Now all superheros have their weaknesses, or at least they ought to. Making them totally invincible and invulnerable makes reader identification difficult and tends to make the stories all end on page two, when the hero steps in and---pow! ends the menace.
By the summer of 1940, two years into the published adventures of the character he had created with Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel had figured out the same thing. Compared to what would come, the power level of the early Man of Steel was modest. At the beginning, Superman couldn’t fly, he displayed no super-senses, and a 155 mm. artillery shell would send him running for Band-Aids. Still, the powers he did possess put him well above mortal men.
But now, the threshold of his mighty abilities was creeping upward. He was uprooting skyscrapers and seeing through walls. Where before “nothing less” than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin, now it was “not even”. Siegel realised that, if his stories were to have any real sense of drama, the level of conflict between Superman and his foes had to be evened, somehow. The young writer had a couple of other ideas in mind, too.
The tale cranked out by Siegel introduced a “K-metal” from the planet Krypton. According to the plot, the influence of an approaching meteor from outer space progressively robs Superman of his might until, when the space object is at its closest point to Earth, he is no more than an ordinary man. As Clark Kent, he consults with a scientist who believes the meteor to be a fragment from the exploded planet Krypton. He also shows Kent a similar meteorite which he recovered on an expedition. Clark touches the “K-metal” and collapses.
The remainder of the story involves gangsters' attempts to locate a secret gold mine. The climax sees the crooks, Lois Lane, and the powerless Kent trapped inside the mine as the air runs out. Fortunately, out on the rim of space, the K-metal meteor completes its passage of Earth and Clark feels his super-powers return. With no other option, he is forced to reveal his secret identity. As Superman, he frees them all---just in time for the double-crossing boss of the gang to murder his underlings before meeting his own doom.
But Lois Lane retains the knowledge that Superman is Clark Kent, creating a new paradigm in her relationship with the Man of Steel. And as if that’s not disturbing enough, an epilogue reveals that someone has stolen the scientist’s specimen of K-metal.
Siegel turned his script over to Joe Shuster’s art studio, and in August, 1940, submitted the finished product to National Comics (as DC was known, then). This was a dramatic shift for their best-selling character. Not only was the invincible hero given a weakness, but one of the central conceits of the series had been undone. Even so, it likely came as a surprise to Siegel when National rejected it.
Siegel probably felt that Superman was his to do with as he pleased. But over at DC, publisher Jack Liebowitz and editorial director Whitney Ellsworth didn’t see it that way. Superman, just as he was, was bringing in a never-ending stream of profits, and they weren’t about to let the muse of a starry-eyed writer screw it up. They were the stewards of the lucrative Superman juggernaut, not Siegel, and they took an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it attitude. The K-metal story would never see print. As Gerard Jones reported in his Men of Tomorrow (Basic Books, 2004):
DC’s editors didn’t want Superman to have an Achilles’ Heel, and they certainly didn’t want an end to the Clark-Lois tango. A handwritten note in the script’s margin by an unknown editor read simply, “It is not a good idea to let others in on the secret.”
The Empire of Steel had expanded considerably. DC’s publishers, Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld, capitalised on their star’s phenomenal popularity by establishing Superman, Incorporated, a separate business entity to licence merchandising rights. Robert J. Maxwell, who had been one of Donenfeld’s favourite writers for his girlie-pulp line, was assigned to oversee the sales of the ancillary rights.
Maxwell did an enthusiastic job. By 1940, even those who had never opened a comic book in their lives knew who Superman was. There were Superman toys, games, a newspaper strip, and earlier that year, a radio programme, Adventures of Superman, had hit the airwaves. The radio series had been Maxwell’s idea, and he served as its producer, creating a direct link between the broadcast and printed versions of the Man of Steel. This internecine relationship resulted in many products of the radio show’s writers becoming permanent fixtures in the comic-book Superman’s mythos: Jimmy Olsen; Perry White; The Daily Planet; the expression “Up, up, and away!”; and . . . I'll bet that a lot of you are ‘way ahead of me here . . . kryptonite.
On Thursday, 03 June 1943, Adventures of Superman began a new story, “The Meteor from Krypton”, written by George Lowther. The plot, unveiling over seven episodes, describes how, during an interview with Doctor Whistler, an astrophysicist, Clark Kent collapses when he is shown a strange, glowing meteorite in the scientist’s possession. Though Kent recovers, he experiences black-outs, during which he mutters the word “Krypton”, which has no meaning to him. As Superman, he returns to consult Dr. Whistler. The scientist states that, thirty years earlier, through his giant telescope, he witnessed the destruction of the planet Krypton, and he believes that the eerie green meteor is a fragment of that doomed world.
Intrigued, the Man of Steel touches the meteorite---and, suddenly, his mind floods with memories of Krypton. He recalls his civilisation, his people, his parents, and their fate. For the first time, Superman knows what the listening audience has known for the last two-and-a-half years: who he is and where he came from.
