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An Empire in Kansas: The Legacy of TV's Smallville

An Empire in Kansas: The Legacy of TV's Smallville

By Melinda-Catherine Gross Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Small town, big influence. With millions of fans worldwide and ten seasons worth of episodes, Smallville introduced an entire generation to Superman’s world. The only thing that was missing was the Man of Steel himself.

I would like to invite you to take a quick little stroll down memory lane with me. It’s a pretty road alongside a vast cornfield, under the most impossibly blue Vancouver sky you’ve ever seen put to HD.

Pour yourselves a wholesome glass of milk and avoid the meteors, because we’re talking about Smallville, y’all.

Here in 2018, it’s really easy to throw a rock and hit a superhero on TV. Which is great! Formatting comics for television is a very natural step, and really helps to stay true to an issue-by-issue format. A lot of people are surprised when I point to Smallville in this stack of visual trades, as something worth revisiting.

This is mildly understandable. The early 2000s were a hotbed of campy television, boasting the heydays of such programs as Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 7th Heaven, and Charmed. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that there is a tasteful scene in the first season of Smallville where Five for Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” plays as teenage Clark Kent wistfully hugs a child.

But in the wake of the glorious golden time of seeing your favorite superheroes come to life on television, Smallville remains the longest running superhero show of all time. Heck, by the end of its run, Clark Kent and his loosely branded league of justice had surpassed Stargate SG-1 as the longest-running North American science-fiction series. As a result of this, there is a whole generation of people who see young Thomas John Patrick Welling (his actual full name, by the way) as their first Superman; camp and all.

So, in the annals of comic book television history, let’s take a moment and talk about why Smallville continues to be such an important chapter.

From Panel to Screen

As I mentioned, Smallville is the longest running superhero show of all time. Clark Kent was being blasted at my face once a week for a decade and I loved every moment of it.

So, how did this happen?

Originally conceptualized as a Batman origin show, the focal character changed with a fascinating notion conceptualized by creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. No tights. No flights. This rule prohibited Smallville from having Clark Kent possess the ability of flight, as well as wearing his trademark briefs and cape.

As a result, the show needed a completely new concept: What if Clark Kent’s childhood was built around the way he came to Earth, not peacefully, but in a violent gale force that shook the very town around him? It would be a stripped down look at the man behind the cape, dealing with the internal knowledge that the nature of his arrival would ripple throughout lives both big and small.

Viewers were showing up for the power of a truly Clark Kent story. We had already been told that Superman in his fully caped glory would not be attending the party. The audience was here and ready for straight up Clark and his adventures, knowing full well who he would become, and loving him for being exactly who we love: the man behind the cape.

Originally premiering October 16, 2001, the pilot of Smallville clocked in with a whopping 8.4 million viewers, setting a WB record as its highest-rated series debut. It also set a WB record for adults aged 18–34 and finished first among viewers aged 12–34.

So, you know, people really dug it. They dug the concept, they embraced the idea of a story that forced us to run alongside Superman to his final destiny.

Old Lives, New Depths

So, people were showing up. But what kept them watching?

Smallville gave us a very unique introspective on characters around Clark who would mold and shape him into the man he would become, and those who he would shape in return.  

Martha and Johnathan Kent were played by the impeccable Annette O’Toole (of IT miniseries fame) and Bo flipping Duke himself, John Schneider. That’s right, y’all, Superman is one degree away from being a Duke of Hazzard.

Ma and Pa Kent are given a chance to really flourish within the Smallville universe, letting us as an audience really luxuriate in the family life that until this moment we knew existed, but were now finally given the opportunity to really see in a day-to-day atmosphere. They are also given a chance to be more than just Superman’s adoptive parents. Pa Kent actually ran for government office at a certain point in the show, and Martha actually becomes a main stage player in Checkmate by the end of the series.

The show also introduced its audience to a far more complex look at little known character Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s high school sweetie. Lang had previously been featured in a smattering of stories over the years, but the bulk of her presence existed in the Silver and Bronze Age of comics. Kristin Kreuk’s Lana brought the character to the forefront of a Superman story in a way that had not been explored to this extent in a very long time, and introduced new fans to an otherwise lesser known character.

In fact, the pairing of Kent and Lang was so successful on screen, I actually had to fight a guy in high school about how Clark wasn’t going to end up with her. This character had such an impact that internationally famed character Lois Lane wasn’t even on this guy’s radar.

But of course, if we’re going to talk about those who would live in the shadow of the S, we have to talk about Lex Luthor.

Like so much Shakespearean super villain, Lex Luthor actor Michael Rosenbaum weaseled his way into our hearts, quickly becoming a household television name. Within the first year of the show’s premiere, he was awarded a Saturn for his portrayal of the character. There are countless listicles that can be googled ranking him often in the top five as one of audience members’ favorite Luthors of all time, going toe-to-toe with the Academy Award-winning actor Gene Hackman. If Welling was a generation’s Superman, Rosenbaum certainly matched with his incomparable Lex.   

And that was just in the beginning. In later seasons, Smallville also ushered in a league of its own, introducing more live-action versions of such characters as the Green Arrow, Aquaman, Kid Flash, and Hawkman. This kind of team \-up was not unprecedented in superhero TV, but this incarnation certainly reintroduced a whole generation to these characters who would later become major players in the DC cinematic universe.

A Star is Born

As well as being able to really explore the nature of older, pre-established characters within the Super-scape, Smallville gave its creative team an opportunity to explore the nuances of new people in the established world.

The character of Chloe Sullivan was an invention of the creators and the show’s introduction to the history of journalism in the lives of not only Clark, but eventually Lois Lane as well. Through this enthusiastic bob-haired blonde, Gough and Millar had a vehicle to explore the sleuthing side of the man in blue, a job usually reserved for his bat-eared counterpart.

Chloe is the only main character other than Clark to last the full ten-year duration of the show, but her success as a character goes beyond just the means to Lois and Clark’s occupational end. Her success in winning the hearts of audience members nationwide invited a brand-new way to look at canon and source material.

In other words, she was so beloved, they had to find reasons to keep her around. She took on the mantles of Watchtower, an Oracle-type figure for the show’s Justice League, as well as the wife of Oliver Queen. She is a leading example of breaking canon and having your fanbase remain happy, something that is quite tricky when you’re dealing with such beloved characters, and especially during a time when superhero shows were still considered a niche genre.

If you’re a fan of Arrow, there is a distinct correlation between the path of popularity with Chloe Sullivan and the equally blonde, quirky, green-themed vigilante lover Felicity Smoak.

And there you have it, folks. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny the importance that Smallville has had in the development of how we make superhero television. This small town in Kansas taught us what we could do to help expand how we wrote superhero universes through the idea of No Tights, No Flights, paving the way for shows like Krypton, Gotham and the just announced Metropolis. It gave comic book lovers the chance to explore previously not-as-prominent characters in ways that they could really sink their teeth into. And most importantly, it proved to a generation of network executives that superhero shows were the way of the future. We loved these heroes. We can’t wait once a month, we needed them once a week. We wanted more.

Smallville in its entire ten season glory is currently streaming on Hulu, so go on and treat yourself.


Melinda-Catherine Gross writes about the DC Universe and #DCTV for DCComics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfoundlyGross.

ACTION COMICS #1000 featuring art and stories by Brian Michael Bendis, John Cassaday, Paul Dini, Geoff Johns, Tom King, Jim Lee, Scott Snyder and more is in stores on April 18, 2018.

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