I’ve been reading the recently released “Superman: The World of Krypton” trade paperback, and it’s drawn into sharper relief some of the feelings I’ve had about how Krypton has been depicted over the years.
Krypton was mentioned for the first time in Superman #1 (1939), and for almost fifty years thereafter it was expanded upon, revisited, and revised until it was as vibrant and intricate as any fictional world had ever been. You had the history of Kandor and its abduction by Brainiac; you had the invention of the Phantom Zone by Superman’s father, Jor-El; you had the destruction of Krypton’s moon, Wegthor, by the evil Jax-Ur and his subsequent imprisonment; you had wondrous places like the Gold Volcano and the Jewel Mountains; and you had the doomed love story between Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van that was surprisingly affecting given how comics were written at the time. In fact, much of this embelishment came directly from Jerry Siegel, during the short period of time that he returned to work at DC in the 1960’s.
But then Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, and DC decreed that Superman should be the last survivor of Krypton. No exceptions. That meant no Supergirl, no Krypton, no Kandor, and no Phantom Zone villains. Drastic as this was, it still would have been possible to accomplish without throwing out the entire history of Krypton, as it had been gradually built up for decades. But John Byrne, who was tasked with reinventing Superman following the Crisis, decided to give readers an entirely new version of Superman’s homeworld. Now, Krypton was a cold, emotionless, sterile place, where people lived forever but never interacted face-to-face, and where children were conceived in birthing matrices through no direct involvement of their parents. Thus, when Jor-El sent his son to earth, he did it not just so Kal-El could escape Krypton’s destruction, but also in the hopes that Kal-El could live in a society that still had the concepts of love and joy. Superman’s being sent to earth, in this interpretation, is portrayed as being a positive thing independent of Krypton’s imminent doom.
But the story doesn’t work nearly as well this way, in my opinion. The destruction of Krypton is supposed to be one of the all-time greatest tragedies of the universe. The death of Superman’s parents, whose love is so great but who die long before they deserve to, is supposed to be heart-wrenching. And that’s how it was for decades, until Byrne gave us Krypton that seemed like it deserved to die, and a Jor-El and Lara who only met for the first time minutes before their deaths.
And then there’s the circumstances of Superman’s birth. Originally, of course, he was born on Krypton, and lived there for the first few months of his life. In Byrne’s version, though, Superman’s “birthing matrix” is what is jettisoned to earth, the result being that he is not actually “born” until Jonathan and Martha Kent find him in the cornfield. As Superman proudly declares at the end of Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries, that makes him a human and an American, not an alien.
But Superman is supposed to be an alien. Sure, he was raised by humans and tends to think and act like us, but he’s not one of us. That’s the great irony of the character, that an alien can represent the epitome of what humanity could be. And that’s the great tragedy of the character, that no matter how much he wants to be one of us and finally fit it, he isn’t and he can’t. He disguises himself as bumbling Clark Kent so that he can live among us, but he forever feels apart from us.
And, like almost all adopted children, Superman wants more than anything to know what it would have been like to grow up on Krypton with his birth parents, and live that other life. Not that he wishes things had been different, necessarily; he loves the Kents and thinks of them as his parents. But he forever feels the sense of loss that comes from being the last survivor of a great culture, and not really knowing what that culture meant or how best to carry on its memory.
That’s who Superman is. And, thankfully, that’s the Superman that DC is giving is these days, as written by Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek, James Robinson, and Grant Morrison. The “Byrne Krypton” gave us a lot of great stories, but for my money, it missed the mark in the most fundamental ways.