And in the other corner: General Zod and his Kryptonian dance crew, appearing temporarily in their standing-room-only farewell stadium show.
Now, I think it’s fair to say that there were mistakes on both sides. Yes, Non is a mindless aberration whose only means of expression are wanton violence and destruction. True, the woman Ursa’s perversions and unreasoning hatred of all mankind have threatened even the children of the planet Krypton. Admittedly, General Zod — once trusted by this council, charged with maintaining the defense of the planet Krypton itself — was chief architect of this intended revolution and author of this insidious plot to establish a new order amongst us, with himself as absolute ruler.
I think the important thing is that we come together as a bipartisan coalition, put the past behind us, and start working on the issues that really matter to the average Kryptonian.
Okay, maybe not. I guess it’s hard to arrange a plea deal after you try a post-verdict Hail-Mary power seduction on the guy in charge of the sentencing.
“Join us,” Zod said — ugggh, so embarrassing — “You have been known to disagree with the council before. Yours could become an important voice in the new order, second only to my own!” — the guy is walking away, why do I always do this? — “I offer you a chance for greatness, Jor-El. Take it! Join us!”
And then it gets really cringey: “You will bow down before me, Jor-El! I swear it! No matter that it takes an eternity! You will bow down before me! Both you — and then, one day — your heirs!”
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a breakup like that, but believe me, that moment is going to stick with you, popping into your mind unbidden on an average of once every five or six weeks, for the rest of your life. Going from “we could be so great together” to “I will harm your unborn children” is really just giving them a good argument for why they’re walking away from you in the first place.
And then, sure, the world splits open and you’re standing in a spotlight on a frozen planet, and a big angry crack in the universe comes out of the sky, and swallows you forever in torment and regret. I think we’ve all been there, at some point.
Now, nobody in the movie actually says the words “Phantom Zone”, or explains that it’s a spooky ghost dimension populated entirely by numbskulls and failures. But that’s the good thing about being a superhero movie; you hardly have to explain anything, as long as it looks sparkly and interesting, and acts in accordance with the audience’s desires at the moment.
Honestly, if you can make the audience really want something — for a dead character to be alive, for the sundered hearts to find each other again — and you drag it out to the precise, most aggravating psychological moment, the audience will accept literally any lunatic plot contrivance to get the outcome that they’re hoping for. This is a fundamental principle of the dramatic arts, commonly known as the “fly around the world backwards and make time go in reverse” technique.
Obviously, in this case it’s simple; we’ve been looking at these bearded shouty people for several minutes when we were hoping to see the beginning of a Superman movie, so if you want to pick them up in a spangly diamond and hurl them into space then we are fine with it, and further explanation is not required.
Still, while we’re here, it might be enlightening to take a look at a few pivotal years in the history of Kryptonian jurisprudence. After all, Krypton is supposed to be a million years more advanced than we are; maybe we can pick up some tips to get us through the next hundred thousand or so.
The original version of Krypton’s super-penal system, if you’ll pardon the phrase, was revealed in a 1950 issue of Superman. The procedure was that they would put the condemned prisoners into suspended animation, along with a crystal that emitted mind-cleansing rays, which would remove the criminal part of their brains. This painless, humane process took 100 years to work, so while everyone’s waiting for them to wake up, the Kryptonians loaded the suspended animation capsule onto a rocket, and sent it off into space, in a satellite orbit that would return them to the surface when they’re all cooked.
Naturally, the hundred-year sentence and crystal-powered lobotomy need no explanation; that’s customary for any advanced civilization. The odd part is shooting the prisoners into orbit, rather than just leaving them somewhere and forgetting about them. As it turned out, the planet didn’t last a hundred years, so the criminals all floated away, to parts unknown.
The Superman writers used this gag twice — once in 1950, and again in 1958 — but the idea didn’t really catch on as a long-term story generator. You can’t keep accidentally cracking open brainwashing punishment space capsules like they’re Kinder Eggs; it gets old.
So the new hotness was the Phantom Zone, which was introduced in a Superboy story in 1961. This was during the Silver Age of Comics, which for Superman started in 1958 and ended in the late 60s, and was an incredibly fertile source of lunatic plot contrivances.
During the Silver Age, there were six Superman titles running simultaneously — Action Comics, Superman, Adventure Comics, Superboy, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane — and they were all edited by the same guy, Mort Weisinger. Weisinger wanted all of the titles to share a continuity, so that a character or an idea introduced in one title would pop up again in another.
Part of the reason for having this continuity was that kids would become fans of the whole range of Superman titles, rather than just one book. If you were interested in Mon-El when he first appeared in Superboy in 1961, then you’d want to pick up Adventure Comics in 1963, when he joined the Legion of Super-Heroes. Having this shared base of characters and ideas created a full-blown mythology that you could follow over years, and feel rewarded for your long-term investment in the books.
More importantly, sharing the ideas across titles meant that the writers had more to work with, as they churned out story after story. These days, when most superhero fans are adults, a single comic book story lasts for six issues, which get collected in a paperback book. During the Silver Age, the stories were written for middle schoolers, so each title usually had two to three different short stories per issue. On the rare occasions that they ran a single 26-page story in an issue, they would call it a “novel” and make a big deal about it.
