Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Rocket Trips #9: DC Universe Origins "The Origin of Superman" - 2009

This story is a little interesting in that it was originally published online, which was fairly rare for mainstream comics a decade ago. First available in print in 2009's DC Universe: Origins, this is part of the same series that ran as backup features in 52, Countdown, and...ugh, Justice League: Cry for Justice. Here's "The Origin of Superman"!

Creative Team: Len Wein, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson, & Sal Cipriano.

All-Star Summary: Doomed planet. Desperate scientist. Kindly couple. Moral upbringing.

Key Elements: Kryptonian scientist Jor-El sent his infant son Kal-El into space to escape their doomed homeworld. The rocket landed in Kansas and was discovered by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopted the child and named him Clark. They raised him to have a strong moral fiber, and he grew to develop additional strengths and abilities far beyond those of normal humans. As an adult, he lives as a mild-mannered reporter for a major Metropolitan newspaper and fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice as Superman!

Interesting Deviations: As we've seen a couple of times now, this origin opens with a little bit of commentary. I'll be keeping an eye out throughout this series to see just when the "people have asked us about Superman's origins" give way to "you've all heard this story before" captions like the one here.

I appreciate the emphasis placed here on Clark's upbringing being the source of his moral character. A lot of the narration is familiar, from the radio show opening, but it eschews the "faster than a speeding bullet" section in favor of the slightly-less-commonly-referenced "change the course of mighty rivers" section.

It's also interesting to note that Lara isn't mentioned at all, and while we see a shot of Perry, Lois, and Jimmy—similar to ones that have shown up elsewhere, like in The Amazing World of Superman and Superman #146—they aren't named on-panel. 

Additional Commentary: It's a short one, folks, so there's not a lot to say. It'll be interesting to compare and contrast this with what we see in Superman: Secret Origin, which Frank also drew, and which came out around the same time (I can't pin down what came first; the first issue of Secret Origin came out in November, 2009, and the DC Universe: Origins TPB was printed in February, 2010, but the origin here was available online earlier than that). The bit about classic stories and powers is neat, though. Very Who's Who.

The Rocket: It's very similar to the one we'll see in Secret Origin, save for some differences in coloring that may be down to how the lighting is supposed to look in this panel. Regardless, it's got these weird bug eyes, and I don't know why? It's distinctive, but not in a good way. One exploding Krypton.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Taking the week off

It's been a wild week, folks, so I won't be posting a new Rocket Trips this Wednesday. I'll have another Rocket Trips up by the 28th, and hopefully sooner than that. I've also been working on something else. I won't say everything about it yet, except that I think you'll find it...electrifying. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Rocket Trips #8: The Adventures of Superman S01E01 "Superman on Earth" - 1952

"Come with us now on a far journey, a journey that takes us millions of miles from the Earth, where many years ago the planet Krypton burned like a green star in the endless heavens."

Today this series makes its first foray off of the comic page and into the vast multimedia landscape of Superman adaptations. "The Adventures of Superman" followed shows like "The Lone Ranger" and "Dragnet" in making the leap from the radio to the television, and I'd venture to say that nowhere is that more apparent than in this first episode.

Creative Team: Tommy Carr, Robert Maxwell, Whitney Ellsworth, George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson, John Hamilton, Herbert Rawlinson, Stuart Randall, Aline Towne, Frances Morris, Danni Sue Nolan, Tom Fadden, Robert Rockwell, and Jeffrey Silver.

All-Star Summary: Doomed planet. Desperate scientist. Last hope. Courageous couple. 

Key Elements: The distant planet Krypton was home to an advanced civilization of supermen, at the peak of human perfection. The scientist Jor-El has been brought before a council to explain destructive events that have been happening around the planet. He reveals that the planet is doomed to explode in the near future. The Council dismisses his conclusions and warnings as the ravings of a madman, and scoff at his plan to use rockets to evacuate the population to the planet Earth.

