship with Lana Lang, the broad strokes are all here. All part of the “child’s fairy tale” Miller flags up his first issue as telling.
Like fairy tales, Miller’s Superboy story is full of vulnerable children, bullies, and rapists. Like fairy tales, the comic is aggressively didactic. Its world of victims and predators are arranged so Miller can discuss and negotiate how he feels the American superpower should best deploy violence in the great high school drama of the world. The post-911 anxieties that have dominated and soured Miller’s work are all here, running the streets and stalking the corridors of Superboy’s Silver Age.
The DC Comics narrative tirelessly regresses, revokes, restores and recontextualizes. In the limited terms of that narrative, there’s something very current about Superboy comics from 1958. Enough so that I thought it might be fun if we all squeezed into one of those big glass time bubbles and popped back there to have a little nose round.
2) The Cathedral of Cologne
What happened back in Smallville? We have a powerful sense that some things did, but not many. A child was found in a crashed rocketship. He was inculcated with the old-timey values of an idealized America. Maybe he had a love interest? Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe a militia of radiant wonderfolk from a thousand years hence manifested across the time barrier, like hormonal angels, to announce that he was the center of Everything. Or maybe they told him the truth. Maybe his parents died. Maybe they’re fine. Between two and five things certainly happened in Smallville. But probably not more than five.
Which is odd. First in More Fun Comics, then in Adventure Comics, then across both Adventure Comics and two volumes of Superboy, the adventures of a small town dwelling teen Clark Kent ran from 1945 to 1984. Thirty-nine years worth of comics, often coming out two a month, treating of the Superboy of Smallville. Something must have been going on in those thousands of pages of story. Something must have been happening.
One thing that is happening, in the year we’ve set the dials for, is the Silver Age, although it doesn’t know that yet. ‘Ages’, times and periodization are important yet strangely mutable here. It is 1958.
Say “Silver Age Marvel!” to someone and they’ll probably start thinking of Fantastic Four and a shift towards superhero drama that arises from relationships between differentiated characters. Say “Silver Age Batman!” to someone and they’ll probably start thinking of psychedelic conflicts on alien worlds and large versions of everyday objects, even though they know perfectly bloody well that those Bat-Things predate the Silver Age and they’re just being obdurate. But what happens if you just yell “THE SILVER AGE!” at someone?
Chances are they’ll start thinking of Weisinger-era Superman. The Silver Age Superbooks, edited by Mort Weisinger, built things to last. They demonstrated a commitment to both invention and consolidation that exemplified the Silver Age as a whole. Here is the new, and here are the mechanisms by which it will endure to be old. That trait makes the books that came out of Weisinger’s office a reliable map with which to explore the territory. Alan Moore’s Supreme was more illuminating than his 1963.
When Marvel wants to investigate what characterized their comics of the period, or sometimes what those comics lacked, they’ll do it by creating a Sentry or a Blue Marvel. When the door opens to welcome you into this resurgent and reinvigorated era of comics, it is Curt Swan’s Superman holding it open for you with a wink and smile. With as close to those expressions he can muster should he have the head of an ant or lion at the time.
Presumptuous, really, because Superman got to the party a little late himself. The Silver Age is generally taken to have started with the debut of Bartholomew ‘Flashy’ Allen in 1956 and to have started for the Superman books at some more ambiguous point in 1958. Action Comics #241 is a popular choice, but I’d go for something from a couple of months earlier. I’d go for Adventure Comics #247.
June 1958’s Action #241 sees the return of the frosty hideaway that would become the Fortress of Solitude, a celebration of Superman’s place in our world, false jeopardy as part of a ruse, and some buddying around with Batman. In its structure, tone, and concerns it is unquestionably a Silver Age Superman comic. I don’t know how you can say it’s the first when Adventure Comics was introducing the Legion of Superheroes back in April. If you’re looking for a punctuational moment that marks the start of something new and different, that would seem to be your best bet.
Except that Action is a Superman book and Adventure is a Superboy book. It would be strange to think of this era of Superman as beginning in Superboy, wouldn’t it? No, it wouldn’t. It’d be fine. For two reasons. One being that the Superboy stories are simply an integral part of the world-building project underway. As well as the Legion, the Superboy comics of 1958 introduce Bizzaros and Red Kryptonite. Both are crucial parts of the era’s lore and emblems its interest in the strange and wrong. The elements that make Weisinger-era Superman look and work the way it does are being developed right here. The other reason is a little more abstract. It has to do with the results of a beauty pageant that took place five years earlier.
Lana Lang isn’t who you think she is. She’s certainly the winner of the ‘Miss Smallville’ contest that took place in Adventure Comics #172. The decision was unanimous and she was duly adorned with the victor’s sash. “Miss Smallville 1952,” it read – the year of the comic’s publication. These ‘Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy” were set in the present day. As were the stories of the adult Superman simultaneously appearing in Superman and Action Comics.
“The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy” was an unlovely and inelegant tagline. It feels awkward to say out loud. But it endured because it made the purpose of these stories explicit. We’re not traveling to the time in which Superman grew up out of any interest in that time. We just want to see Kid Superman. Children who better identify with a hero closer to their own age are the demographic being served here. Not anyone nostalgically misty-eyed for the rolling cornfields and down-home mannerisms of pre-war America.
“Some time ago, in the cathedral of Cologne, I saw the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve.”
“Really?” I exclaimed, amazed. Then, seized by doubt, I added, “But the Baptist was executed at a more advanced age!”
“The other skull must be in another treasury,” William said, with a grave face. I never understood when he was jesting.– Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.
See here the skull of John of Baptist! See here the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve! Thrill now to the adventures of Superman! Thrill now to the Adventures of Superman when he was a boy! Both occupy the same present, just different treasuries. Perfectly reasonable as both skulls, like all of Superman’s adventures, are imaginary stories.
But that was 1952. Check the sash. This is 1958 and Mort Weisinger is bringing the mixed blessing of internal consistency to Superman’s world. Smallville, and Clark’s youth have officially been pushed back to the 1930s. Not in a big way, just in an “if anyone asks…” way. If a visitor from the future came from “a thousand years from now” that still means the year 2958. If people wrote to the letters page wanting to know why everyone in this pre-war town had televisions then the editors would be like “Ugh. FINE. No more tellys. I GUESS.” Should Lana have earned that sash five years later, it would have carried an earlier date. She’s allowed a Polaroid camera though and I doubt she’s surrendered her television. The sense of Superboy occupying the present wasn’t lost. It was just brought about by a different mechanism.
In 2012, Jason Aaron started writing a very long Thor story and occasionally he threatens to stop. That he’s out after this year’s King Thor is his latest threat, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Since the start, a feature of his run has been the involvement of three Thors who are all the same fella. They are Thor as a callow youth from the Viking Times, Thor as a superhero from the Hollywood Times, and Thor as an aged and embittered king from the End Times. Thorboy and Thorking’s appearances aren’t so much ‘flashbacks’ or ‘flashforwards’ so much as strands of story that each drive and reveal events as they seize and occupy the present of the narrative. There’s also a bunch of time travel. One memorable scene sees the three iterations fighting side by side as their enemy taunts them, “You should have brought more Thors.”
On telly, excepting anniversaries and oddities, successive actors form an orderly queue and take their turn to play Doctor Who, a time-traveling show-off. In audio dramas then everyone plays him all at once. Big Finish Productions release ongoing adventures for the Fifth Doctor, the Sixth Doctor, the Seventh Doctor, two supporting characters from a super-racist seventies story with a giant rat, and any confused franchise-related actor they can get to uncomprehendingly read a few words into a microphone. And these stories interact; A companion of the Eighth Doctor can walk out of his time machine and into an earlier version of the same vehicle to join the Sixth’s Doctor’s crew. The actions of later and earlier incarnations of the character carry consequences for each other to the extent that none can be thought of as the ‘current’ Doctor, and as narratives emerge across Big Finish’s output, they are narratives in which each Doctor occupies the present. On television then Peter Capaldi was the Doctor and Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor. In the audios, we have the Adventures of the Doctor When They Were Boys.
The Silver Age Superman books are very much like Big Finish’s Doctor Who or Jason Aaron’s Thor. Breaking the ‘Time Barrier’ is a very casual matter for the Super Family, and traveling back into the past via Carter Nicholls’ magic hypnotism is as every day for the Bats as popping down the shops. This ease of movement across the fourth dimension allows Superboy to function as a character who is an autonomous member of the Super Family rather than just a phase Superman was going through. In the comics we’re going to talk about below we’ll see him team up across time with Robin, as the Boy Wonder just blithely visits the past to avert dangers with future knowledge. Why not, eh? For the heroes of this era, the past is not another country, their childhoods are their next door neighbors.
