The Superman Returns Prequel Comics

In a major coup for the publisher, DC Comics announced in early 2006 that it would, in June 2006, be publishing a four-issue mini-series prequel to the then-upcoming Superman Returns. Simply titled Superman Returns Prequel #1-4, the series would be published weekly, with the fourth and final issue appearing on the day of the film’s release, Wednesday, 28 June.

Setting comic books in the continuity of a movie franchise was nothing new, of course. Publishing prequel stories so close to a film’s release, however, was something special. Marvel Comics had published a few specials that served as prequels to X2: X-Men United around the film’s release, but this was the only precedent.

The real coup, however, was that the prequel stories would be authored by none other than Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris — the film’s own screenwriters. Other writers, more familiar to the comics medium, would flesh those stories into comic book scripts, which various artists would interpret for the page.

But another aspect made these prequel comics especially exciting. Everyone knew that the film’s plot would occur following Superman’s absence in space for five years, and that Lois Lane had birthed a child during that time, but details about other events during this five-year gap were sketchy. With anticipation surrounding the film reaching a fever pitch, especially in the comics community, the prequel comics would provide precious unknown information — including information not seen in the film itself.

Each of the four issues would focus on a different character. The first would focus on Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth. The second would focus on MaKent, the third on Lex Luthor, and the fourth on Lois Lane.

Conspicuously absent was an issue showing what Superman had been up to during the five-year gap. That was reserved for the film itself, which was then going to open with a sequence showing Superman in space, surveying the rubble of Krypton. As it turned out, that scene was cut for the theatrical release, leaving viewers with only a few lines of dialogue about why Superman had left and what he had been doing.

Almost no sooner was the prequel series announced and solicited to comic book stores and readers for advance purchase than a controversy erupted. John Byrne, who had mastered the reboot of Superman continuity in the mid-1980s and had recently completed a highly-selling run that saw him return as artist of Superman’s Action Comics, had been solicited as the artist of one of the issues. The involvement of this legendary creator, so tied to Superman’s comic book history, was another gem adding appeal to the project. But both Byrne and DC quickly announced that he had left the project, with the publisher amending the solicitation accordinly.

Byrne has a reputation for making controversial statements. He had recently complained publicly that he would never have returned to Action Comics if he had known that DC had always intended to remove him, along with all creators on the Superman titles, less than a year later in order to make way for a new direction. Now, Byrne claimed that DC had told him he would be illustrating an adaptation of Superman II rather than a prequel to the new film. Byrne often criticized comic books for changing what he saw as the essential formulas of their characters, and had in 2005 criticized changes to the characters made for the film version of Fantastic Four, a comic book title to which he was also historically linked. Now, he publicly criticized the decision to make Lois Lane a mother. Whatever the reality behind the apparent miscommunication between DC and Byrne, DC completed the issue with another artist and continued working with Byrne on other projects.

The four prequel issues themselves proved interesting but in some ways disappointing. They did not include much in the way of new information, instead tending to characterize what the five-year gap had been like for Ma Kent, Lex Luthor, and Lois Lane. Moreover, all issues would feature scenes retold from the 1978 film Superman, with which readers were already familiar. Both problems were accentuated in the case of the first issue, which didn’t fill the five-year gap at all but rather retold Krypton’s distruction and Kal-El’s journey to Earth, essentially as seen in that earlier film.

On an artistic level, the involvement of Singer, Dougherty, and Harris was somewhat blunted by the fact that it was other writers who had taken their partly retold stories and turned them into comic book scripts, complete with dialogue. Moreover, the fact that each of the four issues had a different artistic team, while appropriate to the different subjects of the four issues, led to a feeling of artistic inconsistency: readers might love the art in one issue and hate it in another.

For all these criticisms, however, the prequel series did include useful — and occasionally even touching — characterization that helped to dramatize the effect of Superman’s five-year absence on the rest of the film’s characters. The various creators who made the original stories into actual comics all performed capably, with some performing quite admirably indeed. The prequel series might not have added up to much in terms of plot, but they remain enjoyable and important for any fan of the film.

