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The thing about Superboy-Prime’s first appearance? It’s actually a nice little story. – DC Comics Presents #87

October 24, 2012

The return of Superboy-Prime in 2005’s Infinite Crisis miniseries was an example of the neat long-gestating comebacks that can only happen in comics. An extraneous, throwaway duplicate character, created twenty years before in one of the umpteen Crisis on Infinite Earths crossovers, the Clark Kent of Earth-Prime was gone in a heartbeat, slipping into oblivion with his Earth-2 brother Kal-L and Earth-3’s Alexander Luthor. Whether he was stored away for future use or never to be seen again was up to whoever held the editorial reins at DC, and lo and behold, as the company ramped up to the anniversary of the biggest event in the company’s history, the accidental Superboy was dusted off along with his fellow exiles. It was a return long in the making.

Of course, the nice aw shucks kid had become a psychotic killer, so it was quite a comeback.

What Superboy-Prime became now obscures what he was in his first appearance. Which is a shame. His introduction in DC Comics Presents #87 is by far one of the finest bits storytelling to come from the penumbra of Crisis spinoffs. Those sideshows could often devolve into stories cramming as many oddly juxtaposed characters together as the newsprint could hold (LOOK ENEMY ACE IS HANGING OUT WITH BLUE DEVIL!), and they suffered because of it. Not this comic, though. It stands as a shining beacon of good plots not being so much about what is told, but how it’s told.

Superboy-Prime’s introduction couldn’t have been in more capable hands. Elliot S! Maggin, who scripted any number of fine comics at this point, and Curt Swan, who was, well, Curt Swan, an artist that could invest anything with delight, formed one heck of a solid script/art tag team (Al Williamson contributed inks). And this was by no means their first Kryptonian rodeo, as they’d partnered to craft a stack of Superman comics over the years, including the wondrously bizarre Sword of Superman annual that I yakked about last year. With this comic they created a book that stuck in my head for twenty years, long before dragging Superboy-Prime back from the archives was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. This didn’t need any retroactive boost to make it memorable. It could stand on its own two legs without a rekindling of interest.

What gives it this cachet? It’s the air of melancholy that pervades the entire book. The story opens with a grieving Superman on the moon just after the infamous and oft-referenced death of Supergirl, as he’s pounding on the lunar surface, gnashing his teeth and silently cursing the injustice of it all, this untimely death of his last family member. That sets the tone. Then he’s zapped by some passing aliens and ends up in another reality, a common occurrence in the cosmic reshuffling that was the Crisis.

This detours us to one of the side-reasons that this comic was so memorable: it was also a generation’s reintroduction to Earth-Prime, the “real” Earth where DC’s heroes were fictional and Julie Schwartz et al. lived. The Flash had been the first hero to make it there back in the Silver Age (*The Flash #179 — Jovial Jared), but it was a largely dormant plot device (there are only so many times that you can go to the “character meets creator” well).  All this was confusing beyond words to my seven-year old cerebral cortex. Imagine being a kid and trying to parse the geography lesson here:

This of course dredges up the whole “Just what the hell does a map of the DC United States look like?” conundrum. I always pictured Metropolis as being somewhere in the midwest, not far from Smallville maybe, and Gotham as being in a cold northern state, maybe a Chicago proxy. But if on Earth-Prime, “our” Earth, New York is where Gotham is supposed to be, where is New York on Earth-1? And aren’t Gotham and Metropolis both New York stand-ins? BAFFLING. And if Earth-Prime is the real Earth, does that mean that the things in these comics actually happened? I’M SEVEN YEARS OLD AND SO CONFUSED ALL OVER AGAIN.

Back to the pathos. Pathos doesn’t make your head hurt.

Superman immediately reflects on how Earth-Prime is a world without superpowers, so no one is more surprised than he is to find that there’s a kid flying around in a damn Superman costume — well, actually the kid might be more surprised to find out that Superman is real:

Clark Kent of Earth-Prime, having dressed up as Superboy for a costume party (more on his name in a moment), has had till-then latent powers activated by the passing Halley’s Comet (which I looked at with my telescope as a kid — another reason to feel nostalgic kinship with this book). The two exchange pleasantries, Superboy offers his condolences for Supergirl’s death (a tender sequence), and Superman takes his leave to try to return to his reality. Despite that apparent departure, the two soon team to stop a tidal wave that threatens that beach part that Superboy-Prime had just flown away from. It’s after that that these two versions of the same man share a moment in space, with the aforementioned Halley’s Comet as a prop:

