It’s Week 3 of my teaching stint in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer program. As my first set of gifted 11 and 12-year olds wrap up their three-week course on creative writing, here’s my official unofficial researcher John Wells, with the wrap-up on everything Kryptonite?
Incoming writer Denny O’Neil and editor Julius Schwartz were clear on one thing: Kryptonite had to go! This, in their inaugural issue (1970’s SUPERMAN #233), O’Neil and company opened with Professor Bolden’s attempt to use kryptonite as an energy resource and had the experiment backfire in a big way. The ensuing explosion turns every chunk of kryptonite on Earth into iron, not to mention giving form to an other-dimensional parasite that will leech off some of Superman’s powers and, hopefully, add a bit of tension to the Man of Steel’s conflicts.
Confronted by a small-time crook with a chunk of what he thought was Green K, Superman smiles. “Either you haven’t seen a paper,” he says, “or you can’t read.” Plucking the rock from the man’s hand, the Man of Steel proceeds to take the nugget … and eat it! “Mmmm… not bad. A trifle stale… and it could use a bit of salt… but all, in all, a nice little snack. And by the way… you’re under arrest.”
In 1978, Professor Bolden was still trying to develop the K-iron into a proper energy resource but it only produced “a super-combustible gas that flames uncontrollably when it comes into contact with solid matter” (ACTION #485).
1972’s SUPERMAN #255 did issue # 233 one better by wiping out kryptonite in the REST of the known universe. Therein, a race called the Sun-Thrivers completed their accumulation of “the original planetary matter that composed Krypton” and began the process of turning it into a planet. Ominously, the final panel reported that “Krypton-Two is ALSO fated to blow up.”
Kryptonite’s absence didn’t last much longer than Superman’s diminished powers. After the odd use of the element throughout the mid-1970s, it began to resurface regularly in Martin Pasko’s 1977 run on SUPERMAN. It started in # 310, where Pasko brought in John Corben’s brother Roger as the new Metallo. 1969’s SUPERMAN #214 had hinted at his potential when it misremembered the villain as someone who’d menaced Superman with his kryptonite heart but it was Pasko who actually developed the concept and cemented him as the most popular of the kryptonite-based villains.
Metallo was, initially at least, being powered by synthetic kryptonite but, as the year wore on, it became evident that lots of the real thing was turning up again. And the criminal organization Skull was stockpiling as much as they could via its “kryptonite pipeline.” 1978’s SUPERMAN #323 laid the blame on the explosion of the aforementioned “Krypton-Two.” For better or worse, kryptonite was back. Indeed, by the end of 1978, as “Superman the Movie” hit the theatres, it was even possible to buy glow-in-the-dark Kryptonite Rocks.
(Lest one forgets, kryptonite is still a copyrighted name … something a shampoo manufacturer discovered in 2002 when they released a hair gel by that name.)
By the mid-1980s, even obscurities like X-kryptonite (SUPERMAN FAMILY #203) and jewel kryptonite (ACTION #548-549) had returned. Heck, there were still new varieties being discovered. In 1981’s BRAVE & BOLD #175, Metallo reveals that he’s created a type of kryptonite that can harm normal beings like Batman. This was a kind of Slow Kryptonite, so-called because Metallo had been “able to slow down the rate of particle emissions enough to affect humans as it does Kryptonians.”
E. Nelson Bridwell, in his “Mr. And Mrs. Superman” series, looked backwards to explain how the public had discovered the existence of Green K on the parallel world of Earth-Two. Though these latter-day Superman stories differed in a number of significant details from the actual Golden Age stories, the episodes in 1980’s SUPERMAN FAMILY #202 and 205 nonetheless took SUPERMAN #61 as their jumping-off point. Basically, Dan Rivers, the fake swami from that issue, returns, certain that his mysterious gem had truly weakened Superman in 1948. The Man of Steel turns the tables on him but Rivers’ cellmate, Lex Luthor, is convinced he’s on to something and, in the second story, proves it to himself and the world.
Effective with 1986’s re-launch of the series, kryptonite was once again in short supply, limited (shades of “Tales of Kryptonite”) to a single piece that readers followed from story to story. The chunk of Green K in question had been lodged on the outside of Kal-El’s spacecraft when it landed on Earth and, if writer-artist John Byrne had had his way, readers would have seen an immediate demonstration of its toxicity. His original concept, rejected as too great a departure from tradition, would have had a pregnant Lara land on Earth and perish from kryptonite poisoning after giving birth to her son.
In the published version of the series, Clark Kent didn’t know about kryptonite OR his alien origins until several years into his life as Superman. In the meantime, his spacecraft had been discovered by a paranoid scientist named Emmett Vale, who discovered that it was from Krypton and was convinced that Kal-El was going to try to conquer Earth. Observing and naming the chunk of kryptonite, Vale chanced upon car accident victim John Corben, built him a metal body, implanted the kryptonite within its heart and declared him the means of destroying Superman. Yep, it was Metallo all over again. Six weeks after being told that he was from Krypton (THE MAN OF STEEL #6), Superman finally faces the cyborg villain, learning of kryptonite’s existence in the process. In the aftermath, both Superman’s alien beginnings and his vulnerability to kryptonite become public knowledge (1986’s SUPERMAN #1).