For the clearest example of how causality and interpersonal relationships work for this crew, it’s best to look ahead to when Supergirl joins the Legion of Superheroes. Supergirl lives under, and defers to, the weird oversight of Superman’s patriarchal cousinhood. He’s an authority figure in her life who sets very definite limits on her freedom and self-determination. However a lot of her time she spends in the Thirtieth Century, with her friend and peer, Superboy. The same guy! She’ll be pals with this kid all day, then he’ll head back to the sort-of-30s and she’ll head back to the sort-of-60’s where he’s her sort-of-dad. She has two, ongoing and developing relationships with the same dude at two different times in his life. Nobody lives and loves as eccentrically as the Super-Family.
Through their contributions to the unfolding mythos, through the lingering historical power of John the Baptist’s skull, and through the revolving door of the time barrier, then the Superboy stories of this time are forcefully set in the present tense. It is 1958, they are set in the 1930s, and they are happening now.
3) I DON’T THINK WE’RE IN KANSAS YET, KRYPTO.
Two mountains hold two magnets. The region is generally craggy, and not one of its mountains are unremarkable; One has been moved into place to bury a petrified forest of pure kryptonite, while another has been chiseled by lightning into the face of Bizarro. But it is the twin magnetized mountains that are useful to us right now, as their opposing forces suspend a metal beacon at a point equidistant between them and impossibly high above. “Smallville,” reads the beacon, “100 miles below.” There’s an arrow. Follow it down.
So let us put Lana’s sash and Supergirl’s Legion membership behind us and live in the moment. Adventure Comics #244-255 and Superboy #62-69 were the issues cover dated to 1958, so we shall concern ourselves today with those alone. Countless details from comics published before them and after contradict everything we’re about to say, but hopefully that will prove to be the point. Those nineteen issues alone shall be our canon, no matter how much I’d like to tell you the amusing tale of how young Oliver Queen moved to town the following year and disappointed everyone.
Largely written by Otto Binder, Jerry Coleman and Alvin Schwartz, with George Papp, Al Plastino, and John Sikela most often found holding the pencil, this year’s worth of tiny adventures is offering us a tiny world, so let’s take them up on that and see what we can we learn about this town that attracts so many time travelers, revisionists, and time travelers who are metaphors for revisionism.
Appearing on the light entertainment show ‘Unmask the Truth’, three Superboys are questioned by a panel trying to discern which of them is the genuine article (Superboy #67). One panelist invites them to talk about unique ways in which they’ve recently used their cape – stopping elephants, making bridges, etc. Fun! Another panelist asks about giant objects they’ve recently constructed – giant umbrellas, giant pots of stew, etc. Fun! Lana Lang is the third panelist. She asks Superboy to relive the death of his birth parents, destruction of his home planet, and extinction of his race. Lana Lang isn’t who you think she is.
But Smallville, to the extent that the ‘Unmask the Truth’ broadcast reveals, is just what you think it is. It is where a rocket crashed and a kindly local couple found a space baby to adopt. It is the home of Superboy.
The world where that rocketship came to rest is one which sees the arrival of matchlessly puissant alien life as a matter of principally local concern. When this god-child from the stars works his wonders in the big city then the headline reads “METROPOLIS THRILLS TO SUPERFEATS OF SMALLVILLE YOUNGSTER.” The world knows of him, just as the galaxy knows of him thanks to interplanetary telecasts, but they know who he belongs to. He’s a Smallville thing.
So what does that do to a town? Perhaps less than you might think. You’re welcomed to town by a “You Are Now Entering Smallville – Home of Superboy” sign, but once you’ve passed it then you’ll find his residence hasn’t much deformed the community in any of the more obvious ways.
There is little evidence of excessive media or tourist activity. Reporters will certainly show up if something spesh is going on, like Superboy spending a couple of days staging an unexplained mid-air sit-in, but then so will a life-drawing class on top of a bus. No journos seem to be camped out on the Superboy beat. The crowds are there for the various cultural events that involve the lad being handed trophies, but the crowds are also there for the kite-flying contest and the reception ceremony in honor of visiting pen pals. Sometimes children will just decide to dress up as mice and march through streets which will fill with delighted onlookers. Smallville people love to get out of the house.
And they love Superboy, I think. A monument marks the spot where he landed. Sculptors chisel away to make stone Superboy busts in the hope of pleasing him. Parents make ornate little model bank vaults to inspire their children by reminding them of that time he saved someone from inside a bank vault. Bit weird that one. Public trust in him, however, is very all or nothing. He is judged never to have made a single mistake in his career and, when he briefly appears to have slipped up then the people wail “We’ll never be able to have complete confidence in him again!” before remembering his super-hearing and silencing themselves. It is ambiguous if they do so out of fear or politeness.
Other shared values of the town include deference to authority that perhaps supersedes respect for the law. Everyone involved in its justice system is cool with staging a fake trial to protect military secrets. Smallville can show tremendous generosity to its own, promptly raising twenty thousand dollars for those in need, but shows that generosity in strange ways, allowing a family to independently discover that both their store and house had burned down before jumping out with the cheque and going “Surprise!” On the outskirts, a trailer camp houses several Native Americans – Chief Red Stag and his family – who Superboy recently saved from wolves. It is unknown if the wolves menaced anyone else on the trailer park. Their many children attend the school, bringing the only detectable racial diversity to the area.
As well as the plot-relevant mountains and the rolling hills visible in the panel backgrounds, there are many other things we know about Smallville’s geography. The town has a large working harbor joined to the nearby river by a canal. Should the dam break then the river will flood the town, but even restrained it offers dangers aplenty to those who would traverse it. Nobody in these stories dips a toe in the water without requiring some super-intervention, and nobody is said to have ever gone over Roaring Rapids and survived. Fast-moving and rocky, the river’s bed is thick with centuries of shipwrecks. There has been brisk, if perilous, trade through this region for hundreds of years even though the town itself is only this year celebrating its centennial, marking the occasion by having Superboy put on a really stupid hat and pretend to be a firework. The railroads are falling into abandonment, while the town is very proud of its new highway.
The city of Metropolis comes up all the time. The only other American locations mentioned in these stories are Hollywood, New York (where Lana has a cousin) and Midvale, the next town along, which gets mentioned quite often for a place that won’t really hold any significance until 1959. Is Metropolis nearby, or the center of all national life? It’s unclear. “Once a week,” we’re told, “the Kent family reads the Sunday edition of the Metropolis Daily Planet, as well as their own Smallville news” and many Smallville kids have pen pals from there, who visit like exchange students. There’s evidently some association between the two places, whether it’s cultural or just simple proximity, that means if you live in Smallville you need to keep up with what’s happening in Metropolis. We know you can drive there, perhaps along that fancy new highway, but it’s more usual to take a plane.
Smallville has its own airport and aeronautics seems to be of particular local interest, as we also see used plane lots, a competitive air racing scene and private companies like Wilton Experimental Air Projects launching actual rockets into actual space. On the subject of rockets, there’s a nearby army base where nuclear weapons are stored inside a canvas tent. A small wooden sign outside the tent cautions, “WARNING – ATOMIC BOMB.”
Scientific and technological research are very much part of Smallville life and appear to drive its economy. Local employers include the steel mill and the glassworks and we see that both are innovating, the steel mill by experimenting with different minerals to produce new varieties and the glassworks by discovering that, treated in a certain way, ordinary glass becomes a terrible explosive that threatens the world. These discoveries may differ in how socially useful they are, but science marches ever forward and science is the business of Smallville, from its museum to its Science Fair, an event so “colossal”, and of such international importance, that it requires Smallville’s “largest stadium.” I have not been able to find any clues as to how many other stadia it has.
‘Gem shops’ prosper here. There are at least two, in addition to a more conventional Jeweller’s. The town must be known for them as, when a bunch of crooks in a submarine discovers a cache of gem-stealing weaponry on a desert island, it is straight to Smallville they dash from such tropical climes. These gems, what we know of the steel, glass and aeronautic industries here, and the size and importance of the local scientific community, strongly imply that this is a town with mineral wealth that has made it an attractive place to do your Mad Science, and that the technological applications of that science are driving industry. There’s certainly no evidence here that Smallville’s economy is based on agriculture. One farming couple, Hiram and Hilda, briefly appear for one page in these comics to ‘adopt’ Bizarro, and that’s your only glimpse of anyone working the land. These Kents run a general store and flashbacks suggest they were never anything other than the mercantile petite bourgeoisie.
People are getting rich. Some suddenly, like Neighbour Smith who gets made an Oil Baron by Clark’s clumsy underground tunneling, but others less remarkably. It’s not unusual for classmates of Clark such as Jimmy Greeves to live in a mansion, but even so, the wealth of the Van Dyke family is viewed with awe. Their mansion stands high above the town, overlooking it from within a vast, retractable glass dome. Apparently, its swimming pool is shaped like Superboy, but I’ve stared at the thing and I just can’t see it myself.
