Chances are, you've heard of Superboy, but these days, the codename probably evokes the smiling face of Jonathan Kent, Clark and Lois's half-Kryptonian son. And that's all well and good—don't get us wrong, we love Jon—but did you know that there was a character who held the mantle before him? And one that had a much, much stranger connection to the Man of Steel than basic biology?
Enter Conner Kent, aka Kon-El—the first (or, well, the second depending on how you calculate things) Superboy.
To understand Conner's place in the oft-confusing web of the Superman family, we first have to go all the way back to the beginning in the late 1930s. While superhero comics were in their infancy, creators were throwing all kinds of concepts at the wall to see what stuck, all with very little concern for more modern ideas like shared continuity. The "family" of heroes was on the rise with the breakout hits of characters like Shazam (then called Captain Marvel) and stories for kids and teens were flying off the shelf after the popularity of Robin. Thus, a new teenage version of the Man of Steel was drafted up and introduced—but rather than being a sidekick for Superman, this Superboy was a literal teenage Clark Kent, set in what was functionally an alternate continuity from the adult version.
But as we said, this was really before the whole idea of continuity in comics had taken shape, so things got a little weird pretty fast—especially as Superboy stories got more and more bombastic, taking its young hero on grand adventures and teaming him up with new characters that the adult version of Kal-El had never even met. Things eventually were smoothed over many years later when Crisis on Infinite Earths helped streamline Superman's history, erasing his time as a teenage hero from canon while also introducing alternate versions of Superboy from alternate earths.
But the idea of a teenager with Superman-flavored abilities didn't simply shuffle off into the multiverse. In 1993, a brand new Superboy was introduced—one that was not simply a teenage Clark.
Well, sort of.
You see, this Superboy was actually an attempt at duplicating Clark's genes as part of a cloning program. So, while he wasn't Clark, he also kind of was. Later, his origins were even updated to clarify that his DNA was replicated from a mixture of both Clark and Lex Luthor. Talk about a messy beginning.
Role and Impact
Critically, the new Superboy exploded onto the scene during the Death of Superman era, which afforded him a little time to not really have an "official" name or place in the bigger picture. He was (almost obnoxiously) loud about being a clone of Superman while he was vying to take Clark's place and eventually came to be known as the Metropolis Kid for a while and scoffed at anyone who'd try and call him Superboy simply because he was the youngest of the replacement Supermen to show up after Clark's untimely death.
However, after Clark's eventual resurrection, Superboy was given a chance to meet him and have a genuine heart-to-heart. As you might imagine, being a lab-grown superheroic alien clone doesn't offer much in the way of a connection to any sort of family or culture. Superboy didn't even have a real name at this point, and when you mix all of that existential angst in with regular teenage angst and sprinkle superpowers on top of it, you've got a recipe for potential disaster. Thankfully, Clark was able to offer some guidance and helped Superboy settle on a name for himself—Kon-El, in honor of one of Superman's Kryptonian cousins—and even a place to stay back with the Kents in Smallville.
From here, Kon rapidly found his footing within the greater DCU, first finding himself a founding member of the Young Justice team alongside Tim Drake and Bart Allen, and eventually onto an incarnation of the Teen Titans. He picked up the civilian name Conner Kent along the way to help him maintain his cover.
Ultimately, Kon found his biggest moment in the spotlight during the Infinite Crisis event where he sacrificed himself to save the multiverse—don't worry, like many other heroes before him, he eventually got better! But the impact was still profound. For over a decade, Kon enjoyed his time in the spotlight as the Superboy of a generation of comics readers, taking many fans who may have started reading as young adults themselves on the journey with him. Where his tangled origins and tricky history could have been a bridge too far in the wrong hands, Kon was able to plant his flag in the ground and solidify the Superboy mantle as something wholly distinct from Superman himself, and a critical component of multiple teams across multiple generations.
In fact, to actually see the impact of Kon's legacy on the Superman Family, you really need to look no further than Jon Kent himself—a character who may be wholly and entirely unique from Kon on paper, but who definitely wouldn't exist as we know him now without Kon having paved the way.
Mason Downey writes about comics, movies and superhero history for DC.com. Look for more of his work on GameSpot, IGN and Polygon and follow him on Twitter at @rustypolished.