The first, and arguably best-known, Superboy was simply Superman as a boy, acting as a superhero in Smallville, where Kal-El (Superboy's Kryptonian name) lives under his secret identity, Clark Kent. The character was featured in several series from the 1940s until the 1980s and developed a mythos and supporting cast of his own, including foster parents Ma and Pa Kent, love interest Lana Lang and the time traveling allies the Legion of Super-Heroes.
When DC Comics rewrote much of its continuity in 1986, Superman’s history was changed so that he never took a costumed identity until adulthood, erasing Superboy from the canonical history of Superman, although many aspects of the backstory created in Superboy comics, such as Clark's friendship with Lana Lang, remained. In the last few years, some additional features of Superboy's history, such as his tenure in the Legion, have also been reintroduced into the story of Superman's youth.
The character was adapted into a Superboy television series (1988–1992) and a teenage Clark Kent, secretly using his powers in heroic acts, appears in the highly successful Smallville TV series (2001–present), drawing to a great extent on the comic book continuity in its depiction of young Clark's life.
In 1993, DC introduced a new, modernized Superboy, a teenage clone of both Superman and Lex Luthor, also known by his Kryptonian name Kon-El and his secret identity as Clark's cousin, Conner Kent. The new Superboy was featured in his own eponymous series from 1994 until 2002, and in several series devoted to teenage superhero groups.
The original pitch for a "Superboy" character was made by Jerry Siegel (without Joe Shuster) in November 1938. The idea was turned down by Detective Comics, Inc., and the publisher again rejected a second, more detailed pitch by Siegel two years later. After the appeal of kid superheroes had been demonstrated by the success of Robin, the Boy Wonder and similar characters, Detective Comics reversed itself in late 1944 and started publishing a Superboy feature, in an effort to expand the Superman franchise by presenting a version of the character to whom younger readers could easily relate. Superboy first appeared in More Fun Comics #101 (1944, with a 1945 cover date). Though Joe Shuster supplied the art, the Superboy feature was published without the input or approval of Jerry Siegel, who was serving in World War II. This fact increased an already-growing rift between the publisher and Siegel and Shuster.
In early 1946, Superboy moved to Adventure Comics, where he debuted in issue #103 as the lead feature for the anthology comic, and he remained the lead for over 200 issues. Superboy received his own series, Superboy, in 1949, where again he was the lead feature for nearly 200 issues. Stories in both comics treat Superboy as essentially a junior version of Superman. To that end, he wears the Superman costume and his alter ego Clark Kent wears glasses as a disguise for his civilian identity. Superboy is the superhero of Clark's hometown, Smallville, where he grows up under the guidance of Ma and Pa Kent; has two close friends, Lana Lang and Pete Ross, in both identities, and a pet superdog, Krypto; befriends and then battles a teenage Lex Luthor; and joins the 30th-century Legion of Super-Heroes.
The popular Legion feature, a spin-off from Superboy, eventually bumped the Superboy feature from both Adventure Comics (in the 1960s) and, after the Legion left Adventure, from Superboy itself (issues #197-198, 1973). In both cases, Superboy continued to appear in the comic series as a Legion member. When Superboy left the Legion in 1980, he got a second series called The New Adventures of Superboy, which ran for 54 issues until 1984. A four-issue miniseries called Superman: The Secret Years (1985) tells the story of how Superboy becomes Superman during his junior year of college.
Shortly after the miniseries was published, Superboy's career was discarded from Superman's continuity after the 1985-1986 limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths and writer John Byrne's 1986 revamp of Superman's origin, The Man of Steel. Twenty years later, following the Infinite Crisis limited series, some elements of Superboy's history were restored to the story of Superman's youth (see the Infinite Crisis subsection).
