Crisis on Infinite Earths, which I talk about a lot, retconned Superman into being the sole survivor of Krypton’s destruction. Erased from continuity were Superboy (the teenage, Smallville-inhabiting, Legion of Superheroes-inspiring Clark Kent) and Supergirl (Superman’s hot cousin). Clark Kent didn’t begin donning a cape until he was an adult and nobody else survived the explosion of his home planet.
The problem with the old ‘New DC’ that resulted from the first Crisis was that the supporting cast of the Superman books was kind of a drag. The Guardian and Gangbuster barely made an impact and before long Supergirl and Superboy were re-introduced to continuity, though Supergirl was a shapeshifting alien from a parallel universe and Superboy was a clone made from Kal-El’s DNA, which meant both characters were still playing by the rules established in post-Crisis continuity.
This new Superboy was pretty terrible from the get-go, mostly because he was so ’90s it hurt: fade haircut, shades, single gold earring, leather jacket, and lots of attitude. He was like the Poochie of Metropolis. Still, any Superboy was better than no Superboy.
His solo series Superboy debuted in 1994, a year after the character was introduced in the Reign of the Superman storyline, and it lasted a staggering 100 issues (eight years!) before the plug got pulled. The action took place in the heretofore comics-neglected geographical region of Hawaii, and there was lots of crap about Project Cadmus and a shadowy outfit called The Agenda. Superboy eventually got his own short-lived second title, Superboy and the Ravers, then joined the cast of Young Justice and later Teen Titans.
The problem with pre-Infinite Crisis Superboy was the same problem with any-era Superman: he’s insanely powerful and nearly indestructible. Not a lot to do with a character like that. Writers changed it so that half his DNA now came from Superman’s greatest enemy, Lex Luthor, who installed a sort of Manchurian Candidate-like trigger in Superboy to turn him against his friends. But it was just another spin on the traitor-among-us theme that’s been rampant in Teen Titans books since Terra appeared in 1982.
At some point in the early aughts, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel’s family began taking legal action to gain ownership of the name Superboy (arguing that a teen version of the hero had been Siegel’s original idea and thus a separate character from Clark Kent/Superman). A judge agreed and DC, needing a banner name to kill off in Infinite Crisis as a nod to the A-list deaths in the original Crisis, had Conner Kent bite it during battle with Superboy-Prime.
Despite DC arguing that the Siegels’ court case had nothing to do with Superboy’s death, the timing was uncanny. And things got a little awkward. Because of the court case (which the Siegels had won), Superboy-Prime was now referred to as Superman-Prime, and nobody in the Teen Titans uttered the word Superboy for three years, instead referring to their deceased friend as Conner. Constantly. It was weird. Even Conner’s evil twin, Match, got his s-shield conveniently and bizarrely removed during the Titans East arc (and strangely obscured on the cover of Teen Titans #44):
In the trade paperback of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Marv Wolfman states that a lot of people wrote to him to say that Supergirl’s death was the best Supergirl story they’d ever read. In a similar vein, I’d never paid much attention to Conner Kent over the years until his demise in Infinite Crisis.
Over the next three years, there were vague hints that Conner might be resurrected. Robin tried (and failed) to clone him. DC re-introduced Match, who now resembled a Bizarro Superboy instead of looking like an albino clone, and message boards lit up with the possibility that Match might actually be an on-the-mend Conner Kent (he wasn’t). And then there was the eerie panel at the end of Adventure Comics #0, in which Conner’s shown below a narration indicating that the undead would save Lex Luthor in some capacity, giving readers the impression that Conner would return in the upcoming Blackest Night miniseries (this didn’t happen, either).
Instead, Conner returned in a (pretty awesome) manner involving exhumed corpses, time travel, Kryptonian healing chambers, the Legion of Superheroes, and the staple of all high-octane comic book thrill rides: tense crystal selection in the Fortress of Solitude. The downside of Conner’s resurrection was that, after a three-year absence, the scene where he reunites with his best friend and girlfriend feels sort of anti-climactic and shoehorned into the end of Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds.
Seriously. Robin and Wonder Girl spent the previous three years talking about nothing but Conner and now that he’s returned to the land of the living (with Kid Flash, another formerly-dead teammate) they’re just sort of like, “Oh, yay! You’re alive!” I was expecting more hysterical crying, fainting, and complete emotional breakdowns, but mostly it was just hugs all around. And what’s wrong with Bart’s face?
Conner did factor into Blackest Night, being one of the many resurrected heroes to temporarily join the Black Lantern Corps. Over the course of a single tie-in issue, he managed to develop freeze-breath (having noticeably lacked that Kryptonian ability up until this point), be rescued by Krypto, and put his slowly-healing, corpse-like body back into its healing chamber after a moment of sorrowful reflection.
Aside from J.H. Williams, Francis Manapul is the only artist whose work I would probably read no matter what the context (Crazy Quilt vs G’nort, even). The 2009 reboot of Adventure Comics, spotlighting Conner’s return to Smallville, were pretty great, in no small part due to Manapul’s expressive, unique art.
This led to a Jeff Lemire-scripted, Pier Gallo-drawn solo series, Superboy. Gallo’s art reflected the innocent vibe of Smallville pretty well, but Lemire is a writer who shines when handling material that’s dark, violent, and disturbing (see: Animal Man, Sweet Tooth). Superboy #1 has an interesting twist in which Poison Ivy shows up in town, seemingly to play hero. This scene would’ve played out more Lemire-ish if, say, Simon Valentine had his stomach ripped open during the fight with Parasite, if vines were making their way into Conner’s eye sockets rather than around his wrists, and if Poison Ivy’s skin was melting off her body (or if she was holding Martha Kent’s mutilated corpse). That would be the Lemire we know and love.
Superboy was cancelled after 11 issues to make way for The New 52 relaunch of the title, which…well, it’s The New 52. Things have changed. Conner’s now been grown in a lab by an organization called N.O.W.H.E.R.E. (groan), is being guarded by Rose Wilson (?), and is agonizing over what it means to be a clone/alien/human, which is mind-bogglingly well-covered territory for Conner. It’s like a mutant feeling ostracized and persecuted in a Marvel comic.
Don’t get me wrong. The New 52 is a grand idea on paper. A lot of really interesting stuff came out of it (Demon Knights, Animal Man, Batwing) and it got a ton of media coverage, which reinvigorated sales and interest in DC books in general. Rebooting an entire line is a ballsy and DC pulled it off admirably.
But a lot of really terrible ideas came out of it, too (Barbara Gordon out of the wheelchair, Rob Liefeld’s continual employment). Fingers crossed that it all turns out well, but some of the character choices are jaw-droppingly inane (Wonder Girl is now a master thief? Yaaaaaaawn.) Hopefully Conner gets over his Moody Teenage Outcast phase quick, because we’ve been here already. Wasn’t the point of The New 52 to shake things up?