Let me pose a question. Why is Superman the most recognizable figure in pop culture today? Why has the red and gold “S” shield become the ultimate sigil for worldwide nerdom? Many would argue that it’s Superman’s god-like power or his unerring, idealistic moral code. Others might point to his importance to the superhero genre with his role as the founding father of modern comic book narratives. At the end of the day, though, Superman’s popularity stems from his humanity. The years may pass. His powers change constantly. Superman’s morals may adopt interesting nuances, but at the end of the day, he has to take off the suit and return to the world as Clark Kent. As the Pre New 52 Superman returned to the spotlight in DC’s Rebirth line, this fact became ever more clear. Because Superman is no longer alone. He has a son. A Superboy.

DC Rebirth’s SUPERMAN has illustrated a clearer, more personal picture of the Man of Steel. I previously felt alienated from this perfect being. Superboy changed all of that. After Jonathan Kent’s introduction, I recognized how important the red-and-blue really is. Superboy is one of the most important characters to be introduced to the DC Universe. Through his connection with his father, Jonathan deepens readers’ understandings of Superman’s all-important humanity. More than that, Jonathan is a deeply relatable young character. He lives and breathes on the page. With his intricate connections to the overarching Rebirth events, Superboy deserves a second glance. Come with me to Hamilton County, as we dig deep into Jonathan Kent, the boy who revitalized Superman.

Raising the Stakes

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Superman is a tad overpowered. Flight. Super strength. Invulnerability. Super speed. Frost Breath. Heat Vision. The New 52 revealed that everyone’s favorite Kryptonian can even explode. Superman has some weaknesses, but at the end of the day, we don’t fear for him. Writers remedy this with moral or personal threats. In “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” (Action Comics #755), new heroes challenge Superman’s sense of justice. Other stories threaten Lois Lane or Clark’s secret identity, but rarely is Superman’s physical well-being at stake.

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Enter Superboy. While SUPERMAN establishes that the Boy of Steel will eventually surpass Superman, that day has not come. Jonathan’s powers were manipulated and diminished by a former Superman villain. He’s only invulnerable sporadically and often loses control of the powers he has. Throughout the early SUPERMAN series, this led to a number of problems for the Kent family — and it gave Superman a reason to be afraid.

Superman is still mostly unstoppable, but Superboy isn’t. In SUPERMAN #6, Clark realizes Jonathan only wants to be a hero. Superman can’t keep Jon from exercising his powers. To deny him that is to deny him his heritage. Jonathan helps his dad fight, and instantly, the tensions rise. Jonathan becomes an obstacle, someone Clark must protect at all costs. We feel this when Superman crashes through Robin’s bell tower in SUPERMAN #8, eyes glowing with heat vision. He lost his son, and his world ended. When Manchester Black or Mr. Mxyzptlk take Jonathan, Superman’s panic is palpable. Suddenly, he isn’t invulnerable. Clark Kent became the scared parent who lost his child in the grocery store.

A Relatably Human Character

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

As a foil for Superman, Jonathan is a fantastic addition to the DC Universe. Yet, he’s also important in his own right. Jonathan carries a depth that most young characters aren’t given. Jonathan’s inclusion in SUPERMAN opens doors for stories of family, isolation & uncertainty, and, most importantly, coming-of-age.

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When Jonathan Kent first appeared in SUPERMAN, he accidentally incinerated the family cat. Superboy is placed in a position to fear himself. He sees his father as this perfect being (not unlike many children his age) and he wants nothing more than to emulate the Man of Steel’s moral code. Yet he’s still a kid, learning day by day who he is. When Jonathan’s freezing breath randomly surges forth with a sneeze or he loses control of his heat vision in a fit of fear or anger, we empathize with that change. It’s the change we all went through when we grew up, only on a larger level for Jonathan.