Jor-El returns to his lab, where he adds fuel to his model rocket. He plans to test it, and if it arrives on Earth safely, he'll build one large enough to take himself, his wife Lara, and his infant son Kal-El to safety. But when the tremors grow stronger, Jor-El realizes that the planet is in its last moments. The model ship is large enough for one passenger; Jor-El tells Lara to go, but she refuses, saying if any of them are to survive, it should be their child. They put the baby in the rocket and launch it toward Earth, just before Krypton finally explodes.

On Earth, Eben and Sarah Kent see a rocket crash as they are driving down a country road. Eben hears a baby crying inside the flaming ship and rescues it. Neither the child nor his blanket were burned by the fire. The rocket is destroyed, leaving no trace behind. The Kents decide to keep the baby and raise him as their own son, Clark.

As Clark grows, he discovers that he has amazing powers that set him apart from other people, like super-strength, super-speed, and X-ray vision. Ma Kent tells him the story of how they found and rescued him.

When Clark is 25 years old, his father dies of a sudden heart attack. Ma encourages him to leave town for Metropolis, and to use his amazing powers to help people. She even made him an indestructible costume out of the blankets he was wrapped in as a baby. He resolves to keep his identity secret by acting timid and wearing glasses. He takes a job at the Daily Planet, a great metropolitan newspaper, so that he'll be able to learn about emergencies quickly. He meets Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane, who is immediately suspicious of Clark.

And when emergencies occur, he's there to save the day—as Superman!

Interesting Deviations: Here, it's not the Science Council that hears Jor-El's predictions, but the governing council, meeting in the Temple of Wisdom. The Council specifically commissioned Jor-El's research in this version, which may not be an explicit departure from other origins, but certainly feels like one in spirit.

Krypton's fate is due to its sun drawing the planet closer, which honestly feels more realistic than the usual exploding core. It makes sense for the described disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes to result from changes in tidal forces as Krypton's orbit decays and the sun's gravitational pull exerts a greater influence. How much of that was known in 1952, and how much was just good sci-fi guesswork, I can't say. I also can't say that an explosion is likely to result from this process either, but certainly being torn apart might.

Talking with Lara, Jor-El notes that despite the clouds, there's been a strange glow in the west, and Lara complains about the oppressive heat, asking if it's due to the planet getting closer to the sun. Maybe it's just because it's black-and-white television, but I was immediately reminded of the "Twilight Zone" episode "Midnight Sun," except that aired nine years after this.

One really interesting, minor variation between the different retellings is who Jor-El intends to send in the rocket. Occasionally it's Kal-El from the start, sometimes both Lara and Kal-El. Here, Jor-El initially suggests that Lara go alone, then that the rocket might be large enough for both her and Kal-El, but she refuses both times. "I'd be lost on a new world without you, Jor-El."

The Kents here, as in the radio show's (lost, to my knowledge) second version of the origin and the Kirk Alyn serials, are Eben and Sarah. To my knowledge, these names never made the jump to the comics.

There's a lovely exchange here, where Sarah says "Eben! You can't do nothin', you'll get burned!" and Eben replies "Gotta do somethin'," before throwing dirt at the hatch to put out the fire. If I may read too far into things, Superman's parents in this segment illustrate the two most important aspects of his character: hope even in the bleakest situations, and using whatever power you have to do whatever good you can.

The Kents discuss bringing the child to an orphanage, but decide that nobody would believe their story. Interestingly, this bears a lot of resemblance to how the story would go in the post-Crisis age.

The classic image of Clark demonstrating his powers is lifting a heavy object—often a tractor or a couch—to retrieve a ball. It's interesting, then, that these early versions often go for the X-ray vision instead.

The radio program's second version of the origin story has a part titled "Eben Kent Dies in a Fire," so his heart attack is likely a departure from that story.

We see the name Smallville for the first time in this story at the bus depot. The name's been in the comics since at least 1949, but I'd be interested to know if it had shown up in the serials or radio show before this. Notably, despite "Smallville" being the setting of Superboy's adventures for at least a few years in the comics, there's no indication that Superboy existed in this continuity.

