Superman 1.6: We Built This City

Tracking across the limitless void, we zero in on a mighty red sun, which soon fills our view. An ancient blue planet orbits this commanding star, home to a noble civilization of powerful beings who live in a domed city carved into the mountains of pure white crystalline rock. As the music builds to a fanfare so emphatic you’d think the orchestra would explode, the camera lingers on this frozen, glittering landscape.

So here’s my question: If Krypton is so great, why is it all indoors?

I mean, I’m not an expert on civilizations that are a million years more advanced than our own, but I’m pretty sure that good planets have furniture; from what I can see, everybody on Krypton just stands around and glows.

You can tell that Krypton is a terrible planet because it blows up fifteen minutes after we get there, which is the exact thing that planets aren’t supposed to do. You had one job.

As we saw in the first post, the original version of the Krypton story was one sentence long: “As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it toward Earth!” Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster wanted to jump right into the action and introduce their super-strong, bulletproof action hero to the world, and they didn’t waste time on details.

But they got a second chance eight months later, in the Superman newspaper comic strip. This was what Siegel and Shuster really wanted to do in the first place, write a daily strip about Superman, and they only turned to comic books once all the newspaper syndicates turned them down. After Action Comics became an instant hit, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of Superman’s reckless adventures every month, the McClure newspaper syndicate signed the pair for a daily strip as well, debuting on January 16, 1939.

Now, I would argue that Siegel and Shuster were actually comic strip writers at heart. That’s why the early Superman comics are so fast — they’re written like adventure comic strips, with something exciting happening at the end of every four panels. If you happen to have reprints of the early issues of Action Comics, take a look at any given story in the first year and a half and imagine it printed in the newspaper, with every two rows a single strip with a punch at the end. Every four panels, there’s a decision, or a discovery, or a scene change, or Superman punches somebody into a wall. Telling a story four panels at a time seems to just come naturally to them.

The concept of the character was already sold, so they didn’t have to jump straight into the middle of a midnight raid on the governor’s mansion. With a little extra space to stretch out, they decided to spend the first two weeks developing the origin story.

This isn’t just any distant planet; it’s called Krypton now, and it’s full of laboratories. We don’t see a lot of the super advanced civilization, because most of the panels focus on the feverishly emoting characters, but Jor-L’s wearing a sci-fi tunic and there are tall buildings with trendy curved balconies. Besides that, we’re supposed to use our imaginations. There’s probably flying cars or something. Although, if everybody can run really fast, then maybe they don’t need flying cars. Look, it’s not important whether they have flying cars or not.

The important thing is that Superman has a father and a mother, and he came from somewhere. The first panel explains: “Krypton, a distant planet so far advanced in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen — beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!” And then we see Jor-L, Krypton’s foremost scientist, who can run really fast and jump really high. Then in the last panel, we get to the point: Superman is loved.

I mentioned this before, and it’s probably going to come up a lot: the three steps to getting the audience to like a new character is to make a friend, make a joke and make something happen, and I can’t stress enough how important that “make a friend” step is. People tend not to trust strangers, and if you introduce a character who has no relationships, they tend to make us uncomfortable.

In the first issue of Action Comics, Superman spends most of his time hitting people, breaking things and running away, but Siegel and Shuster gave him a civilian identity right on page 4, because they knew that the character had to be connected to other people. From the start, Clark has a connection with his newspaper editor, and a strained but crucial relationship with Lois, and those earth-bound relationships ground him, and make it okay for us to ride along on his campaign of destruction. So many things change between issue #1 and the many versions of Superman today — his powers, who he fights, the way he behaves and what he stands for — but there is always an editor, and there is always Lois, because without them, the character doesn’t work.

But I have to admit, when the lead character’s strongest relationship is with a woman who despises him on sight and dates him out of pity, it would be nice if somewhere in the universe there were people who really cared about him. Given the opportunity to start over, the very first thing that Siegel and Shuster did was give him a family to lose.

Of course, they’re lunatics; what else would you expect? After all, these are super-strong monsters from outer space.

Lora tells her husband, “Jor-L, I’m afraid our newborn son, Kal-L, is rather a roughneck! He gave the doctor a discolored eye, and I’ve had difficulty in preventing his leaping from my arms!”

