Superman debuted in Detective Comics' (known now as DC Comics) Action Comics #1 in April of 1938. It depicted Superman's first sally of righteousness into the criminal underworld of Metropolis. On its classic cover, thieves run from him, wild with fear, their expressions just short of the agony on the face of the poor bastard in Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
Those common, everyday criminals had no chance. Their opponent was stronger, faster and invulnerable. Superman was unbeatable. It wasn't just a problem for criminals. It was a problem for the writers of Action Comics. Invincible characters are boring. Superman's creators kept fans interested by piling on gimmicks, but after riding the wave of novelty, writers had to find a way to knock The Man of Steel off his lofty perch. To make him interesting they had to make him vulnerable. Their solution was a spectacularly bad, poorly thought out plot device: kryptonite.
When he debuted, Superman's novelty was total: the sheer newness of the superhero idea immediately propelled Action Comics into a best-seller spot. Overnight it became a staple offering at newsstands across the country. The Son of Krypton quickly captured a large, dedicated following.
Common, unexceptional villains filled the first few spots in Superman's rogue's gallery. There were no villains of note until the introduction of Lex Luthor in Action Comics #23. And back then he certainly wasn't the criminal mastermind I love today. I get as nostalgic as any comic book fan about those first few Superman stories, but in and of themselves, they aren't compelling. There isn't anything interesting about the strongest, toughest guy on Earth delivering two-fisted justice to completely average bad guys. It's just a series of beat-downs.
Monthly publishing schedules are brutal now, and they were brutal then. Seventy-five years after his introduction, we know that Superman is here to stay. Not so in 1938, when comic book creators banged out new characters every 30 days. Some stuck for awhile, but most came and went in the space of one or two issues. It was a surprise when characters lasted more than a few printings. Superman was the biggest surprise the nascent comic book industry had ever seen. His creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, certainly didn't assume that their new, modern age hero would enjoy such explosive popularity. They weren't ready for it. They hadn't planned ahead. All they knew when Action Comics #1 hit the stands was that Superman fights bad guys -- really effectively. But after a few issues of mundane crime-fighting, they realized Superman was too effective.
Unknowingly, they tripped over a storytelling problem that showed up millennia before Superman yanked his first car off the ground. What the hell does a writer do with a character that easily wins every battle and dispatches his enemies with ridiculous ease?
When The Iliad #1 hit the stands 2,500 years earlier, it introduced Achilles, best known for his thumping of the Trojan hero, Hector. In his first incarnation, he was invulnerable. He was immortal. He wasn't quite a god, but he was pretty damn close. Homer, author of this first issue and runaway hit, was okay with this. For him it was good enough to tax Achilles with one problem: finding Hector. Achilles stepped up, finally finding Hector after a series of seemingly endless ass-haulings up and down the battlefield. Achilles bitchslapped the poor Trojan. Homer laced up the rest of the story and moved on to the spin-off, The Odyssey.
Hollywood didn't invent retakes. That stuff goes way back. The ancients loved them as much as the producers of Smallville. Rewriters of ancient epics, such as Statius, took their retakes seriously. When he reached Achilles in The Iliad #2, he faced the same problem that eventually plagued the writers of Action Comics: an invulnerable hero is a boring hero. Statius answered the problem of the immortal hero with the introduction of Achilles' heel, eventually pierced by an arrow launched from the bow of Paris. Bam: vulnerable, flawed and human characters give stories good wrinkles.
Homer, Statius and later miners of Greek mythology had advantages over the original superhero creators. They weren't working on monthly deadlines and they weren't under pressure to fill newsstand cash registers. Their job was done when the story was done. But comic book creators' jobs never ended. The stories couldn't be finished. The character had to go on. But the writers also had to hold an audience's attention.
Time. Money. Novelty. Competition. Rack space. Shuster and Siegel were pulling down big paychecks, but I can't imagine the pressure they labored under. Given the nature of comic book storytelling, though, their answer to Superman's Achilles problem is unsurprising. Shuster and Siegel had started with novelty and they stuck with it. Over the next few years, they piled Superman full of novelty after novelty to keep fans coming back for more.
When first introduced, Superman couldn't fly. He was inconveniently forced to leap small buildings in a single bound. He also fought crime without heat vision and x-ray vision. These gimmicks were writers' poorly examined answers to the problem of Superman. Super-breath gave us an immortal who froze everything in sight when he accidentally sneezed. Nobody set limits on Superman. By 1941, he had become a god. Statius would have shot himself in the face with an arrow if he'd seen this stuff.
Superman was so popular that he made the jump from one medium, comic books, to another, radio, in record time. Only two years after his debut, he earned his own radio show, The Adventures of Superman. Its writers inherited the whole mess. And pressure? These guys had to crank out enough scripts to run episodes three times a week. They were lucky in the beginning. Radio played to a wider audience than comics, and when the show launched, most listeners were hearing about Superman for the first time. Once again, the gimmicks worked for awhile. But with that kind of writing schedule, writers hit the wall fast. Scrambling, they found their solution in the form of a glowing green rock from Superman's home planet, Krypton. Fittingly, they dubbed it kryptonite.
