Superman's New Smallville is the Key to Superboy's Big Mystery

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Since its relaunch nearly a year ago, "Superman" has been at the center of the mystery surrounding DC Comics' "Rebirth." Starring the Clark Kent and Lois Lane from the pre-"Flashpoint" continuity, the title -- along with its companion "Action Comics" -- has provided threads to connect the current timeline to the one that existed before the New 52, weaving them together in the recent "Superman Reborn" storyline. Like Rebirth itself, the series has been widely viewed as a course correction, returning elements to the DC Universe that were lost in the 2011 reboot.

However, "Superman" reaches back much further than six or seven years ago, restoring pieces that have largely been missing since the world-destroying events of 1985's "Crisis on Infinite Earths." In some ways it presents a reimagined Silver Age in which a new Superboy grows up in a new Smallville. In this case, though, the former is Jonathan Samuel Kent and the latter is the seemingly idyllic Hamilton County.

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Maybe "Silver Age" isn't quite right, as the opening pages of this week's "Superman" #20, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray, evoke Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" (and Bryan Singer's homage "Superman Returns") as much as they do any classic "Superboy" comic books. But images of the Boy of Steel testing his burgeoning powers before joyously running through fields of wheat, Krypto barking at his heels, transport us back to another, perhaps more innocent, decade. And yet ...

From Superman #20, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray
From Superman #20, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray

Hamilton County isn't quite Smallville. Sure, they're both rather vaguely geographically located (Hamilton is "300 miles north of Metropolis," and Smallville is somewhere in Kansas, or else close to Metropolis), both resemble the backdrops for a Norman Rockwell painting, and both are prone to alien visitations. They're swell places to settle down and raise a family, where neighbors lend each other a helping hand, and the county fair is the social event of the year. And yet, there's something undeniably sinister just beneath the surface of Hamilton. Smallville had more than its fair share of weirdness, what with the time-traveling teens, mad scientists, Kryptonian monkeys and robot duplicates, but there was nothing particularly malevolent about the town. The same can't be said of Hamilton, though.

From its first appearances in "Superman," there's a sense that something isn't quite right about this bucolic burg, no matter how much Clark and Lois may imagine it as a haven far removed from the dangers of Metropolis and beyond. Hamilton is where they can live in (relative) secrecy, and their son Jon can begin to grow into his superpowers with little fear of discovery -- well, except by Kathy Branden, who witnessed the unfortunate demise of Goldie the cat but demonstrated she can keep a secret; think of her as the Pete Ross to Jon's Superboy. In this world, a nighttime visit to the "Smith" farm by Wonder Woman and Batman is an encroachment by something alien and dangerous, reflected in the way Gleason and Gray depicted the heroes from Jon's point of view.

From Superman #1 by Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray

While their presence certainly represents a fear of exposure -- Jon thinks they've come for him, but they're actually checking in on this "new" Superman -- the real dangers are already in Hamilton. Although the 9-year-old Kryptonian/human hybrid, with his erratic abilities, poses a risk to himself, family pets and the occasional tree, he isn't yet a threat to the world at large, despite what Damian Wayne may think. Still, the danger is there, amid the wheat fields and carnival rides, even if it isn't clearly defined.

It's difficult to say whether Superman senses it in his first meeting with Kathy's grandfather Cobb, who carries an injured, unconscious Jon to the Kent Smith house in Issue 2. Sternly rebuffing Cobb's neighborly offer to drive them to the hospital, Clark was probably only being (as Lois observes) an overprotective parent, desperate to keep his son -- and his family's secret -- safe. But perhaps on some level he knew there's more to Grandpa Branden than a kindly dairy farmer. Perhaps.

From Superman #2 by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray

That he later discussed Jon with local pediatrician Dr. Brooks does little to endear him with the Man of Steel ("Hrrn," Clark says before being shushed by Lois), but the first real evidence that Cobb's interests may lie beyond prize-winning cows comes in "Superman" #12, when the elderly farmer faces down Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. without batting an eye. Yes, he was coming to Superman's aid, but this is a man clearly unfazed by the presence of superheroes or the undead.

