Readers who hail from the planet Earth Prime, hello again! Welcome to another of my Nerdy Love Letters. So far, we have talked about characters I love. This time, we shift focus to a particular story I rather enjoy and often re-read. This story is related to Clark Kent AKA Superman, who was born as Kal-El (“Star Child”) on his native world. Entitled “A Name is Born,” this story featured a fateful encounter between a colonizer and a stranded refugee on the frontier of space. This story was when readers finally learned about… the First People of the Planet Krypton!
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in the 1930s, one of their biggest inspirations was John Carter, the fictional “Warlord of Mars” featured in stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. John Carter was an ageless man living on Earth who seemed to die only to then awake on the planet Mars. Due to Mars having less mass and gravity, John becomes a seeming superhuman there and winds up having lots of adventures.
Siegel and Shuster decided to flip this idea by creating a man from another world who becomes very powerful due to Earth’s different environment. And while John Carter made his home in the Martian city of Helium, Siegel and Shuster just took another name from the same column of the Periodic Table of Elements, and called Superman’s native world Krypton. Decades later, the comics took the joke a step further by going one more down the column and naming one of Krypton’s moons after Xenon.
In Superman’s very first published adventure in Action Comics #1 (1938), his biological parents and native planet weren’t named. It was just referred to as an alien world that died of old age. We didn’t see its people, but were told that they were of a race much like Earth humans only millennia more advanced biologically. As time went on, we were told that Superman’s abilities were also partly due to Earth having different environmental conditions to his native planet, and the planet was finally publicly called Krypton in the first Superman newspaper strip in 1939. The newspaper strip revealed that Krypton’s unstable core had been the cause of its destruction, and named Superman’s biological parents Jor-L and Lora. The 1942 novel The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther renamed them Jor-El and Lara, and those names became canon when they made their first comic book appearances in More Fun Comics #101 (1945). Lara was later given the full name of Lara Lor-Van.
Over time, readers saw different scenes and stories regarding Superman’s parents during their lives on Krypton. We also met criminals who had survived Krypton’s destruction and whose earlier crimes were revealed in flashback. We met other survivors such as the citizens of Argo City and the Bottle City of Kandor. On occasion, we were told of Kal-El’s ancestors and their great achievements. A couple of times, Superman went back in time and met other Kryptonians who were contemporaries of his biological parents.
Starting in 1971, DC Comics decided to start developing Krypton’s history and mythology beyond only its survivors, the actions of several criminals, and those connected to the House of El. These short stories, considered chapters of a “super series,” appeared under the banner of “The Fabulous World of Krypton: Untold Tales of Superman’s Native Planet.” They were mainly published from 1971-1973, with another story added in 1977. In 1979, more was revealed in the mini-series World of Krypton. These short stories and that mini-series can be found in the collected volume The Many Worlds of Krypton.
Krypton’s own version of Adam and Eve was revealed in the short story “A Name is Born,” featured in Superman #238 (1971), and crafted by writer Cary Bates and artist Gray Morrow. From the start, we aren’t told to accept this story as fact necessarily. This is a tale that teachers are telling in order to hold the interest of young, otherwise rowdy, Kryptonian students. It isn’t clear if this is considered factual history with just a few essential details missing or if this is a legend based on fact or what. The Kryptonian teacher who shares this story with her class seems to have only just heard it for the first time herself from another teacher earlier. This tale then may be one of a several fairy tales or religious myths or old folk lore that Kryptonians came up with to explain their origins. I’m good with that. A planet as old as Krypton feels a bit more “real” to me if some of its history is lost to legend and open to debate.
The story begins on Krypton of ancient times, when the planet is full of wild, dangerous flora and fauna, and surrounded by a “wispy, crimson cocoon” that make it difficult to travel to and from the planet’s surface. Parts of it descend and cling to the planet’s surface like an enormous web, ensnaring anything that comes in contact. In these ancient days, there is no native humanoid life or any dominant life form that has real sentience and the ability to reason.
