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Friday in Smallville

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday in Smallville

So earlier today, I’m getting into one of those dumb internet wrangles with a couple of other fans on a message board about comics, and I was warming up to this really eloquent argument, and then — this is what a big lazy whore I really am — I thought, “why the hell should I waste this on a stupid message-board post when I could get a nice Friday column out of it?”

So now you all get to hear it instead, because I’m not typing it up twice.

What we were wrangling about was the TV show Smallville. Now, in the course of this I’m going to completely spoil the Big! 100th! Episode! and then I’m going to say some rude things about it to boot, so fair warning.

I have been in kind of a Superman place lately anyway, what with getting the new All-Star book and the Showcase Presents collection, and then watching this big dumb episode of Smallville reminded me that I always liked Superboy — the original one, the Superman’s Adventures When He Was A Boy version — a lot better than I liked Superman. Still do, really. I think it’s because how Clark gets to BE Superman is a more interesting story to tell than anything that happens to Clark after he already IS Superman. And even though there was an actual Superboy TV series that ran four years, it wasn’t really Superboy in the sense that he has to learn anything. It was the Salkinds trying to wring the last drop out of their movie rights. They should have called it Young Superman Without Christopher Reeve.

I remember first encountering Superboy in the Filmation cartoons in the mid-sixties, and that show was where I first learned the basic mythology of Superman: Krypton, the Kents, the Daily Planet, Smallville, Lois and Lana, and so on. Even Krypto the Superdog. It was all there. And when I went looking for the comics on the rack, I never cared all that much for the new Superman books, but I was always a sucker for the Superboy comics from Frank Robbins and Bob Brown. Part of it was probably that so many of them had really bad-assed Neal Adams covers… but the stories were often very clever and fun, and they featured a Clark that didn’t have it all together, that was occasionally as bumbling while being Superboy as he was being Clark. That always tickled me, being a lifelong bumbler myself.

To me that is the chief charm about Smallville; it’s basically my Superboy that I remember from those days, just without the tights. When the show remembers that it’s supposed to be about an alien teenager learning how to be a man and a hero, it is really quite good and sometimes even great, especially when there’s a Clark-learning story paralleled by a Lex-Luthor-fails-to-learn arc as well. Unfortunately, that rarely happens any more. Now it’s mostly Dawson’s Creek, with super powers. Yawn.

Now, all that was preamble. That’s just to let you know where I’m coming from, the real wrangle was this — on the Big! 100th! Episode! of Smallville, they killed off Jonathan Kent, and I said it was a crappy episode. Several agreed, and others disagreed, but the one argument I saw that just didn’t make any sense was that those of us that hated what Smallville was doing to the Superman story were “too locked into continuity.”

Please. I couldn’t even tell you what Superman continuity IS at this point. Which one? Pre-Crisis or post? Which Crisis? Are we talking Man of Steel or Birthright? Which one are the Smallville TV guys using? Does it match the one from the animated series? (The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm one, I know better than to bring up Ruby-Spears or Filmation.) And so on.

So I thought, you know, let’s lay this to rest once and for all. Those of us who want some basic consistency are NOT the same guys as the ones who want a perfect, pristine, mistake-free continuity.

I don’t CARE about acknowledging every single comic ever published. I think it’s perfectly okay to change details and ignore old stuff if it gets in the way of a good story. I’m totally fine with fudging here and there. In fact, I think my favorite Superboy of all time has pretty much fallen off the map: it’s the Bates/Schaffenberger version from the early 80’s. This was a great, underrated run that hit all the riffs you want in a Superboy story — I especially loved the issue where Pa Kent taught young Clark to box (because, being super, he’d never needed to know before. But now there’s a supervillain in Smallville just beating the crap out of him, and Pa explains that, well, being strong’s all very well, but you should learn some moves, son.)

So it’s not about “continuity.” What annoys me is when you mess with the basic structure of what it is you say you’re doing, to the point where you’re not really doing it any more.

Which is what Smallville did. It’s actually been doing it for a while, to be honest, that train got derailed a couple of seasons ago. To recap, this is supposed to be the prequel to Superman. Those people — some of whom, I’m sad to say, actually produce this show — who are squalling about how this series has “got its own continuity, it’s NOT Superman” are being deliberately obtuse. Superman is being foreshadowed everywhere on that show. There are constant winks to the audience about it, we’ve had cameos from Perry White and Maggie Sawyer, not to mention all the stunt casting with Terence Stamp and Margot Kidder and the late Christopher Reeve. There’s a bit in the opening credits showing Clark with a burning S-shield on his chest. This kid’s growing up to be Superman and Lex Luthor’s growing up into his blood enemy. That’s what gives the show its dramatic weight in the first place. So if you are going to milk the Superman connection that hard, you don’t get to say that you’re not really “locked into” the Superman story. Okay? That dawg won’t hunt. The Superman story is what you are selling and teasing people with and it’s what got all of us to watch your damn show in the first place. Own it.

So we’re back where we were when I started. The show is basically the original Superboy, without the tights.

Except if you kill off Jonathan Kent. Then it’s not Superboy any more, it’s young Superman.

This is where people started to yell at me about being too into continuity, and here’s why it’s not. It’s a story-structure thing, a character issue. Whether it’s Superboy or teenage Clark, the structure’s the same: this is a character who’s learning. He’s a kid. He’s not ready to be Superman, he needs to grow up some yet, and one of the best ways to dramatize that is to have Jonathan Kent around for Clark to confide in. With Clark’s dad gone there’s no other adult male character on that show not named Luthor. Bad call for a Superboy series, in comics or on TV. That point, the death of Jonathan, is where you END Superboy and start with Superman.

But Smallville‘s not doing that. They’ve got another half-season to go and another year beyond if they get renewed, and they probably will. Can’t do Superman because the Bryan Singer movie’s coming and they’ve got Superman locked up. So you get… what?

Something a lot less interesting than what they had. It’s a pity, because there were a lot of times Smallville caught that same basic Superboy vibe, it was a fun show. But they got so knotted up in trying to be different they forgot that you have to keep SOME things the same. Or it stops being what you say it is. That’s not geekery. That’s just the way it works.

See you next week.

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