Sunday, May 16, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 4)

"Boys and girls, your attention please. Presenting a new exciting radio program featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality!"

With that brief introduction on February 12, 1940, Superman made his way off of the page and onto the airwaves, taking the first small steps into a multimedia empire that would span decades (so far). I think it's fairly common knowledge that a lot of the Superman mythos started with the radio program--everything from Kryptonite to the Daily Planet to "Look! Up in the sky!"--and made its way into the comics later. It's a process that continues to this day, as comics incorporate characters and details from other media into the print continuity1, generally reflecting either the actual greater visibility and popularity of non-comic media, or the comic writers' perception that that's the case.

What's less common knowledge, I think, is that such elements weren't in place from the start. There's some incredible adaptation decay involved here, which never quite made the leap from broadcast to print--and that's probably for the best.

But the first episode contains a version of the destruction of Krypton that could easily be taken straight from a modern portrayal. Give it a listen:

Frankly, I'm not entirely sure how to go about describing this show, since there's no convenient way to reference discreet bits like panels or even scenes. I think I'm just going to listen through and write up what seems significant. I'll also take a moment to say that I imagine the posts will tend to get either longer or less in-depth as time goes on, since the origin stories get longer as time goes on. Sure, these early years, even up through the Kirk Alyn serial and the '50s comics, have stories that are confined to relatively short time periods and page counts. But 1978 brings a 45-minute origin story; 1996's is nearly 90 minutes, and by 2003 we have 12 full issues to contend with. I'm not made of blogging.

The first significant portion is the introductory narration.
Faster than an airplane! More powerful than a locomotive! Impervious to bullets!
"Up in the sky, look!"
"It's a bird!"
"It's a plane!"
"It's Superman!"

And now, Superman.

It's clearly the rough draft of the opening that we're all used to from the cartoons and TV shows, which is so frequently referenced in pop culture that I suspect most people can rattle large parts of it off the top of their heads, even if they've never seen a Superman show before. Hearing it this first time, the same but subtly different, is a lot like reading the original U.S. Pledge of Allegiance after reciting the revised version in school my whole life. "More powerful than a locomotive" and the bird/plane/Superman bits are the only full lines that make it to the more familiar introduction intact. Eventually, as you know, the first and third lines are combined to become "faster than a speeding bullet," and we get the added "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound," trading a description of invulnerability for leaping/flight. I'll be curious to see if the "leaping" bit is introduced before or after he gains sustained flight as a power. It's hard to say whether "faster than a plane" (vs. bullet) is meant to be a description of his limits or not; as far as I can tell from very cursory research, military planes around the time had top speeds around 450 mph, and Chuck Yeager wouldn't officially break the sound barrier (761.2 mph) for another eight years. I haven't found any official specs on bullet speeds from guns of the era, but bullet speeds in general can easily outstrip that depending on conditions, ranging from 400 mph at the low end to over 3000 mph. Not that Superman's powers have ever been quite so clearly defined, that is, I'm just interested to know if this is meant to be an "impressive but not preposterous" description of his speed, where the change to "faster than a speeding bullet" was an extension of his power, or if it's just that "faster than a speeding bullet" is more impressive and poetic.

Moving right along, there's a second paragraph to the introduction, which again is like a first draft for the version that becomes immortal2. It's an interesting mix of what we've seen at the end of the origin stories in the comics and lines like "strange visitor from another planet" that show up in later iterations. Here it is, for posterity and the hearing-impaired:
And now, Superman: a being no larger than an ordinary man, but possessed of powers and abilities never before realized on Earth. Able to leap into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound! Hurdle a twenty-story building with ease! Race a high-powered bullet to its target! Lift tremendous weights and rend solid steel in his bare hands, as though it were paper. Superman: a strange visitor from a distant planet, champion of the oppressed, physical marvel extraordinary, who has sworn to dedicate his existence on Earth to helping those in need.

The "eighth of a mile"/"twenty-story building"/"raise tremendous weights" has been pretty well consistent in the different origin stories, as has the "champion of the oppressed" and "helping those in need." Frankly, I really like the "champion of the oppressed" moniker, and I'll be interested to see when it gets phased out. "Rend steel" eventually becomes "bend steel," "distant planet" eventually becomes "another planet," and "race a high-powered bullet" eventually gets streamlined into the first-paragraph zinger. For how much of this is taken directly from the comics, it's significant to note that they don't mention that his skin is impervious to anything "less than a bursting shell." And, for that matter, though they keep the "leaping," the sound effect they use sure sounds like flying to me. There's also no mention of Clark Kent, though I think the reasons for that will become obvious in the second episode. This first installment is just about the sci-fi.

