Sunday, July 18, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 7)

Hey, happy Superman! Gosh, I miss that.It's pretty common knowledge at this point that a lot of what we generally recognize as the Superman mythos originated in the "Adventures of Superman" radio program. One of the generally-uncredited writers for that program was a young man named George Lowther. In 1942, Lowther took his radio writing experiences to prose, writing The Adventures of Superman novel.

The 1995 printing of the book contained a nice introduction by Roger Stern, which, while not entirely accurate on all the minutiae, was a nice source of information on Lowther, the novel, and their significance to Superman's history. Rather than paraphrase, I'll let him explain it to you himself:
There are many firsts associated with this book. With its publication, Superman became the first comic-book character to have an original adventure told as a prose novel. Also, George Lowther became the first writer other than Jerry Siegel to receive a credit for writing Superman. (p. xvi)

It's not entirely accurate--Seymour Kneitel, Isidore Sparber, Bill Turner, Ted Pierce, Carl Meyer, Dan Gordon, and Jay Morton all received "Story" credits on the Fleischer "Superman" cartoons--but it gives a clear picture of how early on this contribution was. Judging by the titles of the "Adventures of Superman" radio episodes I can't track down, Lowther probably wrote the second version of the origin on that series, since the same titles are used for chapter titles in this book.

Up 'til now, the stories of the destruction of Krypton and Superman's upbringing have been kept largely separate. The comic books have focused almost exclusively on the latter (and that, only briefly); the comic strip almost completely omits the latter and fleshes out the former; the animated films glossed over both; and the radio program gave a full episode to the former while writing any "upbringing" out of the story entirely. Lowther's The Adventures of Superman would be the first incarnation of the Superman story to combine the two, and aside from the radio show retcon using the same material, would be the only such attempt until 1945. Later versions will overturn a lot of what Lowther establishes here, which makes it interesting for its brevity in addition to its novelty.

Isn't that the Electric Superman symbol?Additionally of note is that this novel is illustrated with several sketches and a few full-color pieces by Joe Shuster and his studio. The art is dynamic, even when unfinished, and really shows off Shuster's skill. It's clear to look at it how much later artists like Bruce Timm and Darwyn Cooke take from the clean, simplified style of the sketches, while the full-page illustrations look an awful lot like the artistic endeavors of later Superman artists like Wayne Boring (who was part of Shuster's studio) and Curt Swan.

So, let's begin:
The Great Hall of Krypton's magnificent Temple of Wisdom was a blaze of light. Countless chandeliers of purest crystal reflected the myriad lights into a dome of glass where they were shattered into a million fragments and fell dazzling over the Great Hall. (p. 3)

So begins the novel. Aside from "chandeliers," which I have a hard time imagining in any version of Krypton, I think it's interesting that this book associates Krypton with crystals a good thirty-six years before the first "Superman" movie.

Below the brilliant dome the Council of One Hundred waited. Attired in togas of scarlet and blue, they looked impatiently for the arrival of Jor-el, Krypton's celebrated scientist. (p. 3-4)

I'm beginning to wonder if Mario Puzo and/or Richard Donner read this book, since that's the only other major place I've ever seen where Kryptonians typically dress in robes. Here, the robes are "scarlet and blue," foreshadowing Superman's eventual costume. Jor-el has an "e" in his name now, even if it's lowercase, and the "Council of One Hundred" suggests a much larger political body than we usually see on Krypton.

Lowther really plays up Jor-el's prestige as a scientist, stating that despite his reclusiveness, "when Jor-el spoke all men listened."1 This portrayal fluctuates over time, with Jor-el often being 'Krypton's foremost scientist', but he always seems to be treated as though he's a witless crank. There's an enduring message in that: no matter how much prestige and respect a scientist has, once he starts telling the people in power uncomfortable truths, they can dismiss him as a crackpot. Often to everyone's detriment.

Jor-el is described as tall and thin, with a handsome face that was nonetheless "drawn and haggard." That's an interesting contrast to his usual portrayal both before and after this story, where he's a square-jawed, barrel-chested lookalike of his son. He's wearing "the yellow and purple robes of his calling," presaging (and probably inspiring) the similar garb of Kryptonian astronauts Bar-El and Lilo in "All-Star Superman" #9.

Ro-zan, the white-haired supreme leader of the council, makes a return appearance. You may recall him from the radio origin.

Jor-el draws a breath to speak:
"Krypton is doomed!"
Had a thunderbolt crashed through the crystal dome of the Temple at that moment it could not have produced a more startling effect! (p.5)

Jor-el describes his long, difficult weeks of research, which have left him gaunt and prematurely aged. Several abnormal (and frankly, unlikely) disasters have plagued Krypton of late:
sudden showers of stars...have fallen upon our planet. Comets of great magnitude have appeared from nowhere, whirling dangerously close to Krypton...a monstrous tidal wave rose from the sea and roared toward our city. (p.7)

Somehow, all this leads Jor-el to realize that something is wrong. He and his research team can't figure out the exact cause, but it's clear that soon "the mighty Planet Krypton will burst into a million molten fragments!"

I don't know if this ever comes up again, but it makes perfect sense: Jor-el has a research team! Specifically, he speaks of the "learned men of science who work under [him]," which suggests that Jor-el isn't alone in recognizing the dangers plaguing the planet. That makes Jor-el's position far more believable (what scientist works completely alone?) and far more prescient. There's always been a lesson to learn in the story of Jor-el, of the danger of ignoring and scoffing at the warnings of scientists, but here Jor-el is no longer dismissable as a lone crackpot. Instead, you have to dismiss the converging work of his entire team, which requires a bit more willful ignorance.