So they were burning up story ideas incredibly quickly — in 1963, for example, between the six Superman titles, they published 56 issues with a total of 124 stories. That’s more than ten different Superman stories every month for years and years.
Imagine that you had to write ten Superman stories this month, according to the following principles:
- Each story has to include several opportunities for using superpowers;
- The good guys always win;
- Nobody ever dies or gets seriously injured;
- You can’t obviously recycle any previous Superman stories that have ever been written;
- At least six of the ten stories have a shocking visual hook that would make a good cover.
Under those circumstances, you would be desperate for any story-productive gimmick that could help you generate next month’s batch.
So you invent super-pets, and time travel devices, and robot duplicates, and different colors of Kryptonite that each affect the character in a different way, and a world where everything is backwards, and a tiny city that exists in a glass jar in a super-secret clubhouse/wax museum. You invent a whole new category of story — the “imaginary story” — so that sometimes characters could die or get married, without screwing up the whole enterprise.
And for our purposes, today — you invent an extra dimension full of angry telepathic Kryptonian criminals.
And you do it in a story that starts like it’s an advertisement for IBM Selectric typewriters, obviously. This is “The Phantom Superboy” from Adventure Comics #283 (April 1961), and it starts at the Kents’ general store, where young Clark Kent eagerly tells his pal Lana, “I’ve been trying out the first electric typewriter on the market! It just arrived today!”
This was extremely trendy in 1961, because IBM had just released the Selectric — a big update from previous electric typewriters because it used a “typeball” rather than having a separate key for each letter. That might not get your heart racing, but Clark and his friend Lana Lang are enchanted by it.
There’s even a one-panel how-to guide: “First, you must be sure the machine is plugged in! Then turn the switch to the ‘ON’ position! You don’t ‘hit’ the keys! You barely touch them, because this machine practically does everything by itself!”
Clark goes on, “It has terrific speed and sensitivity! Everything’s done by electricity, except the brainwork! After all, one must do something for oneself!”
Now, I’m sure at this point you’re wondering why I’m wasting your time talking about typewriters, but this is the reason that the Phantom Zone exists, and it’s not my fault.
You see, Lana makes the observation that brainwaves are electrical impulses, so if someone had super-strong brainwaves, then they could operate the typewriter without even touching the keys, and that’s such a silly idea that they decided to write a whole story around it.
So then a mystery box full of dangerous Kryptonian junk lands in the New Mexico desert, as so often happens, and naturally Superboy opens it and starts messing around with it.
“Warning!” the instruction manual says, in Kryptonese. “The contents of this box are weapons developed by advanced Kryptonese science! We of Krypton consider them too dangerous to keep. We have therefore sealed them in a container, placed the container in a satellite rocket and launched it into outer space, where the weapons can never menace our planet!”
You may have noticed that whenever Kryptonians are holding something hot, they decide to send it out into space, where it will never be seen by anyone ever again. This is why the anti-roxxers refused to go into space when Jor-El said that the planet was going to be destroyed. For Kryptonians, the rest of the galaxy was just a garbage dump for whatever they wanted to get rid of.
Naturally, having perused this deep-time nuclear-waste disposal warning, Superboy immediately tries out every single thing that he finds in the box, including an electro-atomic evaporation ray, which destroys a mountain, and an enlarger ray, which turns a nearby lizard into a giant dinosaur, which falls down a hill and breaks its own neck.
Pleased with his success, Superboy tries on a thought helmet which explains the Phantom Zone ray. “Hearken, wearer of the helmet!” it cries. “Until outlawed by the rulers of Krypton, yonder weapon was used as a means of punishing criminals.” I have no idea why it’s talking like the waiter at Medieval Times. “By pressing the black button, convicts were projected into a Phantom Zone for the duration of their sentence, after which time they could be recalled only by pressing the white button!”
The helmet tells Superboy about the first couple of prisoners sentenced to the Phantom Zone, including General Zod, “who used a duplicator ray to create a private army to overthrow the government!” In the panel, a prosecutor who isn’t wearing pants shows off a squad of Zod’s robots, who were all imperfect duplicates bent on overthrowing the current government and installing Zod as dictator.
Of course, Superboy — whose family motto might as well be “fuck around and find out” — winds up accidentally projected into the Phantom Zone himself, where he can’t communicate with anybody who can help him undo it. He blames the lizard, although honestly, Superboy? Reptiles are not the problem here.
The Kents don’t know where Superboy is, so the next morning, they decide to activate the Clark Kent robot to take his place — which is exactly the thing that General Zod was sentenced to the Phantom Zone for. It’s no wonder everybody on Krypton hated this family.
As I said, this all turns out to be a weird infomercial for electric typewriters, so Superboy uses his super brainwaves to type an SOS message for his dad.
Pa Kent uses the PZ ray to bring Superboy back to the material plane, and Superboy decides to dump the Kryptonian mystery box in the ocean, because once you drop something in the ocean, it will never be seen by anyone ever again, sigh.