There's some nice poetic language in the description of our auditory journey, to "where the planet Krypton burns like a green star in the endless heaven." Here, as in all the previous versions of the story, the denizens of Krypton are highly-evolved supermen at the peak of human physical perfection. The story proper opens on "Krypton's foremost scientist" Jor-L addressing "the planet's governing council" in the Temple of Wisdom. Through his "solar calculations," Jor-L has determined that Krypton is doomed. He lists a litany of natural disasters that have been plaguing the planet, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the planet is facing its final days. Members in the crowd dismiss his doomsaying as mad, and Rozan is sure that he's made a mistake. On the contrary, says Jor-L, Krypton is being drawn ever closer to its sun, and within a month the gravitational stresses will cause Krypton's complete destruction. The council laughs, but Rozan humors him: "Assuming for the moment, Jor-L, that what you say is true, how are we to avoid it? What can we do to stop it?" Jor-L explains that he's been working on a space-ship, and with time and the combined effort and resources of the council, they might be able to evacuate the entire population of Krypton to Earth, which has a similar atmosphere.

Rozan is, again, dismissive. Of course they "have the utmost respect for your [Jor-L's] knowledge and integrity," but he's obviously been working too hard. "Planets as large as Krypton do not explode, Jor-L." So the government recognizes that Jor-L is the world's foremost scientist, respected for his knowledge and integrity, but they patronize him, dismiss his findings as "impossible" and laugh him out of the building, calling him crazy, because they don't like his conclusions and obviously they know more about science than the world's foremost scientist. There's a relevant lesson in all that, even seventy years later.

Another earthquake hits, and Jor-L repeats his warnings.
Jor-L: Wait! Do you hear that, gentlemen? It's the forewarning of doom! Every moment is precious now! Quakes like that are sounding the death knell of Krypton! It will happen, gentlemen, and happen soon! When the last great eruption comes--

Rozan: When it comes, Jor-L, it shall find all of us ready. If Krypton is to die, we shall die with it. The parting would be much too severe. [The council laughs].

And there you have it. The Council of Krypton has chosen its fate, and dismissed Jor-L's science as a joke. Jor-L chides them for their flippant attitude: "Laugh all you like, Rozan, and you members of the Council. I have no time to laugh. My wife, Lara3, and my infant son are dear to me. It is not my wish to stand by and see them destroyed!" He then ends his speech with a hearty 'you'll all be sorry,' and they laugh once more. On one hand, Jor-L is acting a bit like a classic crackpot, and it's often hard to tell the difference between reasonable warnings and irrational doomsaying. On the other hand, you can see Jor-L trying every tactic he can think of to convince the council: he starts by explaining his scientific findings in a fairly calm manner and laying out the potential solution, he moves on to trying to scare them into action, and finally he resorts to an appeal to their humanity, using his own family to try to evoke the council's sympathies. None of it works; the old men are too set in their ways, and so Rozan calls a vote with some pretty loaded language: "You have heard Jor-L speak. Is it your wish that we devote time and money to the building of space-ships, for the transportation of Krypton's population to another planet?" The vote goes about as well as you'd expect.

Jor-L tells the Council that they've signed the death warrant for every living thing on the planet, and says he'll proceed with building his own spaceship to save his family. "As for the rest of you: May the gods have mercy on your souls."

Jor-L returns home, where Lara complains about the heat, wondering if it's because of Krypton's increasing proximity to its sun. Jor-L responds in the affirmative, which raises some scientific questions. I'm no astronomer, but I think if Krypton is getting close enough to the sun that it's affecting global temperature, then there should be other, more obvious signs that its orbit is changing. I think the days should appear to be getting longer, seasons should be getting out of whack, the sun should appear larger in the sky. I suppose those changes might not yet be drastic enough, depending on the astronomical conditions, and one should never underestimate the ability of people in positions of power to rationalize away the obvious. Lara asks him how the Council responded to his news, but Jor-L says he didn't mention it. He doesn't have the heart to tell her that they won't support him (or his pride was wounded by being laughed out of the room). He's just finished building his model rocket, and if it works, he'll build a much larger version for the three of them.

There's a really tragic comment here, from my perspective: "Can't you come in and look at him [Kal-L]? You scarcely see him these days, what with working all hours on the spaceship model." Not only will Jor-L miss his son's childhood and adulthood, sending him off into the cosmic wilderness, but he's sacrificed what little time he does have with the boy to ensure that the child will have a future. That's heartbreaking, and it makes me almost angry that other versions of this origin story have changed this detail, have missed this point, making Jor-L into an artificial intelligence who raises or educates or manipulates his son from beyond the grave. This is the tragedy of Jor-L: he sacrifices everything to give his son a better future than he'll have, up to and including having a relationship with his child.

