Wednesday, 7 March 2012


Almost four decades ago, John Jakes, a writer best-known for his Brak the Barbarian series, which was arguably the best of the sword and sorcery series that followed the 1960s Conan revival, hit the big-time with his 'American Bicentennial' series of historical novels. The family at the centre of that saga were called Kent, and that came back to me as I read The Kents, because this comic-book historical saga, which I encountered in a library in Waikanae New Zealand, tells how family who adopted Superman came to settle in Smallville, Kansas before their strange visitor from another planet fell to earth, and very much follows that historical framework.

These Kents move out to Kansas before the Civil War, part of the effort to keep the territory free of slavery. The focus is on the two sons, Nate, who remains true to their father's dream, and Jeb, who falls in with the pro-slavery Missourians. As such, the focus of the saga remains tight, which is an advantage over the multi-volume sprawl of Jakes' original, but much of it follows the same pattern: intra-family conflict, an unresolved love story between antagonistic groups (Nate loves a woman who's half-Indian), and of course the addition of famous historical figures, in both meaningful roles (for example, Nate's woman is originally partnered with his friend Bill Hickock, and Jeb rides with Quantrill, Anderson, and the James gang) and as walk-ons (John Wilkes Booth has a meaningful one). The Kansas-Missouri border conflicts, stretching on both sides of the Civil War, have been fruitful territory for any number of novels, and there is plenty of material on which to draw.

The story is framed by a manuscript device -- Pa Kent has found letters and journals buried on the Kent property—which is clunky at times. In fact, the framing echoes the story itself, which sometimes lumbers along as if ticking the boxes, with neither the historical sweep of Jakes nor his dynamism. There are a number of Superman references dropped in, not least the 'S' symbol being something handed down from his Iroquois ancestors. Writer John Ostrander eventually resolves his stories in a moment of high but successful melodrama, which works even better as we learn at that point that none of Jeb's letters to his sister back in Ohio, through which we have been following him, were never sent. It's a nice touch to what becomes a compulsive story. I've enjoyed other Tim Truman projects in the same vein more than this one; here Michael Bair's inking gives a hint of Frank Robbins to Truman's usually more defined pencils. His Jonah Hex (another cameo player in the story), seems strangely one-dimensional. Tom Mandrake picked up the final four issues from Truman and is just as interesting.

Published in 1999 and collected as a book in 2000, this might be seen as DC's millennial answer to Jakes' bi-centennial series. But if a western about Superman's family's origins seems a slight idea, its execution makes it an impressive mini-series.

The Kents, written by John Ostrander,
pencils by Tim Truman and Tom Mandrake, inks by Michael Bair
DC, 2000 $19.95 ISBN 1563895137

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