Clark is unable to get an interview with Perry the traditional way, so he tries slipping into Perry's office through the window, using a ledge outside the building. It's a bold move, but maybe not one that suits that whole "mild-mannered" demeanor. An emergency interrupts his impromptu interview—a blimp was unable to land, and now a man is hanging from its cable—and Perry sends Lois and Jimmy to cover it. Notably, he tells them to have a couple of photographers dispatched, which suggests that Jimmy hasn't taken that job yet.

Superman's first rescue is the man who'd been dangling from the rope. In his interview, he says it was a "super-guy," but Clark had already beaten him to the punch with the headline.

Additional Commentary: The opening narration is taken verbatim from the first episode of the radio show, "The Baby from Krypton," and much of what happens on Krypton follows pretty close to the original radio script, including the presence of Ro-Zan and Jor-El's "solar calculations." 

Jor-El, played by Robert Rockwell, looks eerily like Norm Macdonald.

And Lara, Aline Towne, looks pretty sultry.

I think this shot is extremely interesting, given how clear it is that Lara is holding a sack rather than a baby. The blanket fell away to expose the sack as she moved, and she tries to cover it back up in a way that looks natural, but it's interesting to see that this didn't merit another take.

Take a look at that superdrool. When they cut away from this close-up shot, it becomes clear that the baby was probably never even on the Krypton set.

Rockwell and Towne really sell the desperation of the moment.

The baby is not on-hand for the rocket crash scene, as a stunt-sack clearly fills in again. I suppose this was the era before high-definition TVs and pause buttons; if I were watching this on a 12-inch screen via antenna, I probably wouldn't notice the difference. Eventually they do transition to having the baby in the scene.

When twelve-year-old Clark asks why he's different from the other boys, Sarah expresses that she was concerned that he was coming down with the measles. I guess it's nice that that's a relevant concern again.

George Reeves looks very Elvis Presley here.

Angry, shouty Perry White here is pretty clearly a major inspiration for J. Jonah Jameson, and a nice illustration of how, once JJJ exists as the apotheosis of that archetype, Perry is left a little rudderless as a character.

The Rocket: A classic sci-fi rocket, but not much distinctive about it. And it ultimately falls apart like it's made of cardboard. Two exploding Kryptons.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Rocket Trips #7: Superman (vol. 1) #146 - 1961

We're firmly in the Silver Age with this week's entry, "The Complete Story of Superman's Life," which begins much like last week's entry with the claim that "millions want to know" where Superman came from and how he got his amazing abilities. And the title page boasts that some of the facts have been revealed before, but this is the first time that the story has been told in full. So, here's 1961's Superman (vol. 1) #146!

Creative Team: Otto Binder and Al Plastino

All-Star Summary:
Doomed planet. Desperate scientist. Last chance. Kindly couple. 

Key Elements: Superman is Earth's mightiest hero, with many amazing abilities. His story starts on the distant world Krypton, which orbits a red sun. Krypton was home to an advanced civilization with futuristic technology, as well as many fantastic creatures. Krypton is beset by damaging quakes, and Jor-El warns the Council of Scientists that these are signs that the planet will soon explode. Jor-El suggests that they build space arks to evacuate the planet, but the Council laughs at him and throws him out. Jor-El conducts experiments with small rockets, ultimately building one large enough for him and his wife Lara to send their baby son Kal-El to Earth. The rocket escapes just as the planet explodes, and the debris turns into radioactive Kryptonite. 

The rocket lands on Earth, and Kal-El is discovered by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, a childless couple living near Smallville. They leave the child with an orphanage, but plan to come back to adopt him. At the orphanage, the child displays superhuman strength. The Kents legally adopt him, and name him Clark, after Martha's maiden name. The child demonstrates amazing abilities, and by using the indestructible blankets he was found in, they're able to make clothes that can withstand his powers.

The Kents sell the farm and move to Smallville, where Clark starts school and eventually becomes the teenage superhero Superboy. He keeps his true identity secret, and begins wearing glasses (fashioned from the indestructible remains of his rocket) as a disguise. When neighbor Lana Lang begins to suspect that Clark is Superboy, he takes elaborate steps to protect his dual identity. Eventually he discovers that he came from the planet Krypton, which explains his amazing powers.