Why couldn’t we get something like this in a Superman movie? This is such a gloriously cinematic sequence, with both characters overcoming the communication difficulties of a vacuum in a most Supermanish of ways. It’s refreshingly quiet, with Maggin knowing when to back off the narration and let the words in Swan’s art do the talking. I’m probably overstating the potency of these few panels, but to me it’s one of my favorite Superman moments, with our hero in a strange world, besieged by problems, and commiserating with a fresh-faced version of himself. Love their different writing styles, too. Magnifique.

The story wraps with both Superguys repelling an alien invasion and Superboy-Prime accompanying his elder self back to Earth-1, where they’re promptly separated in a to-be-continued cliffhanger (it was the Crisis after all). But then the comic makes an odd shift, as it cycles back around to give the reader Superboy-Prime’s origin. It’s pretty similar to the one that we’re all familiar with, as the Els send their baby boy away from a dying planet, but in this reality via teleportation, not a spaceship:

Of course, he ends up with a Kent family (not Jonathan and Martha, though), and they go through the usual — but awkward in this reality — calisthenics to name him Clark:

I knew a guy once called Bruce Bruce. He would have killed to have been named Clark Kent, for whatever that’s worth.

Of course, this version of Clark grows up a clutz, teased for his name as he skins his knees, fails at sports, and wonders why his parents blighted him so. Until that magic night of the costume party alongside his Lori-Lemaris-costumed girlfriend (Laurie), when he reaches for the stars and has his dream come true:

And then he runs into Superman and the story’s circle is complete.

This comic is a sterling example of all that the pre-Crisis DC universe could be, as the wide-eyed remnants of the Silver Age were molded into more mature, more refined stories. Maggin and Swan used their deft touches to so beautifully blend the two sides of the same coin, one weighed down by sadness, the other born into a new world, and forged a comic that stood out from its sillier crossover contemporaries. Comics like this make me ache for the old Earth-1 Superman, the Kal-El of my youth, and are the way I choose to remember his last days before the John Byrne reinvention (as opposed to his last embarassing appearance in his eponymous book).

Superboy-Prime, now Superman-Prime (must have missed my invitation to his Bar Mitzvah) was an uber-villain after his re-intro, flitting from scheme to scheme (Sinestro Corps, Time Trapper, etc.) in his nutjob quest to salve his shattered psyche (not to mention the somewhat dopey return to the fourth-wall stories that defined his Earth-Prime origins, which also had returns of Laurie and his parents). I followed his reign of terror at a distance, somewhat saddened at what he became, as if he were some sort of black sheep in my family. My love for his origin comic had instilled in turn some stupid love for the kid, and a hope that he’d be able to turn it around, even though he’d decapitated people and killed the Earth-2 Superman. It takes one hell of a comic book to pull off denial like that.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa permalink
    October 24, 2012 9:54 pm

    Infinite Crisis/Superboy Prime was the last straw for me. The brutality inflicted upon the Superman Mythos was too much for me. I’m not a sensitive lightweight in the least. I am not the type to be ruled by nostalgie either. But the extreme violence of IC was misplaced.
    I stopped buying comics, almost altogether after IC.
    The DCCP story is a gentle story told by two professionals of the craft that knew each other strengths. I think DC has lost that strength and has mostly floundered since. IMHO your description of this issue of DCCP is dead on.

    Well done.

  2. October 25, 2012 10:30 am

    “New York is sprawled out all over where Gotham is supposed to be…” I think Maggin is suggesting that in the DCU, New York and Gotham are right next to each other, but that on Earth-Prime, all that space is occupied with a larger NYC instead.
    That doesn’t explain how Superman can tell that the acreage in question is part of Earth-Prime’s NYC as opposed to, say, an Earth-Prime Gotham City with different architecture. It’s like he has map-vision on top of all his other powers, and he can see the imaginary boundaries on the globe!

    • November 5, 2012 7:15 pm

      I’m still confused. Thanks, though.

    • August 15, 2016 3:30 pm

      map vision and super ventriloquism (pg 11 of this ish), is there no end to this guys powers

  3. August 15, 2016 3:31 pm

    is there an issue list anywhere of all superboy primes appearances, ive been looking everywhere!

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