Monday, September 7, 2009

On the argument in favor of Superboy-Prime

Superboy-Prime is about the most polarizing character DC has right now. People either love him or despise him. Geoff Johns has pulled him from retirement and used him as a living satire on impossible-to-please fanboys since his return in Infinite Crisis.

And I'm telling you right here...played right, he could be turned around into a great hero.

Hear me out.

First introcuced about eighteen minutes before Crisis on Infinite Earths started, he gets a handful of panels over the course of the series and eventually gets shuffled off into the Magic Crystal Retirement Home with the Superman and Lois Lane of Earth-2 and Alexander Luthor, the son of the pre-Crisis Earth-Three's only hero, Lex Luthor. and there he sat, alone unmourned and unloved for nigh on twenty years.

Geoff Johns decided to take those characters and use them as the central focus of his opus Infinite Crisis. The base idea was that these heroes were looking out of Crystal Acres, seeing what had become of the DCU upon their exit, and found it lacking. Filled with dour heroes who were barely better than the villains, acts of horror and atrocity that would never have stood in their day. And they make the decision "It's all got to go".

But what people don't really notice is that the REAL villain of IC is Alexander Luthor.

Kal-L of Earth-Two if despondent over the illness of his wife Lois Lane. And Superboy Prime, aside from looking out and seeing what the DCU has become, has been a teenager for twenty years. Two people very easily shaped by the right person at the right time.

In the Villains United series, we discover that Luthor had been sneaking out of the Magic Crystal Dimension for quite some time, masquerading as (our) Lex Luthor, and generally stirring things up a great deal. He also spends a great deal of time pouring poison in Superboy Prime's ear.

In a very literary way, Superboy-Prime is a Shakesperean tragedy hero.

I'll explain. Shakespere's three greatest classic tragedies are (in order) Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet. They show his growth as a writer and his further experimentation of the Tragedy as a narrative tool. Romeo and Juliet are teenagers, literally out of control of their lives, torn apart by their families. Their actions are the immature reactions of children, indeed,the SAME immature reactions we see from teenagers today - run away from your probles and/or kill themselves. They are "tragic" in the "it's a shame this happened TO them" sense. Hamlet, contrariwise, is wholly in control of his fate. He makes his choices, follows through with gusto, and at the end it's wholly clear that he deserves what he gets, no matter the motivation. Macbeth, which came in the middle chronologically, also falls in the middle character-wise. Macbeth is basically goaded into his actions by his wife, and the three witches all but plot his moves for him. He makes the choice to take the path himself, but it's as close to a forced choice as you can get. Once he goes down the path he does it with verve, but the initial choice was not wholly his.

THAT's what I mean when I compare Superboy Prime to Macbeth. He's a villain, but he's not 100% whole-hog behind the choice. If he had spent more time talking to someone else other than Luthor, things might have gone very differently. And it's that little flaw, that small exception, that makes me say he could still get a face-turn and end up a good guy, or at the very least properly redeemed before he dies.

You want a comparison closer to home? Darth Vader. Like Prime, he's a petulant child who's goaded into his turn by Palpatine. And since he didn't start evil, it was narratively acceptable for him to be redeemed, and instanly forgiven for all the deaths that he was personally responsible for.

When Superman said that he wanted to try to redeem S-Prime in Legion of Three Worlds, I was one of the few cheering at the idea. Because of that flaw, that sense that his choice wasn't completely his own, it left open the door to redemption, and still does. There's really only one thing that really queers the case for Superboy Prime's redemption. And it's the same thing that makes S-Prime seem overused to the point of annoyance.

F&%^ing Countdown.

Look only at the Geoff Johns helmed appearances of Superboy Prime. He shows up in IC, doesn't reappear for nigh on two years in Sinestro Corps War, and by then, he's been out of the public eye enough to be kept special. Again, Johns doesn't use him again until Legion of Three Worlds, another almost two-year gap of use. And if Lo3W had shipped on time, it would have again been just over a year before we saw him again in Blackest Night.