Clark grows up and goes to college, but realizes that maintaining a secret identity will require him to pretend to be meek and mild-mannered his whole life.

The Kents die shortly after Clark's graduation from college, but not before Pa instructs him to use his powers for the benefit of humanity. He decides to move to Metropolis, but when Superboy leaves, Smallville comes out to celebrate him. In thanks, Superboy bakes a cake so large that everyone in town can have a slice.

Clark Kent becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet, so he can learn about crimes as they happen. And when they do, he's off to save the world as Superman!

Interesting Deviations: While the story in The Amazing World of Superman mentioned Earth's yellow sun, this is the first origin we've examined that specifically noted the color of Krypton's sun. I'd be interested to know when that bit of lore entered the mythos. Clearly sometime between 1948 and 1961, and I would venture a guess that either Siegel or Binder was behind it.

It's fascinating how the demonstrations of Krypton's advanced civilization have changed over time. Originally it was that they had super powers, in 1948 it was that they could build amazingly fast flying machines, and here it's that they have robotic laborers and that they can remove the pollution from their atmosphere.

Given how Krypton's destruction has become an allegory for ignoring environmental catastrophe, this is an especially interesting element. 

This is the first mention we've had of Krypton's other fauna, in this case a metal-eater kept in a Kryptonian zoo behind glass bars. Ethics of such rudimentary zoos aside, I kind of wish it were a thought-beast instead.

The physics behind Krypton's destruction receive more elaboration here, with Jor-El identifying that the planet's core is made of uranium and that a chain reaction has begun, making Krypton into a "gigantic atomic bomb." Krypton's destruction being used as an allegory for the existential threats facing the contemporary world is, clearly, not a new phenomenon.

The reason for the Council's rejection of Jor-El's predictions has changed considerably from origin to origin, but this one is unique in my experience: the Council possesses a "Cosmic Clock" that predicts disasters, and it says Krypton will be safe.

There's a tendency in these origins to make it seem like Jor-El is a bit of a crank and a doomsayer, but I like that this story pushes in the opposite direction, making the Council look like fanatics, blindly trusting in this mechanical Nostradamus. You can see shades of how Brainiac gets involved in Krypton's destruction in The Animated Series.

It's 1961, and we've met another survivor of Krypton at this point, so we get a panel of Jor-El discussing his theories with his brother Zor-El, and a surprisingly lengthy editor's note linking the exchange to Supergirl's origin.

Also, assuming the Kryptonian calendar is like the American one, Krypton blew up on a Tuesday.

Speaking of 1961, the existence of the Space Race means that Jor-El's methods have come to mirror that of Earth space agencies. We see Krypto here for the first time in an origin story, and a mention that Krypto's rocket isn't the first test flight Jor-El has conducted. Beppo the Super-Monkey was introduced three years earlier.

We've seen in a couple of origins that Kryptonians were familiar with Earth, but here Jor-El discovers it himself. There's no mention here of trying to build it large enough to hold Lara as well. I think this is also the first origin we've looked at where Kal-El was verbal before he was launched into space.

Not only do we see Kryptonite mentioned here, but also the origins of Red Kryptonite.

Unlike most versions of the origin, here Kal-El is thrown from the rocket when it lands, but is unharmed because anything from Krypton is indestructible on Earth. Anyrhing except the rocket, which explodes due to its super-fuel, all of which seems like a pretty tremendous oversight on Jor-El's part. The rocket being destroyed was a frequent element in Golden Age origins, but I'm surprised to see it happening here in the era of "indestructible blankets became the Superboy costume." Though there's enough of it left for the Kents to recognize it as a space ship.

Kal is left on the doorstep of the orphanage under the cover of night. We see some of the classic feats of strength at the orphanage that we've seen before, but here they go unnoticed by the staff. The Kents, on the other hand, start cataloging his powers immediately. Though the sheer number of otherwise life-threatening situations the Kents allow Clark to get into makes them look pretty negligent.