Perhaps the Van Dykes had better keep their dome tightly sealed as the gem thieves are everywhere. Dazzler Dyke and Sparkler Smyth may well both be “notorious” in the community, but they are far from lone, ruby-hungry wolves. Crime here is organized and ever so bold. Hoodlums will think nothing of carrying out daylight public assassinations in the middle of the children’s mouse parade, and racketeers like Ace Grimes walk the streets, gloating openly of their crimes. This being the home of Superboy is no deterrent to these mobs, who’re threaded tight into its institutions. Their gambling rings drag pillars of the community down into infamy, and they even operate in the schools, helping wicked children cheat on tests by sending answers via semaphore from the windows of their smoky dens. Less brazen is the “bandit leader” Superboy knows as ‘Young Luthor.’ Appearing unmasked in only one panel, this one keeps to the shadows.
4) YOUR PAL CLARK
So in one sense, we know quite a lot about the people living in this, frankly enormous, small town. But in another sense, we know very little because there aren’t any. Elsewhere in mythologized comic book America then, by the late fifties, Riverdale was filling up nicely. If Archie goes for a walk he’s going to run into Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, Moose, Dilton, Midge, and countless other peppy recurring teenagers and suspicious recurring adults. The streets of his imaginary town throng with them. Smallville’s are deserted.
The storytelling needs of Archie’s ebullient romantic comedies have generated a persistent cast. Superboy’s fretful, secretive yarns generate disposable teens. If an Archie story of this time needs the school’s top athlete they, hey, here’s Moose Mason! If a Superboy story does, and a couple of these do, then we’ll meet an all-new top athlete who’ll evaporate at the end of the story to be replaced next time by another incumbent of that precarious position. Even that Weisinger world-building project that’s contemporaneously bestowing Bottled Cities and Frosty Forts on adult Clark is slow to give his teen self any enduring peers. Adventure Comics #246 and Superboy #62 both feature a fabulously wealthy heiress called Gloria and a practical joker called Alvin. The two Glorias are different characters and the two Alvins are the same, even though they’ve different surnames.
In Jerry Coleman’s ‘The Super-Clown of Smallville’ Alvin Smith/Wilson is there to enable a “What if Superboy did jokes?” story by being a kooky funster who Superboy is compelled to impersonate. By the end of the story, Alvin says he’s learned his lesson and renounced fun, so you’d have thought that’d be the last you’d hear of him, but then Otto Binder brings him back to be one of three teens suspected of being Smallville’s local hero in ‘The Girl Who Trapped Superboy.’ He meets a functional requirement of each story – the first just needs a practical joker and the second just needs a kid Clark’s age – but the interesting thing is that in the second story Alvin retains a character trait not necessary for the plot. He’s back to being a practical joker, down to perplex girls with stretchy arms and scares them with mechanical mice, unleashing those japes simply because he’s that Alvin rather than because the plot needs him to.
I think that’s the last we’ll see of Alvin. That little experiment over, the creative team make no other moves this year to make anyone happen. When Clark is warned in Adventure #250 that a villainous time traveler is disguised as someone he knows well then he has a good think about all the people who meet that criteria. He manages to list four. His dad and three other blokes he might accidentally call dad – Professor Lang, Mayor Brooks, and Principal Sands. Are these mighty patriarchs then our principal cast? The movers and shakers of this community whose high-stakes power games decide the destinies of the Smallville small folk? No. Sands and Brooks are unnamed in any of the other comics and Brooks only ever turns up to dish out trophies.
Lang’s inclusion, however, personalizes the list a little, as Adventure Comics 245 shows an interesting response from Clark to seeing the Professor in danger. Up until that point he’d been conservatively managing the threat of a giant flying centipede whose legs each had the powers of a different element, but on clocking that it was menacing members of the Lang family he gets quite aerated. He even ends up saying “Yipes!” in the next panel. It’s a stressful situation. “Lana Lang and her father are my dearest friends!” he flaps.
His dearest friends. His girlfriend… and her dad. These, outside his family and a couple of civic dignitaries, are the people Superboy holds closest to his heart. Two-thirds of the Lang family. What a snub to Ma Lang. It’d be a bit of a snub to the brothers too, but one evaporated circa 1956 and the other in ‘51, so it’s really just Lana’s mother who is of no interest to Clark.
Lana herself should be boring. She should be two boring things, but thankfully she isn’t quite either. We remember that Lana lived next door to Clark in a small town and was his high school girlfriend so, wow, there are enough cultural associations right there for us to already suppose we know this character. These are all signifiers of a ‘sweetness’ and ‘innocence’ that arise from male-centered nostalgia and cluster together as the ‘Girl Next Door’ archetype. But remember that these stories aren’t written for nostalgists. They’re written for people whose adolescences are exploding around them as they read, and consequently, there is no wistful misogyny attached to Lana about how much nicer girls were before they had make up and money worries. She is mercifully neither sweet nor pure.
Check her out on the cover of Superboy #64. The Boy of Steel watches aghast as Krypto the Superdog smashes through a statue of his once-beloved owner. Lana stands there, her posture relaxed, her eyes far away and her smile wide. “Forget him, Superboy,” she advises, “Krypto hates you! He’s MY dog now!” In the story itself, she doesn’t actually say those words or command the destruction of any statues but, in a very real sense, that cover is exactly who Silver Age Lana Lang is. It is someone glorious.
The other boring thing she should be is woman-as-problem, an othered figure who presents obstacle and nuisance to the male with whom the story is aligned. And is she that? Yes, she is that. These are grossly sexist stories and this character exists to serve a grossly sexist function within them and I’d be chatting bollocks if I tried to suggest otherwise. She serves the same unlovely purpose in these stories as does Lois Lane in the Superman stories of the time. That’s something Teen Clark immediately apprehends when he catches his first sight of Teen Lois, recalls Lana, and froths up a thought bubble to the effect of “Same energy.”
I’m glad he does because the comparison to Lois moves us on. We all get that the character of Lois Lane is to some extent detachable from the narrative function of Lois Lane, and the evidence suggests that Superboy’s contemporary female readership was performing that operation on Lana. Girls were reading these comics – whenever Superboy addresses his audience, normally at the top of an activity page suggesting something wholesome to make or do, it’s always as “fellers and girls” – and they were writing to the letters pages. Three topics mostly occupied them; “Why haven’t you invented Supergirl yet?”, “I should like to date Superboy please” and “Give Lana a break.”. One such correspondent in Adventure #253 was Dorothy Watson of New Jersey or ‘Dotty’ as the editor decided to rename her while issuing the condescending reply “You girls stick together, eh?” Too fucking right. Girls liked Lana and were on her side.
And why wouldn’t they be? When you gather together all the details about Lana then you’ve everything you need to create a fascinating and sympathetic character. Except that we know not to gather those details together. In Superboy #66, Clark does horribly in a test and his humiliating results are posted on a board. “Look Clark! You’re the only one in class who failed this EASY exam!” Lana says as the two stand there regarding his public shame, “Aren’t you embarrassed?” We understand this sort of storytelling, so we know that the reason she’s saying this is to economically establish that Clark has failed an easy exam and should feel embarrassed. We are not being invited to think about what sort of a person would talk to their dearest friend like that or what she gains by doing so. As competent readers we know to disregard most of what these characters say and do when considering what kind of character they should be taken to be.
Sod that. I am an incompetent reader. Lana’s in the details.
“Gosh these Geography questions are hard,” she says, boldly chatting away during one of Superboy #66’s many tests. We glimpse her marked paper in the corner of the next panel. She got 96%. Lana is someone who is both very clever, and very concerned with managing her own reputation. It takes some managing. At the social center of Smallville’s teen life, she knows everyone but can be overconfident in how she applies that knowledge; one day Clark shows up at her door wearing his uncle’s jacket and she is unable to recognize him as Clark, Superboy, or anyone from the town because she is so utterly certain that nobody in Smallville has a jacket like that.
Just as she has thoughts on everyone’s jackets, everyone has thoughts on her. The gossip around town (according to Superboy #64) is that she’s always getting into danger, which is kind of unfair on the evidence of these mostly low-peril stories. She works on containing that one, swearing people to secrecy about the time she drove her boat backward (Superboy #63), but there’s no keeping a lid on that other thing they say about Lana Lang. They say she’s in love with Superboy.
Which she is. She’s also dating mild-mannered Clark Kent. She very much is. They attend parties together, walk home together, go to the movies, go to ‘teen dances.’ He is absolutely Lana Lang’s Boyfriend, Clark Kent. She keeps several “cute” photos of him on her bureau, while on her wall she keeps pin-ups of Superboy. After all, she suspects to the point of certainty that the two are one and the same. She’s seen enough staged simultaneous appearances of Clark and Superboy by this point that such performances are no longer going to put her off the scent and is deeply unimpressed by would-be teen detectives like Gloria van Dyke trying to whittle down a list of suspects to arrive at Superboy by process of elimination. She knows perfectly well who Superboy is and that she’s dating him. Except when the most extreme circumstances cause her to doubt herself then her agenda is never to discover the identity of Superboy, but just to possess tangible proof that he is Clark.
