Well, if little Kal-El thought he could stretch out and relax during the journey from there to here, then he was mistaken; his dad has prepared a three-year-long audiobook for him to listen to on the trip. We see the boy traveling through clouds of space plankton in his star bubble, and above the sound of a passing scherzo, we hear extracts from Jor-Audible.
The first fragment that we hear is “… which Einstein called his theory of relativity.” I don’t know if that’s chapter one or not; I would hope they’d ease the kid in a bit before jumping straight to Einstein. This is a weird belief that science-fiction writers have, that you can learn things more efficiently if you’re being brainwashed by a computer, because education is basically a data download, and actual engagement with the material just gets in the way.
So I want to take a look at what kind of schooling is going on here, and try, for at least a couple minutes, not to talk about Beppo.
Because I have to face it: superhero movies could hardly be more popular right now, but so far, I am not exactly nailing the zeitgeist. Instead of writing about the new trailer for Venom: Let There Be Carnage, or set news from Thor: Love and Thunder, I’m obsessing over a 40+ year old film starring a character that isn’t even that popular these days.
So the last thing I should be doing, only three weeks in, is to get in a discussion about yet another forgotten comic book story from the late 1950s, especially if it involves a mischievous Kryptonian super-monkey who stowed away on Kal-El’s space capsule and is probably in there right now, getting the full deets on Einstein.
“Embedded in the crystals before you,” Jor-El brags, “is the total accumulation of all literature and scientific fact from dozens of other worlds, spanning the 28 known galaxies.” That is a lot of literature and scientific fact to embed, and it makes me wonder if Jor-El could have been a little more choosey with the curriculum. Even the accumulation of all literature from one world can wear on you after a while, especially if it includes all 13 of The Southern Vampire Mysteries.
The scherzo gets in the way quite a bit, so all you can hear is fragments — “Early Chinese writings point out the complex relationships…” and “By carrying this complex equation to its ultimate power, my son…” Meanwhile, we see the kid placidly getting older, aging before our eyes as he passively accepts this wide-ranging lecture on whatever the hell Jor-El thinks he’s going to need when he arrives at kindergarten in Kansas. Kal’s going to be pretty disappointed when he shows up with his lunchbox and it turns out the teacher hasn’t even gotten to early Chinese writings yet.
But using the word “complex” twice in two sentences tells us everything we need to know. These lines aren’t supposed to be taken literally; they’re just sound effects, to indicate that Jor-El is filling the kid up with as much smartness as he can, as he tumbles through the 28 galaxies and pushes the concept of “remote learning” about as far as it can go.
That is actually space plankton, by the way; that’s one of the scientific facts that I’ve accumulated about this movie.
The producers contracted with Oxford Scientific Films, a production company in the UK founded by a group of Oxford University scientists, who made natural history films for the BBC and National Geographic. For this film, Oxford Scientific traveled to Bermuda to do microscopic photography of bioluminescent oceanic plankton in the waters of Castle Harbour, which is a pretty soft gig if you can swing it.
They used this odd-looking footage to create weird “galactic effects” for the credits, and for this star-spanning journey across the sky. There are a lot of plankton shots used over the course of about a minute of the film, and they each look completely different. They don’t really represent anything in particular, like black holes or meteor swarms or something; they just look interesting, which is all you need from a special effect.
Meanwhile, Beppo must be chilling in the back seat, drinking a piña colada and taking in as much early Chinese writing as he cares to help himself to. I’m sorry, I know that I said that I wasn’t going to do this, but it’s actual Superman canon that there was a stowaway super-monkey in Kal-El’s transport, and the mainstream media have been suppressing the story since Crisis on Infinite Earths.
We learned about this in the Silver Age, of course, that slap-happy slice of pre-history that I talked about last week in the Phantom Zone post, when the writers were encouraged to invent anything that came into their heads which might make for an attention-grabbing cover image. In October 1959, a story called “The Super-Monkey from Krypton!” in Superboy #76 explained that one of Jor-El’s test animals got out of its cage, and slipped into the rocket just before it left Krypton. I don’t know what the writers were doing in the previous seventy-five issues of Superboy — just killing time, really, waiting for their chance to introduce a super-monkey.
The concept is perfectly straightforward, really: the monkey was from Krypton, so it had super-powers on Earth. It ran away from Kal-El’s rocket before any passing motorists showed up, and headed for the nearest jungle. After spending a couple years tossing elephants around and punching mean gorillas in the face, he decided to return to Kansas and hang out with his old roommate, Superbaby.
Being a monkey and therefore mischievous by nature, Beppo swiped the super-suit and dressed up like young Clark, disturbing Pa Kent in his bath and stealing a jar of coins from Ma Kent, then destroying Clark’s toy fire truck and setting off some Fourth of July fireworks.
At the end of this pleasant and instructive afternoon, Beppo got the mistaken impression that he was being chased by a comet, and he flew off into space, where he remained for years, doing who knows what.
Look, I’m not saying that this was one of the high spots in American literature or anything, I’m just saying that there is a super-monkey in that space capsule somewhere, and if Richard Donner thinks that he can erase our cultural heritage and replace it with space plankton, then I for one am going to stand up for what I know in my heart is the truth.
Anyway, at a certain point, Jor-El stops beating around the bush, and starts getting real.
“Chief among these powers,” he informs his spin-dryer son, “will be your sight, your strength, your hearing, your ability to propel yourself at almost limitless speed.” I hope the kid is taking notes.
Then, with no segue at all, his master’s voice goes straight into “The early history of our universe was a bloody mosaic of interplanetary war,” which is not the answer to a question that anyone asked.
Then Jor-El says, “Each of the six galaxies which you will pass through contain their own individual law of space and time,” which is a  if I ever saw one, and then, just when he’s really got the kid on the ropes, he lays down the law: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history.” Okay, pops. We’ll see about that.
Now, if Professor Brando really knew what he was talking about, he would give his son some useful information, like what to do when you accidentally turn into a monkey and get kidnapped by an organ grinder who’s giving out free bananas. Kal-El is about to have pretty much the most hectic possible life, and I don’t think the seminar on early Chinese writing is going to prepare him for what’s about to come his way. Still, maybe he can get an internship or something.
1.16: Passing Motorists.
The comic mentioned at the end is “Superboy Goes Ape!” from Superboy #142 (Oct 1967). The Superboy-monkey grows to giant size, and then Beppo gets turned into a giant Superboy. It all works out somehow.
1.16: Passing Motorists.
— Danny Horn