We see the further influence of the popularity of Superboy stories here, as the Kents sell the farm and buy a general store in Smallville before Clark begins school. Clark adopts his Superboy identity after mastering all of his powers except flying, which he eventually conquers with the help of Pa Kent, some weather balloons, and a rope.

The story introduces the super-robots, Clark's secret tunnel out of town and the secret rooms he built in the Kent house, and his reunion with Krypto.

Clark's discovery of his abilities is notable first in that it repeats the justification given all the way back in Action Comics #1, using an ant and a grasshopper as Earth examples of creatures with strength like Superman's, and second in that it distinguishes between the powers he has due to Earth's weaker gravity, and the powers he has due to the yellow sun.

At the end, we get a neat little space-age addition to the old "It's a bird!" exclamation, inserting "a rocket" in there.

Additional Commentary: The issue starts with a brief run-down of Superman's powers and character, which culminates in this neat little panel. I'm always down for Superman, champion of the underdog.

The scenes of Clark leaving Smallville are almost verbatim what we'd see in The Amazing World of Superman, down to people saving their slice of cake and Superman becoming a citizen of the world.

It wouldn’t be entirely surprising that the 1973 origin would hew so closely to this one, except that the last section is really the only place where it does. The biggest deviation is Superman pledging his loyalty to the United States in this version, likely speaking to the greater Cold War tensions in 1961 than 1973.

The Rocket: We'll see variations on this version of this red-and-blue rocket in several origins, and to be honest we see at least a couple of variations (differing mostly in how pointed the nosecone is) in these panels. It's not particularly distinctive, but at least it has those retro fins and the color scheme. Three out of five exploding Kryptons.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Rocket Trips #6: More Fun Comics #101 - 1945

In the modern age, it's easy to think about how common superhero origin retellings are. We see new spins on old origin stories all the time, usually from different creative teams or in different media. It's strange to think about a time when a popular character's origin might not have been well-known. It's stranger still to think about the original creative team taking multiple cracks at a character's origin. To my knowledge, Lee and Ditko only ever did the one origin story for Spider-Man, for instance. But Siegel and Shuster told Superman's origin at least four times across the comics and newspaper strips. This is, as far as I can tell from a cursory search, also the last time they'd tackle the story together. So, without further ado, here's 1945's More Fun Comics #101, the first appearance of Superboy!

Creative Team: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Ira Schnapp

All-Star Summary:
Doomed planet. Desperate scientist. Last hope. Kindly couple. 

Key Elements: The distant planet Krypton is home to an advanced species of superintelligent humanoids. Krypton's gravitational pull is much stronger than Earth's, such that a Kryptonian transported to Earth would have superhuman abilities. Scientist Jor-El believes that the planet is doomed, but cannot convince the science council to join his plan to build rockets and evacuate the population. The tremors increase in severity, and Jor-El arrives home to tell his wife, Lara, to get in the rocket with their child, but she refuses to leave his side. They launch their son into space just moments before the planet explodes.

The rocket lands on Earth, where it is discovered by a passing motorist, who takes the baby inside to an orphanage. The child astounds the staff with amazing feats of strength, and is eventually adopted by an older couple, the Kents. As Clark Kent grows, so do his amazing abilities, which set him apart from other children. Clark keeps his powers secret to blend in with other children, but when he sees someone in danger, risks revealing his abilities to save an innocent life. To keep people from knowing that Clark Kent has superpowers, he adopts a costumed superhero identity—Superboy!

Interesting Deviations: Well, the first interesting deviation is that this is, technically, the first appearance of this version of Superman. If you remember from Rocket Trips #3, our look at the Secret Origins story about Earth-2/Golden Age Superman, he was never Superboy. So technically this story is the first appearance of the Silver Age Superman. Not that it was intended to be, that's a weird bit of retroactive metacontinuity. This might also be the only entry in this series that neither displays nor names Superman/Superboy on the cover.

This may be the only time the people of Krypton are described as generally possessing "great physical beauty."