The story ends with an explicit message that the writers recognize that this plot device has future story potential. “Maybe some day when I grow up,” Superboy muses, “I’ll revisit the Phantom Zone and meet all the criminals from Krypton who are still there!”
As it turns out, they return to it only two months later, in Superboy #89 (June 1961), when Superboy needs to find a place to stash a new friend who he’s just fatally poisoned with lead. With no real understanding of what he’s doing, Superboy sends Mon-El into the Phantom Zone, and promises that he’ll let him out once he finds a cure for Mon-El’s condition, which he one hundred percent does not ever do.
And just a few months after that, in Adventure Comics #289 (Oct 1961), a madman named Jax-Ur escapes because “a passing comet created a momentary warp in the Phantom Zone”, whatever that means. This is the story where it’s revealed that all of the criminals evaporated on Krypton now hang around on Earth for some reason, watching everything that everyone else does and muttering curses and imprecations, just waiting for their own chance to slip out through the back pasture and cause trouble for thirteen pages.
This was followed in 1962 by seven more stories about the Phantom Zone baddies. Just in May 1962 alone, there were PZ stories in three different titles. In Superman, eight criminals escaped through a hole torn by an atomic test blast and moved into a deserted mining town; in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, a temporarily unbalanced Lana Lang sent both Lois Lane and Superman’s mermaid friend Lori Lemaris into the Phantom Zone; and in Action Comics, Jax-Ur hypnotized Supergirl’s father into creating a Phantom Zone-destroying solvent made out of, I am not joking, Supergirl’s tears.
So there was Jax-Ur and Zax-Ur, Kru-El and Tor-An, Dr. Xadu, Professor Vakox and General Zod. There was the brilliant scientist Quex-Ul, who got mindwiped and ended up with a minimum wage job at the Daily Planet, and Ras-Krom, whose dastardly plan to dress up in a long beard and steal Russia’s atomic missiles was foiled because he believed in the Kryptonian superstition that if you see a comet then you need to go hide in a cave for 24 hours.
In fact, from 1961 to 1964, there were eighteen different Phantom Zone jailbreaks, not even counting the dozen times when they menaced a regular person who got stuck in the Zone. People talk about how great Krypton was, but if this was their justice system, then the recidivism rate is off the charts.
But that was life during the Silver Age, when the writers were trying to generate as many stories as possible. If they struck on a productive gimmick like the Phantom Zone, they would keep on using it, passing it back and forth between different writers and titles, and putting a weird new spin on the idea every time.
This happens all the time in superhero comics, because long-running serialized narrative is basically a process of natural selection for story ideas. A weak idea, like Superman falling in love with a mermaid, tends to drop out after a while, because there aren’t that many stories that you can write about it. But a strong idea, like a hidden dimension filled with angry telepathic ghosts with superpowers who all hate Superman like poison, will get picked up and used and embroidered over time, passing from one writer to another.
That’s how a weird little idea like the Phantom Zone — apparently conceived as a gimmick to give Superboy a reason to communicate by brainwaves through an electric typewriter — makes its way across the years, and into a movie script written by the guy who wrote The Godfather.
And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is why my clients should be found not guilty, by reason of the story concept’s insanity. The defense rests.
Jor-El and the Science Council talk things over
1.9: Staff Meeting in Space
In Richard Donner’s commentary on the Extended Edition DVD, he talks about the Phantom Zone diamond effect, saying, “Now, what you’re about to see was an effect that I saw that Sunday, on a commercial for cereal. That — that thing. And we called the company and they came in, and designed this piece, and it was actually from a commercial. It’s that two-dimensional piece that spins around.”
Does anyone know what cereal commercial he’s talking about? I’m just curious; I can’t imagine seeing that effect in a 70s cereal commercial.
Also, for anybody who’s interested, these are the comics referenced in this post:
- Superman #65 (July/Aug 1950): “Three Supermen From Krypton!”
- Superman #123 (Aug 1958): “Superman’s Return to Krypton”
- Adventure Comics #283 (April 1961): “The Phantom Superboy”
- Superboy #89 (June 1961): “Superboy’s Big Brother!”
- Adventure Comics #289 (Oct 1961): “Clark Kent’s Super-Father!”
- Action Comics #284 (Jan 1962): “The Babe of Steel!”
- Superman #153 (May 1962): “The Town of Supermen!”
- Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #33 (May 1962): “The Phantom Lois Lane!”
- Action Comics #288 (May 1962): “The Man Who Made Supergirl Cry!”
- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #62 (July 1962): “Superman’s Phantom Pal!”
- Superboy #100 (Oct 1962): “Ma and Pa Kent’s Incredible Delusion!”
- Superman #157 (Nov 1962): “The Super-Revenge of the Phantom Zone Prisoner!”
- Action Comics #297 (Feb 1963): “The Forbidden Weapons of Krypton!”
- Superman #164 (Oct 1963): “The Fugitive from the Phantom Zone!”
- Action Comics #307 (Dec 1963): “Supergirl’s Wedding Day!”
- Action Comics #310 (March 1964): “The Secret of Kryptonite Six!”
Jor-El and the Science Council talk things over
1.9: Staff Meeting in Space
— Danny Horn