It’s Week 1 of my teaching stint in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer program. So, while a dozen gifted 11 and 12-year olds learn all about writing, here’s my official unofficial researcher John Wells, with everything you want to know about Kryptonite?
Could you dedicate a column or two to tracking the history and development of kryptonite in the Superman canon, pre- and post-Crisis? (Within reason — I don’t expect you to catalogue every bizarre Red K effect!)
– Aldo Alvarez email@example.com
Amazingly enough, Kryptonite seems to have been born in a 1940 advertisement (ACTION COMICS #30: Nov., 1940), its name probably coined by an unknown copywriter. Daisy, manufacturer of the famed air rifle (“You’ll put your eye out!”), had won the license to produce the Superman Krypto-Raygun, a weapon-shaped projector that, when loaded with filmstrips, flashed frames of various Superman adventures on the wall. The writer of the ad, clearly oblivious to the character he was writing about, declared that it “looks exactly like the Krypto-Raygun used by Superman in his never-ending fight against crime … like the one Superman had made of KRYPTONITE — that amazing metal from Superman’s birthplace — the planet KRYPTON! It’s safe, harmless.” Now there’s a description you’ll rarely see used in conjunction with Kryptonite.
Though not mentioned by name until the January, 1939 launch of the Superman newspaper strip, Krypton quickly became a name that DC could capitalize on in its merchandising. The heavily-advertised Supermen of America club, for instance, included a “Code Krypton” in its kit. Within the comics themselves, though, references to Krypton were all but nonexistent.
Kryptonite as we would come to know it was conceived by Superman creator Jerry Siegel as the “K-Metal,” a fragment from the shattered planet Krypton whose radiation could instantly weaken, hurt and, with prolonged exposure, kill the Man of Steel. In an unpublished story from 1940, Professor Barnett Winston discovered a fragment in Mongolia and, more significantly, a huge “K-Metal” meteor that had passed close enough to Earth to render Superman powerless. The same story climaxed with Lois Lane’s discovery that Clark Kent was Superman, a development that may well explain why the episode was shelved.
And so it fell to the Superman radio series to formally introduced the radioactive element, now possessed of the far less awkward name of kryptonite. The serial, almost certainly influenced by Siegel’s unused script, ran during June of 1943. Here, Superman was laid low by a “mass of metal, which glowed like a green diamond,” one that scientist John Whistler determined to be a fragment of Krypton.
Kryptonite was reintroduced in the September 24 and 25, 1945 episodes, wherein a panicked Clark Kent learns that Whistler had died. Desperate to destroy the kryptonite in the professor’s vault but unable to do so himself, Clark confides the secret of Superman’s origins to Perry White and Lois Lane at the risk of giving away his alter ego. Perry agrees to secure the meteor rock but Clark’s relief is short-lived when he learns that White and Lois consider the story too sensational to keep to themselves. With front page coverage of Superman’s vulnerability in the Daily Planet on September 26, 1945, it’s only a matter of time before the villainous Scarlet Widow steals the kryptonite. And, in turn, Der Teufel appropriates a fragment of the meteor to create the Atom Man, a super-soldier injected with a kryptonite-derived serum.
The latter sequence, in particular, was a sensation, possibly the best-remembered adventure in the radio show’s history. It was the earlier, more easily staged part of the story, though, that was adapted for the 1948 Superman movie serial. The Scarlet Widow became the Spider Lady in this account and the scientist who discovered kryptonite was identified as Doctor Graham.
And finally, very belatedly, Kryptonite returned to its comic book roots. It happened in 1949’s “Superman’s Return To Krypton” (SUPERMAN #61), wherein an encounter with a fake swami’s red — I repeat, RED — magic gem leads the Man of Steel to investigate its origin and ultimately journey into the past to discover his extraterrestrial roots. “After all these years,” a caption proclaims, “Superman is at last aware of his birthplace, and why he is the strongest man on Earth.” Afterwards, Superman declares his people to be “Kryptonites” but, only a page later, uses the same term to describe the crimson meteorite. This dual usage would resurface a number of times before “Kryptonians” became the standard description of Kal-El’s people.
Superman made it a point of keeping these developments hush-hush, of course, covertly acquiring and eliminating the remaining pieces of kryptonite that he was aware of. And yet, just two months later in ACTION COMICS #141, the criminal scientist Luthor was not only aware of kryptonite but familiar enough with the substance to create a synthetic equivalent! A brief flashback, completely ignoring SUPERMAN #61‘s account, tells how a pair of scientists discovered that an unconscious Superman had been felled by a meteorite. They deduced was from Krypton and christened it Kryptonite, apparently blabbing all this to the press in the process.
Anyway, the faux kryptonite eventually ends up in Lois Lane’s handbag, which is summarily grabbed by purse-snatcher Dan the Dip and, in an interesting touch for the period, continues in the next issue. Dan soon figures out what he has but Superman manages to outwit him and the green rock ends up in police custody. There, Lois Lane waggles it at a nervous Clark, who breathes a sigh of relief when he realizes “that synthetic kryptonite simply doesn’t last.” There’d be other samples of synthetic kryptonite in the years ahead but the manufacturing process must have seemed a waste after awhile. There was just so darn much of the real thing turning up on Earth!
