Sunday, April 25, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 2)

Our second installment represents something of a second bite at the apple for Siegel and Shuster. Superman was originally conceived as a newspaper comic strip, which was cut up and rearranged--and in the case of the first page, redrawn and expanded--to form the main story of Action Comics #1. After a little over six months in comic books, Superman finally made it to his intended destination. Given a second chance to introduce the character, Siegel and Shuster apparently decided to linger on the character's origin a little longer.

I wonder what it must have been like to be a Superman fan at the time. You'd waited eagerly at the newsstand or drugstore to pick up each issue after being enthralled by the character's adventure in his first installment. January rolls around, and you've only recently read through the ninth thrilling issue of Action Comics1, where Lois confesses her love of Superman to Clark Kent, and Superman finds himself the subject of a police manhunt. Somehow, you've heard that Superman would be starting as a daily comic strip in your newspaper--imagine, a Superman story every day--and so you eagerly look for the comics page that Monday morning, January 16th. What you find is, perhaps to some initial disappointment, not a story with Superman. In fact, there's no recognizable character at all. But perhaps you realize what it is, judging by its similarity to that first panel from nine months ago. What you're reading on this Monday morning is something that no one else has seen: the details of Superman's origin. What you'll read for the next two and a half weeks is the untold story from between those first few panels, all-new information that brings the science fiction aspects of Superman into stark focus, after nine months of street-level action and crime adventures. But the first one, that first day, looks like this:
Man, Joe Shuster sure could draw people running.
Click to enlarge all pictures

Up until this point, the extent of our knowledge about Superman's birth parents was that his father was a scientist and that they lived on a distant planet. Readers could have inferred that a highly advanced physical structure was a characteristic of all of Superman's people, but Action Comics #1 only says that about Superman. Considering that, this comic was almost entirely new information: the planet's name was Krypton, its people were highly-advanced humans with incredible abilities, Jor-L was the name of the world's "foremost scientist," his wife was Lora, and he had a newborn son. I wonder if any readers were confused; I wonder how many knew the story well enough to infer who that infant must have been, why this scientist was so important.

The next day would bring more drama into the picture:
Wouldn't it technically be a Kryptonquake?

The first two panels here are particularly interesting. The recurring question of this series is "what did the creators think was important enough to include?" For Siegel and Shuster, apparently the most important thing was the tragic space opera aspect of the origin. To that end, we're given these brief scenes of the happy young family, which couldn't foreshadow the tragic end more even if Jor-L were a week away from retirement. Speaking of foreshadowing, the description of baby Kal-L (Superman's birth name, for the very first time!) here mirrors the antics he engages in later on at the orphanage. We'll see that scene repeated in a couple of weeks.

The earthquake hits, representing our first tangible evidence that this scene isn't the idyllic utopia it appears to be. The building collapses, but (in the next strip) Jor-L is able to rescue his wife and newborn son from the wreckage. Lora asks why there have been so many terrible earthquakes recently. I have a hypothesis, given her low-cut top.

Early comic art was often plagued by poor printing and paper quality, and I think it's safe to say that in many ways it wasn't as refined as it is today. Even well into the 1960s, there was still a tendency to overwrite, failing to recognize that the images can help tell the story, not just the dialogue and narration (I'm specifically thinking of Stan Lee's work, but he's far from the only one). I keep that in mind when I say that day four of the Superman comic strip contains some excellent visual storytelling.
Jor-L is totally Reed Richards.

I've seen this same kind of scene countless times in science fiction and comic books, and I wonder how well-developed it was in 1939. The scientist, obsessed with finding some answer, locks himself away and works for days, never resting, becoming more and more disheveled as the montage continues. Finally, with an exclamation (either of joy or despair--here, the latter) he has come to his answer.

And so Jor-L agonizes over his findings. He is reluctant to tell Lora, but she insists. So he explains: "Krypton is doomed! It's going to crumble and die! And as it does, all its inhabitants shall perish!" The volcanic activity is a warning of an "internal cataclysm," which will soon cause Krypton to explode.

The sixth strip lays down the melodramatic space opera (and I say that without a hint of negativity) with a couple of impassioned speeches. You can almost tell that Siegel is exercising those science fiction pulp muscles, relishing the opportunity to write something other than speeches by criminals and crooked politicians. And it's not half bad, either.
How free and aloof those stars are.

There's something so cinematic about the staging of this scene, especially the bits where Lora and Jor-L are looking into the night sky. I really like Lora's little speech: "How free and aloof those stars are!" If I were writing Superman's origin, I'd make sure that line stayed in the script. In any case, the glimmer of hope at the end--the very classic sci-fi idea of an ark to the stars--only serves to sharpen the sting of the eventual tragedy. The next strip brings us to our first iteration of a scene that has remained relatively consistent for the last 70 years:

Some of the details have changed over time--when in the narrative Jor-L visits the Council, what exactly is meant to cause Krypton's destruction, how vehement they are that he end his research--but any modern staging of this scene is ultimately very similar to the original here. Jor-L tries to convince the Kryptonian Council, with all his vaunted scientific credentials and verified evidence--that the abnormal seismic activity represents an actual threat to the people of Krypton, and they laugh him out of the room.

