CHRONICLES OF COMICS – ADVENTURE COMICS #290 – SECRET OF THE SEVENTH SUPERHERO

The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!

adventure290coverSECRET OF THE SEVENTH SUPERHERO, like most of the great ‘Legion’ stories, is about identity, morality and technology. It’s a really interesting exploration on what makes the Superboy concept worthwhile, and it’s an interesting look at an early attempt at stories about young superheroes where the characters very much feel like young people. As much as the Silver Age LoSH is remembered for it’s irreverent imagination, they’re also almost like prototype X-MEN stories – there’s nowhere near the mature characterizations that Claremont brought to the table, but Robert Bernstein treats the young super-teens with a surprising depth and understanding – narcissism and mood swings are on full display. Of course, there’s also that anything-goes all-fun feeling so unique to early ’60’s DC comics, following the seemingly holy trinity of time travel, robots and mind control. But we’ll get to all that in a moment.

Our story begins with Tommy Tanner, who, because “life is full of amazing coincidences!” is the exact and evil duplicate of Clark Kent. Fresh from breaking out of reform school, Tom’s ridden the rails to the small town of Smallville. He’s shocked to find that his acts of thievery are put up with gentle, good humour from the local authorities – after all, the milkman only imagines it’s go-getter Clark Kent, picking up his milk early to bring it home to Ma and Pa! Meanwhile, the real Clark has received a secret message from the Legion of Superheroes, and finds newly recruited member Sun Boy waiting for him in an empty field. The Legion has hid six hidden pieces of a doomsday robot in the 20th century after apprehending it from a criminal mastermind in the future. As Sun Boy explains, it occurs to the Legion that hiding pieces to a doomsday robot in a time period where you can’t throw a dart out a window without hitting a supervillian isn’t a plan that makes a  whole lot of sense. So it’s up to Superboy and Sun Boy to gather up the pieces and get rid of it. Meanwhile, Tommy has stumbled upon the Kent household, and is having the time of his life eating Ma Kent’s pancakes, punching out bullies at school, and showing off physical feats to impress Lana Lang. If you’ve dosed off reading an article about what seems like a very atypical Silver Age Superboy story, here’s where it gets interesting.

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Tommy is not just portrayed as a (forgive the expression) Bizarro version of Clark. He isn’t even what I would have expected – a comment on what Superboy could be without the Kent’s influences. He really is portrayed as the last thing I’d expect to see in an early LoSH story – a real kid. He’s precocious, he’s full of energy, he’s a little slow witted…but he also suffers from a different economic background than Clark, Bruce or Ollie ever did. We get to see in the story that when Tommy gets a chance at a loving family, an education at public school, and people to impress…he’s not all bad. “Gosh, I never knew classwork could be this interesting!” Tom finds himself thinking, “I almost wish I WERE Clark Kent so I could keep coming back to school to learn more things!” He later turns out to be a bit of an antagonist – but only because he finds himself on the verge of losing all of the newfound wonders he’s gained. When Ma discovers Tommy has none of Clark’s Superboy powers, she realizes something isn’t right, and Tom goes into full-on panic mode. “I LIKE being Clark Kent…and I won’t give up my new life!” Tommy is scrambling in fear like a frightened child…because he IS a frightened child. I don’t know if this is just the perspective of reading old comics as a modern reader in a post-Watchmen world, but I wound up liking damaged, neurotic Tommy Turner just as much as I like Clark Kent.

Meanwhile, it turns out Sun Boy wasn’t who he appeared to be, either. A criminal imposter from the future, he successfully tricks Superboy into assembling a robot that will destroy himself! The robot has the ability to fire a ray that will turn the victim into the complete opposite moral base of themselves. Thus, “an evil SUPERBOY will team up with me to rule the universe!” I don’t know about you, but that’s an amazing idea in a superhero comic, to me. Not only do I like it when a villain has the power to change a hero from what makes them a hero, I like the idea that our only hope rests on people who are instinctively good. Damaged, insecure people like Tommy Turner have no goddamn chance – the guy was born flawed, and will never be the guy to save the world. Before the Marvel Age of comics, this idea was very much a reality. Even Batman, that synonym for superhero neuroses, was in a pretty healthy place in the early Silver Age of DC.

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If that’s the case, if Superboy is perfect and unstoppable and our only hope, the only real threat is him. The only thing we’re afraid is the thought that he’ll change is mind. Or, if somebody changes his mind for him – which is often the case in LoSH comics, which may as well be called ‘Tales of Teenage Lobotomy.” Anyhow, as luck has it, the robot is confused by Tommy Turner’s residence in the Kent home, and ends up zapping him with his morality-ray, which of course turns Tommy into a loveable angel that would make good ol’ Clark proud. Superboy then takes the evil disguised Sun Boy back to the future to be imprisoned, and Tommy walks off to look for a pair of loving foster parents. Admittedly, this ending is a bit out of control and hard to swallow, but I’m actually always legitametly impressed how these guys wrapped up these various insane plots so succinctly. The problem, of course, is the plots need a little bit of mess to feel more real, but that’s more me wishing for a style that was just showing up on the horizon. Overall, SECRET OF THE SEVENTH SUPERHERO is a unique and fun journey through identity, the difficulties of adolescent life, and the morality of early superheroes. It’s also about killer robots from the future, time-traveling supervillians in teenage boy masks and Krypto the Super Dog, so odds are there is something there for everyone.

 

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