The Destructive Power of Resistance
A key component of any form of culture is the investment of the audience.If no one is buying a ticket to the show, turning on the channel at the right time, etc., then that particular piece of culture serves no purpose. The audience is crucial, but beyond their financial investment, what is necessary is that they invest their time and emotions in the culture. If they care about your art and the people creating it, not only will they participate in that which you have already created, they will want you to keep creating. But that kind of deep emotional investment is a double-edged sword: the audience begins to feel a sense of ownership of the art which can result as easily in anger as it can in excitement, if the art does not fit into their particular conception of it.
Comic books are of course no exception to this rule. In fact, with the increasing popularity of comic books and specifically comic book movies, one could argue that the emotional investment of comic book fans has been thrust into the spotlight, with each successive film interpretation coming under heavy scrutiny by those who have long invested themselves in the source material. The power of these fans can make or break a movie, just as it can make or break the longevity of the source material and its creators’ careers. And that incredible power is represented in the mythology by Superboy-Prime, one of the most powerful and dangerous characters in the entire DC Universe.
Superboy-Prime was born on one of the infinite parallel Earths of the original Multiverse, but instead of being jettisoned into space to save him from the destruction of Krypton, he was teleported through dimensions to Earth-Prime – otherwise known as the pre-Crisis designation for Earth 33 or our real world. Here, he grew up with a family of Kents, who deliberately named him Clark after the Superman comics with which they were familiar. Clark grew up reading the exploits of Superman in comic books, not knowing that those comics were windows into parallel realities. One night, as a comet sped past Earth, it somehow unlocked Clark’s latent Kryptonian powers (which in power and scope were equal to the near unlimited power of the pre-Crisis Superman) and thrust him into the Multiversal spotlight.
During the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superboy-Prime was one of several Multiversal heroes recruited to stop the Anti-Monitor’s destruction of the Multiverse. Though eventually successful, the heroes did not defeat the Anti-Monitor before he had compromised the integrity of reality itself, forcing the survivors to use Earth-One as a foundation into which the remnants of Earth-Two, Earth-Four, Earth-S, and Earth-X were folded. As the new combined continuity of this New Earth was settling, Superboy-Prime – along with Earth-Three’s Alexander Luthor Jr. and Earth-Two’s Kal-L and Lois – retreated to a paradise pocket dimension for all eternity.
Comic books in the post-Crisis era got progressively darker. From a publisher’s perspective, this reflected the grim angst they felt were in demand. Several characters were killed, maimed, or corrupted, including (but not limited to): Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Black Canary, and Batgirl. And though in our world there were editorial reasons for that growing darkness, if comic books are truly windows into a parallel Earth, than those changes reflected an actual growing darkness on the New Earth.
From the paradise dimension, Superboy-Prime and the other watched as the world they had sacrificed everything to save slowly broke down and fell apart. Eventually, and under the persuasion of Alexander Luthor Jr., Superboy-Prime punched through the dimensional barrier, rupturing the fabric of reality and beginning the Infinite Crisis – a campaign to recreate the Multiverse in search of the “correct” Earth upon which to build an ideal world. The heroes of Earth fought against their annihilation, of course, confusing Superboy-Prime who believed he was acting for the greater good. In his anger and confusion, he lost control of his powers and utterly destroyed the hero Pantha. His shock and grief and outrage at this act broke his mind and turned Superboy-Prime into the single most dangerous supervillain in the DC Universe, who has killed countless heroes (including New Earth’s Superboy, Conner Kent), been a herald of the Sinestro Corps, has escaped from the Speed Force, and was only ultimately defeated when he was thrown into the Source Wall.
In Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis, Superboy-Prime has been both the saviour and the greatest threat to all of creation, respectively. And his being those two things, as well as the process of transition, are entirely tied to his experience as an audience of the goings-on of the world and people in which he was invested. Growing up reading about and loving Superman, it only makes sense that he would join with the other heroes in order to save their world, even at the cost of his own. His defense of what was left of the Multiverse is a wonderful metaphor for how an audience’s passion and love for a particular art can save it from annihilation. Conversely, as he watched that world he had saved lose hope and grow darker and darker through the years, he felt betrayed. This was not the world and these were not the people he loved. This was not the thing into which he had poured his heart and soul. And that betrayal and anger ultimately turned him into a destructive force – killing characters in-universe and representing the wrath of the consumers of art out-of-universe.
But one must be careful not to make the mistake of saying that Superboy-Prime’s ultimate villainy is a condemnation of passionate and opinionated comic book fans. For all of the destruction he caused, Superboy-Prime’s perspective on the world was not, strictly speaking, incorrect. The world was growing darker and darker and it was looking less and less like the comic books he used to read. As heroes were killed or corrupted, he was right to feel betrayed. These were not “his” characters. This was the “wrong” Earth.
The mythology of Superboy-Prime is about acknowledging that sense of ownership experienced by readers and fans of comic books. It is about praising their love and commitment and recognizing their immense power; that without their support, the universes of these characters could not survive. It is also about recognizing that that passion makes fans resistant to change, and that that perspective is okay. Superboy-Prime did not begin Infinite Crisis as a villain, but merely wanted to make the world better again. But it was his rage and confusion as he realized that the trajectory of the world was against him that made him lash out and turn into the destructive force that he became. Symbolically, this justifies Superboy-Prime’s disdain for the new direction of the world while also making a cautionary tale of his anger – it was his unwillingness to let “his” world evolve and grow in its own way that turned him into a destroyer. If fans cannot evolve as their world does, than they are doomed to destroy it.
Does this mythology condemn fans for being opinionated? I don’t believe so. There is nothing in the mythos of Superboy-Prime to suggest that fans of comic books must like the changing nature of characters and the world. The message, quite simply, is that change will happen, and trying to stop it will cause far more damage to those mythologies than those changes ever could.