“Just like your dad!” replies Jor-L. Apparently he gives people random thrashings, in between his duties as a foremost scientist, and if you look at the way Superman behaves on Earth in 1939, then yeah, that tracks.

So far, we’ve had six panels of peace and there hasn’t been any property damage yet, so obviously that situation needs to be corrected, through the medium of an earthquake that destroys the family home while the family’s still in it. This is probably the only example in 1939 when a house falls down and it isn’t technically Superman’s fault.

But that’s not really a suspenseful cliffhanger because hello, we already told you these people represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development. You can’t kill these people by collapsing a house on them; they’re a special breed that can outlast their own architecture.

Jor-L appears to be entirely on his own, as far as this problem is concerned; we actually don’t see a single other character for the first week of strips outside of this thermonuclear family. They just hustle off to “Jor-L’s other residence,” and he gets to work in his secondary laboratory, figuring out the terrible truth with a compass and a protractor.

Krypton is doomed, as it turns out. “Our recent volcanic eruptions were a warning,” runs Jor-L’s diagnosis, “but soon, due to an internal cataclysm, Krypton will explode into fragments!”

And check out the facial expression on Lora, here. Joe Shuster’s eyes were already failing by this point, and the Siegel and Shuster studio had hired a couple assistants to actually lay out and draw the panels. The one thing that Shuster did himself was inking the characters’ faces, and that panel is why.

There’s a whole doomed planet out there, full of superpeople with their own pleasures and concerns, but right now, the only thing that matters is Superman’s mom, and the predestined destruction of this family.

The pacing of this story is absolute clockwork, every strip advancing the narrative another step. Here’s how the first week breaks down:

Monday: Jor-L meets his newborn son.
Tuesday: Earthquake, the house falls down.
Wednesday: Jor-L rescues his family from the rubble.
Thursday: Jor-L is horrified by his discovery.
Friday: Jor-L reveals that the planet is doomed.
Saturday: Jor-L decides to build a giant ark.

And then you have all of Sunday to think about it, and wonder what’s going to happen next.

Now, Jor-L is clearly perfect and can accomplish anything, given time and newsprint, so the flaw in the plan needs to come from somewhere else. That’s how we end up with Retoz and his dumbass science council, who sit around a conference table and ruin everything.

“But I tell you, Retoz!” Jor-L insists. “It’s the only way we can save everyone from a terrible death! You’ve got to believe, and to help me!

“Sorry, Jor-L,” Retoz sneers. “The council believes your fears unfounded —— we’d advise you to forget this silly tale of Krypton’s coming doom!”

So I guess there haven’t been enough long-term studies on the rocket, and there might be side effects of evacuating the planet. The rocket only has emergency approval anyway, and making everybody get on it before the planet explodes is an infringement on their personal freedom.

You know, I thought this was supposed to be a super advanced civilization at the ultimate peak of development, but if these anti-rocketeers are allowed to run the government and make important decisions, then maybe this planet isn’t worth saving after all.

So screw it, if nobody else wants to come, then Jor-L is going to build his own goddamn space ark, and his family will go off and find some other civilization that isn’t run entirely by dummies. Krypton’s going to have to get along with the second most foremost scientist, that’s all.

This is the funny thing about Krypton, that Siegel and Shuster didn’t originally portray it as a place worth saving. Later on, in the 1950s, the writers got terribly sentimental about Krypton, and they were always going on about how beautiful and noble and technologically advanced it was, but Siegel and Shuster didn’t really care about world-building. World-exploding was more in their line.

The important thing, amid the chaos of the entirely foreseeable consequences, is to save the one person that’s worth saving. Little Kal-L, the kid who punched his own doctor in the face while he was being born, is going to get his chance to meet a passing motorist, and change history.

“Krypton is doomed!” the man says, and that prophecy echoes through the decades. There will be other survivors and refugees from this disaster, one day, and they’ll find places to live, and people to love.

But always, necessarily: Krypton is doomed. Then again, aren’t we all? I mean, when you think about it.