Following John Byrne's revamp of Superman, a new version of Superboy was introduced as a means of patching the Legion of Super-Heroes' continuity, which was undermined by the removal of Kal-El's Superboy career. This Superboy is said to have been created by the Time Trapper, one of the Legion's greatest enemies, when he notices that the great youthful hero they take inspiration from does not start his career until he is an adult. So the Trapper takes a sliver of time from the ancient universe and uses it to craft a "pocket universe" in which Earth and Krypton are the only inhabited planets. Whenever the Legionnaires travel back in time, they travel to the 20th century of the Pocket Universe, not the main DC Universe. From birth until the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superboy's life is similar to the life of the original Superboy. When the universe-destroying Crisis strikes, Superboy lacks the power to save his Earth, but the Time Trapper can do so, provided Kal-El helps him capture the Legion. Superboy reluctantly agrees. After a battle with the post-Crisis Superman, Superboy realizes he can't turn on his friends and instead helps the Legionnaires defeat the Trapper. Using a device the Trapper employed to stave off Earth's destruction, Superboy saves his Earth, but only at the cost of his own life. His dying act is to return the Legion to their century (and Earth), where he is later buried. Later editorial mandates that removed Superboy from the history of the Legion led to a story where the Time Trapper is apparently erased from history, wiping the Pocket Universe and that universe's Superboy from existence.
During a later trip through Hypertime, Kon-El accidentally discovers this Superboy while finding himself in that version's reality. During this visit, Kon-El discovers that this Superboy is a young Clark Kent, and by this means realizes the Superman of his reality must therefore be an adult Clark Kent. Sometime after returning to the main DC Universe, Kon-El reveals to Superman that he now knows his secret identity.
Several concepts and plot points associated with the original Superboy and Smallville have been reintroduced into post-Infinite Crisis continuity as part of Superman's earlier years. As a teenager, Clark assists stranded space traveler Mon-El, whom he first believes to be his older brother from Krypton, in a story that is similar to Mon-El's first appearance in Superboy #89 (1961). Krypto has been revealed as a companion to Clark in his youth. Clark also joins the Legion of Super-Heroes; Superman later recalls that "the Legion used to visit between school days. We had adventures in the future between classes." As an adult, Superman still keeps a Legion flight ring and has statues of the Legion on display in the Fortress of Solitude.
Lex Luthor's adolescence in Smallville, first as Superboy's friend and then his foe, was one of the elements of Superman's history removed by the The Man of Steel. Post-Infinite Crisis, a short biography has established that once again "Lex Luthor spent much of his teenage years in Smallville", where he meets Lana Lang, Pete Ross, and Clark Kent, who befriends him. Unlike the Superboy story, Lex does not lose his hair in a disfiguring lab accident that he blames on Clark. Rather, when he leaves Smallville "under a cloud of rumor and suspicion", he still has a full head of hair.
These aspects of Superman's pre-1986 history have been restored, while many of the changes brought about by The Man of Steel, such as the survival of Clark's foster parents into his adulthood and his revelation to Lana about his powers, remain part of his story. Since Infinite Crisis, while Clark has been depicted as having a youthful (if somewhat secretive) career as a superhero, he has not been depicted in costume--at least in his own time. As a member of the futuristic Legion, the teenage Clark does sport a "Superman" costume, which he apparently begins wearing during his first adventure with the Legion. Although no one has revealed whether Clark is ever known as "Superboy" in the Legion's time, one Legion foe, "Earth-Man", has referred to Clark as "the boy of steel."
In 1985, during the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, another Superboy was created. This Superboy hails from the parallel Earth known as Earth-Prime, where Superman and the other DC superheroes only exist as fictional comic book characters. Brought over from his dimension by Superman to aid in the universe-spanning battle at the heart of the Crisis, Superboy helps the Earth-Two Superman (Kal-L) defeat the Anti-Monitor, the villain who spawned the Crisis. With their home dimensions destroyed, Superboy, Superman of Earth-Two, his wife Lois Lane, and Alexander Luthor, Jr. of Earth-Three journey to a "paradise dimension". In DC's 2006 Infinite Crisis miniseries, Superboy, Alex, Kal-L and Lois are revealed to have been watching the DC Universe since they entered this "paradise". Unhappy with what they have been seeing, they decide to take action, and return to the post-Crisis DC Universe.
Superboy-Prime quickly becomes a supervillain. Feeling that this world's heroes were inferior, he feels no qualms about committing wanton acts of destruction, kidnapping, and murder. In the end, Superboy-Prime is pulled into the core of a red sun by both Superman of Earth-Two and Superman (Kal-El) of the main DC Universe. They crash land on Mogo, the Green Lantern that is a living planet. Under a red sun, their powers rapidly vanish. On Mogo, Superboy-Prime beats the Earth-Two Superman to death before he is defeated by Kal-El. The Green Lantern Corps put Superboy-Prime in a maximum-security prison on their home world of Oa and guard him round-the-clock. While incarcerated, he carves the "S"-symbol into his chest and vows to escape.
