Sunday Slugfest: Adventure Comic #6 / #509

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Shawn Hill, Jason Sacks
Ever since Conner Kent returned from the grave he has been obsessed with Lex Luthor--hoping that either there is some good in the master villain or that he didn't inherit Lex's "bad genes." He challenges Luthor to actually prove what he could do to help humanity if he wasn't obsessed with Superman as an extraterrestrial savior.

With Superman off planet, it's now time for Lex to do some good, and Conner is willing to do what it takes to make to help. Thus, Lex sends him on a wild scavenger hunt through time and space!

Shawn Hill:
Jason Sacks:
Thom Young:

Shawn Hill

Francis Manapul's art on this series continues to be lovely, with a soft and painterly effect that nonetheless adapts itself easily to moments of tender emotion, thrilling adventure, and the basest of evil motivations. It's an unusual style for a superhero comic, but Manapul makes Lex's ravings quite scary, even as Conner embodies the brooding jock that Johns envisions him as being.

Story-wise, Adventure Comics #6 finally answers Conner's most basic existential dilemma: Is he more like his DNA-donor Lex or more like the part that came from Kal-El? Conner comes to the right conclusion, and the series has shown us (through the epistolary style of his journal entries in which he revealingly goes through a list of what qualities determine which progenitor he more resembles) all the steps he took to get to that point.

The reason this issue is only average is the formula--so excellently embodied on one of the covers in an old-school seven-panel cruciform spread. Like Hercules, Superboy must face a series of labors to be given a boon by Lex--and it's a priceless one that Lex's niece, Lori, wants as well: to heal her mother, Lex's own sister, who is wheelchair-bound and deteriorating quickly.

It seems that Lex hasn't been much of a brother all these years, and he's only doing this act of mercy as a kind of show. An anti-House of El show--which is nothing new, and is the same sort of manic phobic obsession that Morrison played with in All-Star Superman. The story reveals that Lex that just can't change his spots--even when a man of his intellect knows better.

Here he's aided and abetted by Braniac, which is just filler, and then Connor is comforted by his Titans peers. It's a sad ending to a disturbing tale, but it is a good finale for Johns's re-introduction of the character into his own title. It's solid but predictable work that succeeds in putting Superboy back in play for whatever future directions come his way.

It looks like Blackest Night will hit this series next, followed by tie-ins to the "Brainiac and the Legion of Super-Heroes" event that will run through the Superman Family titles.

I'll be deciding issue-by-issue until Paul Levitz takes over.

Jason Sacks:

You know, Lex Luthor is just plain evil. We always knew that Lex was cruel, and self-centered, and nasty. However, we really see Luthor at his most evil in this issue as he takes one of the cruelest actions that any family member could ever take towards another.

It was fun watching Lex make Conner jump through hoops in order to both humiliate him--while also giving everybody hope that Lex could make his sister walk again. I loved the nonchalant way that Conner and Krypto traveled back to the age of the dinosaurs in order to bring back a specific prehistoric fern leaf--and the funny reason that Lex wanted to use it.

As Shawn mentions in his review, these travels are reminiscent of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, which is something I always find really fun. We get to watch Superboy travel to Paradise Island, Bizarro World, and Atlantis in order to obtain certain items to help Lex try to get his sister to walk again.

These kinds of adventures are usually enjoyable, and in this issue they accomplish two important goals. First, they show how Lex has Conner wrapped around his finger. Second, they give the story a bit of air.

Most of Adventure Comics #6 takes place in a farmhouse in Smallville and involves a very unique sort of family tragedy. The emotional drama would feel a bit dry in a superhero comic without a bit of action to provide a counterpoint. By having short inset scenes that take place in exotic locations, Geoff Johns is able to make the drama of the story feel larger. He allows Superboy a chance to be super--to be chased by dinosaurs and stared at by Amazons--and that gives the issue a nice sense of energy.

However, the core of the issue is Lex's absolutely ruthless hatred of anyone with a big red "S" on his chest. The way Luthor so casually cures his sister and them immediately reverses her cure is chilling. In that scene, readers lose all sympathy for Luthor. He's shown his true personality as a sociopath who cares nothing for those who stand in his way.

The real drama of this issue is in the personal interactions that display Luthor's true evil. In revealing his true nature so starkly, Luthor also finally settles Conner's dilemma about his future path. Superboy carries some of Luthor's DNA, but that DNA does not make him evil. We see Conner finally come to the realization that Luthor is his nemesis rather than a man whom he can trust in any way.

Francis Manapul's art is a wonderful fit for a story like this in which normal human actions are important. Manapul is really skillful at presenting characters that look reasonably human, without extreme exaggerations. Faces and bodies are appropriately proportional and emotional. Even Conner isn't over-muscled; he looks like a strong teenager, but nothing more.

Johns and Manapul will be leaving this comic after this issue. It's a shame because they've made me like Conner much more--and hate Lex much more--than I ever have before. These past six issues were a promising start; it's too bad that's all we'll get.

Thom Young:

I wavered on whether to give Adventure Comics #6 a rating of four bullets or three and a half bullets. I suppose this issue is a three-and-a-half-bullet story, but the entire six-issue run by Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul is worth four bullets (not counting the Legion back-up stories, which I haven't liked as well).

Unfortunately, this issue ends Johns and Manapul's time on this series. They've left some dangling plot threads that I hope are resolved by others--and they might very well be resolved in the upcoming "Brainiac and the Legion of Super-Heroes" event that will be running through the Superman Family titles (including issues 8 and 9 of Adventure Comics).