The show's writers brought the Man of Steel to his knees with kryptonite. He was powerless in its presence and the longer the exposure, the closer he came to death. He was vulnerable, a potential target of even the most common criminals. He had limits. No doubt the writers exulted, unable to see the new problem they had created for their future counterparts. Less rock than radioactive turd, kryptonite opened the door to a multitude of (bad) new stories.
When The Adventures of Superman ended, Action Comics writers were still under the gun. Not bulletproof like their hero, they feverishly raced the deadlines, churning out story after story, keeping newsstands heavily stocked with tales of the Man of Steel. Plot lines grew thinner and thinner, and they too embraced kryptonite. And every time this crazy rock surfaced, Superman came closer to death - but death remained impossible: dead characters earn no paychecks.
DC's writers couldn't kill Superman, but they began to run out of wacky, zany ways to end kryptonite stories. Desperate once again, they hurriedly cooked up an answer: lead. Wrapped in lead, kryptonite holds no sway over Superman. Lead renders it harmless. Perhaps a rushed writer found himself stuck in a kryptonite box and, searching for inspiration, capitulated to an answer right under his nose: the tip of his pencil. But in his haste he chose one of the most available metals on earth, one of the most common on Superman's adopted home.
Kryptonite plots again became more frequent. And with them, of course, came more lead. With lead paint encircling every pencil on every desk in every corner of the world -- and Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, is a journalist for God's sake -- the storylines thinned again. Kryptonite was overused and lead was too easy. Lost in lead mines, writers spastically grabbed at a new answer. But unbelievably, they settled on an old one: better kryptonite.
A rushed writer found himself in yet another lead box and, searching for inspiration, he found his answer right underneath an artist's nose: colored pencils. He and his colleagues sprinkled Superman's world with countless colors of kryptonite, each with its own unusual effect. All of these new rocks shared two qualities: they were all unaffected by lead and they were all utterly stupid.
Red kryptonite was a lump of the good, old-fashioned green stuff that passed through a radioactive cloud of some sort on its journey to earth. Every piece was different. In one issue it caused Superman to endure psychedelic, mind-bending hallucinations. In another it morphed the hero into embarrassing shapes. Each piece of red kryptonite affected Superman for only a day, at which point he returned to his normal state (no doubt because his writers couldn't find a graceful exit from these crappy plots).
Gold kryptonite was green kryptonite's weaker cousin. It removed Superman's powers -- rendering him human -- but without dropping him on death's doorstep. Narratively, gold kryptonite allowed Superman to become a moving target instead of just lying on the floor.
Blue kryptonite was a storytelling nightmare. It was to the villain Bizarro -- a sort of "reverse" Superman -- what green kryptonite was to Superman. Bizarro is a goofy, backasswards villain, unworthy of a place in Superman's rogues gallery. Once more: a writer found himself a villain short and, searching for inspiration, freebased some red kryptonite. In some issues blue kryptonite put Bizarro down and in some it just made him an easygoing guy. As long as it brings an end to Bizarro stories, it's nothing less than the best kryptonite ever.
Author and comic writer Peter David put the nail in the lead coffin of kryptonite's absurdity with his invented send-up in Supergirl #79: pink kryptonite, which makes Superman gay. But then again, why not? Truth, justice, the American way and gay pride is a better storyline than some that have spilled blue and red ink on paper. What else? Maybe periwinkle kryptonite, for Disco Superman, just in time for the 1978 Richard Donner film.
For us mortals, "kryptonite" works without the cape and the big red "S." It's a moral weakness, a character flaw. It's the idea that we're powerless in the face of this vice or that guilty pleasure. It sounds cool when we describe our shortcomings this way, appropriating Superman's virtue for ourselves: "cigarettes are my kryptonite." This kryptonite is metaphorical, a weaker, abstracted copy of a space rock that serves as a totem. But it makes more sense as a metaphor than as an object that's just a cheap, flimsy deus ex machina.
Everyone's got their kryptonite. Everyone's powerless in the face of something. Sex, drugs, money -- those are high end character flaws. But just as Superman's classic writers made "real" kryptonite into something bigger than it deserved, so metaphorical kryptonite turns out to be more deflationary. Our moral integrity is better undermined with things more mundane, such as catnaps or Friends reruns or jelly donuts. Mephisto delights. Screw the scheming, work, and showmanship that go into Faustian bargains.
This is a searing attack on a pillar of Superman mythology. But I beg complainants to do this: see Zach Snyder's Superman retake, Man of Steel. It's solid and it's fun. And it's great to see a writer solve the whole character limit thing once and for all -- without kryptonite. Instead, Snyder opts for two better, time-honored solutions. He lays down better backstory, and he introduces better villains. I'm going to see it again. And I'll enjoy it again -- with my kryptonite: Twizzlers.
This post appears courtesy of Object Lessons.
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