Superman 1.80: The Silver Age of Kryptonite

So, yesterday I was telling you about how Superman comics caught on to the magical story-generation powers of Kryptonite, the only substance in the world that can weaken Superman, apart from all the other ones. The idea of Kryptonite originated in the Adventures of Superman radio show in 1943, and in 1945 they used it for a huge, complicated story arc that lasted for more than three months. The comic books didn’t inroduce Kryptonite until 1949, but as soon as they caught on to it, they started using it several times a year, to do all sorts of things.

The substance was supposed to be rare, but pretty soon, it was everywhere. In fact, there are two different stories published in 1952 alone that featured bald, bespectacled scientists creating synthetic Kryptonite in their labs. Apparently, any bald guy with poor vision could whip up a batch of anti-Superman juice any time they wanted it, which was often.

But it was in the Silver Age — that magical period from 1958 to 1969, when everything in Superman comics was exaggerated and absurd — that they really delved into Kryptonite’s full potential as a plot point factory. By this time, people had been writing 13-page stories about Superman every month for twenty years, and they weren’t allowed to change anything of consequence about the characters, so they were desperate for new gimmicks that they could use to keep up with the demand.

So they came up with the idea of using new varieties of Kryptonite, starting in December 1958 with Adventure Comics #255. The story was called “The Splitting of Superboy!”, and it featured another one of those asshole aliens that come to Earth every once in a while just to mess things up and then run away.

He gets into an argument with Clark about whether he’s also Superboy, so the alien gets a weird device and starts messing with it.

“On the red planet Mars we have a form of Red Kryptonite!” he explains. “But fear not, it doesn’t affect you like Green Kryptonite, the one element that can destroy you!” He must have been reading some back issues.

He turns his Red K device on a nearby caterpillar, and says, “Watch as the Red Kryptonite radiations strike that caterpillar! It instantly splits into its other form as a butterfly while its original form also remains!” That’s interesting, I guess, but I don’t know why you’d bother to create a machine that duplicates caterpillars. I feel like we already have as many caterpillars as we need.

And then, in a classic example of asshole alien behavior, Kozz makes Superboy fix his spaceship and then just flies away, without telling him how to reunite the two halves of his personality.

And that’s all there is to it; at that point, you have a crazy story about a depowered Clark Kent, who lives in Superboy’s house and hates him like poison. Naturally, the new Clark turns evil and tries to destroy Superboy with Kryptonite and robots, and then the extra Clark dies in an explosion, just before the Kents come home.

They don’t say anything about how Superboy manages to dispose of a corpse that looks like Clark Kent, but he’s a superhero; there’s probably a service that cleans up all the bodies of villains who fall into their own evil traps.

That little journey to the unknown seemed promising, so a few months later, they introduced Red Kryptonite in the Superman title with a different origin. In “Superman versus the Futuremen”, the Red K does a number of unpleasant things to Superman: first, it makes him lose control of his powers, so when he tries to fly, he slams into a brick wall and demolishes it. But Superman is always flying through brick walls, so nobody notices the difference. Then he loses his powers completely, and the Futuremen take him off to the far-off future world of 2000 AD.

The writers hadn’t really figured out what to do with Red K — in this story, it’s like Green Kryptonite, but a little more versatile. That’s not enough, to create the revolution that they need to power another decade of stories.

They finally figured it out in December 1959, with “The Revenge of Luthor!” in Action Comics #259, and — just like they did with regular Kryptonite a decade earlier — they came up with a new explanation, and then pretended it was that way the whole time.

This story begins with Superman noticing a meteor that’s about to hit an airplane, and rushing to catch it — and then realizing that he’s holding Red Kryptonite.

The narrator explains: “Red Kryptonite — the dread substance that was formed many years ago when fragments of the destroyed planet Krypton, converted to Green Kryptonite by nuclear fission, passed through a strange cosmic cloud…” See above for what a strange cosmic cloud looks like, as seen in the vacuum of outer space.

And then they give us the pitch: “Green Kryptonite can kill Superman! Red Kryptonite does weird, unpredictable things to the Man of Steel…”

So, there you are: it’s not from Mars and it’s not from the future; it’s just a different way of cooking Kryptonite, and it gives the writers a free ticket to whatever wacky situation they feel like presenting that month.

In this story, the Red Kryptonite pulls Superboy out of the past, so that Superman and Superboy both exist at the same time. “The Red Kryptonite meteor collision!” Superman moans. “That’s what did it! That crazy, unpredictable Red Kryptonite!”

But that’s not all; the Red K collision also made Superboy really stupid and Superman really grouchy, so that by page 8, the two of them are at each other’s throats. Then Luthor manages to kidnap them, and forces Superman and Superboy to battle to the death. I forget how it all came out.

And at that point, all bets are off. A month later, in Adventure Comics #268 (Jan 1960), there’s apparently so much Red Kryptonite around that a random kid happens to be holding some when he decides to feed it to the world’s biggest ostrich.

 

There are dozens of crazy Kryptonite stories in the Silver Age, so I’m going to show you just a few examples.

In “The Untold Story of Red Kryptonite!” (Superman #139, Aug 1960), Red K makes Superman’s hair, beard and fingernails grow uncontrollably…

and in “The Menace of Red-Green Kryptonite!” (Action Comics #275, April 1961), Brainiac hits Superman with a combination of Red and Green Kryptonite, which gives Superman a third eye in the back of his head.

“Many scientists believe this gland is a remnant of a third eye early man once had in back of his head to warn him of danger behind,” says a caption from the editor, which I cannot justify or explain.

