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Tue, May 19th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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SUPERBOY, 1994

Augie's celebrating 20 years of comics reading and collecting this year. As part of that, he's digging through his long boxes and re-reading comics he enjoyed Back In The Day and hoping they still hold up. The track record so far has been pretty good: ShockRockets, Ka-Zar, Deadpool, She-Hulk, and Gatecrasher.

In case you haven't heard: Superboy is returning!

Again.

But this is 15 years ago I'm talking about.

Back in the day (early 90s), I enjoyed reading all of the "Superman" family of titles, complete with the front cover triangles to guide me in the right direction. I learned about the whole Superman universe from the likes of Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Jackson Guice, Jon Bogdanove (the man named his son Kal El, for goodness' sake), Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, and all the others at the time. It was fun to read what was essentially a weekly series, though I did prefer some titles over others.

After the "Death" and "Return of Superman," Superman's clone, Superboy, got his own monthly title. It debuted at the end of 1993 and would last 100 issues, even spinning off a second series, horribly titled "Superboy and the Ravers." It sounds dated now, but did feature Paul Pelletier art, so it might be worth looking back at someday.

The main "Superboy" title, though, sent the young clone to Hawaii to get away from all the madness of Metropolis. He had a handler who was concerned with exploiting him for personal profit, and a guardian in the form of Dubbilex, a psychic horned grey-skinned alien dude with issues of his own. This Superboy was brash and bold, filled with that youthful exhuberance and energy that you'd expect in someone so new to the world with such exceptional powers. And he's also caught up in a love triangle or quadrangle, depending on the issue, between his handler's daughter, a reporter "friend" from back on the mainland, and an Amazonian villain name "Knockout." Just as with Superman, it's the reporter who wins that fight most of the time, though it presents some major ethical conflicts that I can't remember the Superman writers ever dealing with when it came to Lois Lane marrying Superman. (Surely they did at some point, right?)

Looking back on it now, some of it reads as silly or dated. It feels like a completely different school of storytelling, and it often is. The Superman titles back then were fairly well-regimented. While each title had its own style, they still hewed to a "feel" that kept things fairly locked down. The art was never splashy, the writing was solid if not spectacular, and they often used Alan Moore's trick to introduce new scenes with an ironic choice of words overlaid from the previous scene as a voiceover. Superboy's costume features the omnipresent leather jacket from the time, and his bug-eyed x-ray glasses were an odd fashion choice.

Yet, there's some thing appealing about the whole thing to me. It brings me back, as a comics reader, to a different time. In 1994, I just had access to USENET and the internet at large. The main news source for the comics world was still "The Comics Buyer's Guide," with some other magazines following behind, such as "Wizard" and "Hero Illustrated" and "Comics Scene" and "Arena." At the time, things felt more innocent. Much of the behind-the-scenes stuff was still wrapped up behind a curtain, even as much as the founding of Image Comics helped to tear so much of it down for me.

Nowadays, "Superboy" shows up and we all ponder the legal ramifications, or if he might punch the sky or something. And is his return an editorial decision or a writer's decision?

In 1994, "Superboy" was perhaps a bit goofy and reliant on crazy coincidences to bring more villains to the islands, but the stories were self-contained, had a good sense of humor, and were very well drawn.

Karl Kesel -- a writer who I fear has never been given his due -- was at the helm, and a good choice. He knew the Superman universe very well, and his natural sense of story fit in well with the feel of the line. Tom Grummett handled the art chores. Grummett, as well, doesn't get as much credit as he deserves for how great his work is. He's a great storyteller with his own style that's recognizable without ever getting in the way. Teenagers look like teenagers, not adults with slightly larger heads. Adults have their own postures and mannerisms. His characters show a breadth of emotions not often seen in superhero comics, particularly at the time. When it comes to the superheroics, his work is dynamic, Kirby-inspired, and tight. The one thing I think Grummett needs is a good inker to show his work off right. Doug Hazlewood handled the duties in "Superboy," and that worked very well.

Grummett was drawing two books a month at the time. He also drew the Batman equivalent of this book in "Robin." Sorta. No doubt that explains why a "Superboy Animated" story-within-the-story was illustrated by guest-artist Mike Parobeck in the very third issue, and why inker Doug Hazlewood was credited as a "Finisher" in another issue or two. Saddest of all, a guest artist filled in at the end of the first year in the big three-part Suicide Squad story. It was a prime piece of mid-90s hackery. It's painful to look at, honestly.

Like so many DC titles at the time, though, the book was easily derailed for the latest and greatest crossover. After only four issues, "Superboy" became a cog in the machine for two issues in the Milestone crossover, "Worlds Collide." Even better, no Milestone hero appears in that first issue until the last page. The major tie-in at that point is just a subplot winding through the issue while Superboy fights The Parasite on the beach, where he's destined to fight all foes in Hawaii that he doesn't fight in a volcano, I guess. The second issue is all "Worlds Collide," and I'm afraid that it loses me. Nice art, but I have no idea who anyone is or what they're doing in the middle of a twelve part crossover series.

