By the start of the Silver Age, Mort Weisinger had complete control of the Superman family of magazines, and he was stuck with a nigh-invincible hero who could juggle planets, outrace comets, and shrug off atomic blasts. Fortunately, he had also inherited a convenient weakness for his star.
Just as the limits of Superman’s powers had increased, the menace of kryptonite needed to be ramped up, as well. Under Mort’s direction, kryptonite no longer just made Superman huff and puff like he’d skipped his bowl of Pep that morning. Now, the radiation given off by kryptonite was downright painful to him. Even a pebble-sized piece of the stuff put him in agony. The effect was described as flaming, white-hot needles flowing through his circulatory system.
The mere possibility that some kryptonite was around could give Superman the cold sweats. And for good reason: it was toxic to him. The burning-needle pain indicated that the kryptonite radiation was poisoning his blood. If he should be exposed to it long enough to contaminate his entire bloodstream, his heart would stop. The signature of death would be when his body turned green.
As the list of Krypton’s survivors lengthened, readers learnt that the green rays affected all Kryptonians in the same fatal way.
Finally, there was something which could threaten Superman directly, and Mort’s writers made use of it whenever they could. Over the course of those stories, other effects of kryptonite on the Man of Steel were shown. When, in the Metropolis Mailbag appearing in Action Comics # 290 (Jul., 1962), Bill Love, of Tucson, Arizona, asked how, in a recent issue, Superman was able to use his X-ray vision while wearing green-kryptonite shackles, Weisinger’s response clarified these other consequences:
You are somewhat confused as to the insidious effects of green kryptonite on [Superman’s super-powers]. Its main effect is to render Superman helpless to fly or to use his super-strength . . . However, in the early stages of exposure to kryptonite, he is still able to use his X-ray and heat vision at short range. He is also able to use his super-ventriloquism and super-breath---but with modifications. Of course, even those powers keep fading the longer he endures exposure to green k. An interesting sidelight is that no matter how long he is exposed to the stuff, his body, at all times, is invulnerable to weapons, explosives, acids, etc.
That last point---that Superman remained invulnerable even under the influence of kryptonite---was a detail that often escaped writers outside of Mort’s stable who had reason to use the Man of Steel in a story. JLA writer Gardner Fox was the most common offender; he usually included a “kryptonite element” in his villains’ weapons, to explain how they could affect Superman. So maybe one can’t blame Bill Love of Tucson, Arizona, for being confused.
The upside to kryptonite, at least as far as the normal-type folks were concerned, was that it had no effects on Earth people. That meant that, occasionally, Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane could enjoy a hero turn rescuing Superman for a change.
The one recurring exception to kryptonite’s non-effect on Earth life was introduced in Action Comics # 261 (Feb., 1960). Supergirl fails in an attempt to neutralise the lethal rays of kryptonite. She discards the marble-sized fragment, which is subsequently found by her pet cat, Streaky. Unknown to the Girl of Steel, the experiment converted the marble to “x-kryptonite”, which imbues Streaky with Kryptonian super-powers for a temporary period. (As would become evident over the years, it didn’t take much to radically change the properties of green kryptonite.)
As Weisinger continued to expand the Superman mythos to include the past (the adventures of Superman as a boy) and the future (the Legion of Super-Heroes), certain revisions in the history of kryptonite became necessary. There had been stories showing Superboy menaced by kryptonite as far back as 1951. Clearly, if Superboy had encountered kryptonite, it contradicted “Superman Returns to Krypton”, from Superman # 61 (Nov., 1949), in which he didn’t run across the deadly mineral until he was adult.
Operating under the “five-year” rule---the belief that comics readership turned over every five years or so, losing the older kids who developed other interests and gaining younger kids just learning how to read---Mort ignored the discrepancy and came up with another first meeting between the super-hero and his glowing nemesis. Adventure Comics # 251 (Aug., 1958) presented “Superboy’s Last Day”, by Otto Binder and George Papp. This tale is primarily a flashback to how young Clark Kent becomes ill for the first time in his life after his foster-father brings home an unusual, glowing rock for his son’s mineral collexion. Only after Pa Kent rescues his son from the brink of death does Clark connect the dots between the explosion of Krypton and the hunk of stone that almost killed him.
