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Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Comic book nostalgia is a funny thing, particularly when it comes to dealing with continuity. There’s a tendency to suggest that modern comics have lost their way, to suggest that modern reboots – both “hard” and “soft” – represent a break from the past and a gimmicky attempt to fix problems that are greatly exaggerated. However, while past reboots might not have enjoyed the same publicity as Flashpoint or Crisis on Infinite Earths, it is interesting to note that comic book creators have been reworking a retooling their creations for quite some time.

Indeed, almost every comic book character has been reimagined a couple of times before settling on their most successful portrayal. Sometimes those changes happen gradually – Superman’s evolution from a man who could leap tall buildings to a man capable of juggling planets – but others were quite sudden. The issues collected here, under the title Kryptonite Nevermore, represent one shift and decisive attempt to consciously “reboot” or “retool” Superman as a character, recognising that sometimes it’s necessary to do some radical reworking to update an existing concept.

A Superman story with bite!

A Superman story with bite!

If anybody at DC comics was going to retool Superman as a character in the early seventies, it was going to be Denny O’Neil. O’Neil does not get enough credit for his contributions to comics during the seventies. He and Neal Adams redefined Batman as a character, casting a long and influential shadow and arguably paving the way for Frank Miller’s even grittier retool a decade later. The duo also helped rehabilitate Green Arrow as a character, and helped write one of the most notably socially conscious comics of the decade in Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

However, O’Neil contributed a great deal to American comics outside of that. He wrote The Invincible Iron Man for an extended run which introduced Rhodey as Iron Man and Obidiah Stane as a villain. He wrote Justice League for a while, bringing his own brand of social awareness to the book. And, paired with one of the definitive Superman artists, Curt Swan, he also helped redefine Superman as a character in the early seventies.

Not the golden boy any longer...

Not the golden boy any longer…

It’s worth noting that there is a reason O’Neil’s contributions to Superman aren’t as well-known and well-respected as those he made to characters like Batman or Green Arrow. O’Neil – like any other comic book writer – had his own particular strengths and weaknesses. He tended to write underdog characters quite well, those working outside the system. This was reflected in the political slant of his work, which was arguably in tune with the zeitgeist of the seventies. O’Neil was sceptical of authority, sympathetic to the dispossessed, and keen on environmentally-friendly politics.

These attributes served him well writing characters like Oliver Queen, the former millionaire who became a modern-day Robin Hood. Superman, on the other hand, doesn’t fit with O’Neil’s style quite as well. Reading Kryptonite Nevermore, you can see the occasional glimpse of O’Neil’s morality shining through, but it’s not suited to Superman. The closest thought Superman can express to O’Neil’s gung-ho liberalism is the concession that sometimes the law and basic morality don’t overlap perfectly.

That's key!

That’s key!

“Because there’s a moral law, that’s above some man-made laws!” Superman protests. “I’ve fought tyrants before… though it meant defying their inhuman decrees!” It’s a good idea, but it raises thorny issues. If Superman is willing to break the law and impose morality, whose morality does he impose? We can trust society to keep regular power-less folk like Batman or Oliver Queen in check, but Superman could bend the planet to his own morality – literally, if he wanted to.

There’s a slight sense that O’Neil is just a bit uncomfortable with Superman as a character. Explaining in his afterword that he only spent a year writing the character, O’Neil concedes, “I recall a vague sense of discomfort, of not fitting with the assignment somehow.” It’s easy to understand why. There is no check to balance a renegade Superman, after all. So that means he can’t be positioned as a subversive social crusader in the style of O’Neil’s most successful reimaginings.

Putting their head together...

Putting their head together…

In fact, Superman more likely to find himself a defender of the status quo, like Green Lantern in Green Lantern/Green Arrow – the character who often found himself in the unfortunate position of playing conservative straight man to Oliver Queen’s liberal crusader. Although he’s revealed to be in league with the sinister Darkseid, you get the sense that O’Neil might in some small away empathise with media mogul Morgan Edge’s misgivings about Superman. “I don’t trust anyone who can’t be stopped,” he explains. “A wise man once said that ‘power corrupts… and absolute power corrupts absolutely!'”

Rather tellingly, it seems like Superman’s biggest enemy over the course of Kryptonite Nevermore is himself. The recurring foe throughout the run is a version of Superman constructed entirely out of sand. Lex Luthor and other iconic adversaries never appear, instead replaced with demons and other strange foes. Towards the end, in The Shape of Fear, O’Neil gives us an amoral or inconsiderate all-powerful Superman, as if to remind us of how terrifying an indifferent (not even evil) Superman might be.

