Science Fiction, Children's Literature, and Popular Culture: Coming of Age in Fantasyland

By Gary Westfahl | Go to book overview
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The Three Lives of Superman-- And Everybody Else

To fully understand the complex character of Superman, one must first realize that Superman is a person with three separate identities. He is Kal-El, one of the few survivors of the destroyed civilization of the planet Krypton. He is Superman, an internationally famous super-being who fights crime and rescues people from natural disasters. And he is Clark Kent, a respected journalist in the city of Metropolis.

In the comic book chronicles of Superman, these three identities emerged at various times. In the 1930s and 1940s, Superman was mainly Superman; Clark Kent was an occasional interruption to his heroic adventures; and Kal-El did not exist, since early stories depict Superman as totally unaware of his past until the appearance of kryptonite prompts some investigation and the eventual discovery of his true heritage.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Kal-El came to the forefront. Editor Mort Weisinger, former editor of the science fiction magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, pushed the stories in the direction of science fiction by emphasizing Superman's alien background. During this time, Superman made at least two visits back in time to visit Krypton; in a series of Superboy adventures (since Superman was now depicted as aware of his origins, and actively engaged in fighting evil, while still a teenager), Superboy employed a special machine to bring back vivid memories of his early childhood experiences on Krypton; and, most significantly, a number of other survivors of Krypton started arriving on Earth. Some of these were minor or onetime visitors, including various Kryptonian criminals exiled into space or into the Phantom Zone; Kal-El's robot teacher; a scientist accidentally transformed into a gorilla; and a super-monkey who was a stowaway on Kal-El's rocket to Earth. More prominent Kryptonian companions were Krypto the super-dog, Superboy's pet; Supergirl, Superman's cousin who grew up in a Kryptonian city that survived the explosion of Krypton intact and briefly flourished; and the entire city of Kandor, miniaturized and stored in a bottle by the villainous Brainiac before the

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