A space warrior named Kryp journeys through a rift in the cocoon and lands on the planet, only to realize there’s already an astronaut here, a “cosmo-biologist” named Tonn. Kryp is disappointed to meet this foreigner. He had been sent as an advance scout by his own world, tasked with finding new territory, and yet this stranger from who knows where has beaten him to a claim on the planet. Tonn approaches, her hands open and no weapons at her side. She offers a plant to Kryp, and he is startled when it rapidly grows and expands. The plant isn’t harmful at all, but the surprise and sudden rapid motion is enough for Kryp (already suspicious of Tonn) to conclude he’s under attack. Without saying anything else, he grabs his blaster and responds in kind.
But this is only Kryp’s perspective. We the readers know that Tonn doesn’t intend any harm. She’s a scientist and explorer in search of knowledge, not conquest, and has been stranded here for some time. She’s a refugee trying to survive, a Matt Damon hoping someone or something can help her get back to civilization. She’s excited by Kryp’s appearance and how advanced his technology is, initially hoping to give him an exotic plant sample as a peace offering. But the planet’s environment causes it to suddenly enlarge and sprout at a rapid rate.
If you look at the art, Tonn immediately raises her hands after her plant sample is dealt with, indicating she didn’t mean to attack, has no wish for fighting, and is possibly hoping to apologize. But Kryp either ignores this or is too ready for battle to acknowledge it, and simply fires. He doesn’t acknowledge that Tonn never fights back during their battle and is only avoiding injury. He doesn’t even notice that she is a woman, instead assuming that this is another male warrior.
Tonn believes in non-violence, so she doesn’t attack Kryp. Instead, she uses her tech to nullify the effects of his weapons. Kryp then uses a rifle to blow up Tonn’s ship, forcing her into a vulnerable position so he can do a sneak attack. Wishing to confront her honorably, he stops with the weapons and faces her hand to hand. Then Tonn pushes him out of the way as a piece of the planet’s crimson cocoon descends, trapping her. Suspicious at first, Kryp decides to return the favor by freeing her from the strange, crimson web. The two then forget the fight and start from scratch, greeting each other as allies. Although they don’t know each other’s language, it’s clear now that each doesn’t really wish the other harm.
Kryp then realizes his ship has been locked onto the planet’s surface by more strands of the crimson cocoon. Even if it can be freed (and that’s an if not a certainty), he and Tonn are going to be here for a while. Finally, they attempt verbal communication, beginning with their names.
The story then shifts back to the teacher telling this tale to her students. She reveals that Kryp and Tonn never did escape the planet, but instead founded a new race and society on this strange world that came to carry both their names combined: Krypton.
What do I like about this creation myth specifically? Well, first I think it’s really neat that even Krypton’s Adam and Eve story is a science fiction tale. These aren’t people from magical lands or who are born from the ground by the will of gods, but rather two astronauts from two unrelated societies. On top of that, one is an aggressive colonizer and one is a stranded, pacifistic refugee!
In some versions of the destruction of Krypton, the ruling government officials are reluctant to even discuss evacuating the planet and journeying into the stars because the loss of their world and the mixing with other societies would – to their minds – destroy their culture. This xenophobic attitude becomes ironic if Kryptonians themselves are descended from star immigrants. It’s also sadly a topical (and maybe timeless) situation certain societies on Earth can relate to, as people descended from immigrants sometimes wind up claiming that the presence of new immigrants causes ruin, despite their own heritage.
I like that story is a little open ended. Even if we take it as fact and not a Kryptonian myth, there are questions to ask. If Kryp was sent to colonize this planet, did other scouts come afterward to investigate his disappearance. Did these later scouts then join Kryp and Tonn, forming a colony? Why was Kryp looking for new territory? Was it to expand an empire or to find a new home because his own world was no longer habitable? Maybe the ancestors of Krypton were refugees from yet another dying world long ago. Maybe Tonn’s people were the same. Did anyone else from her planet ever join her on Krypton? Was she one of several scientists exploring the frontier of space or was she somehow on her own? These questions have yet to be explored in other stories, which is a bit of a shame. I certainly have my own ideas about what happened to Kryp and Tonn before and after their fateful first meeting.
