Sunday, September 21, 2008
The Last Days of Krypton
Our book today is The Last Days of Krypton by prolific science fiction hack Kevin Anderson, and of course it's not referring to the periodic table. No, this is the planet Krypton, the homeworld of little Kal-el, better known to the movie-going public as Superman. In the character's hum-dinger of an origin story (created by Joel Shuster and Jerry Siegel, but really given flesh and bone by long-time DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz), the planet Krypton is doomed, and only visionary scientist Jor-el sees the end coming. His valiant wife Lara believes him, but virtually nobody else does, certainly not Krypton's ruling council, who scoff at Jor-el's repeated pleas that they build a fleet of space-arks to ferry the planet's populace to safety. It seems Krypton frowns upon the very idea of space travel, so if Jor-el wants to save his family, he must construct a private space ship on his own time.
Everybody is familiar with the rest of the story: the planet explodes, and that one-person spaceship takes the tiny baby Kal-el, like Moses in the bullrushes, through the wilds of space to the planet Earth - Kansas specifically, where the baby comes to be adopted by Ma and Pa Kent and raised in the bosom of the wholesome American Midwest until he's ready to put on bright pajamas and fight crime as Superman (nowadays, anyway - before DC simplified the story back in the 1980s, Kal-el first fought crime as Super-baby, then as a dreamy Superboy).
Ma and Pa Kent, Superboy and his super-dog Krypto (who was not a basset hound, otherwise he'd have been called Farto) and youthful crime-busting are all outside of Anderson's scope for this book. Here, he's dealing just with Krypton in its final days, and thanks to the ever-expanding Superman mythos of the 1950s and '60s, he's got a lot of stuff to cover. The alien mastermind Brainiac comes to Krypton and abducts the entire city of Kandor, for instance, shrinking it and all its populace and putting them in a bottle for sadistic display. Jor-el's brother Zor-el (father of Supergirl), taking precautions just in case his brother is right, takes steps to encase his own Argo City in a protective shield. And what would such a story be without a villain? In this case it's the military madman General Zod.
Zod (so immortally captured by Terence Stamp in Superman II) seems to get Anderson's creative juices flowing; he's one of the only characters whose depiction page to page is actually interesting (Lara also has her moments). Jor-el is pretty much a pious scientific cipher throughout, although Anderson does have him watch some pretty scenery:
Even though he viewed the world in terms of mathematics and science, the raw beauty of Kandor took Jor-el's breath away. With its temples to Rao, the shining pyramids, and the great Council ziggurat, Krypton's capital city was the pinnacle of civilization. Some exotic buildings had been grown from active crystals; other edifices were hewn from lustrous white veinrock or speckled granite polished to a sheen that reflected the red sunlight.
The rest of the book is much of a piece with that excerpt: it's competently if never beautifully written, and it entirely lacks the verve that so wonderfully filled Elliott Maggin's Superman, the Last Son of Krypton (to say nothing of all the great Superman-writing that's happened in his various comic books in the last ten years). It's better than most comic-book novels (we'll try not to think of the various X-Men novels that have been perpetrated in the last ten years), but of course that's not saying much.
Comics fans will find all the bases covered here. Anderson has read up on all the various Krypton-stories DC has published ever since the Superman mythos was streamlined. And with the aid of all those previous writers, he manages to tell a fairly interesting story - of General Zod vying to take over the entire planet and various resistance-fighters trying to stop him, all of them (except Jor-el, of course) ignorant of the much greater crisis building all around them. When Zod is defeated, Anderson does a good job of showing the relief the planet's populace feel, thinking the worst is behind them.
And while that relief is spreading, a drama familiar to comics readers and movie-goers is playing out at the home estate of Jor-el, where he and Lara are saying good-bye to their little baby:
"It's time," he said to Lara, who clung protectively to their baby. "We can't wait any longer." Tears ran down her face, and Jor-el realized that he was weeping, too.
Lara wrapped their son tenderly in the blankets of their great house, the finest blue and red fabric emblazoned with the prominent symbol of Jor-el's family. "Kal-el, you have to go, or you'll die with us." She trembled, then straightened. This was their only hope.
Lara gave her infant son a final kiss, brushing her lips against the delicate skin of his forehead. Her voice hitched as she said, "I wish you well on your new planet, Kal-el. I hope you find your way among the people of Earth. I hope you manage to be happy."
The final line of Anderson's story of Jor-el and Lara (though not the final line of his book - he follows the little rocketing baby tantalizingly close to Earth) is simple and almost elegant: "They closed their eyes, and the world ended around them."
Anderson's projected next book is a version of the first meeting between Batman and Superman, and at this point in its genesis, it seems to be set in the 1950s, in what will, as far as DC is concerned, be an "imaginary story" - i.e. not part of their official continuity. If that ends up being true, it's possible Anderson's creative impulses (which are on display throughout The Last Days of Krypton) will have more freedom. DC might well have been monitoring him closely during the crafting of this present book, making sure he didn't deviate more than a fraction from received doctrine. At least, that's the story we'll go with.