Her priorities become very clear when she comes into possession of a magic Polaroid camera that lets her take pics of whatever Superboy’s looking at. Obviously, this gizmo is a sure-fire way to prove his secret identity, and obviously Lana cottons on to that after it’s rattled out a couple of evidential snaps, but it’s far from her first thought. Her first thought is “Golly, it’s exciting to have a super-camera like this!” because she’s thrilled at the thought of “seeing the world through Superboy’s eyes.” Using this opportunity to corner Superboy is lower down her list than using it to experience that Super life.
Which is what she’s really after. She’s one of the smartest kids in school and is especially invested in the social dynamics of her peers, but the biggest social fact in her life – my boyfriend is Superboy – is one she’s expected to pretend, even to him, that she doesn’t know. Her situation is a very specific kind of disempowerment; She gets the thing she wants, a relationship with Superboy/Clark, but at the cost of the things she values about her own identity.
So whenever there’s an opportunity to empower herself, Lana’s there. When Superboy’s trying to bestow super-speed on her father then she’s going to be using a recording of his voice to steal the power for herself and whizz about until her roller-skates catch fire. If Superboy’s super-dog has fallen out with him then she’ll be adopting that pooch and directing him to do her fearsome bidding. There’s a bottle of super-power pills on the table? She’ll neck the lot and make all her friends watch as she apprehends fugitives and chops down really big trees. Her main goal is always to correct the power imbalance in her weird relationship and to get to do awesome shit while doing so.
On a day to day basis that means torturing Clark Kent; Putting him through hell on quiz shows, mocking his exam scores, quasi-diegetically smashing up his statues. I’d say the narrator has a line in Superboy #63 that perfectly sums up their relationship (“Yes, Clark, you’re at Lana’s mercy”) if Lana didn’t have a line in the same story that captures it even better – “Put that piano down and remove your shirt.”
When the Kents are impoverished, Lana is there to make Clark mend her roof while she watches. When Clark is amnesiac, Lana is there to make Clark wash her dishes while she watches. The fellers of the fifties are not the only ones being offered power fantasies here, and Lana’s wider behavior contextualizes all her efforts to prove that Clark is Superboy. She doesn’t need that proof herself and there’s nothing to be gained by showing it to others, so she isn’t really trying to find any so much as cheerfully bullying Clark with the possibility that she might.
How ugly or cute all of this is depends on whether or not Clark’s into it, and while he’s unreadable on most of the torments Lana subjects him to, the game of Lana trying to prove his identity is one they both seem to be enjoying equally. Clark’s full of smiles and winks on the matter and, when a day goes by without her accusing him of being Superboy then it’s enough to make him suspect that she’s been replaced by a time-traveling descendant who’s come back to steal some cobalt. Superboy #63 ends with a Lana who came very close to ending the game conceding that she’s not smart enough to have the proof and that she’s glad she didn’t find it. I buy one of those two things.
Neither Lana nor Clark have the vocabulary to articulate what they’re doing here, and obviously, they’d be headed towards something less risky if they could, but they can only work within the conceptual framework available to them. Lana is someone who’s socially competent and practically powerless in a relationship with someone who’s socially isolated and practically omnipotent. That’s not an easy thing to make work, and I’m not going to suggest that what Lana’s found is entirely healthy. But they both look like they’re having fun.
Moving on to Superboy’s other bestie, Lana’s father, Professor Lang. Another misunderstood figure. For example, people say he keeps a tiger in his shed on which to conduct experiments. Even Lana gets that wrong about him in Superboy #62. Rubbish. He keeps a succession of tigers in his shed, replacing them as they grow “old” and “sick.”
A collaborative worker, Lang participates in Science Clubs and Explorer’s Clubs and sometimes they give him shiny medals. Unlike some of the petulant boffins we meet, such as Professor Dalton who stroppily decides it’s no more science for him after his gizmo breaks in Superboy #68, Lang is all about this life. Tiger abuse is only one string to his bow, with his main expertise being in archaeology, a field he understands as involving jaunts to ‘the jungle’ and ‘the Orient’ to steal various cursed artifacts before bringing them back to laugh at the superstitious ways of the people he’s robbed. There are plenty of reasons he might of settled in Smallville – the museum, the thriving scientific community, the abundance of Native American artifacts and ancient alien bug-monster eggs for him to dig up – but fewer apparent reasons why young Clark would count this geezer as one of his two dearest friends. As we’ll come to later, that may tell us more about Clark than Lang.
Clark’s extended family all live out of town, from the rheumatic grandfather to the widowed aunt and her many children, to Uncle Frank. That one sometimes visits though, and I choose to believe he’s a time-traveling Frank Miller on a fact-finding expedition. But other than him, and a couple of fake phone calls during ruses, the Smallville Kents potter along alone. The nostalgic small town myth we’d expect of these stories implies a family rooted into its community by generations of blood ties, but there’s not a bit of it. The immediate Kent family unit are the only Kents in town.
They are a slick operation. You remember in the nineties when there used to be all those little books about what Winnie the Pooh could teach you about different management styles, or how the real secrets of the X-Files related to improved team-building? There’s one to write on how the Kents run their shit. They are on this. They have identified three ongoing concerns –
- Running a grocery shop.
- Keeping the house nice.
- The Superboy project.
And each brings all their skills and resources to all three. Clark’s got specific responsibilities with regards to dusting, we see Pa getting busy with a mop and bucket around the house, and just as the housework isn’t demarcated as being Ma’s Job, so being Superboy isn’t Clark’s job. They’re in this together. They chose the name together, Ma made the costume, and they negotiated how it would mean reducing the time Clark works in the shop to just a few hours after school. The Superboy Project isn’t even dependent on the presence, or indeed existence, of Superboy. They have a bunch of Superboy robots which Pa is adept at remotely piloting when his son’s incapacitated. In the event of Clark’s death, Pa intends to carry on operating the robots in his memory, with Smallville never even needing to know he has died.
Ma Kent is a tough customer, easily mistaken for Grandma Molly, the international gem thief. When she finds herself with super-powers there’s no note of comic incompetence to how she employs them; presented with a car about to crash into a train and only x-ray vision with which to prevent it, she’s shown to be competent and quick-thinking, arriving at a classic lateral Silver Age Superman solution with time left over for the narrator to proudly declare she’s “doing fine.”
She keeps up to date with the weird science experiments Clark is performing down in the basement. Not just to the extent of making sure that he’s not borrowed a tiger from next door – She’s properly paying attention. If he’s working on a new kind of lightning rod then she’ll know what it’s composed of. Pa’s in on this action too, even knowing enough to be able to work out how to reverse the effects of Weird Basement Science. In fact, it was Pa that first puzzled out the mystery of Kryptonite.
Admittedly, they can both be a little forgetful. Pa can forget to send off completed insurance forms, forget about secret cameras he has mounted in nearby trees and forget he’s been told not to open the door in the middle of weird basement science. Ma can forget which box contains the super-power pills. But whether it’s deceiving the school when necessary for super-business, providing the attention to detail necessary to maintain the secret identity, piloting robots, using their own temporary super-powers, or doing super-science, Ma and Pa can be relied on. When circumstances occasionally force them out of the loop, like the secret reasons for Superboy’s mid-air sit-in, then it’s confusing and upsetting for everyone.
So, that’s the Kents considered as a shopkeeping/housekeeping super-team. What’re they like just as a family? The idea of a Superman whose values come from having been raised in the pure simplicity of a bygone America would seem to demand they be in a position of moral authority over their child and be busy instilling him with their wisdom and homilies, like Jonathan Hickman and Scott Synder’s sagacious dads do in the funny books of today. Come to think of it, one of the most recent comics in which I’ve seen Pa Kent was Snyder’s Justice League #25. There he was teaching us some important life lessons via instruction on how to make paper lanterns. Will we, or Clark, be on the receiving end of any similar practical, hands-on parables today?
Absolutely not. Nobody can tell this kid anything. Nobody, as far as these stories are concerned, needs to, as Superboy is presented as the moral and intellectual superior of his parents, his parents are presented as fully accepting of this, and the household is presented as one in which Clark holds patriarchal authority. “Other boys look up to their fathers as ‘heroes’!” reflects Clark in Adventure #249, “But I’M the ‘hero’ in this household, because of my secret career as Superboy!”