Superman Returns Prequel #1 coverSuperman Returns Prequel #1: “Krypton to Earth”

story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris; script by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray; Ariel Olivetti art

Jor-El and his wife Lara of Krypton, believing their planet is soon to die, send their infant son Kal-El to Earth in a spaceship, knowing that he will have super-powers there. They send him off with Krypton’s accumulated knowledge and with Jor-El’s words of wisdom. They kiss as Krypton explodes. Kal-El’s instructs him on his voyage until it crashes into a field, where the young boy is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, driving in their truck near the site of the crash.

This issue contains the least new information for the reader familiar with the 1978 film Superman. In fact, the issue is essentially a retelling of the first half hour or so of that film. Upon closer inspection, however, some interesting differences emerge.

Superman Returns Prequel #1, page 2The issue’s opening page contains only the issue’s titles and an image of Krypton’s burning, seemingly unstable sun. The story proper begins with an image of the faux issue of Action Comics created for the introductory sequence to the 1978 film. The interior of the comic, however, is different. Rather than depict a tale set in Metropolis (which never made much sense in the 1978 film, given that the issue’s cover depicts a spaceship leaving what is apparently an exploding Krypton), the faux issue’s first panel is of outer space. Just as the camera in the 1978 film zoomed in on an image of the Daily Planet building, so here the virtual camera zooms in on this first panel. After the title sequences, the 1978 film zoomed towards Krypton’s sun, then dove downward and towards the planet Krypton. This prequel issue progresses from the image of outer space by reproducing this visual maneuver (though Krypton here appears more green than blue, as seen in the 1978 film).

What is more interesting is Jor-El’s dialogue, appearing in captions over this roughly two-page sequence. This dialogue did not appear in the 1978 film, and it helps to flesh out the reason for Krypton’s destruction. In the film, that reason is left fairly vague, though the footage of the destruction itself seems to show the planet’s sun exploding, with Krypton itself quickly following suit. In the comics, Krypton usually is seen as exploding on its own and without its sun’s demise, though the explanation for this explosion has varied over the years. The film’s apparent decision to have the sun explode isn’t fully carried out, as another Kryptonian scientist offers her opinion that “Krypton is merely shifting its orbit,” an interpretation seemingly impossible if there is evidence of solar instability.

In the prequel comic, Jor-El’s captioned dialogue provides some scientific background for the sun’s explosion. It seems that Jor-El’s evidence is indeed of changes in the sun and not on Krypton. The sun, it seems, is cooling and contracting before rapidly expanding into a giant, destroying Krypton. Despite this new narrative support for understanding Krypton’s demise, however, the line from the competing scientist about Krypton changing its orbit is later given just as it is in the movie and despite the apparent contradiction.

Following this new dialogue, Jor-El’s words segue into a rewritten version of dialogue from the 1978 film. Dialogue is added and rewritten, and virtually identical passages are shifted around, occurring before or after they do in the film version. Added dialogue includes Jor-El imploring the council to consider Krypton’s population, a council member calling Jor-El’s talk a “rhetorical outburst” at a “public forum,” Jor-El arguing his accomplishments at slightly greater length as a means of getting the council to reconsider, and the council telling Jor-El that they know he has a spaceship when they warn him not to leave Krypton. The council accuses Jor-El of insurrection earlier in the comic version, though the dialogue concerned is essentially the same.

Skipped in the comic, however, is that film’s first scene on Krypton: Jor-El presiding over the sentencing of the three Phantom Zone criminals, who would return in Superman II. The prequel comic replaces this with Jor-El’s new dialogue, removing the film’s segue from discussion of the sentencing into talk of Krypton’s impending destruction. The context of this discussion has changed from Jor-El bringing up Krypton’s discussion after a criminal sentencing to Jor-El bringing up Krypton’s discussion in slightly greater detail at an unspecified “public forum.”

