“Wish I could explain my strange reaction to that meteor!” Clark Kent wonders aloud. “Why do I get weak every time I come within five feet of it? And Krypton… Why did I keep repeating that word, over and over again? Krypton… What has the word Krypton to do with me? Sounds familiar, but I… just can’t place it! I must find out, because unless I’m very much mistaken… Krypton is the key to this whole strange business!”
You see, back in the old days, little Kal-El didn’t arrive on the planet Earth with a crystal library full of ancient knowledge and a hologram of his dad to explain how to use it; the kid just crashed, and it was up to the passing motorists to figure everything out from scratch.
So in 1943, when the Adventures of Superman radio show decided that they wanted Superman to know where he came from, they invented a meteor and called it Kryptonite, and then they put it in a drawer and forgot about it for another two years.
Now, you and Lex Luthor and I are aware of how crucial the concept of Kryptonite is to the Superman story: it’s the hero’s Achilles heel, the one weakness of a man who’s designed to be weakness-free. It’s a glowing green rock from another galaxy that’s perfectly safe unless you happen to be a secret space angel, in which case it kills you. It comes in a variety of sizes and price points, it can be crushed into a powder or turned into a gas, and sometimes there’s an enormous gorilla that can shoot it out of his eyes. And once you get tired of the green stuff, you can switch to the red version, which does something completely different.
It is, in short, one of the most story-productive gimmicks that you could possibly introduce, and the amazing thing it is how long it took to catch on, once they’d thought of it.
The radio story was called “The Meteor of Krypton”, and it kicked off in June 1943. A flaming meteor flashes across the heavens and lands in a farm outside Metropolis, and — knowing that Daily Planet readers are hungry for nothing but flaming meteor stories — Clark Kent goes out to have a look at it. When he approaches the thing, Clark gets dizzy and loses all of his strength, collapsing in a heap and moaning a mysterious word: Krypton.
You see, back in the early days, we knew where Superman came from, but he didn’t. The comic book, comic strip and radio show all began with some version of the Krypton origin story, but little Kal skipped town when he was a baby, so the name of the planet was a complete mystery to him. It’s not amazingly clear why a chunk of rock would broadcast that knowledge into his brain, but maybe it’s just trying to be gneiss.
The meteor is taken into custody and given to Dr. John Whistler, the head of the astrophysical division of the Metropolis Museum. Superman visits the doctor, who obligingly unboxes the Kryptonite for him. Superman gets disoriented, and then has a vision of his origin story on Krypton.
Then they do a reprise of the Jor-El/Krypton story, and Superman asks Dr. Whistler to put the meteor away again, and that is pretty much the end of that story. Superman wants to destroy the rock, but the doctor wants to keep it, for sentimental reasons. So the doctor promises that he’ll keep it locked up, in a vault that nobody will open until his death.
And then they don’t do anything with it, until 1945.
That’s a weird thing to do, because they’ve just invented an incredible story generator and put it in a drawer, with an obvious “In Case You Need a Story Idea, Break Glass” sign on it, and instead of using it, they just talk about Nazi spy rings for another two years.
In Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon has an explanation for this: War Department censorship.
“During the war, Superman radio scripts were submitted to the U.S. War Department for review. Discussion of radioactive elements was a sensitive issue, and the government let the show’s producers know it. Kryptonite wouldn’t make another appearance until September 1945.”
It sounds like a crazy idea, these days — the War Department didn’t have anything better to do than vet children’s radio scripts? — but there really was a U.S. Office of Censorship established in 1941, to make sure that radio broadcasts, newspapers and newsreels didn’t report any information that could be of value to the enemy. They didn’t even allow weather broadcasts from 1942 to 1943, because they were afraid that predictions of fog or storms could be used as cover for an enemy attack. The Adventures of Superman featured a lot of stories about German and Japanese spies, saboteurs and inventors, so it’s plausible that the military would keep an eye on their scripts.
But the radio producers were clearly eager to get Kryptonite onto the show, because they reintroduced it as soon as the war was over. VJ-Day was August 14th, 1945, and the official surrender document that ended World War II was signed on September 2nd. Three weeks after that, on September 24th, Dr. Whistler died, and Adventures of Superman opened the mystery box again.
And it turns out that Kryptonite really was the most story-productive element they could think of, because at this point they embarked on the longest story arc that the show ever produced — 77 episodes in a row, from late September all the way to early January. The show usually featured stories that lasted two or three weeks; this was a saga.
Just like in the movie, the radio story starts with Lois publishing information that she shouldn’t be publishing. Clark learns that Dr. Whistler has died, and he explains to Lois and Perry that Whistler’s meteor is the only substance that can harm Superman. This explanation involves another reprise of Jor-El warning the science council and sending his baby off in a rocket, which I guess now they’re going to do every couple of years whether they need it or not.