(Eventually, after DC established the parallel-Earth concept, the first kryptonite encounter from Superman # 61 would be attributed to the Superman of Earth-Two, whom, we were also told, never had a career as Superboy.)
As more detail was added to Superman’s background, the new information sometimes created conflict with an overlooked episode in earlier tales. These things Weisinger would have to straighten out. For example, by 1959, it was established that anything from Krypton would become indestructible under the influence of Earth’s yellow sun. Yet, kryptonite on Earth had been shown to be split by chisels or carved into arrowheads. Not for the first time did Mort learn how closely the fans read his books when letters came in asking how this could be, if everything from Krypton turned invulnerable on Earth.
Not so, Weisinger stated in a number of letter-column responses. Because of the chemical-physical process undergone in its transformation, kryptonite was not indestructible. It could be cut, melted, burned, or even pulverised into dust. Weisinger iterated this fact in his “Superman Legend” and “Superboy Legend” text pieces from the early ‘60’s.
Michael Settle, of Clandenin, West Virginia, pointed out another discrepancy---and it was a big one, too---in the letter column of Action Comics # 317 (Oct., 1964):
In stories I’ve read in which Superman loses his powers, Green Kryptonite can’t hurt him, nor will it affect other non-super Kryptonians. Yet, in the stories of Supergirl’s origin, the non-super Kryptonians of Argo City were killed by Green K radiations. How could this be?
Oops! That was an error that everybody missed, and Mort had to dig deep to square it. He replied:
We refer you to “The Untold Tale of Argo City” (ACTION № 309). In this tale, a Kryptonian named Jer-Em, when Argo City was under a yellow sun and the people super, flew out of the city and right up to the Green K it was built on, without being affected. Obviously, this was a freak type of anti-kryptonite, which affected only non-super Kryptonians.
Weisinger was able to use the fortunate circumstance of a second mistake, the one showing the super-powered Jer-Em unaffected by the kryptonite, to rectify the first. It still sounded, though, like he was pulling it out of a very deep orifice. Nevertheless, it was validated---as nearly all of Ye Olde Ed’s lettercol explanations eventually were---in an actual story, “The Supergirl Best-Seller”, from Action Comics # 371 (Jan., 1969).
As the writers’ use of kryptonite proliferated, the in-story conceit that it was a rare substance grew harder to accept. It seemed like all a crook had to do to get some was make a trip to the local drug store. Krypton exploded thousands of light-years away, in space; so how, readers wrote in, did so much of it land on Earth?
Millions of meteoroids plunge Earthward daily, Mort pointed out, and virtually all of them burn up from friction with the Earth’s atmosphere. Kryptonite, however, was different. As was established in “Superboy Meets Lois Lane”, from Adventure Comics # 261 (Jun., 1959), kryptonite could not chemically combine with oxygen; thus, kryptonite meteors would not burn from the friction heat of entering the atmosphere. Instead, they landed on Earth intact, while ordinary meteors did not.
(This would be the first of three reasons DC provided over the years to explain how so much kryptonite landed on Earth. Later, it would be stated that the Superman Revenge Squad purposely herded kryptonite meteors toward the Earth [Superman # 229 (Aug., 1970)] and still later, that thousands of fragments of kryptonite were drawn through the space-warp opened by the experimental warp-drive installed on baby Kal-El’s rocket to shorten its flight time to Earth [Action Comics # 500 (Oct., 1979)].)
A corollary to Jim Harmon’s All in Color for a Dime observation that every super-hero ought to have a weakness is that there should always be a way for the super-hero to thwart that weakness. Otherwise, there won’t be a next issue.
As early as Superman # 92 (Sep., 1954), it was established that the rays of kryptonite could not penetrate lead. This gave the Metropolis Marvel a way to escape the mineral’s baleful effects. He could duck behind some conveniently placed lead shielding or shove the kryptonite into an equally writer-supplied lead pipe.
But Superman didn’t discover a way to defeat kryptonite until “The Menace of Metallo”, from Action Comics # 252 (May, 1959). When he is stricken by a piece of kryptonite, the Man of Steel forces himself to concentrate his heat vision (or, as it was termed then, “the heat of his X-ray vision”) on the glowing rock. After six excruciating minutes, he is able to melt the kryptonite, allowing him to recover and go after the villain.
