Superboy #7 came out this week and was another fantastic issue. This series has been a wonderful surprise for me, an odd mix of Silver Age and Vertigo wrapped in an S-shield. Amazingly, writer Jeff Lemire is really able to blend these different ingredients into a smooth story. We have seen a little bit of everything in these 7 issues but there is definitely a dark undercurrent bubbling beneath the sunny streets of Smallville. It also shows that despite his brave exterior, Conner still has some deep-seeded worries about who he is.
This issue in some ways felt like a rest issue, a separate story that didn't touch upon some of the bigger plots that have been chugging along. We don't get any Hollow Men here or hear about their plot. What we do get is Superboy thwarting another threat, a threat that might be part of this bigger whole. I also think Lemire needed to pause for a second knowing that Superboy is involved in the Doomsday storyline (which we learn runs until Action Comics #704 in an editorial blurb in this issue). If that storyline's finale is 4 months away, it might be hard to jibe Conner's continuity. But this sort of 'done in one' story buys us some time.
Lastly I have to comment on the art in the book. Marco Rudy and Kevin HDR split the work here. I think Rudy does the pieces of the story that happen now while HDR does the feverish splotchy fever dream portions seen in the future. Those future segments are really slick, the splotchy red-soaked images adding to the mystery and misery we are being shown.
And new cover artist Karl Kerschl complements the internal art with this orange-drenched demonic looking Superboy image. Very nice!
The issue flips back and forth between Superboy and Psionic Lad on a mission in space now and flash forwards to the future. It is interesting to see this interaction between Superboy and Psionic Lad. We know that Psionic Lad has some ulterior motive, saying he will kill 'the target'. Back then in Superboy #4 I thought he was talking about Superboy. But now I don't think so.
The two heroes are called upon by the JLA to investigate a spaceship listing in Earth's orbit. As I said before, Lemire likes to bring a sort of Silver Age feeling to the book at times, I think to make the more horrific moments stand out even more in contrast. This panel composition just reminded me of those Silver Age issues, inset close-ups of the heroes faces smiling and winking at each other as they approach a probable threat.
This book really does a fabulous job with page composition and panel construction.
Psionic Lad senses two lifeforms on board but something isn't right about them; they feel 'alive but not quite'. The two decide to investigate further and the only way in is for Conner to break in.
Again, so much of this book is learning about who Superboy is and who he thinks he is. I liked this panel of him saying 'caution's my middle name' as we see him smashing his way into an unknown and probably hostile situation. I don't think he was being ironic. I think he really felt like he was being cautious.
Here is where the book kind of kicks things up a notch.
Superboy wakes up at some undetermined point in the future to discover that the Smallville and the world has been razed. The place looks more like Apokolips than Smallville. When Superboy goes to investigate, he discovers that the only living being around is Lori Luthor. Lori, dressed a bit like Tank Girl, spits venom at Superboy, blaming him for the destruction and carnage around them.
But the big thing here is the change in art. For the bulk of these future fever dreams, the art (I assume this is Kevin HDR) switches to this water color more chaotic appearing art. The art palette is mostly reds and oranges and purples adding to the feeling of this Hellish environment. I thought this really worked, drawing me into the story.
Even here, when Tim Drake and the 'New Titans' show up to battle Conner, the art mirrors the feeling perfectly. The blotchy background of purples and magentas really gives the feeling of a nightmare.
These Titans have one mission in mind, to kill Superboy for all the evils he has done. They say that Superboy killed all the other heroes as he marched towards world domination. Given all of Conner's concerns about who he will end up to be, this isn't that unheard of.
In the now, Superboy and Psionic Lad discover the 2 life forms on the ship. Here is the pilot, in a near comatose state, with another set of brain waves completely in synch.
I have talked about the innovative look of this book. On this page and the one adjacent, the middle row of panels are puzzle pieces, as seen above. Again, this mirrored the tone of the scene as the heroes are trying to figure out exactly what is happening on this ship. It is a sort of puzzle. Again, for me, the joy of comics is when words and art just completely mesh, working together to tell a story. Here the very layout of the page helps.
Back in the future, the Titans continue to attack Superboy despite his pleas that he doesn't remember doing anything, doesn't think he could do the things he is accused of.
In a surprise twist, Simon shows up, armed like Luthor, and proceeds to kill Lori. I have always been concerned that Simon will go the way of the villain. But my concerns have been that he will be a foe of Superboy, not an evil ally.
On these pages, despite being entirely set in this dismal future, the art is split between (I think)Rudy and HDR, the penciled art and the water color. These more refined panels stand out in contrast to the painted ones. In this instance it sort of took away from the story. I almost wish all of this portion of the story was done in the painted style.
Back on the satellite we learn the origin of the '2 life forms', 'synched brain waves' mystery. The pilot has this familiar looking plant on his chest. Yep, that looks a lot like the 'Black Mercy' flower from the famous Alan Moore story 'For the Man who has Everything' from Superman Annual #11.
In an attempt to save the pilot, Superboy rips the Mercy from its victim. He really is overconfident, touting his Kryptonian heritage and wondering what a plant could do to him. Well ... we know how this will turn out ...
So knowing the Mercy has the ability to warp its victim's perceptions, the reader realizes that the 'reality' of this future Hell needs to be called into question.
With death and destruction surrounding him, Conner suddenly is confronted by images of both Ma Kent and Lex Luthor. Both tell Conner to seize his destiny. Luthor tells him that all this devastation is within Conner, represents what is in Conner.
Ma tells him to reject all this nonsense, that Superboy is good and needs to reject this version of himself. It turns out that Ma's voice is actually the voice of Psionic Lad as he tries to convince Superboy to reject the Mercy's powers and telekinetically push the flower off.
It actually is a powerful couple of pages as Superboy really has to come to grips with who he is. He almost succumbs once more to the idea that Luthor is in him and cannot be defeated.
But when Luthor tells Conner to kill Ma Kent, he finally rejects this miserable dream and forces the Mercy off him.
One thing I really liked about this scene is that it is Ma Kent that acts as Conner's surrogate conscience here and not Superman. It means that Conner and Ma have become very close. But it could also mean other things. Does he not regard Superman in that light? Does he think Superman is too distant, too high a goal, to talk warmly like this? It just made me pause and think a little ... why not Superman? I don't know if there is an answer.
It turns out that this flower is a 'red mercy'. Rather than showing the victim's greatest wishes, this showed it's victim's greatest fears.
Now that is really ripe for dissection. That means inside Conner is really worried that he might snap one day and kill everyone. It also means he already has a fear that Simon could become a Luthor-type super-villain. That's a lot for Conner to be carrying around. I really thought that was fascinating.
Moreover, this ship ... filled with red mercies and other weapons ... to Smallville. Something big is about to go down.
And given the lengths that Psionic Lad went through to save Superboy, it is clear that Conner isn't the 'target'. If his mission was to destroy Superboy, what better way than to make Conner live in his worst nightmare. So maybe the 'target' is Simon, as someone here suggested a while back.
This comic is really something of a delight. I think it is really a nicely layered and complex sort of book, more than the average super-hero book on the shelf. Add to that the little flourishes of art and page composition and this book is really more than I expected. I really look forward to this book.