One of the biggest power fantasies these comics are selling to teenagers is simply “What if I was in charge around here?” In Superboy #69, Clark says “I’ll tell you what to do, Dad… and you must follow my instructions exactly.” There’s a lot of dialogue like that, a lot of talk of how the adults must follow Clark’s plans and abide by his rules. This is a fantasy of the child as the head of the house, a note which sounded ominously in Miller’s Superman Year One where it was suggested that, from babyhood onwards, Clark was calling the shots through telepathic manipulation of his earthly hosts. Nothing here suggests quite that horrorshow. It’s just that the Kents defer to Superboy because he is Superboy and because there is nothing in his behavior for them to correct and no gaps in his understanding that they can fill.
The tabula rasa Superboy who arrives amnesiac at Lana’s door needs no kindly parents to arrive at his fundamental moral position, he just gets there from first principles. Lana tries to cut his hair, the scissors aren’t up to it, and straight away he’s like, “Amazing! I must learn more about myself! Such powers as mine should be used to their utmost to help others who are weaker!” Ready to leap up, up and away to take on whatever bullies he’s hypothesized using nothing but the might of untrimmable hair.
Stories where Clark is in dispute with his parents, like Superboy #66, end with them coming to understand why their son was entirely right. Stories where Pa seems jealous and unaccepting of Clark’s authority, like Adventure #249, end with this being revealed as a cunning ruse to trick mobsters. These comics are clear that Clark needs his parents’ love and practical support, but are profoundly hostile to the idea that there’s anything he can actually learn from them.
This is a loving family, they’re all proud of each other and they tell each other so, but like every component and iteration of the Super-family, it’s full of strange and terrible behavior, at times emotionally distant and at times oblivious to boundaries. The Kents take two vacations without Clark this year, and Ma will think nothing of reading his diary. There’s a scene early into the Bendis run where Lois Lane drives a stake into the heart of the assimilationist Tomasi run that preceded it. Her monologue feels to me like the key to understanding anything the Superfamily do in any era. “Normal life rules do not apply to us on any level,” she says, “We will not have normal family responsibilities to each other or to ourselves.” What might seem like our basic expectations of behavior and basic minimums of decency don’t map that well onto these impossible people in their impossible world.
It’s still shocking though. The choices Lois is justifying in that speech are shocking and a choice Ma Kent makes here is even more so. When a ruse Mobster-fooling ruse of Pa’s demands that she be fooled into thinking the Kents are disowning Clark and swapping him for her nephew Freddy, Ma is super-into the idea. For one panel she has a genteel sob into a hanky, then in the next, she’s smiling adoringly at a photo of Freddy, as Clark’s is removed from the mantelpiece, delighted to be having a son who’s her “own flesh and blood.”
The Kents’ slick and mutually supportive operation, using the resources available to the three of them to pursue their shared and individual goals, is in stark contrast to the unfortunate life of Krypto Mouse, a briefly empowered rodent under the thumb of the vile Tommy Ewell. The Ewell child lives out his own dreams of being Superboy by directing his confused and unhappy captive to perform acts of heroism his mouse-brain cannot fathom, then punishing and admonishing him when they are not performed to his satisfaction. The amoral little tale ends with Tommy being rewarded with a big diamond. Ugh.
Nothing more is heard of Krypto Mouse. The character’s wikia page only wants to tediously insist that Crisis on Infinite Earths would have scrubbed the wee beastie from existence and assure us that, since mice have a short lifespan, he would have expired off-panel some time before Superman reached adulthood anyway. The things that the internet’s collective memory wants to be sure you know about Krypto Mouse is that he never existed and that he died. Never mind though, there’s also a Krypto Dog, even though nobody ever makes any connection between the two.
Krypto the Superdog is not part of the Kent family unit. He doesn’t live with them, preferring his ‘space roaming.’ In the letters pages, the editors assure us that this is perfectly normal; Since earth dogs like to run free and frolic through meadows, naturally superdogs prefer lives of near-total isolation in the trackless void of space. The logic is sound, but nevertheless, there’s something just a little uncomfortable about the life of Krypto as it’s presented here. He takes the lead in three 1958 stories and they’re all about the absence of trust.
The people of Smallville do not have confidence in this dog. The boy with the power to end the world, they trust. The matching dog? No. That is asking too much. In Superboy #67’s ‘The Execution of Krypto’ they need little evidence before immediately believing that he has killed a child and calling for his extermination, almost as if they’d been waiting for the day to come.
Superboy’s plan in Adventure #254 seems eccentric – convincing the populace that Krypto is hypnotizing him to give his powers away one by one so that the hound, now possessed of the greater number of powers, will be ‘master’ – until you see how the locals eat it up with a spoon. “I can see the headline!” enthuse the gentlemen of the press, “Krypto Wants To Be Top Dog!” Even Ma Kent buys it. Jealously hypnotizing Superboy into divesting himself of his powers is something they think absolutely fucking typical of this dog.
Krypto does not especially trust Superboy. That Superboy #67 story sees him absolutely convinced that his master has ordered and is enabling his execution. And that cover to Superboy #64, the one where Lana is crowing about how Krypto “hates” Clark now? That is no misrepresentation of the story within. No mind-control, no red kryptonite, no cunning charades. It’s straightforwardly a story about Krypto being furious with Clark. There is a misunderstanding involved – Krypto believes a trophy the Mayor has awarded him has instead been given to Superboy – but his feelings and behaviors all stand without it. Krypto is jealous of Superboy’s status and the misunderstanding was just the final straw, causing him to resolve to never again bark hello to him and to defect to being Lana’s super-pet.
Clark’s response is brutal. He acquires an ordinary sausage dog and uses it to shame the renegade Krypto by proving it a more effective crime-fighter than he. ‘Hot Dog’, the dachshund in question, is wrapped in foam rubber and used as a shield to stop bullets then rolled into a hoop and hurled at ne’er-do-wells. We don’t have enough textual evidence to say if ‘Hot Dog’ was as miserable as that mouse was, but what we can say is that any inanimate object could have performed those functions as effectively. We can also note that a bulletproof teenager probably doesn’t even need a foam-wrapped dog as a bullet shield. Krypto notes none of this, falls for this attempt to convince him that he isn’t shit without Clark, concedes that ‘Hot Dog’ is “the better dog”, and abandons both his rebellion and self-respect.
At this point, we really need to start asking ourselves what’s going on with this Clark Kent character. I think we’ve all got quite strong ideas about what we want from a portrayal of a young Superman, and the failure of several movies this decade suggests that ‘nothing edgy, please’ is high on most of our lists. We are now resistant to the idea of Young Clark as an alienated and socially isolated figure because we’ve seen it done very badly and/or by people like Max Landis who we might be disinclined to trust to tell us the tale of the man who stands apart.
Nobody with any interest in Superman has a neutral reaction to the sullen, slouched and hooded Clark on the cover of Shane Davis’ Superman: Earth One. It’s fascinating how that image shifted so many units in the book trade while how so many Superman fans recoil from it in atavistic revulsion.
There’s nothing slouched or sullen about the Superboy of 1958, and any question of if these stories are ‘edgy’ is preposterous. But look, every day at school the kid excuses himself from his peers, proceeds to a secluded spot and takes his lunch hour alone. We do need to talk about that.
How his classmates feel about him is hard to read. When he’s seen to be persecuted they’re heard to say “Shame on you for picking up Clark! He’s the weakest boy in our class!” so they’re at least protective of his person if not perhaps his feelings. What we can be certain of is that he can leave a Clark-shaped balloon sat in class while he goes off on a mission and be confident that nobody will try and interact with it while he’s gone. In the social sphere of his school, Clark is 100% interchangeable with a balloon. That’s a bigger deal than a dachshund. We see him attend two parties this year and at both, he seems to be there mostly as Lana’s plus one and is only seen talking to her. On the walk home, they discuss how the others made him feel uncomfortable.
Talking to another child is something we see him do far more often as Superboy than as Clark, and naturally, those conversations are all about teaching them important lessons and protecting them from harm rather than just shooting the shit. The Boy of Steel persona is not one capable of maintaining a friendship, and ‘Superboy’s Unknown Rival’ from Superboy #64 hinges on that idea. There we learn that having a personal friendship with Superboy would be seen as social capital in Smallville High, and we watch poor little rich boy Jimmy Greeves flounder as he’s hoodwinked by crooks into thinking he has one.
The story works because it’s taken as absurd that Superboy could have a young, bow-tie-wearing friend called Jimmy. Extraordinary, given that issue 28 of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was on the racks the same month. It feels like a very crisp contrast; Superman may have pals while Superboy may not. Even if the story does end with Superboy telling his Jimmy that they’re friends, he does so while explaining that this is a reward for Jimmy having learned an important lesson and because publicly displaying their friendship will teach Jimmy’s classmates a secondary important lesson. The last panel sees Superboy fully in pedagogic papa mode, not buddying around with a new chum.
