Krypton: A Brief History of Superman's Perpetually Doomed Home Planet

The many makeovers endured by the Man of Steel's birthplace
Courtesy of SyFy

The announcement earlier this week that David Goyer is developing a show for Syfy based on the home planet of DC Entertainment’s Superman raised an unexpected question from some comic book fans: which Krypton will show up in Krypton?

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the longevity of Superman’s career, even if you ignore the different takes offered in movies and television shows, there have been multiple versions of Krypton throughout the years. In the very first appearance of Superman in 1938’s Action Comics No. 1, it was only glimpsed in one panel and unnamed, described as “a distant planet… destroyed by old age.” (The name “Krypton” didn’t appear until the following year’s Superman No. 1.) It wouldn’t be until 1948’s Superman No. 52 (“The Origin of Superman!”) that readers would get a chance to truly visit the doomed planet, thanks to a flashback sequence leading up to baby Kal-El’s trip into space.

In that story, it was revealed that Kryptonians had both superpowers and super-technology (“We have observed Earth people with our astro-telescopes,” one character helpfully says. “They are thousands of eons behind us, mentally and physically!”), even if their dress sense — something best described as Roman Empire-meets-Circus Performer — left a little to be desired. Despite this super-charged environment, life of Krypton seemed much like life on Earth… at least until the planet’s destruction thanks to its uranium core. “Gentlemen, Krypton is one gigantic atomic bomb!” Superman’s dad, Jor-El, tells the planet’s ruling council at one point.

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This was essentially the version of Krypton that existed for decades after, although the fashions got less Roman and more suit-like as time went on. By the time Superman traveled in time to meet his own parents and visit his vanquished homeland in 1960’s “Return to Krypton!” (Superman No. 141), short sleeves and capes were out, replaced by evening wear and headbands; when Jor-El sees his son in full superhero regalia, he asks, “Why are you wearing that strange costume?” Also gone was the idea that Kryptonians automatically had superpowers; by this point, they were everyday folk who would only gain powers if living under a yellow sun, like ours (Krypton’s sun was red).

This first Krypton was, like the majority of superhero comics at the time, entirely populated by white faces — a fact that led to an embarrassing story in 1971’s Superman. No. 239 that revealed that there was racial diversity on the planet; it’s just that all the black people on Krypton lived on their own island called “Vathlo Island,” populated by, and I quote, “a highly developed black race [that] retained its independence throughout history and did not join the planetary federation, though good relations were maintained.” (Despite the inherent problems with the concept, Vathlo Island would later be revived as the home of the father of Cal Ellis, the black Superman in DC’s current The Multiversity series.)

When writer/artist John Byrne recreated Superman from the ground up in 1986’s Man of Steel mini-series, he also revamped substantially revamped Krypton. No longer essentially Earth-like, Krypton became a world ruled by science, where emotions were repressed and the race procreated through cloning. In this version of events, Superman wasn’t even born on Krypton before its destruction; instead, his “birthing pod” was loaded with genetic material before being sent into space.

Cold, detached and — to be blunt — pretty dull, this version of Krypton was left relatively unexplored by flashback stories beyond the 1987 World of Krypton mini-series (By comparison, the original had not only been visited by Superman and other contemporary superheroes, it had also been the focus of its own mini-series and long-running strip in various Superman series, both of which were also called World of Krypton), and primarily remembered these days for the distinctive designs of the costumes worn by the planet’s inhabitants more than anything else.

In recent years, Krypton has received multiple makeovers, none of which have really managed to stick. 2004’s Superman: Birthright restored Kal-El’s birth on Krypton before its destruction — and, in fact, jettisoned much of the sterile Krypton of Byrne’s invention in favor of a contemporary take on the 1950s and ‘60s version of the planet, but that was almost immediately overwritten by an ever-newer version of the planet and its mythology in 2006 as part of the “Last Son” storyline co-written by Superman The Movie director Richard Donner. (That version, to no-one’s great shock, pulled from Donner’s movie as much as any previous comic depiction when it came to the visual representation.)

When DC relaunched its entire line in 2011, Action Comics Vol. 2 No. 3 introduced yet another Krypton, one that again returned to the original for its visual inspiration but presented itself as a society enamored by glamor but overwhelmed by information akin to early cyberpunk fiction in many ways, with references to “telebands” and “bandcasting.” Like all other Kryptons, it ended up destroyed after sending Kal-El on his way.

Amongst these myriad of many Kryptons, there is actually one version of the planet that should serve as core text for those developing the Syfy project — and also those who find themselves fascinated by the ever-evolving oddness of the fictional planet. In a storyline that ran from 2008 through 2009, it was established that part of Krypton survived the planet’s destruction, and went on to re-establish itself on a planet eventually renamed New Krypton.

New Krypton was a more-developed culture — more appropriately, series of cultures — than those traditionally appearing in Superman stories, built of representatives of every version of the planet that had existed previously, explained away by depicting them as co-existing, inter-dependent guilds that follow different philosophies: the science guild, the creative guild, the artistic guild, and so on. More than any idea of Krypton before or since, it showed ways in which the society could operate (There was, for example, a service guild made up of what was essentially a slave class; something Superman wasn’t too keen on) and the ways in which Kryption culture differed from any Earthbound culture while also remaining impressively faithful to the various mythological elements than had been created years before.

Should the televisual Krypton spend a similar amount of time world building — and offer as much respect to what has come before — as “New Krypton” did, then fans can be assured of a show worth checking out. If the opposite happens, and it creates a brand new Krypton unlike anything ever seen before (even Russell Crowe and his space dragons of last year’s Man of Steel), then… well, it’s not as if that would be entirely out of step with the planet’s comic book history, either, really.

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