Where does Superman come from? First Answer is … by Jim Thompson

by Jim Thompson

The obvious answer is Krypton …  but that’s like asking for someone to recite the alphabet and only receiving an  “A” in response.

Krypton is the DIEGETIC answer, meaning it’s the answer based solely on the subject TEXT, and not any outside determinants, such as authorship, the popular culture zeitgeist, literary antecedents, social/political/economic influences, national paradigms or any other non-diegetic considerations.
Krypton and Superman © DC Comics

I want to start with what is on the printed page, the DIEGESIS, but then explore/navigate increasingly outward, essentially mapping multiple points of origin for the character. Think of it as a journey from a single birth point, the diegetic Krypton, through various multi-colored bands of time and space/thoughts and knowledge,  emerging at a destination complete with a more full and nuanced origin narrative.

I. Planet of Origin.

Action Comics #1 (June, 1938) Superman © DC Comics

Action Comics #1  was the first published appearance of the character Superman. For these purposes, the creators, the publisher or the date of release do not matter.  All we need to know is that it is the first Superman text. And,  per page 1 of that text, Superman is from a distant planet, destroyed by old age. The name Krypton is not mentioned, only the fact that “a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it toward Earth.”

But there’s more to his origin than just a planet of …
That first glorious page also establishes that he is FROM an orphanage on Earth. Further, “Superman ” is a secondary identity, that came FROM someone else, someone named Clark. We learn that “Superman” is a fiction/a cover derived FROM  Clark”s desire  to “champion the oppressed” and to “help those in need.”

As that first story progresses, we learn that Clark is Clark Kent and that he is also FROM a large metropolitan city, FROM a newspaper called the Daily Star, and coming FROM a complicated, and not necessarily healthy, relationship with co-worker Lois Lane. That’s it — the entirety of Superman’s base diegetic origin and mythology. (It should be noted that in Action Comics #2, the paper is referenced as the Evening News from Cleveland, Ohio, but that’s the only reference of that nature).

II. Further Naming.

The first daily of the  Superman comic strip identified the “distant planet” as Krypton and the “scientist” (father) as Jor-L, as well as mother as Lora.

January 16, 1939 daily strip, Superman © DC Comics

The second daily identified the Superman character as originally having been named Kal-L.

January 17, 1939 daily strip, Superman © DC Comics
Superman’s city of residence is named “Metropolis” in Action Comics #16 (September 1939)

III. The First “RETCON”

Superman #1 is the first time the word Krypton is used in a comic book. More significantly, this issue is the first time the origin is retconned. The “passing motorist”: has been changed to Ma and Pa Kent and Clark is given adoptive, and very influential, parents.
Superman #1 (July, 1939)  (c) DC Comics

IV. The first alternative TEXT and its influence on the comics.

A competing origin text emerged beginning February 12, 1940, with the first episode of  Adventures of Superman radio program, entitled “The Baby from Krypton.” This  episode is consistent with the origin contained within the comic book and strip, except that Krypton is described as being on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.

The script for the above episode can be read here. 

The second episode, “Clark Kent, Mild-Mannered Reporter,”  February 14, 1940, diverged significantly from the comic origin. Kal-L arrives on Earth fully grown and nameless. He rescues a father (Professor) and son (Jimmy) from a runaway trolley and asks them advice on how to learn about man. The professor suggests a profession, reporter, and Jimmy suggests the name Clark Kent. Instead of working for the Daily Star, both the Daily Planet and city editor Perry White are introduced in this episode. In Action Comics #23 (April 1940) Kent and Lane’s employer changes from Daily Star to Daily Planet without explanation. Likewise, Perry White is brought in as their boss with Superman #7 (November 1940).

In the years that followed, the comic TEXTS made further revisions and expansions as to the character’s origin and mythos, but the origin tale was firmly established as starting on Krypton, transitioning to Smallville and the Kents, and concluding with Kent arriving in Metropolis and becoming a reporter for the Daily Planet, while adopting the extra-curricular identity of “Superman.”  This origin “package” from planet Krypton to Daily Planet was established with the 1940 radio episodes, reinforced with the premiere origin episode of the television series in 1952, and confirmed with the film Superman (1978).

Next time, we move beyond the diegetic and  towards authorship, if not quite yet auteur theory. Meanwhile though, I leave with perhaps the most powerful summation of the simplicity and perfection of the Superman origin since the first text of Action Comics #1, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s first page to All-Star Superman #1.

 All-Star Superman #1 (January, 2006) Superman © DC Comics

Note: All images above © DC Comics

Use of images are not intended to infringe on copyright, but merely used for academic purpose

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