Teaching important lessons to his classmates comes naturally to Clark, while humor does not. When a story in Superboy #64 compels him to spend its duration performing practical jokes, he can only breakthrough that personal barrier by making his gags also serve some other, more practical, function. That’s no trouble as his habitual ‘lessons’ and ‘ruses’ both structurally work like practical jokes anyway. Elaborate deceptions to convince one of the Glorias that she dreamt the several days she spent as his sister, or to convince Lana that he’s dying, nobody will listen to her, and that she’s going mad, are all part of his daily routine but he’s uncomfortable trying to make a funny. The immediately following story bears this out as he awkwardly tries some light tomfoolery in front of a safe adult, Professor Lang. Lang doesn’t laugh and the town is almost destroyed.
Hollywood is another thing Clark’s not so sure about, and his telescopic vision keeps the place under close surveillance. Its film stars are his rivals in the scrapbooks and hearts of several girls, but that doesn’t seem to be his issue so much as how hard it is to tell their world from reality, whether they’re faking mobsters or giant creepy-crawlies. Clark almost derails a happy ending by ranting against the falsity of the movie people, but Pa puts him right. This is one of the only examples in these comics of Clark’s parents providing him with direct moral instruction, and the instruction is that the entertainment industry does valuable work.
His own work, or the parts of it other than housework and shopkeeping, the parts that constitute ‘Being Superboy’, has a number of elements. There are lots of little helpful tasks to do around town like fixing fire hydrants and carrying neighbors’ houses to more desirable locations, and part of the phenomenon of the ‘Superboy of Smallville’ seems to be that he is committed to this being a town in good repair and to carrying out general acts of maintenance. Involvement in research is another of his roles, usually by bending big metal things or having them a shot at him. Some of this, like the steel alloys he tests in Metropolis, seems to be on behalf of private industry, but mostly it’s for the army, who maintain a Department of Unusual Weapons.
Following ‘Fixing stuff’ and ‘Testing stuff’ then the list of Superboy activities is completed by ‘Generally keeping an eye on stuff.’ Smallville expects a daily patrol from Superboy and worries that something’s up if he doesn’t show, even though they know perfectly well that sometimes it’ll just be a robot flying about, because Lana’s told them. Magazines may run articles on ‘How Superboy Broke Up a Crime Ring’ but he doesn’t take a particularly investigative role in these stories.
We never see him try to solve a crime or dismantle any mobs, just have a look round with his telescopic vision and his flyovers to see if there’s anything immediate that needs doing. Which raises the question of why if he can monitor the planet, as he’s shown to do, his exploits almost all take place in Smallville. Since we see that he does leap into action when there’s a famine that needs alleviating somewhere and that he is prepared to absent himself from a major plotline when zoo animals are escaping in Metropolis, all we can assume is that this doesn’t come up very often. He is mostly active in Smallville because that’s where the action is, while the rest of the planet’s fairly quiet. Certainly, Smallville has an above-average number of wild animals on the loose. In Adventure #247 alone it suffers its own zoo breakout AND a derailed circus train. Lang must never have to look far for a tiger.
Whatever the problem, it’s rarely solved by violence. When, towards the end of ‘58, Superboy comes up against a problem that can’t be solved by gaslighting, boy-balloons, or digging little tunnels, and decides that the time has finally come to do someone some physical damage, his first instinct is not to roll up his sleeves and start swinging punches. He calls in the army. Fighting is their job. It’s not part of Superboy’s.
Superboy has got enough to do, but he also finds time for the things he wants personally, and his relationship with Lana is one of those. It’s not part of a cover story or a ruse to keep his persecutor close. He pursues and enjoys social time with her and, during the amnesia story, is jealous of the other him that she’s into. Clark likes being Lana’s boyfriend. Almost as much as doing Mad Basement Science, which he is so excited about.
Repeatedly he complains that he wishes he had more time for the experiments and his contraptions he’s got stashed under his house, and he’s always anxious to get back in the lab. What he’s building down there is telling. Many of his experiments are about overcoming personal limits, like becoming immune to Kryptonite or able to see through lead, but others are about seeing the future. I’d like to be able to tell you the amusing tale of how, in one of 1959’s comics, he invented a time-space visualizer to gaze upon the wonders of the world to come, only to disappoint everyone by displaying the adult Oliver Queen, but even here in 1958 his “favorite invention” is the Oracle Computer, which gobbles up today’s headlines and gives you tomorrow’s.
Like the archetypal young man of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, Clark lives “not in memory, but in expectation” yet the past does weigh on him. He can get wistful thinking about everything that was lost with Krypton and when apparently confronted with the planet’s destroyer, become so upset that he starts having rare lapses in judgment and observation. The plot of ‘The Man who Destroyed Krypton’ is unusual in that it depends on Clark’s emotional state to work.
Most of these stories would play out the same no matter what mood he was in because he’s not really living in the present. He knows his name will be ‘Superman’ one day. He knows he’ll live in Metropolis. He’s resolved to be a reporter for the Daily Planet because he’s tried it as an intern and been terrible at it – as with seeing through lead and resisting kryptonite, anything that Clark learns he can’t do goes straight on his To-Do List.
Kozz of Mars is a very petty Martian, and, had Superman III steered closer to its source material from Adventure Comics #255, Richard Pryor would have been hilarious in the role. Splitting Superboy and Clark into separate entities just to prove a point, Kozz then buggers off smugly in his flying saucer, happy to have won his argument and with no concern at all for the really tedious argument he’s lumbered us with about what it means for Superboy and Clark to have been split into separate entities. It hasn’t been something Superboy/Clark has thought about much.
In Superboy #65 much misunderstanding occurred between Superboy and a further alien visitor, Dworn, because our hero failed to understand that Dworn would respond to him differently in his two personas. Dworn answers a question from Clark differently than he would have answered it from Superboy, and Superboy spends five pages flapping about, his mind blown.
Talk of Clark/Superboy dichotomies are not the sort of thing our Boy of Steel is immediately equipped to engage with, so before Kozz the Pettiest Martian zaps him in twain, he turns his red Kryptonite rays on a couple of other beasties by way of example. A caterpillar “instantly splits into its other form as a butterfly while its original form also remains!” while red Kryptonite “makes a tadpole form out of [a] frog! See — Now both forms of the same creature exist!” Not sure these work exactly the same, Kozz. Butterflies aren’t known for transforming back into caterpillars after they’re done testing military hardware and tadpoles rarely have to make sure that Lana Lang can’t prove they’re frogs. To follow the Martian’s analogy is to assent to the idea that either Superboy or Clark is a larval state.
Which would be an interesting idea to try and puzzle out, but neither Superboy nor Clark is inclined to. Superboy is adamant that he is simply real and that Clark is merely “the disguise I used at times” while Clark is having none of it. There’s a fantastic panel of him saying, “Stop telling me I’m your ‘secret identity!’ I’m Clark Kent, that’s all! Get out or I’ll call the police!”
All this is our first chance to see how the personas differ, Ma Kent may sometimes say she feels like she has two sons but that feeling rarely reaches the reader to whom Clark is mostly just a good boy and Superboy an airborne good boy, but that chance is quickly snatched from us. The red kryptonite has warped the extracted Clark’s sense of RIGHT and WRONG and left him naught but a conniving crook with a lust for snazzy ties, useless for making subtle comparisons with Superboy who isn’t a crook and doesn’t wear a tie.
One significant that does happen though, since before Bad Clark eventually carks it, Superboy starts referring to him as “the second Clark” implying himself as the first. Over the course of the last Superboy story of the year, Superboy moves from thinking about Clark as merely a disguise to thinking of him as the life he’s living. A life in a Smallville that is and isn’t 1958, growing up in a Tech Bro Nightvale with his lonely lunches, a fraught relationship with his dog, a fragile sense of self, no idea how to talk to people who aren’t parents or parent-shaped, and a girlfriend with no model for how to be an ethical domme.
Something around here needs to change.
Long live the Legion.
5) I WANT TO CONNECT BUT THERE NEVER WILL BE A BATMAN
Superboy’s mid-air sit-in goes on long enough for him to become quite bored, so he remotely seizes control of two of his robot duplicates and makes them play chess. Or rather, plays chess against himself by taking turns as each of those two replicas. A solitary self refracted then reflected. Like Bizzaro, a less compliant duplicate, who caught sight of himself in a shop window and immediately smashed it, appalled at its ugliness. Throughout these stories, Superboy is forever being splintered and thrown back at himself.
“It’s all about living in the ocean, being wild and free” insists the theme tune to H20 Just Add Water but, for the three mermaids of that teen drama, life was anything but wild or free, as they spent their heavily restricted youths having to avoid the slightest contact with the earth’s most common substance or face being dissected by Australians. Secret identity stories offer a lot to teenagers, as they’re equally useful for providing empowerment fantasies and for giving voice to anxieties.