I've not always cared for stories written by Johns in the past. There are times when there have been huge lapses in internal logic in his plots and subplots (such as in Infinite Crisis and others), there have also been times when the dialog he writes is just extraordinarily bad as if he's never actually listened to how real people speak to each other (such as in Action Comics #837 and others), and there are other times when his understanding of either science or plausible pseudo-science has been sorely lacking (the conclusion of his "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" arc in Action Comics #860 and others).

However, none of those problems have come up in his Superboy stories in these first six issues of Adventure Comics. I believe that the reason for these stories being free of the types of problems Johns often has is that he has not been telling stories that involve huge cosmic events or concepts that he doesn't understand (and doesn't bother to research). Rather, his work in this series has mostly been a character-driven story that focuses on a variety of human emotions.

Johns seems to excel when he writes these "quieter" stories instead of the big noisy events. The only issue that I didn't care for during his run on Adventure Comics was the second issue in which the extended conversation between Conner Kent and Cassandra Sandsmark was uninteresting and the emotions were too juvenile for me to enjoy (although I acknowledge that the characters are themselves juveniles, so their boring emotional conversation might very well have been realistic).

In this latest issue, Johns had the opportunity to bring in the types of problems that I often see in his work, but he didn't.

The plot in this issue focuses on Lex Luthor's work to cure his sister, Lena, from whatever affliction she has. I don’t believe Johns has indicated why Lena Luthor (or Lena Thorul, for those of you who know your Superman Family history) is in a wheelchair, and that's probably for the best since he then doesn't leave himself open to questions about how Lex could cure his sister with whatever "miracle therapy" he has concocted.

Nevertheless, I decided to make some assumptions about Lena's affliction and Lex's therapy (using my background as a former editor of alternative health publications), and I cannot find any fault with the little information that Johns provides in the story. Based on her symptoms (bound to a wheelchair and apparent lack of motor control) my assumption is that Lena suffers from some sort of neurological and/or muscular disorder.

The most promising therapy research in that area is involves stem cells, so I was a bit worried when Lex sent Superboy into the past to retrieve a prehistoric fern from the Cretaceous period. However, the fern wasn't for Lex's therapy; it was for some herbal tea (I won't bother with how Lex knew about the properties of a tea made from that extinct fern; I'll let that one go).

The first real item for the therapy that Conner needs to retrieve is a hair from the head of a Bizarro. On the surface, such an item might make it seem that Lex is concocting some sort of Witches' Brew--the hair of a Bizarro, the femur of an animal from Greek mythology, the scale from the fin of an Atlantean mermaid, et ctera--but there is actually a plausible explanation for why the DNA from a Bizarro might be used in Lex's formula. If stem cells are the current best approach for what afflicts Lena due to the adaptability of those cells, then the properties of Bizarro cells or Bizarro DNA might be even more adaptable.

I suppose I'd have preferred it if Conner had extracted blood cells or brain tissue from a Bizarro, since that would be even more plausible as a treatment, but I'll allow that Bizarro hair cells might be just as good as Bizarro stem cells.

I'm not certain what Conner was retrieving on Paradise Island or Atlantis (though Krypto is carrying a huge femur in his mouth as they fly over Paradise Island--but that might merely be a case of Krypto having his own agenda as he accompanied Conner on Lex's scavenger hunt). Regardless, there is nothing in what Johns provides that would indicate that Lex's pseudo-scientific therapy is implausible--and that fact makes me like this story all the more.

The other area where Johns could have had problems is with his introduction of the characters of Lena and Lori Luthor--Lex's sister and niece, respectively. Lena Luthor (aka Lena Thorul) first appeared way back in 1960 in Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane #23 (cover date of February 1961). She appeared in at least 21 Superman Family stories from 1960 to 1982 (once in that Lois Lane story and twenty times in Supergirl stories in which she was a close friend of Supergirl).

She also may be the mother of Nasthalia Luthor--Lex's niece nicknamed "Nasty Luthor" who was Supergirl's nemesis in at least 13 stories from 1970 to 1972. However, if Lena was Supergirl's friend and same age, it would seem unlikely that Nasthalia was Lena's daughter. In any event, Grant Morrison brought back Nasthalia Luthor as Lex's niece in the out-of-continuity All-Star Superman.

It's difficult to say whether Lori Luthor is supposed to be a version of Nasthalia Luthor or just another niece that has previously not been revealed within the Superman Family mythos. I'd like to think that Lori is either the younger sister of Nasthalia or her cousin, and I was hoping that Johns might also bring Nasthalia back to current continuity in Adventure Comics--though it might be more fitting if she returned in DC's Supergirl title (which I have not read in almost two and a half years).

Anyway, on the whole, Adventure Comics #6 was a satisfying conclusion to a satisfying arc. I only wish we would have been able to see what the Brainiac-Luthor team is ultimately up to, and why Tellus (a member of the Legion of Superheroes) is living in the swamp outside of Smallville. My hope is that those threads will be addressed in issues 8 and 9 (but not by Johns, unfortunately).

I should also point out that I greatly enjoyed the Superboy-Prime story that Johns inserted into his Conner Kent arc in Adventure Comics #4-5. That two-part Blackest Night tie-in was the only story in the Blackest Night event that I have liked, and I meant to write a review of it for this site but never found the time to do so. It was a four-and-a-half- or five-bullet story.

I'm eagerly awaiting Paul Levitz as the new writer of Adventure Comics. Oddly, though, I'm sorry that Johns will no longer be writing this series--and that's a statement about Johns's work that I would not have thought I'd ever write after the horrible work he did four years ago in Infinite Crisis.

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