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Superman’s Green Days: Charting Krypton’s History

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
Superman’s Green Days: Charting Krypton’s History

Hoping to replicate the successes of “Smallville” and “Gotham,” the SyFy Channel is developing “Krypton,” yet another DC Comics prequel TV series. Produced by “Man of Steel” co-writer David S. Goyer, it will take place 200 years prior to the events of that movie.

Of course, the Kryptonian culture portrayed in “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” is just one interpretation out of many, going back to Superman’s 1938 beginnings. Over the years Krypton has been a sci-fi showcase, with exotic creatures and geography to match; a sterile, barren world devoted solely to logic; and a society at war with itself and the choices it has made. From its colorful Golden Age depiction through the Silver Age’s hyper-detailed focus and on into the modern era, Krypton has developed into more than just backstory. Whether presented as a great civilization lost to tragedy, or a calculating would-be galactic power, it’s a rich storytelling environment in its own right. Accordingly, today we’re examining the history of Krypton in all its forms, with an eye towards what “Krypton” could use.

AN OVERVIEW

New Krypton, by Pete Woods

Citizens of Kandor enjoy their new super-powers in the “World of New Krypton” miniseries. Art by Pete Woods

Of the several different interpretations of Krypton (including movie, TV and animated), a few tend to dominate. First is the Silver Age Krypton cultivated under editors Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, which boasted Fire Falls, Jewel Mountains and a Scarlet Jungle (and, unfortunately, Vathlo Island; but we’ll get there). Next is the crystalline Krypton of the Christopher Reeve movies, which went on to influence not just “Smallville,” “Superman Returns” and “Supergirl,” but also the 1986 revamp. Finally, there’s the “Byrne Krypton” introduced in 1986 — an aloof, sterile world sometimes characterized as a potential conqueror.

[Note: If you really want to get into the Krypto-weeds, I recommend TwoMorrows’ “Krypton Companion” (edited by Michael Eury), Michael Fleisher’s “Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, Vol. 3: Superman” and Martin Pasko and Bob Greenberger’s “Essential Superman Encyclopedia.”]

THE GOLDEN AGE

"The Origin of Superman!" by Bill Finger, Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye

Krypton, from 1948’s “The Origin of Superman!” by Bill Finger, Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye

The abbreviated account of Superman’s origin which appears in June 1938’s historic first issue of “Action Comics” calls his homeworld simply “a distant planet … destroyed by old age.” The name “Krypton” appeared first in Summer 1939’s “Superman” #1. Described therein only as a “doomed planet” which “exploded into fragments,” the only hint of its culture was Joe Shuster’s design for the tiny spaceship which streaked away as Krypton tore itself apart.

Golden Age creative teams weren’t terribly interested in fleshing out the world behind Superman’s origins. His Kryptonian parents (Jor-L and Lora) went unnamed and unseen for years, and Clark Kent didn’t learn about his alien heritage until November-December 1949’s “Superman” #61. After that Krypton was used sparingly throughout the 1950s, as when a trio of Kryptonian criminals appeared in “Superman” #65 (July-August 1950) or when Superboy investigated an entire Kryptonian city which had fallen to Earth in Africa (“Adventure Comics” #216, September 1955).

Instead, the Krypton of the Golden Age may be most notable for giving all its inhabitants the familiar array of super-powers. Stylistically it resembled the pulpy sci-fi of “Flash Gordon” serials (see, e.g,. “The Origin Of Superman” from “Superman” vol. 1 #53, July-August 1948), with sleek cityscapes and a colorfully-costumed population. Basically, the Golden Age Krypton’s only real requirements were to a) look convincingly futuristic, b) justify Superman’s powers and c) supply plot elements. 1986’s “Secret Origins” #1 — written by Roy Thomas, pencilled by classic Supes artist Wayne Boring and inked by Jerry Ordway, so you know it’s wholesome — is an excellent re-creation of that Golden Age style.

THE SILVER AGE

The Silver Age Krypton

Map of the Silver Age Krypton from 1981’s “The Krypton Chronicles,” by Albert de Guzman

Alert readers will notice that the stories cited above include details (like Superboy and the names Jor-El and Lara) more commonly associated with the Silver Age and beyond. However, I’ve used them as examples of the Golden Age (chronological, not stylistic) because they were published before editor Mort Weisinger took over the Superman books.