We’ve talked about the story where Ma and Pa get X-Ray vision, the story where Smallville High’s students receive invisible messages from the criminal underworld via special glasses, and the story where Lana’s magic camera shows her whatever Clark’s looking at. Those three stories all come back to back in Superboy #66, and any attempt to read that comic in one sitting ends with the reader rolling around on the floor screaming, “The Eyes! The Eyes! Stop looking at me! Stop looking at me! The terrible, terrible Eyes!”
Adolescence, for many of us, is the time where we stop having one consistent one-size-fits-all personality and start to become acutely aware that we’re displaying a different range of behaviors with our parents, our teachers, and different groups of friends. That we’re even talking differently. It’s frightening, moving from a sense of just being one person to a world where we’re losing count, as we step out of childhood and into, well, into the Spiderverse. Into a great big web of versions of oneself. These stories are interested in that. Superboy #65 has an incredibly blatant one about post-masturbatory guilt, ‘Superboy’s Moonlight Spell,’ where Clark’s mind goes places he feels it oughtn’t whenever darkness falls, his mother makes appalling discoveries while putting away his pajamas, and he’s left lying sad and flat in bed asking himself, “Why am I only bad sometimes and good others?” The story ends with Clark saying, “Now I’ll bottle up the volcano — and bury that danger […] forever!” Good luck with that, kid.
‘Moonlight Spell’ is unusual in that the good Superboy and the evil wanking Superboy occupy the same body, Jekyll and Hyde style. The normal tendency is to slice Clark up into as many little bits as possible. The second Clark created by Kozz of Mars survives the iconic cinematic showdown in a junkyard, only to die in a remarkable conflict later on. Evil Clark and Superboy decide to duke it out by proxy, each controlling a Superboy robot. Two Clark Kents fighting each at the command of two other Clark Kents. Eventually, the evil Clark, wearing one of his ill-gotten snazzy ties, decides to cheat and make all the spare robots attack Superboy. Two Clark Kents battle using two other Clark Kents while five Clark Kents attack one of those Clark Kents at the command of the other Clark Kent. The control box overloads and kills the wicked one.
Clark must always feel a bit like overloading in the face of all these externalized selves. “There isn’t room on Earth for two Superboys,” says Dworn, an inverted Superboy who’s strong in the presence of Kryptonite, as he abandons the planet based on that reasoning. But there seems to be room for dozens of them! Clark has seven robots, one evil doppelganger, life-sized balloons of himself and a plastic dummy of himself that was once thrown over a waterfall by a dog dressed up like him. Clark’s lost in a maze of himself, of pin-ups and statues and billboards. The anxiety here is solipsistic – Clark’s secret puts him in a psychic space where there’s nothing but Clark, a world of Clarks. Corrupt, uncanny, robotic and inflatable.
The queer reading hangs low, despite occasional heterosexual rubbish from the narrator like, “Would you think it great fun to have a double identity like Superboy, keeping your secret from all the world?” Nah, mate. Not so much. A secret isolates Superboy from the world and so he spirals inwards. His motorized and inanimate duplicates both live in a closet in his room, which Adventure #251 sees his parents show up to tidy. “Your secret storeroom needs cleaning too, son” advises Ma.
But Clark cannot keep his secret storeroom clean. Out tumbles piles of alien bric-a-brac as an embarrassed Pa says “Looks like there’s…er…too much stuff in there! It’s crammed with Superboy trophies and whatnot!” Superboy needs all this Superboy. The story ends with him deciding he needs to keep all his robot duplicates as they squabble among themselves as to which it to go out into the world, pretending to be him.
But sometimes the double must die. There are no tears for the death of the Clark in the Snazzy Tie, and Superboy is resolute in his intention to kill Bizzaro. Created by a duplicator ray accident, the Bizzaro of Superboy #68 isn’t an inversion or mirroring of Superman as later Bizzaros will be. He doesn’t speak in words with opposite meanings, just in a childlike, Hulk-speak. He is simply an imperfect replica of Superboy. His up is not down, it is just a less good up. And everyone absolutely freaks out. It’s a Frankenstein story, right down to the kindliness of the blind, but one totally reluctant to indict its baying mob.
Ma is revolted by him, and Superboy just disgusted by his ignorance. All act as if he’s the most revolting thing they’ve ever seen even though, visually, the only difference between him and Superboy is a receding hairline and a lower poly count. Despite his evident consciousness and agency we’re repeatedly assured that it’s fine to kill him because his body isn’t made of organic matter. After driving him to suicide, Superboy does sort of say he’s sorry but only while explaining that he was right to do it and it’s for the best, so it’s not a great apology.
Perhaps the most visually upsetting depictions of Clark’s diminishing self comes from Superboy #69, where a sick and immobilized Clark watches his dad control one of the robots in a desperate battle against determined outlaws. The robot loses its arms, then its head, but carries on fighting the good fight, the sickly Clark glued to these images of his own fragmentation. The legs go next, and then the body. Until all that is left of ‘Superboy’ are three scraps of colored cloth, red, blue and yellow, fluttering before his eyes under the direction of his father’s jet tubes. Big mood. This lad desperately needs to get out of the secret storeroom and start talking to some boys his own age.
Like Robin the Boy Wonder, who travels back from the future to help out in Adventure #253. It’s a touching story, as he brings real companionship into Clark’s life. Solving mysteries together as equals, having lunch with Ma and Pa, chatting about cute domestic trivia, the great tides of Atomic Age history, and their personal triumphs and tragedies. Robin looks like exactly what it was absurd to claim Jimmy Greeves was. He looks like a friend, and with him, he’s brought the promise of more.
Robin’s exposition about his journey to the past starts, “One day, when Batman was out of town, I was flying to visit you, Superman at your secret fortress, when suddenly…” Look how much is implied there! That one day a ‘secret fortress’ will be a place for friends to visit (exactly as it will be ‘Fort Superman’ is reintroduced in Action #241 as a social space) and that one day he’ll be part of a community with multiple moving parts. That one day there’ll be a Batman. That last thing is what little Clark really latches on to, despite the total relevance of Batman to this story, because Robin’s told him what Batman is. One day, Clark is promised, he will have a “best friend.”
The most heartfelt panel in any of these comics comes when Clark has had cause to doubt that. Or rather cause to doubt Robin’s whole story, but it’s the existence or otherwise of Batman that bothers him. The reality of Batman makes no difference to the immediate palaver with exploding clocks and flying battering rams, but it’s the one detail Superboy cares about.
“All those stories you told me about the future — and BATMAN! They’re all lies! You’re not from the future — and there never will be a BATMAN!”
He turns his back to Robin, a vulnerable pout on his face. Clark simply cannot make the idea that he’ll ever have a best friend feel real to him. Robin tries to convince him by listing ‘great feats’ that Clark will perform as Superman. He has no idea what’s up. How could he? Robin’s Bat-family. He was never alone.
Clark does eventually accept that Robin’s on the level, but doesn’t bring up Batman again. I still don’t think he can quite take that into his heart. What he’s been offered is an ‘It Gets Better’ narrative, and they’re never sufficient. Never sufficient but not useless either. As Clark waves goodbye to Robin and the promise that one day he’ll be part of a community, his voice catches. “Thanks Robin, thanks for saving my future life! I’m — I’m sorry to see you go…” The World’s Finest team can offer him hope for tomorrow. If only there was someone that could offer him tomorrow… today.
It is 1958. Clark Kent is a lonely teenager. The girl knows his secret. She is joined by the two boys he saw earlier. The three begin to undress in front of him. Something has changed.
The Legion of Super-Heroes changes everything. Their first appearance in Adventure #247 is that one precious detail that everyone’s after from the Superboy stories of 1958, those twelve pages are what Johns and Bendis et all want, but I hope that by contextualizing them in the three hundred and seventy-two pages of Superboy comics that were published around them they look even brighter and stranger. I hope it’s evident how exciting it is to watch this Clark roll the word ‘super-hero’ around in his mouth, thinking about what it means for that to be an order of being, for there to be tons of them, and for them to have a cute clubhouse in an upside-down rocketship.
Because the first thing they offer him is space. The “hang on in there for Batman” story is simply a time travel story – someone comes from the future with news about how that is. ‘The Legion of Super-Heroes’ is only a time-travel story in the most literal sense. The Legion takes Clark to the Smallville of the thirtieth century, sure, sure, but that’s not what’s really happening. The Legion is teaching Clark to see a different Smallville.
“What a relief that my secret identity is still safe here in Smallville!” says Clark after his new pals have made it clear that they see him, making that link between different spaces and different expressions of the self, taking that step out of his hall of mirrors. They take him to their Smallville. Parts of it look the same. His house is still there, looking exactly as it was, but now a plaque outside declares it the home of “Clark (Superboy) Kent” and a robot factory stands next door. It’s his house, but in a Smallville where who he is isn’t secret or separated and where the robots have moved out.