Metallo himself is spirited away by sinister businessman Lex Luthor. Plucking the kryptonite from Corben’s chest, Luthor has a portion of it fashioned into a signet ring and waits for Superman to confront him, convinced that he’s finally gotten the upper hand on his long-time nemesis (SUPERMAN [second series] #2). Problem was, unlike the kryptonite of old, this version actually WAS harmful to people from Earth. It just required long-term exposure. Like having it on your person for months. In ACTION #600 (1988), Luthor discovers that he has radiation poisoning that requires the amputation of his hand. And when the cancer spreads further, Lex decides to fake his death (1990’s ACTION #660), concocting an elaborate plot to have his brain transplanted into a healthy body that he passes off as his long-lost son.
Meanwhile, the kryptonite ring ends up in the possession of a former Luthor underling, culminating with a three-parter in 1990’s SUPERMAN # 44, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #467 and ACTION COMICS #654. When the story is over, Superman hands the ring to Batman, asking him to keep it in his possession as a failsafe should he ever go rogue. It probably comes as no surprise that Batman has put it to use more than once since then, most recently in this year’s BATMAN #612.
Other developments of the period included Superman being shot by Bloodsport’s kryptonite bullets (courtesy of Luthor) in SUPERMAN #4, projectiles that doctors later employ to weaken the Man of Steel enough to use their instruments on him in #40. Exposure to a newly-arrived meteor turns the Evil Factory’s Superman clone into a toxic Kryptonite Man in #43 (1990). 1992’s SUPERMAN SPECIAL #1 (wherein the rest of Luthor’s kryptonite sample is accidentally turned to lead) was a variation on SUPERMAN #233. The zero issues of 1994’s SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL, SUPERMAN, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS introduced Conduit, a villain who’d been born while Kal-El’s spacecraft passed overhead and was bathed in radiation that eventually manifested itself in a way that enabled him to discharge kryptonite energy. And on the pop charts circa 1991 was the Spin Doctors’ “Pocketful of Kryptonite.”
Jewel kryptonite resurfaced a few years ago in THE SILVER AGE: JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 (2000), used as a means of filtering out the yellow impurities in the Green Lantern Corps’ Central Power Battery (SILVER AGE 80-PAGE GIANT #1). Interestingly, this and a number of stories in recent years have ignored the details set out in 1986’s SUPERMAN #1 and once again placed kryptonite and the world’s knowledge of Krypton’s existence at an early stage in Superman’s career rather than several year into it.
Oh, and red kryptonite returned. First glimpsed in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #463 (1990), it was a magical creation of Mr. Mxyzptlk and put to use between SUPERMAN #49 and 50 as a means of stripping Superman of his powers. Mark Waid used it again in 2000’s JLA #44, wherein Ra’s al Ghul had gotten hold of a sample Batman created as a potential weapon against the Man of Steel. Using a sample of Green K, Batman “performed a series of experiments on it. He managed to accelerate its radioactive half-life–as indicated by its color-shift. His idea was to make it less lethal, but still crippling to the Kryptonian physiology. To discover what sort of unpredictable changes it might wreak in [Superman’s] cellular structure.” In this case, Mark noted, “it made Superman’s skin transparent as glass, exposing his muscles and organs (painfully) directly to unfiltered solar radiation.”
Elsewhere, Red K had appeared in CONCEPT, if not in name or color, in 1983’s “Superman III” feature film. It appeared under its proper name in both the syndicated “Superboy” TV series and “Lois and Clark” and (unnamed once more) in two episodes of “Smallville” this past season.
And no discussion of kryptonite is complete without mentioning “Smallville”… even if it could only refer to the substance as meteor rocks for its first season and a half. From its first minutes, there was no doubt this series was going to have an impact on the Superman mythology. Could anyone ask for a better explanation of how Kal-El’s spacecraft avoided being detected by NASA or spy satellites than burying it in a kryptonite meteor shower? And, breaking with tradition, THESE meteor rocks had a demonstrative effect on people from Earth. Though the “freak-of-the-week” concept quickly got stale, it was a nonetheless ingenious method of explaining how Clark Kent could come into contact with so many super-human adversaries.
Even after all these years, kryptonite still rocks!
[A special thanks to Mark Waid for his input on this article and especially to Murray Ward, who’s proofread and offered comments on nearly everything I’ve written – here and elsewhere – in recent years. He’s truly a prince among men!] HORIZINE Next week: John gives you the lowdown on the various women in the DCU named Fury. While you?re waiting, don?t forget my daily Anything Goes Trivia at http://www.worldfamouscomics.com/trivia.