We've moved away by this point from the notion that Kryptonians just had superpowers on Krypton, something I suspect is due to the gradual increase in Superman's own abilities (if Kryptonians can fly and survive in space, why didn't they just fly off of the planet?), but here the strong gravity is also credited with their ability to build lightweight, fast-moving aircraft (and eventually, spaceships). I'm not 100% convinced of the physics of that one.

Lending credence to the metaretcon is that we have "Jor-El" and "Lara" as Superman's parents' names. Lowther's novel used those spellings (capitalization aside), but I think this may be the first time they appear in the comics. The novel also described the Council members as wearing red-and-blue togas, and, well, this is how everyone on Krypton dresses:

All the men, anyway. Lara looks like a candy striper.

Here, as in our previous entry, Jor-El specifically suggests that the Kryptonians relocate to Earth. The rocket here is also explicitly large enough for both Lara and Kal-El, and as far as I can tell, this is where that element is introduced. It's worth noting that Kal-El is never given that name here in this story.

The rocket lands gently on Earth, though no additional mention is made of it after the passing motorist finds it. Again, I think this is a new element; prior to this, it was typically depicted as a crash landing and the ship caught fire and disintegrated soon after.

It's worth noting that even this early in the mythos—even under Siegel and Shuster!—the "passing motorist" weaves in and out of the narrative. He's there from the start, in Action #1 and the newspaper strip, but is cut out of the origin in Superman (vol. 1) #1, returns in the Fleischer serial, cut out again in the Lowther novel, and returns again here. I'd love to know the reason for this back-and-forth; I think there's better narrative economy and drama in the Kents finding the ship, and it's strange that this character never returns to the story later on. Like, I've read multiple comics about The Burglar who killed Uncle Ben, there's a whole mythos about the guy who murdered the Waynes, but as far as I know this guy just drops out of continuity forever after this comic.

For perhaps the only time in Superman history, Pa Kent is bald and has a moustache. He looks a little like Teddy Roosevelt. Unlike Clark's Kryptonian parents, who receive their modern names for the first time in this comic, the Kents aren't named individually at all.

Clark seems to decide on his own that he needs to keep his powers secret and blend in, rather than having that strategy suggested to him by his parents.

Also, while his ensemble of a red sweater over a white collared shirt and blue pants would be the canonical Young Clark Kent look into the '80s, he notably doesn't wear glasses. Flipping through subsequent issues, it looks like he first puts on specs in More Fun Comics #107, just in time to make the jump over to Adventure Comics with the other superhero features.

Clark sees a man pinned under a car, and lifts it off of him. To the children who witnessed the act of heroism, Clark nervously suggests that "something happened just for a minute to give me super-strength," which is about as flimsy as explanations get. This spurs him to develop the Superboy identity, and notably, a caption tells us that he fashions the costume himself. It seems the idea that Ma Kent wove it out of indestructible Kryptonian blankets would come later.

The last major deviation here is just how young Superboy is. Typically, Superboy's adventures are "Superman when he was a teen," but Clark seems to be more like 10-12 here. Certainly not high school hijinks like we'd see later on.

Additional Commentary: In a world where Superman's origin gets told so often that I can build a whole blog series about it, it's hard to imagine anyone, let alone "thousands of followers," asking about it.

Flowery language describing Krypton shows up a few times in these early origins, and though the prose is positively ultraviolet, I really enjoy it.

I've covered most of the other interesting stuff in the Deviations section, but this is an interesting artifact. While its relationship to the Silver Age is mostly due to retcon, you can see some of the seeds here. "Kid superhero who isn't a sidekick and has solo adventures" would become a major feature in the Silver Age, kicking off with the Legion of Super-Heroes and finding their apotheosis in Spider-Man. While Clark here is closer to what you'd see in a Boy Commandos or Newsboy Legion comic in terms of age and artistic influence, this really is one of the impulses that ushers in the next age of comics.

The Rocket: Hoo boy, look at this monstrosity. Dig the fins, but why a yellow-and-green color scheme? It looks like a fish. One exploding Krypton.