The Secret Origin
In the final battle against the Darkest Knight's endless hordes, things look pretty bad for the good guys. But they have a secret weapon... maybe.
That's right... it's SUPERBOY-PRIME! But will Infinite Crisis's greatest villain find redemption... or succumb to temptation?
It’s DC’s most overexposed villain of the ’00s versus DC’s most overexposed villain of the ’20s! I kid, but the fact of the matter is, Dark Nights: Death Metal – The Secret Origin #1 really is a grudge match between DC’s current event comic big bad and their previous one. Superboy-Prime is a somewhat divisive character; he was originally conceived by author Elliot S. Maggin (with art by Curt Swan!) during the O.G. Crisis on Infinite Earths in DC Comics Presents#87. The idea was that an ordinary kid from an ordinary world where superheroes only exist in comic books was granted Superman-level powers, and became his Earth’s only superhero. After the Anti-Monitor destroyed his world, he became one of only a small handful of survivors of the multiverse to survive Crisis, and went into the void to his eternal reward.
Fast-forward twenty years, and writer Geoff Johns brought him back, only this time, he was meta-commentary for entitled fanboys angry about comics not being what they wanted them to be anymore. Prime quickly went insane and killed a whole mess of characters, from throwaways like Wildebeest to key players like Kon-El Superboy, the whole time ranting about how the heroes weren’t “right” and “good” anymore. He was eventually defeated, of course, and would return several more times – always written by Geoff Johns – to menace the forces of good. But the catch was this: as fun as it was to pointedly call out entitled fandom, it kind of turned Prime into a one-trick pony. With continually diminishing returns each time he popped up, the character was more or less retired as no writer other than Johns could figure out what to do with him. Lo and behold Johns would wedge the character into the already-overstuffed recent Shazam! volume, ostensibly to once again serve as proxy for angry fans that Johns’ re-imagining of Shazam wasn’t the same as the Big Red Cheese they’d grown up with. By this point, though, no one was really biting anymore: been there, heard that, the shine had worn off. If it hadn’t been obvious before, the bloom was off the rose as far as Superboy-Prime was concerned.
So, what more to do with him? Storywise, Prime’s already-thin premise (but fun in its own way in a limited capacity) had more than worn out its welcome. What’s left, then? How about… redemption? It seems fitting that, given Prime’s narrative over the past thirty-five years – from naïve innocent to gibbering psycho – could only be completed by helping him buy back a bit of his soul and at last become the hero he’d long wished to be.
The trick, though, is that it has to be convincing at this point. Superboy-Prime isn’t just a bad guy, he’s a mass murderer who makes Darth Vader look like Charlie Brown. He’s never been presented as repentant, or redeemable, or – perhaps most crucially – wanting of penance. So his surprise turn in Death Metal back toward the light – even for inherently selfish reasons – strains credibility a bit. It feels a bit too sudden, a bit too forced – and a bit too much for the already-packed-to-the-gills narrative of Death Metal.
Is there an inherent fun factor to watching one former event-level big bad go toe-to-toe with the current multiverse-level menace? You bet. And while the fight between Prime and the Darkest Knight is, in and of itself, nothing too flashy, there are some fun visual flourishes courtesy Frances Manapul that evoke shatterings of worlds while they duel. However, it’s not entirely obvious why this is happening. But it does make for great visual effect and does a solid job communicating the power levels being played with.
The other problem, though, is this: did Death Metal really need Superboy-Prime wedged into the story? Death Metal mastermind Scott Snyder apparently thought so, to the point that he was able to drag Geoff Johns out of kinda-retirement to cowrite this comic with him. But there’s already so much going on, so many characters, and so many various states of play. Especially at this late stage of the story (only two more issues to go after this), it seems ill-advised to shift the narrative to focus a whole one-shot on Prime. And, given what happens at the issue’s climax, no salient argument can be made that this tie-in is skippable. It’s a crucial piece of the story. Therefore, when taken the context of the greater narrative arc of Death Metal, this side-trip into Prime-land feels jarring at best and forced at worst. What’s more, a rehash of Prime’s origin – even if it’s graced with stellar Jerry Ordway art – just feels out of place and unnecessary at this point. Scott Snyder may be trying to weave a grand tapestry out of DC’s tangled continuity with Death Metal, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea to make a pit stop in the third act to revisit the fourteen-years-old Infinite Crisis.
The payoff, in the end, is two-fold: Superboy-Prime’s choice to fight for a kind of redemption and what comes of that, and how that choice impacts the finale for Death Metal. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that one feels unearned and the other is pretty significant. Which is which? Read it and find out.
All that said, though – Dark Nights: Death Metal – The Secret Origin is, on its own merits, still a pretty decent comic. It has cosmic stakes, some legitimately strong character beats (hi, Krypto, you are a good boy!), and yes – because this is a comic with Superboy-Prime – some meta-commentary on the repetitious nature of death and rebirth and reboot of DC’s continuity. And given the mostly-awesome art team – Ordway, Manapul, and Paul Pelletier all hit their marks, but Ryan Benjamin feels out of place – this is, objectively, a well-crafted comic book. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering: did it have to exist? Or could a less swerve-y sidebar in the main Death Metal book have served the story better? We’ll never know, but can certainly imagine. That’s sort of the problem with so many modern event comics: their bloat – with the multitude of tie-in one-shots and miniseries – exist specifically to maximize short-term sales but work against their narrative momentum and cohesion. That makes it nearly impossible to read and enjoy the story based solely on its own. But, that’s a review for another day. For now, it’s enough to know that, misguided and misplaced though it may be, The Secret Origin ain’t bad by half – warts and all. And sometimes that’s enough.
Dark Nights: Death Metal - The Secret Origin #1 feels like it's trying to cram too much into an already-overstuffed story, and despite some strong and even unexpected character beats, winds up falling victim to its own lack of necessity.
Dark Nights: Death Metal – The Secret Origin #1: Unparalleled Universe
- Writing - 6/106/10
- Storyline - 5/105/10
- Art - 8/108/10
- Color - 8/108/10
- Cover Art - 8/108/10
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