One year later, Superboy is released from his prison by the newly-formed Sinestro Corps and joins them, becoming one of their heralds and wearing a Sinestro Corps uniform beneath his Anti-Monitor inspired armor. Now calling himself Superman Prime, he becomes involved in the war between the Sinestro Corps and the Green Lantern Corps and later in the events of Countdown to Final Crisis. In the forthcoming Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds miniseries, Prime leads an expanded Legion of Super-Villains into battle against Superman and versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes from three parallel Earths in the 31st century.
In 1993, during DC Comics's Death of Superman story, a new Superboy was introduced. Unlike previous characters bearing the name, this Superboy is a clone created to replace the seemingly-dead Superman, rather than simply being an adolescent Clark Kent. His initial abilities were based on a form of telekinesis (known as tactile telekinesis) by which he could fly and simulate Superman's strength and invulnerability. Nicknamed "the Kid", Superboy was spun off to his own series, which ran for 100 issues (1994–2002). In issue #59 (1999) of the series, Superman gives him the Kryptonian name Kon-El. In the final issue of the series, he goes to live with Martha and Jonathan Kent in Smallville and adopts a secret identity as their nephew (and Clark's cousin) Conner Kent.
After Superman returns from the dead, Kon-El learns that he was genetically-engineered from the human DNA of Paul Westfield, director of a government sector known as Project Cadmus. Later, Superboy learns that he had been actually created from the DNA of both Superman and a human. However, the human was Superman's archnemesis Lex Luthor, not Westfield. Moreover, as the clone Superboy was developing, he was brainwashed so that Luthor could have a sleeper agent among the superhero community. This eventually leads to near disaster, but Superboy eventually frees himself from Luthor's control. Luthor continues to claim that he views Kon-El as his son.
This version of Superboy becomes involved with several teen superhero groups, notably the Ravers, Young Justice, the Teen Titans, and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and was featured in comic series devoted to these groups. He is the best friend of Robin, the Boy Wonder, and is romantically involved with Wonder Girl. Kon-El later sacrifices his life in the Infinite Crisis series in a battle with Superboy-Prime. After his death, statues are erected in his honor in Metropolis and Titans Tower. Robin has also secretly researched cloning techniques in order to clone a new Superboy.
In a recently published story, the alternate future Titans known as the Titans Tomorrow, including an older Conner who was cloned from the original, come back in time to the present day.
In writing about the version of Superman in his series, writer Grant Morrison said, "Ma & Pa Kent—one dead. We're going with the version where Pa Kent has died. That's the day Superboy becomes a man." Dialogue between several characters implies that young Clark is a costumed adventurer, but he is never referred to as "Superboy".
On April 4 2006, Federal judge Ronald S. W. Lew issued a summary judgment ruling that Jerry Siegel's heirs had the right to revoke their copyright assignment to Superboy and had successfully reclaimed the trademark to the name as of November 17, 2004. Warner Bros. replied that it "respectfully disagrees" with the ruling and will appeal. Since the ruling, the name "Superboy" has rarely been used in print to refer to any version of the character.
On July 27 2007, the courts ruled in favor of Warner Bros' decision to appeal the previous ruling and dismissed some of the Siegel estate's claims about the Superboy character. The trial for the dispute over the Superman copyright was expected to begin on May 13, 2008, with the trial for the Superboy copyright dispute to begin some time afterwards.
The legal dispute has affected DC Comics' treatment of the various incarnations of Superboy, such as in the Secret Origin of the Teen Titans back-up story in the weekly 52 limited series, where an illustration of Superboy was changed into Wonder Girl. In the Sinestro Corps War storyline in the Green Lantern titles and in the Countdown to Final Crisis limited series, the Superboy-Prime character is now known as Superman-Prime, a development that came about in part because of the legal dispute. Additionally, other stories, such as those in Teen Titans, now only refer to the modern version of Superboy as "Conner" or "Kon-El."
On June 28 2008, Dan Didio said in reference to Legion of Three Worlds at the Wizard World Chicago convention, “We’ve got Geoff, we’ve got George, we’ve got SuperBOY Prime (yes, we can say that again).”