So, in the Superman movie — and yes, I am still talking about the movie — Lex Luthor has just deduced that Kryptonite will kill Superman, and he’s heading to Addis Ababa for an off-screen meteorite shopping trip. But the movie was out of date — according to the Superman comics of 1978, Kryptonite didn’t exist anymore.
The folks at DC Comics may have been excited about the upcoming Superman film, but there was a quiet war going on between the comics and the movie, battling to see which version of the story would take hold of the popular imagination. As it turned out, the movie won by a wide margin, and to explain why, all I need to do is show you what they tried to do with Kryptonite in the early ’70s.
We’ve talked before about the Silver Age of comics, which lasted from 1958 to 1969, and the Bronze Age that followed from 1970 to 1984. For Superman, the Silver Age was dominated by editor Mort Weisinger, who developed a specific kid-friendly aesthetic that valued eye-catching covers and silly plot twists. Weisinger was in charge of all of the Superman titles, from Superman and Action Comics to Superboy, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane, and they all shared a story-productive continuity that relied heavily on weird gimmicks, like Red Kryptonite and the Fortress of Solitude’s wax museum.
When Weisinger retired from comics in 1970, the Superman titles were split among various editors. The most ambitious was Julius Schwartz, who edited Superman and World’s Finest Comics. Schwartz wanted to establish a new, updated take on the character, and he recruited a writer named Denny O’Neil to write it. O’Neil had recently written a well-received revamp of Batman, which excised all the campy elements from the Batman TV show and brought the character back to his Detective Comics roots.
Schwartz wanted a similar retooling of the Superman story, and they got started right away with some major changes to the status quo. In the new continuity, Clark and Lois left the Daily Planet to become news reporters for WGBS-TV, Kryptonite was abolished, and — most importantly — Superman’s powers were scaled back.
O’Neil explained his goal of making Superman less powerful in a 2006 interview:
“A guy who makes the entire Greek pantheon look like a bunch of first-graders, as Superman eventually did… what are you going to put against him? It was established at one time that he could search every room in Metropolis within a second — how are you going to hide from that guy? His X-ray vision won’t penetrate lead, but he’s smart enough to know that if he’s flying over something, and there’s a lead roof, he probably figures out that’s where the bad guy’s hiding.
“So you had a lot of stories that I thought weren’t terribly dramatic and violated the essential appeal of the character. To give myself the possibility of giving Superman stories with real conflict I decided to scale him back to a reasonable scale of super-powers.”
This new approach kicked off in January 1971 with Superman #233, with a bold cover picturing Superman bursting through his Kryptonite chains, with a line at the top announcing “The Amazing NEW Adventures of Superman”. There’s a huge “NUMBER 1” at top right, to give the impression that this is the first issue of a new series.
The cover shouts “KRYPTONITE NEVERMORE!” and that’s the first order of business for this updated take on the character.
The story begins with Superman out in the desert, helping a crackpot scientist named Professor Bolden with his crackpot experiment to create a “Kryptonite engine” that would generate cheap electricity for everyone. Apparently by this point, people have located so much Kryptonite that they’re trying to figure out what to do with it all.
Obviously, as soon as Bolden pulls the switch, it goes instantly out of control and Superman needs to shut the experiment down. I don’t know why we keep putting crackpot scientists like this in charge of essential projects with no safety protocols; it never goes well. Apparently, the idea that an energy system powered by radioactive rocks from outer space might be dangerous only occurred to them now.
Superman’s trying to put a lead lid on the exploding Kryptonite, but it gets the better of him. “The blast snatched the shield from my grasp,” narrates the tumbling Superman. “I took a face full of K… could be fatal…”
Superman lies unconscious in the sand as a crowd gathers around him. For some reason, the bystanders are saying, “Doctor, you’ve got to do something for him!” They think that Professor Bolden might help, even though his life’s work just exploded and he’s probably not that kind of doctor anyway.
Superman manages to get to his feet, and then one of Bolden’s knucklehead assistants comes running up with a chunk of radioactive material in his hand.
But, ta-dah! It turns out that the explosion turned all of their Kryptonite into iron, so it doesn’t affect Superman anymore. This is bad news for anyone who was banking on cheap Kryptonite-powered electricity; it looks like they’ll have to switch back to nuclear and hope for the best.
Somehow, the explosion of this Kryptonite experiment caused a “freak chain reaction” which affects all of the Kryptonite on Earth, turning it into harmless iron and leaving Superman free from all K-related worries.
Just to prove the point, Superman runs into a guy who waves a chunk of Kryptonite at him, and Superman takes it and eats it. “All in all, a nice little snack!” he grins, which makes you wonder what else he’s been eating all this time.
Now, obviously, you’re saying, I thought Denny O’Neil wanted to make Superman less powerful, not more. But don’t worry, he’s got a complicated plan to depower the hero in a peculiar, drawn-out way that takes ten months to accomplish.
This new story arc concerns a weird doppleganger creature who was created in the impression that Superman left in the desert when the Kryptonite exploded. At the end of the issue, this creature slowly comes to life, steps out of the sand, and stumbles off toward its terrible destiny. If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, then welcome to the club.
This silent “sand Superman” starts flying around, crossing paths with Superman a couple times an issue for the next several months. Whenever it comes close, Superman starts to feel weak and dizzy, like his power is being drained away.
After several months of weird teases, the concept really comes together in issue #237, and unsurprisingly, nothing about it makes sense.
This issue begins with yet another failed science project, this time an “experimental rocket plane”, whatever that’s supposed to be. There’s a guy in it, and it’s been flying above the atmosphere, and that is all the information that we are ever going to get about the rocket plane.