This is another important piece of the tragedy that Siegel and Shuster are trying to build with this retelling: that this destruction of a world, this genocide, could have been averted or ameliorated, if only they'd acted instead of ignoring the signs and warnings. The "internal cataclysm" which destroyed Krypton was hubris.

Jor-L spends months building a model ship as a proof-of-concept trial. The time span here is important, because it seems that many later adaptations put his warning to the council so close to the planet's destruction (either out of narrative expediency or his own failure to see just how close the end was) that it would be too late anyway. The text explicitly mentions the obstacles he's had to overcome in order to achieve interplanetary travel, suggesting that the process would have been easier and quicker with the assistance of the Council. He's also trying to act responsibly, building a test rocket to make sure that they can safely get to Earth before he commits himself or his family to the device.

Jor-L does, in this version, specifically choose Earth as a destination: "Telescopic observation has convinced me that Earth is the only nearby planet capable of supporting life." But, as he's about to launch the rocket...
That guy in the third panel is apparently the same guy running from Superman on the cover of Action #1.

The situation is, as it always turns out to be, more dire than expected. There's no time for safety, no time for tests, just time to hope that all the careful preparations up to this point have been enough. Lora makes the decision to send baby Kal-L; the sacrifice is her selfless choice, made without hesitation. And so:
That second panel is amazing.

The rocket launches, and we see our last fleeting glimpse of Jor-L and Lora, embracing as the planet dies around them. Finally, violently, Krypton explodes, and the rocket speeds toward Earth, carrying "the sole survivor of a once mighty civilization."

It's interesting to note how silent this strip is. Our only "sound" is the narration; there are no final words from Jor-L and Lora, no sound effects to punctuate the planet's destruction, no cries from the orphaned child. There is just the rocket, the broken planet, and the parents--Jor-L looking stern, Lora, with her eyes closed, looking just a little fearful. After the impassioned space opera speeches earlier, we might have expected something more flowery for their final scene, but instead--and wisely--Siegel and Shuster presented us with a final snapshot of the two loving parents holding one another in Krypton's whirling death.

Frankly, strip #11 is the only one which falls apart for me. It's three panels of the rocket's transit to Earth, with drama injected somewhat artificially by having it narrowly avoid collision with a meteor and being caught by the gravity well of a giant sun. It finally crashes to Earth, but it catches on fire, threatening the baby inside! I can understand both the need to get Kal-L to his destination and the desire to do it in an exciting fashion, but after the previous two weeks, this strip just doesn't cut the mustard.

Finally, Kal-L is rescued by that "passing motorist," who is almost explicitly here not one of the Kents.
Still has the popping glasses.

The last three panels here are basically repeats of those from that first page of Action Comics #1. In fact, the entirety of the new material in this 12-strip story takes place either before the first panel of Action Comics #1 or between the first and second panels. Consequently, this could be the very first prequel/special edition in sci-fi/superhero history, predating the Lucas revisions by nearly six decades.

So, to summarize: With a second chance to tell the origin story, Siegel and Shuster place the focus clearly and squarely on the space opera aspects, fleshing out Superman's homeworld and birth parents, and the tragedy of his origins. This is one of my favorite portrayals of said parents: Jor-L seems quite competent here, planning ahead for nearly every eventuality, carrying on his desperate work to moderate success, even without the Council's help, and still being a passionate and loving husband and father. Lora gets less of the focus, and thus less characterization, yet her unflagging support and love for her family add particular sharpness to the tragedy. By putting so much focus on making Superman's Kryptonian family relatable, we are able to feel for Krypton's destruction in ways that weren't feasible when the unnamed planet existed for a single explosive panel.

There are little things here, notable because of how frequently they change in the future. Obviously, there are the names: Jor-L, Lora, Kal-L. I'll be curious to see when those become the more familiar modern versions, and I'd be interested to know why "Lora" became "Lara," though I suppose the latter is a little more exotic. Superman's powers come from his Kryptonian heritage, specifically that their physical structure is millions of years advanced of our own, taken to the peak of human development. Consequently, everyone on Krypton has fantastic superpowers, able to run incredibly fast, leap incredibly far, and lift incredible weights. Retoz the Council Chairman is a rarity in the Superman mythos; while everyone from Vartox to Ronal has been revived by some nostalgic writer, I can find no reference whatsoever to Retoz appearing outside of this strip. Krypton's destruction is caused by apparently natural forces within the planet, not the sun or sabotage as other origins would suggest. Finally (and repeated for some emphasis) Earth is a chosen destination, not a random planet that the ship just bumbled into. This last bit gets played with now and then, but I think it speaks much more highly of Jor-L that he would have actually found a place to which his people could relocate before starting to build a ship.

There's a power to this version of the story, stemming from the science-fiction melodrama and the smart choice to put faces and personalities to Superman's origins. It was, perhaps, bold to spend multiple weeks of this comic strip without the main character appearing, but it offered something both to current readers (a new story) and neophytes (an interesting sci-fi tale).

All that being said, we learn almost nothing about Superman's life on Earth, including how an orphan named Kal-L comes to be called Clark Kent. That will change, finally and considerably, in four months or so. And that's what we'll be looking at next week, Superfans!

1. According to my research, while the cover date on Action Comics #1 was "June, 1938," like modern comics the date was off by a couple of months, and the issue would have actually come out in April. Assuming the issues stayed on a strict monthly schedule, issue #9 would have hit in December, 1938.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

No comments: