Last Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Superboy Volume 4 #35
Writer – Ron Marz
Penciler – Ramon Bernardo
Inker – Doug Hazlewood, Stan Woch
Letterer – Albert Deschesne
To be fair, I’ve never read a Superboy comic. Why? I’m not sure really. Maybe I haven’t because he’s a poor man’s Superman. Why would I want to read about a boy (what I am), when I could read about a man (what I could be)? So when I say that Superboy #35 is awful, I am judging ignorantly. The comic is bizarrely confusing, a stunning example of poor storytelling. It shows, plainly, what was so wrong about comics in the nineties. Mind you, there were plenty of things wrong with the nineties in general, but this tears it.
The standard for storytelling has been raised significantly since. This trend grows out of the awareness of ourselves; an exploration of self, and how the self influences the medium. Great storytelling was being pioneered at this time in DC, via the stories of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Mark Millar, but the world wasn’t ready. Introspective stories were too threatening for a general readership. What we read off the racks today, as compared to two decades ago, reflects the transitioning of pulp children’s entertainment, a la Saturday Morning Cartooning, toward the adult fiction that features prominent language, sexuality, violence, and thematic elements focused on illuminating our inner strengths and systemic weaknesses. Yesterday I read the first 8 issues of the New 52 Green Lantern Corps, and intermingling the pages were a variety of strong subversive themes that dealt with maturation, finding identity, and death. Superboy today has grown up considerably as well, but how? In what way has he matured?
Young Justice was a critically acclaimed DCAU program that ran from 2010 to 2013, and it stands as a perfect example of the maturation of characters in comics. Unlike previous shows, Young Justice was cemented in a fixed time line. As the show progressed, the adolescents aged. At the show’s conclusion, the original members had grown considerably, some of them even dying. The characters in the show were faced with death, isolation, exclusion, and bonafide existential crises. It’s a wonder, then, the remarkable disparity between Conner Kent of Earth-16 and Superboy of 1997 in Kidnapped. He literally is a 23 year old stuck in a ten year old’s body, surrounded by a harem of attractive women, which he has clearly never had sex with, and is uncomfortable with his own body.
Sounds strange, but these quirks reflect deeper resonating issues that every comic book reader is embroiled with, especially the young, uninitiated 8-12s. During the mid to late nineties, children were still the target audience of mainstream comics. Naturally, the desires and wishes of the DC imprint’s main line up would reflect what these characters yearned for and aspired to be. Children don’t understand the nuances of complicated scripts; neither do they appreciate subtle cues or hidden irony, so the bland, straightforward dialogue of Superboy is natural, if not preferable considering the audience. Amanda Spence, a mysterious agent acting on the behalf of an Illuminati stand-in, is a threatening, domineering woman that torments Superboy and puts him in a machine that kinda rapes him. It’s complicated… No, not really. It’s the stuff of many things that growing boys fear, especially the uncouth, pimply adolescents that stand alone at junior high dances. Roxy and Tana fight over Superboy a la typical middle school drama, and all the hormonal tempers flare. The threatening sexual overtones permeate their conversations, tinting their relationships with Superboy as either pessimistic or oblivious.
The end hook, that the aptly named Agenda have cloned Superboy, falls flat and doesn’t make me want to read more. Hasn’t this already been done? Superman already has his hideous rival, Bizzaro. Why does Superboy need one? Furthermore, wouldn’t Superboy’s rival be horribly inbred? Like a purebred Dalmatian that can barely stand? Or an advanced, sentient Autobot, with computer targeting systems, but is seemingly incapable of shooting a Decepticon in a firefight? This glaring inconsistency actually represents a grander issue still being waged in children’s media today: namely, the positivist delineated moral presuppositions being presented in substitute for something akin to reality. Much like Bart and Lisa Simpson who laugh at Itchy and Scratchy cartoons (which demonstrates that American children are the only children in the world that laugh at suffering and violence), Superboy is another stand-in for positivism. There is no struggle the character faces other than simply being Superboy. He is not like Superman, who has a severed heritage and lives hidden in plain sight isolated, nor is he like Spiderman, who wears his incredible abilities like an albatross hanging from his neck. He’s just a kid, with inconsequential problems that are readily avoidable. To be fair, however, in a way, Superboy circa 1997 is a beautiful tribute to the Kafka-esque: a perfect being wasting his potential, ultimately to be consumed by his own inadequacy.
2 Awkward P.E. Showers (of 10)