Jon is a bit young for the pangs of puberty to hit in full swing. These aren’t the physical changes that accompany getting older. Jonathan represents the mental changes. He’s starting to understand the world. He, like his father, feels torn in trying to explore who he is as a person. In SUPERMAN #27, Jonathan butts heads with his Super-Dad. After his battle with Manchester Black in the previous issue, Jon has access to new powers and a newfound confidence. He feels like all kids feel at that moment. We all thought we knew better than our parents at one point. When Superboy gets knocked down, we fall with him through our shared failures.

Deep Ties to Family

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Superboy’s introduction gives writers a chance to explore a rather new aspect of the superhero narrative. The family has been touched on before, with characters like Black Lightning caring for superpowered children of their own. Yet there’s something unique about this particular narrative. Superman and his son fully explore the intricate and bumpy journey between father and son as the SUPERMAN writers acknowledge the failures of the parent as well as the child.

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Throughout the first arc of SUPERMAN, Clark Kent and his family face an attack by the Eradicator. This Kryptonian android carries inside his chassis the souls of thousands of Kryptonian citizens. The Eradicator dreams of the day when Krypton is whole again. With this wish comes annihilation for Earth, naturally. Superman has to make a decision between his history, his Kryptonian heritage, and his present as a human named Clark Kent, family included.

Before this arc, Clark fought for so long to keep his son hidden from the world. He refused to let Jon be hurt in battle with some supervillain. This fight with the Eradicator taught him that Jonathan wanted to be a hero. He wanted to fight alongside his dad, and that Clark should be mentoring and supporting his son’s passions. So often, family relationships are a give and take. They are reciprocal, each member learning from all of the others. So many family stories in modern comics paint either the children as reckless or the parents as obtuse fools. SUPERMAN shows that neither pison are perfect, but both have something to give to the other.

On to Doomsday: Connections to the Rebirth Narrative

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

With DOOMSDAY CLOCK slowly approaching and Superman slated for a climactic clash with the overarching Rebirth baddie, it’s important to note that SUPERMAN has been intricately tied to Rebirth’s narrative from the beginning. In a story arc spanning SUPERMAN #18 and 19 and ACTION COMICS #975 and 976, Mr. Mxyzpltk returns after a years-long imprisonment by Mr. Oz. His first action is to kidnap Superboy. While obsessed with hurting the Man of Steel, there’s an interesting undercurrent to this kidnapping: Superboy shouldn’t exist.

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Superboy and his parents come from the pre-New 52 universe. Jonathan is trespassing. Yet, he and his father hold the power to merge the disparate universes. During Mr. Mxyzptlk’s battle with Superman, the Man of Steel lost all memory of his former life. He retook his identity as the New 52 Superman, forgetting he had a son. Jonathan, breaking free from Mxyzptlk’s cage, helps to merge the two universes. As Jon breaks free, both of Superman’s identities — the original and New 52 versions — become one, sending ripples of change through the universe.

Some may argue that Jon is little more than a victim in this issue. He doesn’t actually wield the power to merge the universes himself. In fact, Mr. Oz states that it’s Superman who’s done the impossible. However, Jonathan was there to prove it was possible. If it wasn’t for Jonathan, Superman would have no one to come back to. There would be no universe to save or remember without Jon. So in that moment, Jonathan becomes a target. Superman failed but, with his son’s help, the DC Universe came one step closer to repair.

Final Thoughts on Superboy

At the end of the day, I’ve enjoyed Superboy’s inclusion into the modern DC Universe because of his middle-grade roots. This is a character I can easily introduce to young readers, especially with his team series SUPER SONS. He’s such an easy character to fall in love with. Jonathan Kent is so much more than just Superman’s son. He’s taken on a life of his own. Jonathan Kent is easily relatable to any former child. As someone who moved a lot as a kid, Jonathan’s fear and frustration surrounding this simple subject grounds him in a subtle reality.

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Most importantly of all, he provides a much needed depth to the Man of Steel. While Superman has defined modern comics, his infallibility made it hard to connect with him. Here, we see Superman fall and stand back up again as a father. He goes to great lengths to be there for Jonathan, to give the boy everything he needs in life. We see Supes struggle with what exactly it is that Jonathan actually needs. It’s a brilliant dynamic that doesn’t exist anywhere else in comics.

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