As to why the radio series introduced the concept of kryptonite when DC was so dead-set against anything of the sort appearing in the comics . . . well, you're probably ahead of me here, too . . . it was in order to give series star Bud Collyer a week off; a bit player could provide the moans of a Superman incapacitated by kryptonite while Collyer enjoyed a short vacation.
Except . . . that's wrong!
Pull off the shelf almost any book about Superman that mentions the radio show and the give-Collyer-a-vacation business is what you’ll read. So it’s not your fault.
But it is incorrect. Michael J. Hayde, in his meticulously researched book Flights of Fantasy (BearManor Media, 2009), points out that this introductory tale of kryptonite went for seven days, with Bud Collyer appearing every day, with healthy stretches of dialogue in each episode.
It’s more likely, Hayde surmises, that Lowther introduced kryptonite as a means for Superman to discover his origin and not as a necessary threat. The fact that it would be two more years before kryptonite was again used as a plot element supports that conjecture. At any rate, if there ever was an extended stretch when an unknown actor supplied a kryptonite-stricken Superman’s groaning so Bud Collyer could go fishing, it occurred long after the show came up with the idea of “The Meteor from Krypton”.
Meanwhile, back in the comics, the super in Superman was getting out of hand. The more stupendous a feat Superman performed in a story, the more the young readers thrilled. Incrementally, the writers had continued to raise the levels of his abilities to the point where the hero that had appeared in Action Comics # 1 looked, in comparison, like the weakling in the Charles Atlas ads who got sand kicked in his face. The Man of Steel’s “tremendous leaps” had been replaced by the power of outright flight, and he boasted a slew of super-senses (X-ray vision, telescopic vision, microscopic vision, super-hearing). That was the least of it.
Now Superman was strong enough to push planets out of orbit (Superman # 58 [May-Jun., 1949]) and fast enough to travel through time (Superman # 48 [Sep.-Oct., 1947]). Atomic-bomb explosions didn’t even ruffle his hair (Action Comics # 101 [Oct., 1946]).
By the end of the decade, Whit Ellsworth realised that Superman had been painted into an unthreatenable corner. The idea of giving the Man of Steel a weakness didn’t seem as bad now as it had when Jerry Siegel proposed it nine years earlier. Ellsworth had no intention of dusting off the old “K-metal” story, though. After Siegel and Shuster had (unsuccessfully) sued DC to regain the rights to Superman in 1946, they were dead to the company and so was any material produced by them.
Instead, Ellsworth commissioned a story that mirrored the primary intent of George Lowther’s “The Meteor from Krypton” from the radio show. The result was “Superman Returns to Krypton”, from Superman # 61 (Nov.-Dec., 1949).
In this tale, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Al Plastino, Superman suffers an inexplicable loss of his super-powers and debilitating weakness whenever he tries to apprehend a con man calling himself Swami Riva. The super-hero determines that his affliction is caused by the unusual glowing stone that Riva wears on his turban. After learning that the stone is a fragment of a meteorite, the Man of Steel speeds back through time in order to track down the meteor’s source of origin.
Backtracking the meteor’s flight leads Superman to a planet called Krypton, a world with a highly advanced civilisation. As an invisible phantom, Superman observes Krypton’s fate and the escape of an infant in a rocket ship bound for Earth. In a staggering revelation, he realises that he has just witnessed his own origin! As for Swami Riva’s glowing stone, it’s a piece of his home world, one of the millions hurled across space in the explosion. The varied elements of these remnants were fused into a single compound called kryptonite.
At the end of the story, Superman returns to the present day and disposes of the two pieces of kryptonite on Earth. However, the last panel leaves open the possibility that he may encounter the threat of it, again.
Kryptonite showing up, again? You could take that to the bank. It may have débuted on the radio programme, but it was its appearance in Superman # 61 that let the kryptonite genie out of the bottle. The radio series waited two years to bring the glowing green rock back, but the comic-book writers showed no such restraint. The dramatic advantages of kryptonite leveling the playing field between the villain and the super-hero were too convenient for them to pass up. By rough count, every fourth issue of Superman or Action Comics contained a story threatening the Man of Steel with kryptonite.
And it wasn’t just the Superman comics. The serial Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950) menaced Our Hero with kryptonite, and the Adventures of Superman television series used it as a plot point in a few episodes.
At this stage, kryptonite was viewed as an equaliser. Its principal property was to weaken Superman, steal his mighty strength and invulnerability, so that the flabby, barrel-bellied Luthor could punch him in the nose. The only threat of death was from total enervation, if he were exposed to the stuff long enough.
It wouldn’t be until Mort Weisinger took over the franchise that kryptonite became a truly lethal thing, indeed . . . .
I think Kryptonite became sort of a genie in the bottle for the writers, every time they wanted a far out concept they came up with a new color.