Under Weisinger’s editorship (1958-71), Krypton’s background was fleshed out to an almost ridiculous degree. Readers explored Krypton’s first capital, Kandor, which was stolen, shrunken and preserved by Brainiac; and its other major cities Argo (thrown into space intact when Krypton exploded) and Kryptonopolis (which became the capital after Kandor was gone). They learned about the star Rao and the planet’s moons Wegthor and Xenon (and “sister planet” Thoron); and went up close and personal with creatures like the Snagriff, Thought Beast, and Rondor. They also got to know Jor-El, Lara and their various friends and family members; including the tidbit that Jor-El discovered a little side dimension which came to be called the Phantom Zone.

The Superman titles of the Weisinger era introduced readers further to a small army of Kryptonians, from Phantom Zone villains like Jax-Ur (who destroyed Wegthor) and Professor Vakox to the famously-skeptical members of the Science Council. In the Silver Age, Krypton wasn’t the superhuman incubator of years past, but a giant, physically demanding world whose tremendous gravity and aged red sun gave them that potential. They’d have to travel to a completely different star-system to realize it; but Krypton was so prosperous and idyllic no one wanted to leave.

When Julius Schwartz succeeded Weisinger in 1971, among other things he developed “The Fabulous World Of Krypton” as a backup series in the main “Superman” title. Like “Tales of Asgard” in “Thor,” this supplemented the insights gleaned from the stories starring Superman, Supergirl and Superboy. Overall, the picture of Krypton which emerged from the Silver Age was one of a great society doomed by one collective bit of shortsightedness. Even the Green Lantern Corps couldn’t save Krypton. Except for the remnants of Krypton which were overtly dangerous (like Kryptonite and the Phantom Zone criminals) or the unfortunate missteps — like the well-meaning but utterly tone-deaf “highly developed Black race” of Vathlo Island — Krypton would have been just fine if it hadn’t underestimated those groundquakes. (Still, as October 1972’s “Superman” #257 revealed, not even the Green Lantern Corps could have saved Krypton.)

Eventually this undercurrent of hubris and tragedy informed the comics’ depiction of Superman by emphasizing his separation from his home planet. In the Silver and Bronze Ages, Kal-El learned a good bit of Kryptonian history and culture, and dedicated significant portions of the Fortress of Solitude to those pursuits. For him, Krypton represented a great loss, not just personally but to the rest of the universe.

CRYSTAL PALACE

Kryptonopolis, from 1978's "Superman"

Kryptonopolis, from 1978’s “Superman”

This conception of Superman as a product of two worlds came through pretty clearly in 1978’s “Superman” movie. It portrayed Jor-El as the only scientist both clear-eyed enough to accept his planet’s fate, and passionate enough to recognize what he was doing to his child. In this respect it tracked the comics closely, but Jor-El’s minimalist Krypton was a significant departure. Instead of a vibrant, colorful futurescape, Krypton was a bleak, icy-white planet whose crystalline architecture suggested a culture which had moved past emotional pursuits.

Naturally, this stood in stark contrast to the down-home values of Jonathan and Martha Kent, who told their adopted son he was sent to Earth “for a reason.” Even Jor-El (through his hologram) reminded Superman that it was “forbidden for [him] to interfere in human history.” The movie’s emotional climax comes down to Superman’s choice between the two perspectives, and he threads the needle by using his powers to “interfere” where he can do the most good.

Beyond those holographic lessons, the Science Council’s dismissive attitudes and Jor-El’s own role as Phantom Zone gatekeeper, though, viewers of “Superman” and its sequels didn’t really have much insight into Krypton’s place in the larger universe. This version of Krypton straddled a line between the lost glories of the Silver Age and a somewhat darker portrayal which was still several years away.

BYRNE AND BEYOND

Kryptonians through the ages, by John Byrne

Kryptonians through the ages, by John Byrne (from “Who’s Who Update ’87” #3)

As with much of the rest of Superman mythology, the 1986 relaunch headlined by John Byrne rebuilt Krypton from the ground up (as it were). Byrne’s Krypton — and I feel comfortable calling it that, because fellow Super-teammates Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway were so focused on Metropolis — had a bit more color and style than the movie version, but kept the same basic tone. Essentially, Krypton was not a happy place. Instead of the brighter-than-bright movie aesthetic, Byrne’s Krypton featured tall, thin towers with wide bases scattered across a desolate landscape and inhabited by very serious people in black, barely-ornamented robes. What flair there was came in the forms of women’s ornate headdresses and insectoid robot servants.

