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Was this trip really necessary?

by  in Comic News Comment

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you who’s back.

Let’s talk about him … and his buddy too, while we’re at it.

SPOILERS for Legion Of Three Worlds #4 behind the jump.

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The “him” is, of course, Kon-El/Conner Kent/Superboy, who first appeared some sixteen years ago in June 1993’s The Adventures Of Superman #500. That issue kicked off “Reign of the Supermen!,” which was the final act of “The Death Of Superman,” which itself was probably the early 1990s’ hugest, most sales-goosing-est Big Event. When Superboy got his own series not long afterwards, writer Karl Kesel and penciller Tom Grummett made it a blend of broad comedy, light-hearted homages to Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen and Kamandi, and teenage male hormones. A spinoff, Superboy and the Ravers, lasted just under two years (1996-98). The main series ended with issue #100 (July 2002), but the character continued for another few years in Young Justice and Teen Titans, losing (or growing out of) a good bit of his comedic bent along the way. In Teen Titans, writer Geoff Johns emphasized Superboy’s friendship with Robin and romance with Wonder Girl. Appropriately enough for a character born of a Big Event, Superboy died in one as well, in May 2006’s Infinite Crisis #6 (also written by Johns).

“His buddy” is Bart “Impulse/Kid Flash/Flash IV” Allen, created by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo for June 1994’s Flash #91. Originally, Bart was something of a replacement hero as well, since he came into Flash just as Wally West was bouncing around in the timestream (in Zero Hour) and trying not to get stuck in the Speed Force (in Flash #s 99-100). However, Bart was played more for laughs, especially once he got his own series. There (under Waid and artist Humberto Ramos), Bart was virtually a cartoon, thinking in pictograms and acting on … well, you know. Impulse lasted 90 issues (April 1995-October 2002) under various writers before it too was canceled. Still, like Superboy, Impulse finished out Young Justice and moved over to Teen Titans, where he matured pretty much overnight into Kid Flash. Infinite Crisis also affected Bart profoundly, aging him prematurely to 20 years old and setting up his year-long stint as the Flash. Bart was murdered by the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery in The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #13 (August 2007).

Now, via the 31st-Century science of Legion Of Three Worlds, both characters have been revived, just as they were before their Infinite Crisis fates. Moreover, Superboy will be appearing in the new Adventure Comics alongside the Legion of Super-Heroes. A preview of Francis Manapul’s Adventure art shows the Boy of Steel playing catch with Krypto under the wide Kansas skies, as Martha Kent looks on beatifically. These images must comfort the character’s many fans, considering that three years ago, both death and litigation (over the original Kal-El Superboy) threatened his future viability.

Superboy’s return is the bookend to his death in Infinite Crisis. There, his sacrifice saved the Earth, and prompted all manner of soul-searching. Among other things, Conner was Superman’s protege, Wonder Girl’s boyfriend, and Robin’s best friend, so there were definite consequences; and the real-world “story behind the story” cast a pall of permanence over what might otherwise have been seen as just another stunt.

Of course, now it does look like just another stunt, not least because Johns tends to be around for both the imposition and reversal of major changes in characters. Johns wrote 1999’s Day Of Judgment miniseries, which turned Hal Jordan into the Spectre; and five years later wrote Green Lantern: Rebirth. In 2004, alongside co-writer Mark Waid, Johns ushered out the “reboot” (i.e., post-Zero Hour) Legion of Super-Heroes; but now they’re back in LO3W. Through Infinite Crisis, Johns exiled Wally West; and a year later he (and co-writer Brad Meltzer) brought Wally back in the JLA/JSA crossover “The Lightning Saga.” To be fair, these could all be coincidences, or (more likely) confluences of editorial assignments; but after a while it starts to look like Geoff Johns is responsible for who lives and who dies.

Indeed, given the labyrinthine nature of DC’s big crossover events over the last few years, it may even look like Johns has planned the apparently-final fates of Superboy and Kid Flash to be mere periods of hibernation. DC might even see such a strategy as a win-win. It can capitalize on the flood of emotions accompanying the initial shock; and a few years later, it can try to get back in the fans’ good graces when the characters return. That’s far from a perfect business plan, since it risks alienating said fans to such a degree that they don’t come back. Nevertheless, it fits with DC’s current long-form “wait and see” storytelling model. Trust us, the company says; you’ll be happy eventually.

And so here we are, with Conner back in his T-shirt and jeans and Bart in his yellow-and-red, like it was 2005 all over again. Now Superboy and Kid Flash can rejoin the Teen Titans, and all will be as it was.

Except that I don’t think it’ll play out like that. Obviously Superboy will head to the new Adventure Comics, where the natural team-up will be with the Legion of Super-Heroes. For his part, Kid Flash seems like a natural co-feature for the new Flash series, which one would think Johns would also write. All that is fine, and probably appropriate considering that each of these characters had his own long-running ongoing series not too long ago.

However, I have to wonder: did they each have to die — and stay dead for extended periods — in order to get all this attention? Has Legion Of Three Worlds been nothing more than an opportunity for Johns to fix a few of DC’s missteps, including two he helped facilitate? The more I think about it, the less convinced I am that Superboy’s return in LO3W is part of some grand scheme which extends back to Infinite Crisis, because again, the risks of alienating the readership seem too great. Why kill a character in 2006 — with all the finality that implies — only to revive him two years later?*

Given the ambiguity of “The Lightning Saga’s” ending, Bart Allen’s convoluted career path seems more calculated. First, in 2006, Infinite Crisis got Wally out of the picture and made Bart a 20-year-old. Bart then got his own series, which wasn’t that well-received and was canceled after thirteen issues in order to make way for Wally’s return. On the same day in 2007 that Bart’s “death issue” came out, “TLS” brought Wally back over in Justice League of America. Unfortunately, readers didn’t take too well to Wally’s new status quo, and his revived series was canceled in favor of bringing back Barry Allen (in 2008’s Final Crisis #2, with the reasoning no doubt upcoming in Flash: Rebirth). Barry had been dead for over twenty years, so no one could accuse DC of long-term planning in his case. However, “TLS’s” aforementioned ambiguity got fans thinking that it was the precursor to Barry’s return. And of course, it all comes back to Geoff Johns, whose departure from The Flash provided an opportunity to do something different with the book; and who, again, wrote the big event which made those big changes possible. It’s all in the service of making DC’s characters accessible to new readers, I suppose. Retire a character one year, bring him back the next, and then do another big change the year after that. You’re constantly back at square one!

When Infinite Crisis got ahold of them, these characters were each a few years removed from having their own books. For that matter, they were each many years removed from their original conceptions. Essentially, they had become part of the Teen Titans ensemble. Now, though, they’ve been revived not so much for the sake of Teen Titans — which could probably use one or both, don’t get me wrong — but, more likely, to become players in new titles.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that it was wrong to bring back Superboy or Kid Flash. My beef — and it is hardly a new one — is with the elaborate stunt-plotting which brought them to this point. The characters have returned as if Infinite Crisis never happened … so why did it?

* [Remember, LO3W was supposed to have wrapped up, along with the rest of Final Crisis, by the end of last year.]