Suddenly, I have a much more positive opinion of Jor-L.

Jor-L explains how the model craft will work. This is where the Silver Age went wrong, I think, by retconning multiple test-flights into the origin story, rocketing a dog and a chimp into space. It makes the baby-sized rocket look like the next phase in the testing process, rather than a model that was never meant to be used to carry anyone anywhere. After the chimp lives, why not make a full-sized rocket for the whole family?

Anyway, the rocket is pointed at Earth, "a planet, smaller than our own, situated on the other side of the sun." This is the origin of the idea that Krypton was "originally" meant to be in our solar system on an orbit opposite to our own, so we can never detect it. There are some serious astronomical problems with that notion, made odder by the fact that Krypton's rapid descent toward the sun never has any stated effect on Mercury or Venus. I think there's enough ambiguity and poetic license in Jor-L's description here that you can't necessarily peg Krypton's location, but regardless it's not a part of the "original" anything. We're four origins in, folks.

Jor-L explains to Lara what Earth's humans are like, how they're less developed and weaker and more limited than Kryptonians. His illustration is worth quoting:
Jor-L: Something like this: You know how far you step when you want to go somewhere?

Lara: Practically as far as I want. Why, one step takes me to Bruta's house, near the fountain.

Jor-L: Exactly. But down where I'm sending this spaceship, it's quite different. An Earthman steps only three feet at a time at most, and everything else is in proportion.

Lara: And that's where we're going? Oh, how dreadful.

Another little detail that Byrne would eventually restore: Lara's revulsion at the planet Earth. I do like Lara's romantic resignation: "It doesn't matter whether we live or die, as long as we're together." It recalls some of the poetic melodrama from the newspaper strip version.

Jor-L plans to test the rocket at dawn, watching to ensure that it reaches Earth safely. They are about to head back into the house to escape the oppressive heat, when the ground starts trembling once more due to a series of subterranean explosions. Jor-L realizes that the end has come ahead of schedule--"Oh, what a fool I've been to delay!" The other tragedy of Jor-L: despite his warnings, despite his careful studies and calculations, despite his meticulous testing, even he overestimates how much time Krypton has left. Lara asks if the model is large enough to carry one of them, then goes to retrieve Kal-L: "If one of us can be saved, Jor-L, it should be the boy!" Jor-L disagrees--he wants to send Lara. I have a hard time describing why I like this, but something about it rings true. There's something both romantic and pragmatic about Jor-L's position, and something both optimistic and maternal about Lara's. Jor-L provides the means of salvation, Lara provides the hope for the future--shocking that those two elements would go to produce someone like Superman.

On an amusing note, Jor-L can't help but get in an 'I told you so' before the end: "just as I foretold!" Take that, Rozan! They put Kal-L in the rocket and start the launch process. The house begins to sway, smoke pours from the center of the planet, while the rocket builds power. Just when Jor-L thinks it might be too late, the rocket launches. Jor-L declares that their son is on his way to Earth. Lara cries out his name: "Kal-L! KAL-L!" And the planet crumbles.
So the tiny rocketship roars into the uncharted heavens, as the mighty planet of Krypton explodes into millions of glowing fragments, glittering stars to remain forever in the night sky.

I wonder, if they hadn't said that Krypton's fragments were "glowing," would anyone have thought up the idea for Kryptonite? I'll ignore the word "stars" (and for that matter, the word "forever") here as poetic license.

As for Kal-L's ship, as the closing narration says, "Does it reach the Earth? Does it find its mark in all the far-flung darkness of space?"

I guess we'll find out in episode two. Don't miss the next installment of Superman Sunday!

1. For example, Harley Quinn, Live Wire, Spider-Man's organic webshooters, Wolverine's claws extending from between his knuckles, Iron Man not being a jerk, etc.

2. I'm actually going through some of the radio archives, and it's very interesting to hear the intro develop. To me, anyway. I'm skipping ahead story arc by story arc, and each one gets a little closer to what I'm familiar with--adding lines, subtracting words, and interestingly enough keeping the phrase "champion of the weak and the oppressed" pretty consistently. The familiar "CRACK! Faster than a speeding bullet!" beginning and "the American Way" at the end appear to have been added in 1942, probably during one of the large gaps in my archive--or possibly introduced by one of the portrayals in other media, since the first Fleischer cartoons aired in 1941. At some point, this might be a worthwhile post or series on its own. Mental note: made.

3. Yes, "Lara," with a long "a" at the beginning (though that fluctuates throughout the episode). "Lora" is gone, presumably never to be seen again.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

1 comment:

Anthony Strand said...

That's so fascinating. I should listen to more of the radio series. It's good stuff.