Learning to be Superman: a “Superman of Smallville” review
Superman of Smallville is the latest all-ages offering from DC Comics’ DC Zoom line and let me tell you right up front: it is delightful. If you’re at all familiar with the work of Baltazar and Franco, this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.
And, you know, if you’re at all familiar with how much I dig me some Baltazar and Franco, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I loved it either. It’s full of the charm and endearing wit you’d expect from the creators of Tiny Titans, Superman Family Adventures, and Super Powers, and like those series it has appeal for readers young and old alike.
At the same time, it also feels new and different, at least in the presentation if not the details. As a Superman story, there are many familiar elements: a life in Smallville, friends in Lana Lang and Pete Ross, a rivalry with Lex Luthor, superpowers, aliens, and a dog named Krypto. The aesthetic is typical of Baltazar and Franco as well, with characters (and cows) that would look right at home alongside Robin, Starfire, Cyborg, and the other Tiny Titans. It’s the way in which they tell their story that feels different, though, as this story is much more of a narrative than their earlier series. Tiny Titans would have several vignettes within each issue, for instance, all of which were loosely connected by a framing story. Superman Family Adventures and Super Powers were a bit more narratively focused, but even they would go off on tangents and other silly asides.
Superman of Smallville, by contrast, is much more focused in both its storytelling and its subject: through and through, this is a story about Clark Kent. There’s hardly a page that goes by where Clark isn’t present, and save from some brief asides with Lex Luthor and , he is directly involved with everything that goes on in the book.
I found it to be an interesting choice to make this Clark a middle-schooler. Typically, any sort of “Superboy of Smallville” story I’ve read depicts Clark as a bit older, with his powers fully manifesting in high school. While I can’t speak for Baltazar and Franco, I wonder if they chose that age so young readers could kind of “grow up” along with Clark? Or, perhaps, so Clark himself could be the Superman of Smallville for a longer period of time before he becomes the Superman of Metropolis?
Either way, I thought it was a strong choice, even if his age ultimately isn’t much of a factor in the story. Yeah, he’s young and attending a middle school, but it’s more about Clark learning to be a hero than it is about adolescent struggles. This Clark is not by any means a jerk, but he is a little brash, impatient, and even a bit of a showoff. There are several scenes where he has to do chores, which are easy enough when you have superpowers… until Pa tells him “no superpowers.” Really, it doesn’t get much funnier than seeing Clark Kent, decked out in overalls, carrying cows that are perpetually chewing grass and dumping them into a barn.
After he pulls the whole roof off in one clean, smooth motion.
In the best way possible, Baltazar and Franco don’t often rely on character arcs and messages in their stories. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and while there’s excitement and danger, the stakes are such that you always know that everything is going to be okay in the end. That’s part of the whimsical charm of their storytelling: they want to entertain rather than sermonize. Still, Clark does go through a bit of a transformation here, as Ma and Pa Kent do what they’re supposed to: they teach him about responsibility and humility, and instill in him the wisdom and virtues he needs to always choose the right thing to do.
That comes to a head in the final act, when a mysterious (yet familiar) alien ship comes upon Smallville. There’s a bit of mayhem, to be sure, along with some overall confusion and panic from the citizens of Smallville. The conflict is never such that you think anybody’s life is in danger, but that’s really not what they’re going for here. Even without life and death stakes or the fate of Smallville, Kansas, and the world on the line, the story is still engaging precisely because it’s so low on drama. It’s fun and sweet and charming on its own terms, be it with the introduction of Krypto’s shenanigans, Lex Luthor making discoveries that are beyond even him, or the alien ships that speak in Kryptonian. Baltazar and Franco know the types of stories they want to tell, and they’re confident in their choices and knowledge that, yeah, these stories are just a ton of fun.
And in the end, that’s what Superman of Smallville is, and all it needed to be. Had there been some sort of deeper message or more complex narrative, the tone would have been completely off. Instead, Superman of Smallville is a grand entertainment about Clark Kent’s coming of age. He wants to be a hero, and thanks to the positive influence of his parents and several opportunities to help, he learns how to be Superman.