The flaw is that even molten kryptonite should have affected Superman. Maybe that’s why he didn’t resort to this solution often, if ever again. Sure, later letter-column responses by Weisinger insisted that Superman’s heat vision did the trick in this case because of the relatively small size of the kryptonite stone; the Man of Steel was able to stay conscious long enough to focus his heat vision for the time he needed, and the piece melted quickly. But Mort probably realised, upon consideration, that it was too easy an out for the hero.
The first truly effective protection against kryptonite devised by Superman was the lead armour he constructed in Action Comics # 249 (Feb., 1959) in order to battle Lex Luthor, who had found a way to saturate himself with kryptonite radiation. Superman had tried leaden suits before as a means of dealing with kryptonite; however, the lack of eyeholes and the inability of his X-ray vision to see through lead meant that he had to operate in the blind.
When Luthor outmanœuvres his unseeing foe and destroys the lead suit, the Man of Steel builds a new set of protective armour, outfitting it with a closed-circuit television system. A receiver in the chestplate transmits the signals from a belt-mounted video camera to a monitor inside the suit’s helmet, enabling Superman to view his surroundings.
With the ability to see and total protection from the deadly radiation, Superman was able to handle kryptonite and dispose of it, and for once, here was an effective idea that wasn’t forgotten as soon as the story ended. The Man of Steel would resort to the leaden television armour on several occasions, right up to the end of the Silver Age. Like the Phantom-Zone projector and the super-univac, the lead suit became a permanent, if infrequently used, addition to Superman’s equipment.
* * * * *
With the story advantages provided by green kryptonite, it soon dawned on Weisinger and his writers that there was a whole rainbow waiting to be used . . . .
It seems that, at the beginning, no one could decide what Kryptonite's effect on Superman. Did it rob him of his powers? Did it weaken him and continue to do so to the point of death?
I don't think there was much coördination on the effect that green kryptonite had on Superman in that time frame from 1949 to 1957. I checked a number of Superman stories involving kryptonite during that time frame and the only effects on the Man of Steel presented in them were a loss of his super-powers and a tremendous enervation which, in some stories, if Superman were exposed to the kryptonite long enough would weaken him to the point of death. Now, to be sure, my collexion of Superman stories from that period is hardly comprehensive; there could very well be some stories from that period indicating that kryptonite was poisoning Superman.
The point, though, is that the deadly effects of green kryptonite on Superman weren't standardised until Mort Weisinger officially took over as Superman editor in 1958.
You may remember the Superboy story about "Krypton City" (Adventure Comics #216, "The Wizard City".) This is a New York City or so fragment of Krypton that survived the explosion of Krypton intact, and has slammed into a valley in Africa.
In the end, Superboy disposes of it by slamming an incredibly large piece of mountain or some such on top of it, burying it . . . .The force required to bury it might have dispersed it pretty far under Earth’s crust, or even sent some of it flying around the world
I remember that story, but have to admit that I never thought about its ramifications until you brought it up in your post above, Fogey. Good catch! I agree with your general point that Superboy slamming a big honkin' boulder down on Wizard City would have an impact on the kryptonite structure of the city. But I think you've understated the result.
Sure, some of the kryptonite of the structures of Wizard City would have been dispersed underground, in fragments. But, if we allow that Superboy didn't quite know his own strength when he hurled that boulder down on the city, then there were other, worse impacts on the kryptonite buildings:
1. Much of the kryptonite was pulverised outright, either into sub-atomic particles or green-k dust that was distributed amongst the surrounding earth.
2, A large portion of the krypptonite, probably the base upon which Wizard City rested upon, was driven straight to the Earth's core, where it was melted and vapourised by the intense heat and magma.
It is well known that Daxamites are susceptible to lead in the same way that Kryptonians are to Kryptonite. But lead doesn’t radiate?
Actually, lead can give off radiations under certain infrequent, but not rare, circumstances. I covered this in one of my earliest Deck Log entries:
I've never been able to come with a scientifically reasonable explanation, though, as to why kryptonite acts as a shield to lead for Daxamites. Your suppositions are as good as any, and would certainly work for Unca Mort in the DC universe.
Thanks for the good words, my friend. I'm putting the finishing touches on part three this week-end. What I presumed would be a simple list of colours and effects has turned into much more than that!
Somewhere, I think it was The Adventures of Superman, stated that kryptonite would be harmless to Superman on his home planet. Of course that was the early 50s and only one piece was found on that show.