Thursday, July 22, 2010

Superboy vs. The Blur: A Brief History of a Teenage Hero

With the amazing success of the Smallville television series, chronicling young Clark Kent's early development as he approaches a career as Superman, it's easy to forget an earlier series, also depicting a teenager from the planet Krypton: Superboy (1988-1992). I was actually only aware of the first two seasons of the series and assumed it had been cancelled thereafter, but apparently, it survived in a somewhat altered form under the title "The Adventures of Superboy". So why has no one (except die hard fans) heard of this series and why did it never attain the succes of Smallville?

I have only theories, but I think they're good ones.

The Superboy series started out life as a 30-minute live action series telling the story of college student Clark Kent and his friends at fictional Shuster University set in equally fictional Siegelville, Florida. This puts Clark at about age 18 when he first puts on the costume, but despite his being legally an adult, he retains the name "Superboy" as opposed to "Superman". Clark and his childhood friend/love interest Lana Lang (played throughout the series by Stacy Haiduk), have left Smallville, Kansas and, for some unknown reason, have enrolled at a university in Florida instead of the more logical Metropolis University (probably had something to do with the fact that the series was initially filmed in Orlando, Florida).

Clark's sidekick in the first season, is T.J. White his college roommate and a photographer on the school's paper, the Shuster Herald (and Perry White's nephew). This is where Clark gets his first reporting experience, and the two manage to get into plenty of trouble together, either by themselves or with the help of Lana, requiring that Superboy come along to save them. At that time, Lex Luthor (played in the first season by Scott James Wells) is a fellow student and is only villainous to the degree that, spoiled rich kid that he is, he fixes school basketball games and tries to make Superboy look foolish.

For the most part, the first season of the series is "kid stuff" (though Lana makes the occasional appearence in a bikini which certainly grabbed a lot of adult male attention), which isn't necessarily bad, but it also wasn't necessarily something that could sustain the series.

Each successive season took on a darker tone, changing Lex into an older and more evil version of himself, now dedicated to killing Superboy by any means (to avenge the insult of Superboy making Lex bald). and allowing Bizarro, Metallo, and other traditional Superman enemies to show up. The actor playing Clark was replaced and Clark went through a few different sidekicks as events progressed. That the series lasted four seasons speaks well of it (many series don't make it that far) even though it went through a number of transformations. Its ratings were still high after season four and legal issues seem to the main reason that it died.

What about Smallville?

It was conceived as a full-hour live action series, which gives it more room to tell a story an episode at a time. It also was more tied into the movies, perhaps drawing from a broader fan base and giving it a closer connection to Christopher Reeve fans (and Reeve appeared in some of the episodes). It also incorporated longer, more entwined storylines, which tended to "hook" fans into the series for significant stretches in order to find out the resolution of the various conspiracies. Romance was also more heavily involved and many fans are rabidly devoted to different variations of couples to which Clark should belong (Clark-Lana, Clark-Chloe, Clark-Lois). Sometimes the series seems half super adventure and half super soap opera.

More and varied elements of the larger Superman universe have been incorporated such as the Justice League of America, The Legion of Superheroes, characters such as Doomsday (highly altered from the comic book version), Zod, Zantanna, and so forth. There's also the continual dynamic tension of when and how Clark will eventually realize his destiny and become Superman. It's like the Twilight movie and book series when the romantic couple forever hover at the edge of sex without ever quite consumating the relationship. The tension ends when sex happens or, in this case, when Clark puts on the costume and learns to fly.

The series could probably go beyond 10 seasons and is ending for what I imagine are two reasons.

Reason One: The producers are wise. Every Star Trek series except the original and Star Trek: Enterprise ended after the seventh season no matter how popular they were. They ended on a high note rather than wait until they sucked so bad that fans just lost interest. It's better that way, plus you can squeeze some movies out of the deal.

Reason Two: It's time for Superman to get back on the big screen. For continuity reasons, it's easier for Clark's apprenticeship as "the Blur" to end on TV so he can become Superman in the movies. Also, the fan base isn't split between two venues.

Superman, in one form or another, has been on television, practically since there has been television. No doubt he will return in some manner or fashion, but in whatever form he reappears on the small screen, he will have a tough time beating the popularity of Smallville and it's ten year run in the opening decade of the 21st Century.

Superboy vs. the Blur. In this case, the Blur won...but there's always a future.


  1. A very well written article!

  2. I'm honored, Tammy. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Nunca vi la serie Superboy, ni siquiera la oí mencionar hasta hace pocos años y ahora ya es muy tarde. Smallville ha sido lo mejor de Superman que he visto hasta ahora.
    Excelente artículo.