But Countdown had to come and piss in the soup.

Countdown, as I have gone on about before, was a textbook example of a company deciding they just couldn't wait to use a bunch of characters and plots, all which were supposed to be used as part of Final Crisis a year later. The story flatly contradicted events in FC (and other minis running at the same time, like Death of the New Gods), and generally gave the upcoming event a sense of having just seen these characters a couple WEEKS ago, thus reducing its feeling of import. Johns had certainly not been afraid to play S-Prime as a killer - he amasses quite a list in IC, and adds to that in SCW and Lo3W. Indeed, by the time of the Legion story, he's graduated to indiscriminate killing of innocents who got in his way. But in Countdown, he's genocidal, Terra-cidal, if you will. He's responsible for destroying an entire Earth, and then an entire UNIVERSE. Many make the valid argument that that's just too far to come back from. Johns played him like a petulant child (which he is), Countdown played him as a mouth-frothing maniac. That, plus the fact that his year-long appearance (plus the extended/delayed) release scheule of L03w) gave the impression that he has been around non-stop for almost two years. This gives his upcoming appearance in Adventure as part of Blackest Night a sense of "Oh No Not Again"; one it doesn't deserve.

But I have to come back to the fact that Countdown is slowly but inexorably being "ignored to death". More and more of the stuff that transpired there has dropped off the timeline - Jimmy Olsen had not once talked about having shacked up with a six-foot tall insect (not to mention one that dumped him), and events in Captain Atom's life as described in Superman sound like they picked up from the events of the Bludhaven mini and skipped CD entirely. So I'm almost willing to argue that S-Prime's actions in CD can be similarly described as "having not happened". That still leaves Prime with a great deal of blood on his hands, but no more than Vader, or, say, Hal Jordan and Black Adam, two characters Johns has successfully brought back as viable characters. So I still maintain the chance is there.

Geoff has been playing the long game here, with storylines started as far back as Green Lantern Rebirth coming to a head in Blackest Night. He's been using Superboy Prime in each of those staories as well, and I maintain that's not by accident. Each one of the characters he's used in that story has gone through a great odyssey of adventure and growth. I find it hard to believe that Prime alone will remain a two-dimensional cipher.

His story might concievably carry through to the Superman event in 2010, but I have a feeling it'll end with Blackest Night. The just-revealed cover to Adventure Comics #5 certinaly makes it seem like it'll end there, but I've learned that covers very rarely portray the contents of the books correctly any more. Whatever we're gonna get and whenever we get it, I'm pretty damn sure your opinion of Superboy Prime will change by the time his story is over.

1 comment:

  1. Nice summation....

    I guess it's hard for me not to like Superboy Prime since

    a. From an editorial standpoint he was SUPPOSED to be the new Superboy in New Earth to operate alongside a Superman who would never have been a Superboy (and let's face, SuperBOY sells comics...)

    b. His origin and character / personality in that DC Comics Presents issue is really off from his portrayal in IC (though not so off from what we saw in COIE, though Marv Wolfman only reluctantly put him in the story, thinking the character was a mistake) so I don't think the "voice" of the Clark Kent from Earth Prime really found it's way into COIE. He was never a whiny fanboy. He played sports and actually kind of resented the teasing he got for his name, and that turned him into a Hal Jordan fan...(you know there are still unanswered mysteries from the DC Comics Presents issue that bug me to this day, like the mystery portal opening, the evil counsel member from Krypton Prime etc...etc..)

    c. Kurt Busiek's take on the character in SUPERMAN SECRET IDENTITY is so superlative, and may well be one of the finest Superman stories ever told, it's hard not see this as being kind of a travesty to the character. AT the very least DC should use the PRIME popularity to promote that book as many people are missing out on a true classic.

    Hope you are checking out Adventure Comics #4 and #5...