Barker, Cory, Chris Ryan, and Myc Wiatrowski. Mapping Smallville. Critical Essays on the Series and Its Characters.
Mapping Smallville: Critical Essays on the Series and Its Characters contributes to the already extensive ranks of superhero studies and Superman lore by providing an engaging collection of essays on the WB/CW series Smallville, which ran from 2001 to 2011. As they explain in their introduction, editors Cory Barker, Chris Ryan, and Myc Wiatrowski recognize the importance of Smallville both as the longest-running live-action TV series of the Superman universe and for the significant changes the show introduced to the established Superman canon. This collection paints a picture of Smallville as a post-9/11 representation of an adolescent Clark Kent who struggles with Otherness and belonging, with a supporting cast of characters who help round out the backstories of other members of the Superman Universe.
The introduction to the collection offers a compelling answer to the humorously self-deprecating question, "Who cares about Smallville?" (1). As made clear by the contributors, Smallville presents a young Clark Kent (rather than an adult Superman) who must grow into his role as a superhero with the help of many friends as well as his adoptive parents. In its decade-long run, Smallville repeatedly dealt with issues of self-doubt, Otherness, and the power of individuals. The show was innovative in some of its original contributions to the Superman universe and, as is evident in the "Powerful Women" section of this collection, was also sometimes troubling and limiting. Renewed after its pilot year for nine additional seasons despite viewership that continued to decline steadily from early in the third season (2003) onward, Smallville was received by primarily young viewers, making it particularly relevant to new generations of Superman fans. The show undeniably altered the previously little-discussed early life of Kal-El and his childhood as Clark Kent. Given the wealth of twists and additions Smallville brought to the Superman canon, as asked by Barker, Ryan, and Wiatrowski, "Why do you not care about Smallville already?" (10).
The book comprises four parts, each dedicated to a major theme. "Part One: Smallville's Decade-Long Mythical Journey," analyzes Clark's relationship with his parents and examines Smallville as a setting that shaped Clark's development. "Part Two: Powerful Women," is also the largest section of the volume, exploring major female characters in the series and their relationship to Clark. "Part Three: Bodies, Identities and Politics," investigates problems of Otherness and identity within the series, and "Part Four: Reception" includes discussion of the series' fan base and the show's position within the Superman mythos. Within the collection, the strongest essays speak to the entire arc of the series and allude to other facets of Superman lore to demonstrate the changes that the show contributed to the larger Superman storyline and how these changes reflected the interests of the show's viewers.
In part one, Bridget Kies's "'Always Hold on to Smallville': Domesticity and the Male Hero," does an especially good job of elucidating how the show's setting added to and forever altered the Superman canon. Kies identifies Smallville as a setting that placed Clark in a domestic space, in which his paternal ties are disputable, but his maternal ones are an unshakable sources of strength. Although Kies true focus is small town America as a setting for Clark's journey into adulthood, her analysis of Martha Kent is equally fascinating.
The essay collection does not blindly sing the praises of Smallville, but provides pointed criticism as well. Part two, on "Powerful Women," is particularly willing to call out the series for its often conservative or stifling characterizations of women. Throughout the series, many of the women were static characters, helpless, and/or subordinate to Clark's adventures. In Part Two's "Sidekicks or Heroines?: The Feminist Successes and Failures of Smallville's Leading Ladies," Valerie Estelle Frankel provides a well-structured, comprehensive analysis of the major female characters in the series, concluding that despite temporary growth or interests of their own, they all effectively exist primarily to support Clark as he becomes Superman.
Among the strongest essays is Jonathan A. Austad's "Rummaging Through the Closet: (Un)masking the Signified Other in Smallville's First Four Seasons" in part three. Austad examines the meteor shower as the centerpiece for innumerable instances of the "foreign invader" motif that appears throughout the series (117). The citizens of Smallville who are "infected" by the Kryptonite become violent and uncontrollable, and Clark must catch these "Meteor Freaks" who have been granted powers similar to Clark's own (116). His actions therefore become symbolic of repressing not only his own ethnic background, but also of seeking to stop anyone who has been "infected" by his Otherness. Austad thus reads Clark as an immigrant choosing to assimilate rather than embrace his heritage. Although the notion of Superman as an assimilating immigrant is not a new one (beginning, of course, with readings of Superman as a so-called "passing" Jewish immigrant), this essay collection claims the innovation of reading Clark's Otherness as applicable to the narratives of Mexican illegal immigrants.
Also in part three, Rodger Almendarez's article "Kryptonian Encounters: Model Immigration and Superman's Impossible Dream" probes this topic further, demonstrating that although Superman is associated with "Truth, Justice, and the American Way," he does not represent American culture exclusively, but continues to be a relatable character for many marginalized or immigrant groups. Noting that even in his Smallville iteration, Clark Kent/ Superman does not come out as perfectly pro-immigration, Almendarez argues compellingly that the Man of Steel has taken steps in that direction. Future examinations of Superman as immigrant would do well to incorporate both Austad and Almendarez, as these authors have effectively examined Superman as a point of connection for Mexican immigrants, a connection previously overlooked in favor of the now-traditional Superman-as-Jewish-Immigrant interpretation.
One of the main strengths of this volume is its focus on Smallville as a stand-in for post-9/11 America generally, which is fascinating and relevant beyond superhero studies. This volume clearly demonstrates that any future projects claiming to provide a holistic account of Superman lore will need to deal with Smallville as the setting for Clark Kent's adolescence, a topic largely been passed over in previous iterations of the Superman mythos. The book's primary weakness, however, is that the articles presented in the collection do not all cohere as a group, nor do they all necessarily offer the same depth of analysis. The issue here is that topics range from the general, dealing with the arc of the entire show, to the very specific, focusing on a single character or on just a few seasons. For example, Peter Melville's "Another Way: Tess Mercer as Ethical Hero," offers an in-depth analysis of one character who appears in only three of ten seasons; in contrast, Cory Barker's "'Chlark' Versus 'Chlois': Shippers, Anti-Fans, and Anti-Fan Fans in Smallville" addresses character relationships over the whole arc of the series, and is theoretically focused rather than analyzing particular scenes or episodes. Each essay is well done and interesting in its own right, but the effect of placing such disparate essays in the same volume is occasionally jarring. The editors doubtless did their best to arrange these varied essays into categories, but these categories do not always fit the specifics of each essay. For example, the "Powerful Women" section seems largely unnecessary given the "Bodies, Identities, and Politics," section that could easily have served as the subheading for both groups of essays. This was likely done in an effort to even out the sections, but then Part Four includes only two essays, each of which might have fit into one of the other three loosely formed categories.
Nevertheless, there is certainly significance to the various issues raised in each of the four sections and, although they may not cohere, the individual essays are all well worth reading. The problem the editors faced seems to be one out of their control: there is simply not yet enough critical work on Smallville to justify individual collections that focus on women in the show, on the setting of Smallville as distinct from its representation in the wider Superman universe, and on issues of Otherness in the series. Rather, these critics are paving the way for additional scholarship, and many of these authors will likely appear as contributors in future collections, where their specific interests will be applicable to themed collections about the Superman universe.
Overall, the points made in this essay collection contribute greatly to the wider genre of superhero studies: the volume demonstrates that Smallville was progressive in presenting Smallville as a formative location for Clark and in subverting the traditional assimilation narrative in favor of positive depictions of Otherness, although the series was still guilty of conservatism when it came to women's roles. This book deserves a place on the shelf of Superman fans, superhero scholars, and Smallville fans alike.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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