For obvious reasons I usually limit my writing tips to screenplays and TV scripts, but today I want to take a short break from that and use a recent comic book to illustrate a point. I've been a comic collector for 20 years and I can say that one of the best superhero writers, past and present is a man named Geoff Johns, currently responsible for Green Lantern, Blackest Night, Superman: Secret Origin, Flash and Adventure Comics. One of these days I'll have to get around to explaining how Geoff's Green Lantern: Rebirth helped me structure a fantasy script I recently wrote, but now I'm going to talk a little about Adventure Comics #1, out this week, and how it illustrates both "showing, not telling" and effective communication of subtext.
Superboy is the lead feature in the title, though he's not a young Clark Kent, but rather a teenager named Conner Kent who was cloned from a mix of Superman and Lex Luthor's DNA. He had been killed back in 2006's Infinite Crisis but was recently resurrected in 2009's Legion of Three Worlds. This issue picks up his story from there, as he moves in with Clark Kent's mother in Smallville.
If you're so inclined, please follow this link to preview pages from the story, featuring the wonderful Norman Rockwellian art of Francis Manapul.
Early in the story we see text that appears to be writing from Conner's diary, opening with the question "What did Superman do?" Item 1 on that list: "Lived with the Kents." We're shown a panel of young Clark with his parents, and then the next panels show Conner moving in with Ma Kent, as another text box shows Conner checking off "1) Lived with the Kents."
Throughout the issue, several other examples follow this pattern, such as "Went to Smallville High," "Joined a team of superheroes," and "Helped anyone who needed it." So I ask you, dear reader, what do you think all of this means? Why is Conner writing this? I'm guessing most of you surmise that Conner is trying to figure out how to follow in Superman's footsteps, to live up to his legacy.
About midway through the story, Conner goes to the dilapidated house where Lex Luthor lived when he was in Smallville. Superman finds him there and wonders why Conner would come here. Superboy asks, "Do you think it would've been different if Lex had grown up with your parents?" Superman says "no," elaborating that he thinks Lex is completely delusional. Conner probes further, "So was he born bad?" Eventually, he admits he just wants to understand him. Superman assures the boy, "You're not him. And you're not me. You're your own person." He asks Conner to steer clear of Luthor, saying he's Superman's problem. Conner promises, "If I EVER see Lex Luthor again, it'll be too soon."
The final page of the issue shows Conner looking at his checklist. Then there's a one panel flashback to that last line of dialgoue. Then we see the second page Conner has written:
"What does Lex Luthor Do?
"1) Lies to Superman"
Final panel - Conner checks that off of his list.
It's a nice bit of showing rather than telling. Conner essentially is trying to figure out how much of each "father" is in him. His checklist isn't just about him trying to be Superman - it's about him figuring out if he already is on the path to being Luthor. That's not only clever writing, but it's handled in a sublte way. Despite the subtext of the scene in Luthor's house being pretty clear in showing Conner wondering if he was born bad, this final scene still was a surprise.
At no point in the story does Conner say, "I am worried I might turn out like Luthor." He talks around the subject, and his actions hint at these motivations, but Johns never stops and puts those words into his mouth. It's also equally clear that Superman senses Conner might be worried about this, and his reassurance to the boy also comes without him being on-the-nose in revealing Conner's feelings. Take note of this - people rarely say exactly what they feel. If your characters do this often, it usually makes their dialogue sound on the nose and false.
The subtext of this whole issue is Conner's identity crisis. His concerns don't even become all that evident until more than halfway through the story and then the ending forces the audience to reevaluate the whole issue in a new context. Conner didn't just happen upon Lex's old house and then that led him to wonder about "nature or nurture?" It's been on his mind the whole time - and hiding from the audience in plain sight.
So check out Adventure Comics if you get a chance. It's a nice single-issue story that doesn't require you to buy 15 different crossovers to get the whole story.