Those robots, the artificial faces that stand in for Clark, are used so tellingly here. He attends the Legion’s school, identical to his own – desks, chalkboards, yellow walls – and watches a history lesson in which a robot is demonstrating super-strength. The robot clicks, whirrs and winds down, exhausted from a thousand years of duty. Clark rises from his desk and offers to stand in for the robot. His entire relationship to these figures inverts as the truth replaces the lie.
He’s then assessed for membership in the Legion through a series of rigged tests and brought to believe he’s been utterly rejected. Legion stories will grow to become their own thing, largely be about worries about inclusion, exclusion and the navigation of friendship groups, and that thing will have grown out of this one sequence. “Who gets to be in the gang?” is what writers will mostly use the Legion to talk about, and where they’re running a very specific test to see if Clark does.
They’re testing for humility. Testing for grace. They’re testing for a willingness to fail. Of course, Superboy can perform super-feats, that’s not what the Legion need to know about him. He’s a socially-isolated white male and DO YOU KNOW WHAT it probably isn’t a bad idea to have a check to see if he’s safe. How will he handle rejection? How will he handle being bettered by a girl? What does he believe he’s entitled to? The exciting thing is… we don’t really know this as readers either. We can’t get answers from any of those other eighteen comics about whether or not this lonely boy is prepared to do the work and take the risks. Does he want to connect?
“You’re a super-good sport, taking it all with a smile!” says Cosmic Boy. He’s in.
In with Cosmic Boy and Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl and crowds of silhouetted figures to be colored in by later stories. In with people dressed in colors other than his own, with names that don’t start with ‘Super’ and faces that aren’t his. Out of a legion of robots and duplicates and into a community of people who’re like him, but who are not him.
6) MILLICENT AND CEDRIC
A third way to be Doctor Manhattan is be Captain Atom, the character’s original inspiration, as he appears in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Pax Americana. There we find him explaining Morrison’s notion of hypertime with reference to the comic book he’s holding (Morrison and Mahnke’s Ultra Comics).
“The story’s linear, but I can flip through the pages in any order, any direction. Forward in time to the conclusion. Back to the opening scene.” This is brane cosmology applied to comics. The issues are branes, objects with a given number of dimensions, floating in a bulk (or hyperspace) with a greater number of dimensions. Our three-dimensional world contains their two-dimensional worlds and so our greater freedom of movement gives us control over the passage of their time. The good people of Smallville must experience their lives in order from panel to panel, but I can decide which comic to pick up and bring into my present experience. Today I am reading some old Superboy stories and therefore, as has been mentioned…
It is 1958. Clark Kent has had a hard day at work, reporting for the Daily Planet. The buzzing penetrates his window. His parents step from the vessel. His heart is to be broken.
… but of course, it isn’t as simple as that.
For one thing, these particular stories in the two-dimensional space rely on non-linear storytelling, and for another our higher-dimensional position isn’t really so privileged. Captain Atom concedes this, saying, “Complete yet always beginning and ending. Always different.” I can read these comics from 1958 but I can’t read them as they would have been read in 1958.
Demonstrably I’ve made absolutely no effort to do so. I’ve read them in a nerdy Watsonian way by pretending that all the isolated details cohere to make a consistent imaginary world, and I’ve read them by applying some basic ass entry-level queer reading to talk about what they mean to an awkward bisexual who grew up in South Wales during the 80’s and 90’s. There were other choices I could have made, but I couldn’t not have made choices. That’s just something we all have to do when we bring material from the past into the present.
Which is the theme of Action Comics #247. A Superman story.
Throughout 1958, Superboy and Adventure Comics did the work to establish that their Superboy stories were the authentic past of the Superman appearing in Superman and Action Comics. In December of that year, Action Comics worked to establish the same and to ask a question; Does it matter?
Between two and five things happened in Smallville. An infinity of things happened in Smallville. This is a period of Superman’s life that is completely vague in all the stories that matter and minutely detailed in thousands of stories that don’t. Does all the granular trivia of Smallville really just lift right out?
That’s what Ma and Pa seem to be wondering on the opening page of Action #250. They’re stood looking at an adult Clark and at statues of his Kryptonian parents holding him as a baby. Clark was a baby in a world without them and is an adult in a world where they’re dead. Does it matter that, in between, he lived as head of their house, the child enthroned?
In most renditions of Superman, the character learns his flawless values of truth, justice, and the American way from his hardworking agrarian father. [G]iven that the American values of hardworking folks in rural Kansas are, not to oversimplify, responsible for almost everything wrong on the planet, I am not averse to this being interrogated a bit. The fact of the matter is that a Superman raised by hardworking farmers in Kansas who has fully adopted their values would, and we can state this as empirical fact based upon their voting patterns, be overwhelmingly likely to be a misogynistic, racist religious fundamentalist who actively supports regressive politics that leave the poor to starve so that the rich can get just that little bit richer. Perhaps the Kents are one of those handful of progressives that exist in rural Kansas, but with counties that went 85% for Mitt Romney last year, well, you know.
Oh, but they have done worse since.
The Pa Kent we’ve been looking at in this article doesn’t come from Kansas, doesn’t come from a farming community and hasn’t once been portrayed as the source of Superman’s values. This body of work is simply not what we remember it as being, and the process by which we’ve come to misremember it is surely adjacent to the process that leads us to situate the origins of decency in such an incredibly implausible location as the white America of yesteryear.
In Action Comics #247 a time bubble arrives in Metropolis, looking just like the time bubble that brought the Legion to Smallville. Only while that one came from the future, this one comes from the past. Ma and Pa Kent, both long dead, have come to pay their grown-up son a visit.
For the first half of the story, we see how that plays out as he assures them that they did mean something to him and they continue to be valued, just not entirely without qualification. To this rendition of Superman, they are thought of not fully as parents but as ‘Earth parents’ or ‘foster parents.’ He does not see these guys as being where he’s from. Opening one last secret storeroom, in which replicas of Ma, Pa and Young Clark enjoy a meal together, Superman explains to the Kents who they were. They were people who made him feel happy, safe and loved.
Later, the telephone rings. The speech balloon which emerges from it is jagged and vicious, the words it carries are broken up by malicious cackles and mocking quotation marks. It is a terrible conversation. Millicent and Cedric are calling. Everything has been a lie.
There was no Time Bubble. It was a movie prop. Ma and Pa never visited. These were actors on the swindle. They were Milicent and Cedric. Clark was right to distrust the movie people, wrong to let his guard slip. His heart is broken. Hollywood has had its revenge.
The rest of the issue is spent containing the threat of the False Kents, their stolen goods and secret knowledge, but by the end of it Clark is in no better place emotionally. His past was brought into his present and vandalized before his eyes. Haha we ruined your favorite thing. Looking sadly at a photograph of the Kents, Clark wonders what he can do to fix this. After all, when we bring the past into the present then we have choices to make. Clark makes one. “Regardless of how it turned out, I’ll just pretend Mom and Dad Kent DID visit me from the past!” he says and our story ends.
He replaces this uncomfortable memory with a happier delusion. Just as we’ve done to Smallville over the years, through reboots, retellings, and adaptations. We’ve taken a weird place like nowhere on Earth where this character had a weird family life like nobody’s ever and decided, culturally, that we’d rather remember it as something else. We decided that it was more useful to us as Sandifer’s nightmare, a myth of truth and justice arising from an America that was great.
These stories aren’t widely read and that doesn’t matter. The DC wikia pages are all out by two issues on when Red Kryptonite was introduced and, if anyone asks Reddit for stories of Superman’s adolescence then they’re going to get arms waved vaguely in the direction of this material and specific recs for the Jeph Loeb and Max Landis versions. But if it were not so then the world would not be other than it is.
If today’s schools taught the doings of the Superboy of 1958 as rigorously as do the schools of the Legion’s time, there’d still be a fascist in the White House. But the myths that put him there are within a milkshake’s throw of the myths we perpetuate when we privilege nostalgia with moral superiority. We’re not detached, higher-dimensional beings when we bring the past into the present. We’re making active choices, and making our own stories in which we must take care not to become the villain.
Which we needn’t. The key material that depicts Superman’s formative years isn’t interested in telling the story of his formation. Allowing the reader to decide what it all meant. Over the decades, we’ve perhaps not done a brilliant job of that. Putting it about that it tells the story of how moral certainty arises from a traditional family structure in a straight, white, monoculture. That big fib was built from fragments originally thrown down to meet deadlines, pander to kids, and supplement the writers’ therapy sessions. Those fragments can be rearranged into better shapes. They can tell stories of how queer kids need queer spaces. Stories of how much easier it is to understand and know yourself in a multicultural society. They can tell stories about the future.