In 1960, they also invented Blue Kryptonite, which only hurt Bizarros…

and White Kryptonite, which destroys plants.

In December 1961, Action Comics #283 was an “All Red Kryptonite Issue!” which featured stories of Superman and Supergirl showing multiple effects from a powerful Red K exposure.

In Superman’s story, “The Red Kryptonite Menace!” Superman was able to magically summon anybody that he wanted to interact with, including Sherlock Holmes.

And later in the same story, the Red K had “a delayed second effect!” which made him breathe fire every time he opened his mouth.

In the second story — “The Six Red K Perils of Supergirl!” — Supergirl goes and messes with some Red K meteors, which are apparently everywhere, and the unpredictable substance makes her super-fat, and she has to disguise herself as a hot-air balloon so that her new boyfriend doesn’t notice. They seriously could do anything they wanted to, using this stuff.

Okay, what else? A month later, in “The Babe of Steel!” (Action Comics #284, Jan 1962), Superman deliberately exposes himself to Red Kryptonite in order to turn himself into a toddler…

And in “The Invasion of the Super-Ants!” (Action Comics #296, Jan 1963), he turns himself into an ant, and becomes the leader of a squad of giant ant invaders from outer space.

Geez, there are so many good ones. Just in August 1963, there are two amazing Red Kryptonite stories. In Action Comics #303, it’s “The Monster from Krypton!” where Red K turns Superman into a giant Kryptonian dragon-monster.

And in Superman #163, it’s “The Goofy Superman!” where it makes Clark act like he’s crazy, resulting in a lengthy stay in a mental institution.

And oh, if I had more time, I’d love to tell you about “The Rainbow Faces of Superman!” (Action Comics #317, Oct 1964), where exposure to Red Kryptonite makes his face into a mood ring for the day.

But it couldn’t last, of course; nothing truly beautiful ever does. By the end of the 60s, they’d used Red K so often — not to mention Gold K, Jewel K, Anti-K, Magno-K and Yellow K, which doesn’t exist — that it was inevitable there’d be a backlash.

So in 1971, there was a story called “Kryptonite Nevermore!” which freed Superman from the burden of Kryptonite forever, sort of. And I’ll come back and tell you all about that on Monday, at which point I’ll be done with Kryptonite and I’ll get back to the movie, probably.

Monday:
Why did they destroy all the
Kryptonite in the 1970s?
1.81: Nevermore

Footnote:

If you’d like to read more about Red Kryptonite, which obviously you do, here are the stories that I referenced in this post:

  • World’s Finest Comics #56  (Jan/Feb 1952): “The Superman Pageant!”
  • Superman #77  (July/Aug 1952): “The Greatest Pitcher in the World!”
  • Adventure Comics #255  (Dec 1958): “The Splitting of Superboy!”
  • Superman #128  (Apr 1959): “Superman versus the Futuremen”
  • Action Comics #259  (Dec 1959): “The Revenge of Luthor!”
  • Adventure Comics #268  (Jan 1960): “The Week That Clark Kent Lost His Memory!”
  • Superman #139  (Aug 1960): “The Untold Story of Red Kryptonite!”
  • Superman #140  (Oct 1960): “The Bizarro Supergirl!”
  • Action Comics #275  (Apr 1961): “The Menace of Red-Green Kryptonite!”
  • Action Comics #278  (July 1961): “The Super Powers of Perry White!”
  • Action Comics #283  (Dec 1961): “The Red Kryptonite Menace!” and “The Six Red K Perils of Supergirl!”
  • Action Comics #284  (Jan 1962): “The Babe of Steel!”
  • Action Comics #296  (Jan 1963): “The Invasion of the Super-Ants!”
  • Action Comics #303  (Aug 1963): “The Monster from Krypton!”
  • Superman #163  (Aug 1963): “The Goofy Superman!”
  • Action Comics #317  (Oct 1964): “The Rainbow Faces of Superman!”
  • Superman #177  (May 1965): “Superman’s Kryptonese Curse!”

Monday:
Why did they destroy all the
Kryptonite in the 1970s?
1.81: Nevermore

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

10 thoughts on “Superman 1.80: The Silver Age of Kryptonite

  1. Superman is not the only one at a loss for words.
    Somehow the end of the movie doesn’t seem as silly as it did before I read this.
    But now I wish it had Flame-Dragons in it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank heavens they put an end to the kryptonite scourge before we had to endure Special K, O K, Bar K, Diamond/Pearl K, Beanie K, Pirate K, Classic K, Magic K, and Super K. Because then you’d have to collect all the different action figures and other merch with all those flavors.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A few years ago, I came across a mock comic book cover showing “The Secret of Rainbow Kryptonite”, with a delighted Jimmy Olsen being molested by Superman, who has fallen victim to the power of that mysterious substance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Psychoanalysis was so familiar to so many Americans in the 1950s and 1960s that the fantastic side of comic books in those days would have got a significant percentage of grownups thinking about some of the more exotic Freudian concepts. For them, the idea that stories like the ones Danny discusses in this post were about garden variety same-sex sex would seem refreshingly naive.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Many of these Silver Age Superman stories are a lot more entertaining than some give them credit for. I’ve read some of these Superman stories here and there, and I hope that in time, they, along with the Golden Age material, will be given reprints in the future, along with a lot of what followed up to the turn of the century. Unlike the sorry state of modern mainstream comics, they also have a sense of humor and considerably better artists and writers, which was another important factor back in the days past. Thanks for writing about the history of these comics as much as the movies.

    Like

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