What the-- Puck??

What the– Puck??

Still, despite that discomfort with the character, O’Neil’s basic ideas are good. Kryptonite Nevermore reads best as a treatise on “fixing” Superman. The execution is far from perfect, but O’Neil very clearly identifies some perceived problem areas with Superman as a character. Kryptonite is a problem, and not just for the character. (At the risk of being recursive, I might argue that Kryptonite is the comic’s Kryptonite.)

The very idea of the chemical invites lazy writing, as O’Neil notes in his afterword. Want to raise the stakes? Use Kryptonite. Want Superman to act of character? Use Kryptonite. Ten pages into a story and hit a brick wall? Use Kryptonite. You can even see that trickling through into various media adaptations of Superman, where the weapon is used as a convenient plot device to weaken Superman whenever it suits.

Fire down below...

Fire down below…

Kryptonite also undermines the comic’s narrative in another more subtle way. By making Krytonite the only major weakness Superman has, it undermines just about any potential threat to him. If Kryptonite is the only thing that can really hurt Superman (and, in some continuities, that seems to be the case), then it’s logical to infer that he’s practically invincible. He can’t be harmed by anything except Kryptonite. So it’s harder to create a compelling threat for Superman, unless you’re willing to break out the Kryptonite.

So the first thing that Kryptonite Nevermore does, as the title implies, is to get rid of Kryptonite. All Kryptonite, at least on Earth. That leaves a convenient out for future writers, but it allows O’Neil to rather pointedly mock the over-abundance of the chemical on Earth. Even anonymous goons seem to carry it around in their briefcases. So, getting rid of Superman’s weakness is a major creative shift. There are other steps made to update Superman as a character.

Tears of a Superman...

Tears of a Superman…

The most superficial is the attempt to put Clark Kent in front of the camera. It’s a nice attempt to update the character’s career – much like Grant Morrison’s Action Comics would cast the young hero as a blogger. O’Neil also begins to consciously de-power Superman as a character, rather pointedly reducing his power levels to the point where he can “only” leap buildings in a single bound, and jump over giant mountains.

There is a sense that O’Neil is starting a trend that is a vital part of Superman’s comic book life even today. O’Neil is trying to find a way to make the character more relatable to readers, as if acknowledging that – in the era of The Amazing Spider-Man – an invulnerable flying alien is drifting out of touch with readers. So, as O’Neil strips Superman of his powers, he only increases the angst. “No-one knows yet that my powers are badly weakened!” he thinks. “I can barely fly — and I’m not certain my strength is equal to the job!” Later on, he reflects, “Yanking loose that vault-door was a major effort — for me… who once flipped planets around like marbles!”

Going against the grain...

Going against the grain…

Given that rebooting and retooling Superman would become something of a pastime at DC comics (how many origins has he had in the past decade?), it’s interesting that O’Neil is quite prescient. Not only does he de-power Superman to make him more relatable, there’s also a very clear attempt to give the character an “edge.” The opening to the first story promises, “But there is another side to the Man of Steel… a dark side hidden from both the crowds of admirers and the evil men who hate and fear him!” (Indeed, the title is Superman Breaks Loose.)

And yet, despite the interest in seeing a prototype Superman reboot, Kryptonite Nevermore feels strangely disappointing. It’s quite clear early on that Denny O’Neil isn’t gelling with the character. He seems to have difficulty crafting credible threats and interesting adversaries for the hero, with most of the bad guys here either demons or armed goons. There’s really nothing in between, save the Sandy Superman.

Up in the sky...!

Up in the sky…!

Given that this retool feels like a conscious attempt to get away from the Silver Age, it feels weird to see so many weird Silver Age-y devices. Stories featuring demonic harps or Superman’s almost trip to hell feel like they are the antithesis of O’Neil’s attempts to ground and reinvent Superman as a character. At the same time, the goons with guns are so generic that none of them have a real identity.

At the same time, though, you can O’Neil’s own interests bleeding in around the edge of the comic. Project Magma plays to O’Neil’s environmental interests, and Boysie Harker is a modern-day slave owner. However, outside of the changes made to Superman as a character, it’s really hard to remember any of the details of O’Neil’s stories here.

Music to my ears...

Music to my ears…

Kryptonite Nevermore works best as an early example of how to reboot Superman as a character. Unfortunately, it’s hardly the most compelling collection of Superman stories on its own merits. As much as O’Neil is trying to fix problems with the character, he seems to struggle to find a way to tell proactively interesting Superman stories, making Kryptonite Nevermore more insightful than enjoyable.

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