However, the "Smiths" and Grandpa Branden aren't the only ones keeping secrets. There's Hamilton County itself, which hides the delightfully named Dead Man's Swamp, a geographical feature that wouldn't be out of place in a Courtney Crumrin comic. First appearing, if only briefly, in Issue 10, it's the swamp and its perhaps-supernatural animal inhabitants that startle Jon, leading to a forest fire and his subsequent rescue/abduction by Nobody. It returns in "Superman" #17, as Hamilton sheds its last semblances of "normality," revealing itself to be Smallville crossed with the Maine of Stephen King's novels or the Hawkins, Indiana, of Netflix's "Stranger Things."

From Superman #17 by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Sebastian Fiumara

Watching horror movies while home alone, an already-rattled Jon is enlisted by a frightened Kathy to find her grandfather, who disappeared into Dead Man's Swamp while searching for the prize-winning cow Bessie. Swallowing their fear, the two kids venture further and further into the swamp, where they encounter an enormous alien-looking creature, menacing giant-size animals and a haunted house made even more disturbing by the presence of a seemingly possessed Bessie, who stands on its hind legs before regurgitating what appears to be a small ocean's worth of milk. Finding refuge in an old well, Jon and Kathy are rescued by Grandpa Branden, who swiftly explains away their terrifying experiences as the result of hallucination-inducing bog gases.

We might likewise dismiss those reality-warping events as the entertaining stuff of a standalone story, or the antics of the trickster Mister Mxyzptlk, who enters the picture the following issue for the "Superman Reborn" crossover. However, this week's issue would seem to confirm the winding, mysterious roads of Hamilton County lead to Cobb's Dairy Farm and, just possibly, back to Dead Man's Swamp.

From Superman #20, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray

In "Superman" #20, the outside world intrudes once more on the (now finally) Kent farm, this time in the form of Batman and Robin, who lurk in the shadows of the barn until Lois sheds light on the Dynamic Duo in a humorous homage to the iconic cover of 1942's "Batman" #9. Although by now the two are no strangers to Hamilton -- as we've seen in "Super Sons," Damian is particularly fond of the pop-in -- their visit signals a worrying turn, just as Lois and Clark had been made "whole" following "Superman Reborn," and their family had begun to embrace a sense of ... well, whatever passes for normalcy. They're no longer the Smiths, as the mailbox stenciled with the words "Mr. & Mrs. C. Kent" proudly indicates; they're now Ma and Pa Kent, instilling their son -- their Superboy -- with values while protecting him from the dangers of the world beyond their farm, and preparing him for a time when they no longer can.

That time may come sooner than they feared, as the Dark Knight brings with him new worries about Jon and his hybrid physiology. But while he and Damian were previously concerned about the boy's erratically developing abilities, now the question is why they haven't fully manifested. "His power should be off the charts by now," Batman tells Clark and Lois. The Kents wouldn't be the first parents whose child isn't developing at the same rate as the other kids, but as a human-Kryptonian hybrid, Jon is one of a kind; there are no other kids like him.

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From Superman #20 by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray

Reminding Superman of the "darkness" that lurks beyond their pastoral home, the World's Greatest Detective surmises that something "environmental" must be holding back the Boy of Steel. After poking around the Kents' kitchen, his gloved finger finally lands on the fresh milk from Cobb Brendan's prolific, prize-winning cow Bessie. As we likely should have guessed from the long trail of bread crumbs, that darkness is as near as the Cobb Family Dairy Farm. (How he went from Mr. Brendan to Mr. Cobb is yet another mystery of Hamilton County.)

As amusing as it is to see Gotham's guardian prowling around barns and perching on a windmill, that incongruity is nothing compared to what the Batman discovers in a bottle of milk near the ubiquitous Bessie. It's something that neither the reader nor the Dark Knight, despite the clues, is quite prepared for. But Cobb? Yet again, the kindly dairy farmer is unfazed by the otherworldly; it's this intruder, and the potential chaos he brings, that troubles him. "Don't worry yourself, Bessie," he reassures the cow as the Dark Knight struggles with something distinctly alien. "We'll put him with the others. He won't hurt you anymore. I promise."

From Batman #20 by Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray

Like Clark and Lois, maybe Cobb too is seeking to protect what's his from the outside world. Like the Kents, perhaps he saw Hamilton County as a safe haven to raise his granddaughter and his beloved cow. But while they both appear to have brought with them a powerful, otherworldly secret into this rural paradise, Cobb's is sinister and hungry -- although for what isn't clear, just yet.

But whatever it is surely can't be explained away by bog gas.

"Superman" #20, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray, is on sale now from DC Comics.

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