SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for “Superman” #22, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Doug Mahnke, and “Superman” #17 by Tomasi, Gleason and Sebastián Fiumara.
It’s been a pretty wild year for the Kent family as their entire Rebirth-era history and continuity slowly being reorganized and slotted into place between both the “Superman” and “Action Comics” ongoing titles. With “Action” focusing more on the big picture narrative elements — things like the timeline of Clark and Lois’s relationship, the birth of their son Jon, and so on, “Superman” proper has been free to dive into the uncanniness surrounding the Kent’s reborn hometown: the picturesque Hamilton County.
At first glance, it’s easy to read Hamilton as a substitute for the Man of Steel’s native Smallville; the small community is all about farm country, close knit community, a place that lets Clark and Lois step into a similar role to the late Ma and Pa Kent as they train their son to be a Superman in his own right. But it seems more and more like there’s something insidious lurking under the surface of Hamilton’s charming facade… and now, it’s all rapidly oozing into the light.
The Upside Down
Things in Hamilton actually began getting a little weird before the Kent family’s continuity redefining run-in with Mxyzptlk; in “Superman” #17, a relatively unassuming one shot story starring Jon and his neighbor-friend Kathy Cobb, Jon and Kathy embark on a “Goonies”-flavored adventure into one of Hamilton’s local urban legends, the ominously named Dead Man’s Swamp, to track down Kathy’s grandfather and their prized dairy cow, Bessie.
Of course, they quickly learn that the swamp’s reputation has some grounding in fact. The intrepid pair encounter a cavalcade of increasingly disturbing mutant animals and surreal monsters as they venture deeper and deeper into the swamp’s heart. They eventually come across a decrepit house straight out of a campfire horror story. Jon and Kathy find themselves in deeper trouble still when the Bessie they uncover turns out to be another mutated monster that nearly kills them… only moments before Kathy’s grandfather appears to pull them from danger.
As he escorts them out of the swamp, Mr. Cobb warns that the gases the swamp emits can cause hallucinations, effectively blaming every monster and mutant the kids encountered that night on the favorite explanation of conspiracy theorists and “X-Files” fans everywhere — swamp gas.
The thing about “Superman” #17 is that it so effectively serves as a pastiche of old “Hardy Boys” or, more recently, “Stranger Things”-style adolescent adventure-mystery stories, it almost doesn’t ping the radar as far as dropping bread crumbs is concerned. It’s easy to trust Kathy and Mr. Cobb, and it’s easier still to believe that the story really was just a fun, imaginary adventure for two kids growing up in the middle of nowhere.
This was compounded by the fact that “Superman” immediately became diverted for the “Superman: Reborn” arc in the following issue, making every potentially sinister or surreal element of Hamilton County seem pretty tame in comparison.
Hallucinogenic swamp gas, indeed.
The “Black Dawn” story arc actually kicked off two issues ago, with Batman and Robin arriving at the Kent household to discuss some of the ramifications of Superman’s new status quo. What should have been a routine house call, however, quickly dissolved into a full-on mystery, with all signs, somehow, pointing back to the Cobb family and their dairy cow.
It was an unexpected payoff to a breadcrumb dropped over a month earlier, and it got stranger still as the arc continued to roll on. The abduction of Batman, the attack of downtown Hamilton by a monstrous giant squid, the return of Clark to the strange dilapidated house in Dead Man’s Swamp, and ultimately, the betrayal of Jon and Damian by none other than Kathy Cobb all domino’d into one another over the space of two issues. It rapidly became apparent that whatever was going on here, it was more than just your standard villainous fare; this is a gambit that has been deliberately plotted, and very, very well hidden.
Issue #22 hits the ground running, with Lois, the only Kent (or Wayne, for that matter) who hasn’t been abducted or otherwise pulled off the board by whatever it was pulling the strings here. Luckily for the boys (and for us, as readers), investigating high stakes mysteries is something that comes naturally to Lois, so there’s very little delay before she springs into action.
Unluckily, however, it would seem that just about everyone in Hamilton is vehemently against the Daily Planet’s award-winning reporter uncovering what happened to her husband, son and their friends. And when I say “everyone,” I mean it literally. Lois’s first stop in her search leads her into what appears to be some sort of monitoring station that’s been keeping tabs on Clark and Jon from the very start. Cameras have been hidden all over the Kent farm — all over the town, for that matter. Their secret identities are completely compromised, and the mastermind behind it is an unassuming secretary and neighborhood friend named Candice.
Apparently, Hamilton’s residents have been using the town as their own personal Kryptonian “Truman Show,” spying on the Kents from afar with the help of alien technology until they were ready to strike. Lois is quick to learn that everyone, from unassuming Candice to the mayor and sheriff of Hamilton County, are in on the ruse. The question now is, why? And to what end? Who — or what — could possibly have set up a scheme so elaborate that neither Superman nor Batman could detect or stop it? And just how much of Hamilton has been a lie?
In a recent interview, “Action Comics” writer Dan Jurgens let slip that the Kents would be moving to Metropolis shortly as part of the fall out of the “Superman: Reborn” story. After recent events in “Superman,” it’s pretty clear to see why that will be happening — now, it’s just a matter of learning the how.