Superman grabs the thing before it smashes into a mountain and deposits it onto the ground, but the astronaut inside isn’t very happy to see him.
“I warn you — I’ll kill you before I’ll leave this ship!” the pilot shouts, and he shoots Superman with the space gun that I guess he’s carrying just in case he gets mugged in the upper atmosphere. Apparently there’s a “stand your ground” law in space.
And then Superman gasps as he takes off the guy’s helmet, and discovers that, ick, he’s mutated into a green puffy-faced monster.
Afraid that he may be infected with a disease from outer space, Superman launches into the sky, in order to clean himself off in the Van Allen radiation belt. “Ahh… feels good! Like cool water in July!” says Superman, so if O’Neil is trying to make the character more relatable, then we’re currently five issues into his run and it’s not going very well.
And that’s when he hears a distress call from Lois, somehow transmitting from all the way in South America to this random office in the WGBS building. He sees that Lois is on assignment, “getting a story on a horde of army ants marching toward a populated valley!” And now the story is about that.
And he’d better hurry, because Lois and her pilot have been captured by South American banditos.
From the air, Superman sees that the horde of army ants are approaching Lois’ position, so he lands and tries to take care of them — but two ants brush up against his boot, and the illness/radiation/whatever the hell is going on with him today makes the ants grow to enormous size, and now this is a story about Superman fighting giant ants.
He decides that he’ll try an experiment where he’ll hit one ant with his left hand and the other ant with his right hand, and he finds that the one that he hit with the left hand keeps growing, while the right-hand ant doesn’t. This doesn’t mean anything in particular, as far as I can tell.
He flies into space with the giant ants, and tosses them away into the void, where they’ll probably invade some space station or eat the moon or something. We don’t find out what happens to the ants.
What happens next is fairly complex. The sand creature shows up again, and Superman realizes that making contact with his desert doppleganger sterilizes the space virus that’s making everybody green and puffy-faced, and if he gets the creature to touch him all over, then he’ll be cured, and he can go and rescue Lois from being eaten by army ants.
I know, that doesn’t make any sense, but that is the lunatic plot contrivance that is being presented to us in this comic book.
The action ace is weak and he can’t fly, but he can still leap over a mountain with a single bound, so he does that. I’m sure at some point he’s going to be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but there’s no time for that now, because he has to fight banditos.
“Eh? The American man of supers!” says the lead bandito, which is the best thing that happens in the entire comic book.
But the important thing is measuring Superman’s power level. “I can actually feel the slugs bouncing off my chest,” he explains, “and it’s an effort for me to bend his gun-barrel! Even an effort to kayo these bargain-rate thugs!”
So once he’s dealt with the banditos, the giant ants and the mutant space virus, it’s time for some one-on-one with Sandy, who announces that he’s going to drain enough power from Superman until they’re at equal strength.
The sandman story doesn’t advance much in the next issue, and for the next four issues, Superman gets an assist from Wonder Woman’s “oriental” wizard friend I-Ching, who tries to help banish the sand creature. And it just drags on, endlessly.
Bottom line: It didn’t stick. The book was utterly obsessed with measuring Superman’s power level, constantly going over what he could do and what he couldn’t. The sand creature stuck around for 10 issues until it was finally sent to another dimension, and Superman’s power was officially measured at one-third of what he was before, which doesn’t mean anything.
So Denny O’Neil left the book after ten months, and after a while, Superman just kind of drifted back to normal; he did all the stuff that he used to be able to do, and nobody cared.
When people write about this period, they say that this “experiment” failed because there wasn’t a consistent direction in all of the books. Julie Schwartz was only in charge of Superman and World’s Finest, and the editors in charge of Action Comics and Jimmy Olsen didn’t bother to use the depowered Superman.
But the real problem was that the change didn’t make the stories more interesting. O’Neil was so intent on re-establishing the hero’s power level that he forgot how to write coherent stories. The issue that I synopsized was all over the place, mixing up space viruses and giant ants and banditos, and none of it made sense. Taking away Kryptonite and reducing his powers didn’t expand the number of productive storylines; it just turned them off, and then couldn’t think of anything compelling to replace them with.
And here’s the weird thing: in summer 1978, with a new blockbuster movie coming out that uses Kryptonite as a major plot point, Action Comics decided to reprint the “Kryptonite Nevermore!” story as issue #485.
The cover advertised “the classic story that answers all your questions about the day the Man of Steel’s life was changed!” but to be honest, it was hard to tell the difference. The four-issue Supermobile storyline from the spring took Superman’s powers away using a wave of red-sun radiation, which has the same effect as Kryptonite anyway. In fact, there are thirteen issues of Superman comics published in 1978 that took away Superman’s powers one way or another, using magic, K-iron, Q-Energy, a satellite that blocks the sun’s rays, a giant super-ape with Kryptonite vision, and even suntan lotion.
As we saw last week, the Silver Age comics definitely overused Kryptonite, but the Bronze Age comics’ attempts to be more down-to-earth failed to make any lasting improvements.
When Richard Donner and the Salkinds produced a Superman movie, they didn’t bother to use any of the Bronze Age ideas, like the destruction of Kryptonite or Clark being a newscaster. They reached back to the Golden and Silver Age concepts: Clark, Lois, Jimmy and Perry working at the Daily Planet, with Lex Luthor, the Fortress of Solitude, Jor-El, the Kents and Kryptonite. That’s the version of the story that broke the box office, and became the standard that every other version is compared with. After that, it was up to the comics to catch up to the movies, and not the other way around.
Lex Luthor disrupts the grown-up world
using 1970s sitcom sexism in
1.82: The Trickster.
— Danny Horn