Thus, from the beginning of 1986’s “Man of Steel” #1, it seemed clear that Superman was better off on Earth than he ever would have been on Krypton. Aside from outliers like the seminal “For The Man Who Has Everything” (1985’s “Superman Annual” #11), this was a definite break from the utopian society of the Silver and Bronze Ages. According to Byrne’s revisions, Jor-El sent his son to Earth not just for the effect it would have on his body and mind, but because Earth represented the adventurous spirit Krypton had long since lost. In 1987 Byrne and artist Mike Mignola produced the four-issue “World of Krypton” miniseries (not to be confused with 1979’s similarly-named predecessor) which described that lost age, and the clone-driven culture which both poisoned it and led to Krypton’s eventual destruction. (Yes, Krypton had its own Clone Wars.)

Byrne left the Superman books not long afterwards, but the creative teams who followed him built upon his work, starting with the 1988-89 “Superman in Exile” mega-arc. In that series of stories, an underpowered Superman acquired the Eradicator, an ancient Kryptonian artifact invented by Superman’s nativist ancestor Kem-L, which was part library and part weapon. It revealed the reason why Kryptonians never left their home planet (the Eradicator altered their biochemistry in way that Supes was able to avoid), and once Supes brought it back to Earth, it built him a Fortress of Solitude. Shortly thereafter, in 1990’s “Day of the Krypton Man,” the Eradicator started controlling Superman’s mind, encouraging him subtly and gradually to be more “Kryptonian” — i.e., emotionless, calculating and dedicated to remaking Earth in Krypton’s image. (Needless to say, it didn’t take.) 1991’s “Revenge of the Krypton Man” saw the Eradicator itself take humanoid form, and in 1993 the Eradicator became Superman’s duplicate while the real thing recuperated from his “death.”

Running through all these stories was the very strong suggestion that while the Eradicator was driven by Kem-L’s Krypton-first philosophy, that mindset wasn’t that uncommon on the doomed planet. Various Elseworlds stories, like 1994’s “Superman: The Man Of Steel Annual” #3 (written by Christopher Priest and pencilled by M.D. Bright) and Byrne’s “Action Comics Annual” #5 — as well as a couple of “Lois & Clark” episodes — showed that given the chance, Kryptonians would not only conquer Earth pretty easily, they’d rule it unflinchingly.

As the years went by, post-relaunch tinkering gave way to Silver Age nostalgia. (Along the way, the “Superman” animated series presented yet another version of Krypton, this one inspired by Jack Kirby.) The 2001 and 2002 “Return to Krypton” storylines took the Man of Steel and Lois Lane to a very Silver Age-y Krypton created (as it turned out) from Brainiac’s tinkering with the Phantom Zone; but it left the couple with a very real Krypto the Super-Dog. The planet got an “official” update in 2003’s “Superman: Birthright,” a 12-issue revised-origin miniseries written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Francis Yu. In a nutshell, it updated the Silver Age style without outright reinstating it; and in something of a repudiation of the Krypton-would-be-bad paradigm, left the paranoia about a Kryptonian invasion to Lex Luthor. 2006’s post-“Infinite Crisis” tweaks to the DC timeline were more Silver Age-friendly, even as they incorporated some of the movies’ more familiar elements.

Probably the most comprehensive look at Kryptonian society came in 2009-10’s extended “New Krypton” mega-arc which ran through all of the Superman titles. It involved the lost city of Kandor, shrunken by Brainiac but enlarged by Superman and his allies, and placed on a planetoid orbiting the Sun directly opposite from the Earth. New Krypton was therefore chock-full of super-people, which made the Earthlings rather nervous and caused Superman to relocate there to calm everyone’s nerves. The “New Krypton” arc brought together all the various Kryptonian styles under the umbrella of societal “guilds” — science, the arts, the military, etc. — and used the Krypton-would-be-bad mindset as a plot device. The more sinister Kryptonians included General Zod (no surprises there) and Alura Zor-El, Supergirl’s mother; and as you might guess, things didn’t end well for the Kryptonians. In the end, Brainiac and Luthor got involved, New Krypton was destroyed, and most of the Kryptonians either died or were banished to the Phantom Zone.