Notably, the ACTION two-parter presented kryptonite as green, bringing the comics in line with what had been established in radio. Mark Waid notes that “in kryptonite’s first appearance in the Superboy strip (ADVENTURE COMICS #171, December 1951), it was colored flat rock-gray, though it had “radiation” lines. I don’t have kryptonite’s first appearance in the newspaper dailies, but it first appeared in the Sundays (which ran separate continuities) on November 14, 1953 and wasn’t actually colored at ALL — it unleashes its effects while being embedded in a large gray meteor (in a story, incidentally, based on “The Three Supermen of Krypton” (SUPERMAN #65), though only with two, named Arno and Tolas).”
Jerry Siegel’s original idea of a kryptonite meteor affecting Superman’s powers on Earth was revisited in both TV?s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN series (as “Panic In the Sky”) and late 1953’s WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #68 (as “Menace From the Stars”), wherein the Man of Steel suffers from amnesia while the threat of the space-rock still looms.
The perception in ACTION #s 141-142 and many of the early kryptonite stories was that its effects didn’t extend much beyond weakness and paralysis. Indeed, in ACTION #152, a scientist uses “powdered kryptonite” to put Superman in suspended animation for a millennium. And in ADVENTURE COMICS #175 (1952), Superboy is afflicted with amnesia after an encounter with (make a note of this) a crimson kryptonite meteor. Incredibly, the Man of Steel even claims in SUPERMAN #92 (1954) that he can maintain his strength for hours in the presence of kryptonite!
But kryptonite’s lethal effects would eventually be more strongly asserted. In 1956’s ACTION #218, the Kryptonian man-ape known as King Krypton throws himself on one of the lethal meteors to save Superman’s life and soon perishes, his entire body rendered a ghastly green. “For the first time,” Jimmy Olsen says, “we’ve seen how YOU would die, Superman, under the fatal rays of kryptonite.”
Several stories toyed with the popular notion that one could build up an immunity to a substance by prolonged exposure, something that would actually be attempted a few times (with varying degrees of absurdity) with kryptonite in 1953’s SUPERMAN #84, 1957’s SUPERBOY #58 and the Supergirl tale in 1960’s ACTION #262. And 1954’s WORLD’S FINEST #69 claimed that a good dousing in the ocean would cancel out kryptonite’s effects. But when it came right down to it, the destructive rays of kryptonite could only be stopped by encasing it in lead (established as early as 1954’s SUPERMAN #92).
And, yes, Superboy had retroactively gotten into the act, too, logging frequent encounters with kryptonite throughout the 1950s despite the fact that he wasn’t supposed to have known about the stuff until he was an adult. Taking this into account were two Otto Binder-written flashback episodes revolving around the Boy of Steel’s earliest encounters with kryptonite.
The first, in 1958’s ADVENTURE COMICS #251, related the story of how Superboy, still in the first year of his career, suddenly becomes gravely ill for no apparent reason. Just as the Boy of Steel is about to succumb, Pa Kent finally guesses that the source of the illness might be the green rock that he’d added to Clark’s meteorite collection. In Binder’s 1960 sequel (SUPERMAN #136), Superboy manages to convince some thieves that the strange green rock at the Smallville Planetarium isn’t really harmful to him — only to have a well-intentioned scientist use the same fragment in a Kryptonian diorama during a public ceremony. Before an army of reporters and radio broadcasters, Superboy collapses on stage. Kryptonite’s existence was revealed to the world!
This sort of filling-in-the-blanks was something that editor Mort Weisinger was beginning to do regularly in his books. But he was adding to the mythology, as well, and, only a month after the revised “first encounter” story, Superboy was confronted by a new element — red kryptonite. It’s incorporation into the series was … unusual. Here’s how Rich Morrissey described it:
- “Weisinger, by all accounts, liked to mess with his writers’ minds. He seems to have given the idea for red kryptonite to three different writers and let them all come up with their own ideas for it: Alvin Schwartz (like green kryptonite but ten times stronger in 1958’s
- ), Otto Binder (splits both Kryptonians and non-Kryptonians, apparently permanently, into both forms, in
- ) and Bill Finger (takes Superman’s powers away, but only temporarily … but can do so again every time he’s exposed to it, in
- ). Then he had one (Binder) try to pull them all together; coming up with the final version (each piece DOES have a different effect, but only temporarily, in
- ). A few anomalies (one early story –
- – had red kryptonite radiation penetrating lead) also got explained away quickly.”
Mark Waid adds that “Red K first appeared in the newspaper strip on Sunday, August 9, 1958, in an adaptation of SUPERMAN #128‘s ‘Superman Vs. The Futuremen,’ having the same effect in both stories. It later appeared in the daily strip.”
Created after a pass through “a strange cosmic cloud” (ACTION #259), Red K would become almost as ubiquitous as its emerald cousin, with a rulebook coming together by 1961. During that year, we learned that each piece of red kryptonite affected all Kryptonians the same way (SUPERMAN #144), that they can’t affect anyone twice (LOIS LANE #29) and that Superman and company feel a “telltale tingling” in its presence (ACTION #283). HORIZINENext week: More on Kryptonite. Meantime, don’t forget my daily Anything Goes Trivia at http://www.worldfamouscomics.com/trivia.