Most of all, I like that in this tale – intentionally or not – Kryp and Tonn symbolize two distinct styles of science fiction space heroes and the moral values they hold. The story is rather progressive in steering us to be more sympathetic with the scientist/pacifist rather than the more typical cowboy-esque space warrior.
Kryp is a more traditional character of Western science fiction, seemingly good hearted but ready to draw his blaster in an instant to take down any threats he finds as he explores the frontier of outer space. While other stories may applaud such an attitude, this tale emphasizes that he is brash and far too eager for a fight, even if we can forgive the initial misunderstanding. When Tonn reaches into her pouch for the plant, Kryp is already suspicious and on alert for an attack. He doesn’t take a moment to consider that Tonn revealed herself to him in the first place as a show of trust, whereas she could have just kept her presence a secret and attacked him without warning if that was always her intention. He doesn’t even take a moment to appreciate the simple and almost romantic nature of the gesture made by Tonn: he’s a new arrival, and she offers him a flower.
When the plant rapidly grows, Kryp doesn’t consider that it doesn’t harm him and that there’s no proof it even could. He doesn’t stop to think, “Wait, that plant did nothing but grow really fast, maybe this wasn’t a weapon and I should check the facts before I shoot.” Nope. He shoots the plant and then fires at Tonn, either ignoring her pleading hand gestures or too trigger happy to acknowledge them.
Yes, we can see from his actions that Kryp isn’t just bloodthirsty. He prefers to fight Tonn hand to hand in an “honorable” way rather than simply shoot her from afar (which he could’ve done instead of blowing up her ship), and he does recognize the truth eventually when he sees a concrete action on her part to protect rather than harm him. But he seems eager for an excuse to fight, and comes off as an aggressive colonizer. His thoughts reveal to the reader that he is a little glad for this conflict, thinking that claiming a new world is more satisfying when you have to fight for it.
Even when she has saved him from the crimson goo at the cost of her own freedom, Kryp considers that Tonn might attack him once he frees her, and lets the readers know that this is exactly what he would do! He’s not a bad person, but as the story itself says, his rush to conclusions and brash actions directly lead to combat that can be described as “senseless” and “brutal.”
Now consider Tonn. Her intelligence is apparent, her technology seems at times superior to Kryp’s, and she is seen to be very athletic and agile. She could be a formidable physical opponent if she wanted to be, but the story tells us she has a creed against violence. She is on a mission of peaceful exploration and her first though on seeing Tonn is not to view him with suspicion but as an ally until he proves otherwise. Despite his repeated attacks and the “foul tactic” of blowing up her ship to guide her into the path of a sneak attack, Tonn never raises a hand against Kryp. She allows her tech to nullify his blaster, and tries to avoid his physical assault. She doesn’t need to win the fight, she’s instead hoping they can reach understanding, even if she’s not sure at first how to achieve that. The only time she physically acts against him is to throw him to safety. Although he’s acted as an enemy, she does not take this personally and doesn’t desire revenge. She knows that his actions are based on fear and ignorance and holds no ill will towards him.
Other storytellers would’ve been tempted to make Kryp resemble Superman physically and imply that this great space warrior was the ancestor of the Man of Steel. But instead, it is Tonn, first woman of Krypton, whose spirit, altruism and morality seem to foreshadow those of the Last Son of Krypton. And so, for her, I am always happy to revisit this story.
- Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters: Dazzler of Marvel Comics - November 22, 2020
- Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters: The Pilot Episode of MURPHY BROWN - December 26, 2019
- Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters: The First People of Superman’s Native Planet Krypton - August 24, 2018