Without Clark knowing about it, Lois publishes a story about Superman being in danger, which attracts the attention of the Scarlet Widow, a mobster who decides to steal the chunk of Kryptonite from the museum. Once she’s got her hands on it, she calls four villains from previous radio stories, and sells each of them a chunk of the meteor, for a million dollars apiece.
One of the chunks gets liquefied by a Nazi spy, Der Teufel, who injects it into a young man, turning him into a super-powered Atom Man. He’s able to attack Superman with kryptonite lightning shooting out of his fingers, and once Superman defeats him, there’s still another three chunks out there. The whole thing gets so crazy that Superman has to call in Batman and Robin to help him, and even then, they only manage to track down three of the four pieces by the end of the story in January.
This storyline was a huge success, and when Columbia Pictures made its two Superman serials, they adapted elements from the radio show stories, rather than the comic books.
In the 1948 serial, at the end of the third episode, Professor Leeds from the Metropolis Museum finds a meteor, and Clark goes to the museum to get a look at it. When the Professor opens the mystery box to reveal the glowing rock, Clark gets dizzy and falls down. Clark is forced to reveal that he’s Superman, and asks the professor to destroy the rock. The professor agrees to keep the Kryptonite for just a few days and run tests on it, and then dump it in the ocean.
In place of the Scarlet Widow, who was an ugly old woman on the radio, the serial introduces the Spider Lady, a ravishing blonde with an enormous electrical web in her office, who wears a black evening gown and mask, even when she’s just hanging around at home with her henchmen. She’s tipped off about the existence of Kryptonite, and she sends her employees to steal it from the museum.
To be honest, there isn’t that much Kryptonite action in the serial, which mostly concerns itself with the standard sci-fi adventure serial tropes of the day: a powerful ray gun that needs to be stolen and assembled by a mysterious gang leader, who sends out her thugs to steal stuff and kidnap people. There’s a lot of gangsters driving cars, and the hero rescuing people who are tied up in dangerous places.
It’s not until the final chapter, episode 15, that they really use the Kryptonite to immobilize Superman. One of the Spider Lady’s goons flashes it at him and then brings Superman back to headquarters, where he instantly recovers and defeats everyone.
So Kryptonite has now been used successfully in two different mediums — on the radio show in 1943, 1945 and 1947, and in the 1948 serial — and it still took until 1949 for them to introduce it in the comics.
And once again, the first use they had for Kryptonite was to let Superman know where he comes from. The story is called “Superman Returns to Krypton!” and it appeared in Superman #61, November/December 1949.
Considering how consequential the introduction of Kryptonite is, the story starts in a bizarrely small-scale way. There’s a fake swami fortune-teller in Metropolis bilking rich society dames, and when Superman confronts the con artist, he suddenly feels weak, and collapses. He discovers that the gem in the swami’s turban is a strange meteorite found by a rock prospector in the west.
And then — using the unstoppable power of somehow — Superman races off at cosmic velocity, explaining to us, “Starting from where the meteorites landed… and traveling backward in time, I’ll chart the meteorites’ course… back to their origin!” So that’s a thing that Superman can do.
He follows the time trail all the way back to Krypton, a planet that he’s never heard of before, and he watches his entire origin story.
“Now I understand why I’m different from Earthmen!” Superman announces. “I’m not really from Earth at all — I’m from another planet — the planet Jor-El called Krypton!!” with two exclamation points and everything. Finally, he’s learned where he comes from, which we didn’t realize was even a problem until he brought it up. We’d known about Krypton for ages.
Once he deduces that it’s the gem in the swami’s turban that’s been causing problems for him, he returns to his own time and takes care of it by using his super-breath to blow the turban into the sea, and that’s the end of that.
But only a couple months later, in Action Comics #141 (Feb 1950), they bring it back, with a weird page-long introduction that claims that Superman and his enemies have known about Kryptonite for a while.
They show a panel that’s meant to be a flashback, with two old men in hats finding Superman lying around with a chunk of K.
“A strange meteor, Professor!” says one of the men. “Possibly a remnant of the exploded planet Krypton!”
“Quick!” the professor replies. “Superman’s fainted! This stuff must give off some strange radiation that overcomes him!”
Then the narrator says, “So the deadly element received the name of Kryptonite, and although the enemies of Superman frequently sought it afterwards, there appeared to be not another fragment on Earth. But now, the genius of Luthor has succeeded in creating — synthetic Kryptonite!”
This is the comic book writers finally admitting that the radio show was right, and Kryptonite is a good idea. It’s a bold move, to retcon a story that only appeared two months ago, using a fake flashback to cover their tracks.
Once they introduced Kryptonite into the comics, they immediately started using it a lot. That first story was in Nov/Dec 1949, and then it appears in three stories in 1950, five stories in 1951 and six stories in 1952. Naturally, that kind of thing can get out of hand, which it definitely did, so I’ll tell you that story in tomorrow’s post.
How Red Kryptonite spoiled it
1.80: The Silver Age of Kryptonite
— Danny Horn