That's followed by "Zero Hour," with an issue #0 and the return of the original "Superboy" for an issue. Writing that sentence for today's continuity would cause a raft of lawyers to get busy drafting letters, I'm sure. Amazingly, Kesel made both issues work very well in the context of the series. The zero issue gave him a chance to recap Superboy's origin story for newer audiences, while adding the X-Ray vision goggles. And "Superboy" #8 features the return of the classic Superboy to meet -- and, inevitably, fight -- the modern Superboy. It's a wonderfully sweet story that blends the two eras of Superboys together beautifully without being overly schmaltzy. It's a nice character piece, with the full attention of Tom Grummett's pencils.

But the best part of the series happens at the end of the series' first year (issues #13-15), when Karl Kesel brings back The Suicide Squad, a series he inked and drew covers for during the legendary John Ostrander run of the late 80s/early 90s. The three part "Watery Grave" brings the Suicide Squad up against the Silicon Dragons, the heavies of Hawaii, with a large high tech gun-running operation and the heavy muscle behind it. It's great to see Boomerang, Deadshot, and Amanda Waller again, along with new Superboy-centric additions such as King Shark, Knockout, and Sidearm. It has all the in-fighting, back-stabbing, and high stakes that "Suicide Squad" was known for, though the politics of the day are left out of it. Kesel makes his smart commentary on the existence of the Squad at the end of the storyline, but it's the tension and action that keep you plowing through the pages. It's too bad that Grummett didn't draw the third issue. Kevin West did, and it's very bad stereotypical 90s art. The backgrounds disappear, the small hatched lines multiply, the characters contort and distort, and the reading experience suffers. (West recently drew WildStorm's "Nightmare on Elm Street" mini-series.)

Just how many times have they tried to bring back The Suicide Squad now? Karl Kesel tried it again in "Superboy and the Ravers," I know. Keith Giffen had a short-lived attempt a few years back that I was one of the few that enjoyed. I really liked the most recent revival that John Ostrander did. Haven't heard anything about it since, though the complicated start of DC Universe continuity doesn't help, I'm sure.

One last thought on the overall look of "Superboy:" Comicraft's Richard Starkings adds tremendously to the lighter and more buoyant feel of the title. Using his Hedge Backwards font (still my favorite), he's able to contort the lettering as necessary to add life to the page. It reminds me of the kind of work Tom Orzechowski used to do in hand-lettering "Uncanny X-Men." He was able to bend the balloon tails to add life to them. Sound effects were interesting to look at. There's just lots of good lettering stuff to be had here. Starkings began the series with hand-lettering, before moving onto the more straight-laced computer lettering. While still able to replicate many of the "tricks" to indicate expression through font, I missed the little imperfections of the hand lettering.

"Superboy" is a product of its time in many ways -- that hair cut! -- but it has solid storytelling and wonderful art when the regular team is present and accounted for. I'm not sure there's call for a trade paperback collection of it now, though I could make a case for a "Best Of" to pack up the best seven or eight issues from the first fifteen or so. Kesel and Grummett would go on to create "Section Zero" for Gorilla, but that one died on the launching pad. And Superboy, after going through some creators including Jimmy Palmiotti and Dan DiDio, is set to return to the DC Universe again this year, after being caught up in legal limbo and DCU Death.

If you see these issues in a quarter bin someday, give them a chance. If they're sitting in a long box in your basement somewhere, they're a pleasant trip back in time.

SOME RANDOM SUPERBOY COMICS IMAGERY

In scanning the opening splash page for "Superboy" #15 to show how 90s-esque West's art was, I noticed that Comicraft misspelled their own name in the credits. Whoops.

1994 was the future. Back then, it wasn't hard to think of AOL as being the internet service provider that would be around forever, polluting our mailbox and magazines with giveaway CDs with ludicrous password combinations. DC was ahead of the curve with this one. Remember, this is before the AOL/Warner Bros. merger.

Sadly, this was probably the closest to American mainstream that "Asterix" has ever gotten -- a Super Nintendo game!

It's always a daring choice to go with a photo cover. That goes double when it involves a male superhero in white spandex.

Peter Krause and Butch Guice have both done wonderful art jobs in their lifetimes. This ad is not one of them.

Next week: We'll talk about what I read this week. And, with any luck, I'll have some show notes from The Pipeline Podcast for you.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com went with a cloud theme last week, and visits a carnival this week. Take a look at Monday's picture -- it's my favorite of the batch.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

The Various and Sundry blog is picking up a little steam. And it's "Idol" finale week! Whoo-hoo!

And there might still be a new blog on the horizon. . .

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, some with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, superboy, connor kent

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