Smallville Season 11 Special #3 'Hollow' came out last week, concentrating on one of my favorite supporting characters in the book, Tess Mercer. Of course Tess is linked so closely to her brother Lex and so we have a healthy dollop of him in the book as well.
The story is written by Bryan Q. Miller who has made the Smallville universe one of the better places to visit in the extended DC Universe, a little brighter, a little funnier, and as complex as the mainstream DCU. And this special definitely favors the latter aspect. Tess is a pretty complicated woman, fighting to rise above her Luthor nature, trying to move farther away from the dark and live in the light, trying to be something bigger. In the show, I never quite new if I could trust Tess, someone who toed the line between good and evil nimbly. Miller shows us that Tess continues to struggle but seems to be able to overcome.
The art here is done by Beni Lobel, someone who I don't know. The style here is sparse in some places and more detailed in other, expanding and contracting as the story requires. It is a clean style I very much liked here.
I had originally planned to do a simple bullet review of the issue but as I put my thought down, it was clear I had more to say on the book. A lot of that has to do with my like of Tess. (Indeed, my dislike of the Smallville Lana made me skip reviewing Valkyrie.)
The title of the story is Hollow and like most good title, it resonates with the story. Tess, who had been residing in Lex's brain before being extracted as a techno-spirit, is finding it hard to hold onto her humanity. She is feeling hollow. There is a nagging hole in her that needs to be filled ... and it becomes evident that the hole is her lust for revenge on Lex.
It isn't as if her friends aren't worried about how she is adapting to her new life. Emil Hamilton is checking in, asking her how she feels, wondering if she wants a 'clothing' program, and whether or not she dreams. As readers, we know she does dream when in 'standby' mode.
Miller hints that Tess is struggling with this semi-sinister response to Emil's simple questions. It immediately brought me back to the show and wondering what kind of person Tess is. Which way will she turn? And the overlay of circuitry adds a layer of inhumanity on her. Can I ask what type of 'person' this hologram is? Or am I asking what kind of soul she has.
In the meantime, Lex is struggling with his life. His recent plots have been foiled. And he seems 'hollow'. He needs something to consume him, to fill his life. And right now it is alcohol and self-pity.
And then, he is filled once more. Otis tells him about the 'Chloe 2' spaceship from way back in the first issue. Remember the impending Crisis? Earth 2? Well now that there is a new wrinkle to life, Lex is re-energized.
In some ways it shows how pathetic Lex is. There is very little depth to him. He is so shallow that if he doesn't have a 'mission', something or someone to exploit, he is empty.
I am glad the Crisis storyline was rekindled here. It has been on the back burner a bit.
As for Tess, she is obsessed with Lex, watching him from her electronic eyes.
For the last few issues we have seen Tess acting like a super-Oracle, coordinating heroes and helping out as the 'eye in the sky'.
But now we see the other side of her. She looks the electronic doors of LexCorp as Lex leaves the building, leaving him unprotected. And then, as three disgruntled ex-employees pummel him, she simply watches. She does not call 911.
Not very heroic. And, unfortunately, very human.
When the beating doesn't do any permanent damage, Tess hacks into the hospital computers. Just as she is about to alter to paperwork to overdose Lex on pain meds, she is distracted by a fire raging in the city.
She has to make a choice. Does she give in to her baser darker desires and concentrate on Lex? Or does she rise above, leave Lex, and help the people trapped high in the burning building?
It is an ethical fork in the road. And frankly I would not have been surprised by Tess choosing either path.
Thankfully, Miller doesn't have her become a villain.
She uses her abilities to take over a helicopter and a giant crane to save the people.
There is nothing else to call her but a hero.
It would be easy to end the story there. As if Tess has passed some sort of test and 'all will be well'.
But life isn't that easy so our stories should reflect that too.
Miller has Tess seek out Hank Henshaw, another disembodied person ... someone who struggled with his anger and obsessions but gave in to them. He can see that Tess is stronger than him in many ways. She recognizes her compulsions, the first step of overcoming them. And, of course, Superman hasn't eliminated her.
But the cool thing about this scene is that Miller somehow elevates Henshaw from an imprisoned would-be villain, an insane killer to a sympathetic character, trapped in an electronic head, isolated and lonely. Amazing.
Of course, Lex's story also percolates through the issue. He needs to obtain the Chloe 2 ship and so he orchestrates an attack on STAR labs, cutting the power, gunning down the workers and guards and nearly making off with the ship.
That is, until Tess takes control of some worker drone (an homage to the loading unit Ripley used in Aliens?) to thwart the attack.
What I like here is that Miller ups the ante. It is one thing for Tess to choose saving lives over messing with Lex in a hospital. But what if the stakes are higher, what if the temptation is greater, what if Lex is literally in the palm of her hand (or construction claw as it were).
And that hollowness of Lex surges to the surface as well. He asks her to kill him! I think he is so unhappy, his life such a wasteland, that he would prefer death.
She lets him go.
Okay, it isn't a surprise. You can't kill off Lex.
Still, Miller could have had her kill Otis. Or someone else.
Instead, Miller lets her rise above, deny her urges, and become something stronger and more heroic. I was thrilled by this. In comics today, it is so simple to make the hero becomes dark, an anti-hero, someone willing to kill. It bothers me. So to read a character, someone with a murky past, move past it was wonderful and refreshing.
In many ways, this is Tess 2.0, something technological and something more human than before. Someone without blood on her hands or black in her heart. Hurrah! An honorable character in comics!
On Twitter, Miller talked about Tess' growth. He said: It'll always be a struggle for her, but she has a stronger, more positive support system now.
And all of this depth out of a supporting character. It is this sort of care about a universe that makes it such a great place to visit each month.