Unfortunately, Jor-el's warnings come across as a little more raving than usual. I think his biggest problem was failing to identify a mechanism for the oncoming destruction; "I know what's going to happen, but I don't know why" is hardly compelling science. As you might expect, the council loudly and angrily dismissed his doomsaying, with some suggesting that he'd lost his mind or made a mistake, while the most charitable among them thought he was overworked and just needed some rest.

He pleads with Ro-zan to help convince the council, but even Ro-zan thinks he's unhinged. He asks Jor-el what they could do, even if his warnings were accurate. Jor-el says something a little unexpected:
"I have not come here with this tragic news," he said hastily, "without bringing with me a solution for it. You ask me where we can go? My answer is--to the Planet Earth!" (p. 9)

The council, Ro-zan included, laughs at the suggestion. Ro-zan explains in some interesting detail, underscoring again the notion that Kryptonians possess superpowers even on Krypton:
"How could we live there, Jor-el? You yourself--you who have studied the Earth for years through the great telescope--have told us how inferior to ourselves are the Earth People. They are thousands of years behind us in everything, mental and physical. Their cities are as nothing compared to the cities that have existed here on Krypton for centuries. Their minds are so far beneath the capacity of our own that actually, in comparison, they have no intellect at all! As for their bodies, you yourself have said that they are weaklings! It takes a hundred Earth People together to do what one man on Krypton can do alone! They have not the power to fly, but must walk at a snail's pace on the Earth's surface! They cannot breathe beneath the sea!"

Ro-zan shook his head slowly from side to side.

"Would you send us to live among such a people, Jor-el? Nay, I think not! Death is preferable to life in a world of such inferior people." (p. 10-11)

There's a lot to unpack here, including an interpretation of Krypton that seems timely for the era and surprising for any era. But first: Kryptonians can breathe underwater!

Seriously, Lowther has painted the Kryptonians as a puffed-up xenophobic master race, certain and secure not only in their superiority to humans, but also in their indestructibility as an empire. The idea of Kryptonians lording their superiority over the human race has been revisited time and again whenever Kryptonians other than Superman make their way to the planet, but rarely do we hear one declare that they'd rather die than live among humans--even if it were as their rulers. Ro-zan's rant here reeks of racist propaganda, and while the Kryptonians aren't simply space Nazis (no extermination program, for one thing), the association is pretty clear.

Ro-zan tells Jor-el not to return until he's regained his senses. Jor-el turns to leave, but then tells the Council of his plans to build a Space Ship, hoping to save the people of Krypton in spite of themselves. I like this aspect of Jor-el's character; it shows the same conviction and strong moral character that his son would eventually display.

Not a word was spoken as Jor-el turned and moved slowly out of sight through the high arched doorway--a tragic, beaten figure. (p. 12)

Thus ends Chapter I. Chapter II begins with a look at Jor-el's model Space Ship, "a long silver rocket," as he works intently in his lab. Lara (with an "a") enters, holding their infant child, and waits for Jor-el to notice her. Jor-el tells her that her warnings were right, the Council refused to believe him, but he still intends to finish the Space Ship, hoping to save all of them. He just has to finish the model first.

Lara changes the subject:
"Little Kal-el has been strangely restless these past few days," she said. "He has scarcely slept at all. Jor-el, do you think he feels the approach of this thing you have foretold?"

"It may be," said Jor-el. "He has always been sensitive to the elements."

The scientist continued his work, his thin hands moving swiftly and surely over the intricate mechanism of the model Space Ship. Lara sat and watched, rocking the child in her arms. (p. 14)

That's our first mention of Kal-el in the novel. It'll be interesting to see if the "sensitive to the elements" thing plays out at all. At this point, I believe Superman had displayed some super-sensory powers, so it may be a little foreshadowing at that.

Jor-el works diligently, having nearly finished the model Space Ship, until a tremor sets the room rocking and cracking at the seams. Great cracks in the ground spew fire into the air, and Jor-el realizes that his time is up.
In seconds, night was turned into flaming day. Across the sky, countless comets whirled screaming through brilliant space. The stars began to fall, showering upon Krypton a rain of liquid fire. Asteroids of every color careened across the heavens. Lights of every size and hue, dazzling and eye-searing, scattered over Krypton.

I'm pretty sure those are Kirby Dots coming out of the engine.Jor-el calmly observes the chaos, running through plans in his head. He realizes that he cannot save the people of Krypton, nor can he spare himself or Lara, but the model Space Ship would hold Kal-el. He installs the last part, and "as he worked, Lara stood with the child in her arms, gazing out at a crumbling world." There's a tragic, silent poignancy to Lara's conduct here. Her last word, just after Jor-el tells her there is hope for Kal-el, is her husband's name. She doesn't speak again, but hands Kal-el to him silently. Jor-el places the whimpering child into the model ship, seals the door, and pulls the lever. Then, the couple waits, until finally the ship launches.

Interestingly, we get no description of Krypton's explosion. Though the planet has clearly reached its doom, the chapter closes on the hopeful flight of the silver rocket.

And that seems as good a place as any to close this post. Next week, we'll see the rocket reach its destination, and what happens thereafter.

1. Appatently this book was written during the war's comma rationing effort.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

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