Brando performs his magic act in
1.7: Jor-El and the Magic Wand

Movie list

— Danny Horn

12 thoughts on “Superman 1.6: We Built This City

  1. I wish every Superman story featured a guy running toward the bottom left-hand corner of the panel while holding his head and resting at least one hand on his square head. That just adds so much depth. I’ve seen people online not only identifying the guy in Action #1 with the one in the fourth to last panel above, but proposing a whole title devoted to his exploits.

    Heck, if they’d featured him in a live-action movie, they could have found an actor who specializes in touching his own head while emoting furiously. The perfect job for your old favorite, Roger Davis…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You talk as if those things weren’t totally terrific and tremendous! It was on the internet, it must be true!

      I love how, no matter what futuristic, perfect, Ubermensch society is designed, the seeds of its own destruction are always the same: a terrible plague? A dying planet? Don’t be silly! We’re great so nothing will happen to us! Say, I don’t feel so good…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow. Though these panels were created more than 80 years ago, the story of doomsday on Krypton really serves as a perfect metaphor for current day America. “If Krypton is so great, why is it all indoors?” You may as well ask “If the modern-day USA is so great, why is so much of it just half-empty strip malls and chain restaurants?” And Jor-e is clearly Dr. Fauci trying to talk sense to the anti-vaxxers who smugly laugh off any talk about a serious crisis threatening their blessed utopia. No, the death of Krypton makes is so very relatable today: It’s the same sense of unearned exceptionalism and entitlement that is dragging America down now.

    And on a less grim note, in that panel showing the city collapsing — is it just me or did Joe Schuster simply re-draw the same bug-eyed character that appears on the cover of Action Comics #1? He’s even in the same lower left-hand corner of the panel!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In the Snyder film (Motto: “There’s nothing we can’t make depressing!”) they make this huge point that Zod is a crazed-jingoistic Krypton loyalist military hawk whose only goal is his empire’s glory, but there’s literally nothing left of it. Everything’s been conquered, most of the colonial possessions are deserted, and clearly no other race is going up against Krypton anytime soon (all this is before it blows up.) He’s got no one to fight and nothing to conquer and insists on dragging his soldiers into an unwinnable forever war against a society he neither respects nor understands.


      Liked by 2 people

  3. Though they make an effort to make the men’s clothing look futuristic, Lora looks very much like a fashionable woman of the late 1930s. Their society is so advanced that Mom has switched into an elegant gown and had her hair and makeup done immediately after giving birth. I hope she eventually found a pair of shoes or are all women on Krypton kept barefoot and pregnant?
    I’m sure Jor-L is using a Sonic Compass.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In an advanced civilization at the ultimate peak of development, make up and hairstyling are obsolete. That’s Lora’s natural look. But she’s so clueless. How? Did only the men’s brains evolve? Oh wait the council is clueless too. (And in bizarre moment of irony, my predictive text substituted ‘Congress’ for ‘clueless.’)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Uh, wait.
    Was the plan to just send the trial flight to Earth or was he planning to send a giant space ship filled with super-beings here, too?
    What were they planning on doing with us?
    To her credit, Lora asks for clarification. “The planet Earth?” she asks, undoubtedly hoping the answer will be, “No, the Earth Resort and Spa in the Rigel System.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Something that I appreciate from John Byrne’s MAN OF STEEL origin is that Krypton’s core is slowly turning into Kryptonite, which is killing the Kryptonians before the planet even explodes. It’s an elegant way of demonstrating that Kryptonite is lethal.

    Krypton has frustrated me because over the past few decades because efforts were made to focus on Clark Kent the human being, as a result Krypton and its people never actually mattered to the character. It’s not like Asgard, where Thor has lived and has an emotional investment.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. True, but then prior to Byrne, Superman was all about Krypton for about 3 decades. He was regularly going on time travel day-trips back there, even attending his parents’ wedding. He had his own bit of Krypton in a bottle that he could visit anytime. He had all these video diaries and teaching machines that taught him everything about the place.
      And he had his pet dog and his dad’s monkey!
      There were so many survivors from Krypton that it was looking like Jor-El and Lora were the only ones who died!

      Liked by 1 person

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