One thing that is often overlooked was that Swami Ravi's kryptonite was colored red!
I note that in the panels in which he travels back in time, Superman simply refers to "the meteorite." He refers to himself as a Kryptonite. Interesting.
E. Nelson Bridwell did a good story in Mr and Mrs. Superman showing Swami Riva's discovery eventually led Luthor to figure out the nature and existence of kryptonite.
I've often found it amusing that all the writers who insist the Superman/Lois/Clark triangle is part of the essential, definitive nature of Superman would be arguing something completely different if Siegel had gotten the green light on Lois learning the truth.
Fraser Sherman said:
E. Nelson Bridwell did a good story in Mr and Mrs. Superman showing Swami Riva's discovery eventually led Luthor to figure out the nature and existence of kryptonite.
Retroactive continuity, or "retcon", as intended by Roy Thomas, who popularised it in his All-Star Squadron series, meant to codify in story material an explanation for a significant change which had not been explained when the change took place. (It was not an alteration in the continuity itself; that's a perversion of the term by comics fans who, let's face it, are often imprecise in comics details.)
Examples of this from All-Star Squadron were accounting for why Doctor Fate switched to a half-helmet in More Fun Comics # 72 (Dec., 1941) and the Sandman's shift to his gold-and-purple duds in Adventure Comics # 69 (Dec., 1941). Neither event had been given an explanation at the time, and Thomas wrote stories which plugged in explanations without changing anything that had occurred in the heroes' respective histories.
Which is my long-winded way of praising E. Nelson Bridwell for doing the same thing with his "Mr. & Mrs. Superman" series in Superman Family. Besides just presenting us with tales of the Earth-Two Superman in the 1950's, Bridwell also amplified or explicated events that had taken place on Earth-Two: why Johnny Thunder's Thunderbolt failed to appear in Johnny's last few appearances with the Justice Society, or the wedding of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, or, as you pointed out, Mr. Sherman, how Superman's encounter with Swami Riva eventually led to Luthor learning of the existence of kryptonite. These were retcons all, in the purest sense of the term, and Bridwell did an expert job with them. In fact, at least as good as Roy Thomas did.
Agreed, Commander. On the list of Roy's A-SS retcons I'd also add Roy's retelling of Starman's origin to show Ted Knight as a genuine spoiled playboy (as Thomas put it, they couldn't all be faking it like Bruce Wayne did) was really well done, changing the subtext of the original story without altering it.
One thing I wish he'd managed to follow up on was Superman's vulnerability to magic. A couple of All-Star Squadrons raised the question of why Superman, an ET, SF hero, should have a weakness like that — during the All Stars' meeting with the Marvel Family, it was so heavily emphasized I'm sure Thomas had an answer in mind. But if he did, we never got it.
ITEM: Great article Commander. As per expectations, you always exceed my expectations.
ITEM: I believed the same Bud Collyer story about the radio debut of Kryptonite. Thanks for clearing that up.
ITEM: Quite a number of Golden Age heroes had their own weaknesses that were quite more common... Wonder Woman being bound by a man. Dr. Fate being invulnerable except to gases or drowning. Green Lantern's weakness to wood. I wonder what the thoughts were when someone created a weakness for Superman which was about as common as diamond discs.
ITEM: I've lots of discussion about Kryptonite, but I'll save it for part two of your item... you might address them, and in any case, I'd hate to blow any surprises you might have. And you always have a surprise or two.
The Silver Age Fogey
Thank you as always for the kind words, Fogey. It's always a pleasure to hear you weigh in on one of my articles.
With regard to the myth of the radio programme creating kryptonite to give Bud Collyer a vacation, it's difficult not to believe it. As I mentioned, virtually every reference to Superman, kryptonite, and the radio show, whether in print or on line, attests to it. But the credit for skewering it goes to Michael J. Hayde and his book Flights of Fantasy, which covers both the radio and television versions of Adventures of Superman. That book was recommended to me by one of the fellows on this board---Chris Fluit, if I recall correctly---and initially I resisted getting it. I had a number of books already covering the same Superman media. But I finally got it, and am I glad I did. Hayde did a tremendous amount of research on both the radio and television series, digging up information that caused me to alter my beliefs on certain significant Superman lore. (Hayde does commit the "in"-for-"at" mistake in the ". . . a single bound!" exclamation, though; so he's not perfect.)
Under the Department of Serendipity, a couple of weeks ago, in researching a Silver-Age Superman question I was asked at another site, I spend the day going though the letter columns of my stacks of Superman, Action Comics, and Superboy. In doing so, I picked up considerable information included in Mort Weisinger's responses to readers' letters that I am able to insert into part two of this particular article. I'm always glad when I can validate the stuff I post with specific references. I think you'll find part two as interesting as this part, my friend. And I look forward to the thoughs you're holding in reserve on the topic.