Superman of Smallville – Art Baltazar, Franco, Writer/Artists
Ray – 9/10
Ray: Baltazar and Franco, the all-ages cartoonists beloved for their parody comics and their low-cost “Tiny” sketches of comic characters at conventions, have quietly become one of the longest-lasting creative teams at DC in the modern age. Their first major DC work, Tiny Titans, lasted years and served as an elaborate send-up of everything Teen Titans-related. While it focused on the kids, it was the adults who often provided the book’s funniest moments – such as the bizarre bromance between dads Slade and Trigon, or the hilariously awkward attempts by Superman and Luthor to co-parent Superboy. A follow-up, Superman Family Adventures, aged the characters up a bit and added some serialized elements, but kept the same manic cartoon energy with moments like Ma Kent interrupting the Death of Superman storyline in progress by wagging her finger at Doomsday and calming down the monster.
While most of Baltazar and Franco’s work has focused on the current generation of heroes, their latest project goes back to the beginning. Superman of Smallville is the latest attempt by a top creative team to retell Superman’s origin story – a task that has pulled in John Byrne, Mark Weid and Leinil Yu, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. (currently ongoing).
Each of these origin stories had a unique take, but I think Baltazar and Franco’s reinvention may be my favorite. It’s the perfect entry-level introduction to the most iconic DC hero, told from a kid’s-eye-view. In many ways, this is the show Smallville should have been. It gives us our youngest Superman ever – Clark is thirteen, about to start middle school, and testing out his superpowers by doing good deeds around Smallville while chafing under his parents’ well-intentioned rules like all teens and tweens do.
The art by Baltazar and Franco has a goofy energy, full of sight gags like a group of cows sloppily dropped in a hayloft as part of Clark’s latest attempt to sidestep doing his chores with super-powers. The Kents have been missing from comics for a while since the New 52 killed them off, so it’s great to see them here, although a part of me will never get used to them being young. All my favorite versions of the Superman mythos had them as grey-haired even when they found the rocket. The supporting cast is small, mostly consisting of Clark’s two best friends from Smallville. Lana is given a more active role than she is in most versions of the property, being an investigator of Smallville’s weirdness. Pete Ross, based on the short-lived African-American version of the character from the TV show, doesn’t get much to do – typical for the character in most versions.
A new bully named Brad doesn’t add much to the story, but I really liked this OGN’s take on Lex Luthor. I’m generally not a fan of versions of the story where Luthor and Superman grow up together – they’re from two different worlds and I prefer when their enmity is philosophical rather than personal.
But Baltazar and Franco recast Luthor as a smug would-be scientist with xenophobic overtones – who still manages to win over most of the cast, including Clark, with his “alien investigating club”. Luthor isn’t even really an antagonist in this story, just a mild annoyance to be kept off the trail, but you can absolutely see how his scientific curiosity is going to lead him down to the wrong path in the future. You can also see how he’s charming enough that he’ll be dangerous. He reminds me a lot of the work Dan Slott did with Otto Octavius over at the competition, turning him from a one-note villain into a compelling antihero.
The plot is fairly thin, but that’s to be expected and not to the detriment of the story. This OGN is less than 150 pages and it reads quick. While Clark tries to be a superhero and protect his identity, a series of mysterious incidents around Smallville cause a panic and his parents wonder if Clark could be using his powers for pranks. The actual truth is far less human – and far friendlier – than it appears. Anyone who knows Baltazar and Franco shouldn’t be surprised that they bring Krypto in, as they love super-pets and have used them a lot in their past books. As Clark tries to keep a Kryptonian pup under wraps and clear his own name, an actual alien menace emerges that puts peaceful Smallville in danger, leading to an action-packed climax that ups the scales without ever losing the series’ trademark sense of humor and its welcome optimism.
This definitely feels like volume one, as it goes a long way towards giving Clark confidence as a hero and teaches him more about his heritage, but his journey’s just beginning. How about a volume two where a teen reporter from Metropolis winds up in Smallville after her military dad is stationed nearby? Or hey, just let Baltazar and Franco reinvent every superhero’s early years for kids. The crisp, cartoony art and faithful storytelling that doesn’t talk down to its audience are a perfect way to get a new generation of readers into these DC legends.
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Disclaimer: GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.