All things considered, this version of Kryptonian society was pretty intriguing, if only because so much care went into trying to harmonize all of the planet’s different iterations. Nevertheless, it soon gave way to a whole new take on Krypton when the New 52 relaunch kicked off.

The New 52's Krypton, by Kenneth Rocafort

Krypton in the New 52 era, from 2012’s “Superman” #0, by Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort

Like many aspects of the New 52 Super-titles, Krypton was a hodgepodge of different ideas, guided mostly (albeit separately) by writers Grant Morrison and Scott Lobdell. While Morrison attempted to update Krypton’s Silver Age style, a la “Birthright,” Lobdell and his collaborators used Krypton as more of a plot springboard. Neither dove very deep into the planet’s philosophical underpinnings, with Morrison more interested in elements like Krypto and the Phantom Zone and Lobdell crafting crossovers like “H’El On Earth” (featuring the ancient Kryptonian H’El, of course) and “Krypton Returns.”

“MAN OF STEEL,” “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” AND SYFY’S “KRYPTON”

Jor-El and Kryptonian councillors, from "Man of Steel"

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Kryptonian councillors, from 2013’s “Man of Steel”

2013’s “Man of Steel” film presented yet another cinematic Krypton, one which was virtually the opposite of 1978’s frozen tundra. This Krypton used a couple elements from recent comics, namely an emphasis on genetics (the “Codex” which could restore the Kryptonian people) and the notion that each Kryptonian had an assigned role (not unlike “New Krypton’s” guilds). To this it added the now-familiar Kryptonians-as-conquerors motivation, but augmented by the revelation that ancient Kryptonians had once been wide-ranging space explorers. This was a fairly radical interpretation of the mythology, given that every other version of Krypton had either ducked the issue or established squarely why Kryptonians never left their home planet. Within the context of the movies it worked pretty well, giving Superman (and Zod) a convenient Kryptonian headquarters and painting Krypton itself as a society in decline. Luthor’s experiments in “Batman v. Superman” fleshed out Kryptonian history further by portraying the “reanimation science” (for lack of a better phrase) as so ill-advised, the Kryptonians had long since made it taboo.

Since David S. Goyer co-wrote “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” and is one of “Krypton’s” producers, one suspects that the show will take place within the movies’ continuity. “Krypton” will focus on Superman’s grandfather Seg-El — a nice homage to Jerry Siegel — so viewers may well see his sons Jor-El and Zor-El, as well as their future spouses. In this version the House of El has been “ostracized” and Seg-El must win back its lost honor.

With two generations to go until Krypton’s destruction (and, presumably, General Zod’s attempted coup), “Krypton” can draw on a good bit of comics lore. Clearly the Silver Age contains the richest vein from which to mine story ideas and Easter eggs, but Byrne’s Clone Wars would fit well with “Man of Steel’s” Codex. “Krypton” might also incorporate the Eradicator’s role in halting Kryptonian spaceflight, although that’s probably still ancient history even by the time of the TV show.

To be sure, we won’t know for a while what “Krypton’s” overall tone will be. After all, “Smallville” didn’t use nearly as much Silver Age Crazy as it could have. Likewise, a list of Krypton’s fantastic features — to say nothing of a wish-list for what “Krypton” could do with them — is beyond the scope of this post. (That said, it wouldn’t kill the show to devote at least one episode to the crimefighting duo of Nightwing and Flamebird.) If “Krypton” wants to be a serious drama which explores the last decades of a doomed world, there’s plenty of material for that. However, “Krypton” could conceivably go a different way, hearkening back to the Golden and Silver Age comics by presenting a more adventurous space opera. Considering that “Man of Steel” saw Jor-El ride a four-winged creature through an orange sky thick with enemy fighters and energy weapons, it would be a shame if “Krypton” were all about politics.

The bottom line is the audience’s knowledge of Krypton’s fate. (It’s right there in the logo, for Rao’s sake!) That colors whatever kinds of stories “Krypton’s” producers create, and how they’re received: either as the bittersweet triumphs of a planet destroyed too soon, or the last gasps of a world not worth saving. As with any DC-inspired series, “Krypton” has no end of source material. The challenge is to make those stories compelling.

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