As the comic begins its rewritten version of the film’s dialogue, however, it continues to do so in caption form for one more page. This page begins with conversation’s setting, a dome on Krypton’s experior, also seen in the 1978 film. Whereas that dome was an opaque white in the film, it now seems red and transparent, protecting the spires of a city inside it. Whereas the film showed only vague images of various Kryptonians dying during the planet’s destruction, here the comic, not limited by special effects limitations and budgets, depicts the interior of one of the city’s spires. A giant shaft of familiar crystal teems with odd vehicles and even has a couple monitors displaying imagery.

from Superman Returns Prequel #1, page 4Over Jor-El’s imploring the council to consider the planet’s people, new to the comic, we are now shown Kryptonian children interacting with crystalline structures. The virtual camera even zooms in on a young girl, smiling. Such a happy, utopian picture of Krypton’s children is at odds with the socially colder impression of the planet given in the film, which depicts no Kryptonian children save the infant Kal-El. The effect of both the imagery and the dialogue is to considerably lessen the sense of Krypton as an emotionless place of technological reason, which was clearly the film’s intent.

Beginning on page eight, the comic book turns to Jor-El preparing to send away baby Kal-El. Immediately noticeable is a rather radical change in the appearance of the scene’s setting. Instead of tall, cold, grey cylindrical spires with rows of white lights on them, the room has equally tall grey spires with what appears to be a pulsing green energy flowing through them. The ship remains almost the same, though the floor pattern is different. While not terribly important in itself, the dramatic aesthetic change in the room’s appearance further makes Krypton seem less cold, less lifeless in its technological advancement.

from Superman Returns Prequel #1, page 12As Jor-El walks about the room, picking up and moving various crystals in preparation for the ship’s launch, his thoughts are given in captions. These thoughts are almost entirely new, though they mostly mostly help explain Jor-El’s plans. He ruminates upon Krypton’s doom despite its technology, notes how the crystals in the ship will nurture and educate his son. There is an added sense of how Krypton’s technology is based around crystals, a major point in Superman Returns, and how the ship’s crystals represent Krypton’s heritage, which adds more to their loss at sea in Superman Returns, but the information itself is not particularly new.

Beginning on page 12, Lara arrives and the two discuss their plans for Kal-El. This scene is also shown in the film, and although the dialogue is somewhat rewritten and reordered, it is essentially the same. Notably, however, Lara appears less condemnatory towards the “primitive” society of Earth in the comic than in the film.

A scene in the film follows this one and shows the council noting that Jor-El is using an unexpected amount of energy. This brief scene is omitted for the comic, which jumps, on page 17, to red-tinted images of Krypton’s population dealing with the planet shuddering. The film featured more such sequences, though they were exceedingly vague as to Kryptonian society and architecture. In the comic, however, we see yet more children, as well as a larger variety of people and dress than are seen in the movie, including Kryptonian couples and a man with a beard. An exterior shot of the planet’s surface shows other transparent domes housing crystal-based cities.

Cutting back to Jor-El and Lara on page 18, we watch Joe-El place a green crystal into the ship besides his son, much as seen in the film. We do not see, as the film shows us, the child actually placed into the ship. Jor-El notes that Krypton’s “ten thousand years of scientific and social achievement” are dying, a line not in the film, which certainly did not emphasize the social aspects of Krypton. He also wishes that he had been wrong, a wish not voiced in the film.

Following this, the dialogue is almost exactly that of the film, with minor changes, omissions, and changes in order. Unlike the film, it is also partially given in captions as the imagery progresses. The ship lifts off as crystals fall around it, much as in the film, though the comic has no equivalent for the ship’s long levitation up the height of the room and that room, as previously noted, looks very different. The ship’s climactic breaking through the roof is not represented, leaving the impression that the falling crystals may be debris from the planet’s shaking rather than parts of the shattered roof.

The rest of the imagery as the ship escapes and Krypton dies is different from the film, though not in particularly noticeable ways. We see the ship lifting away from the city, people in red tint fleeing, and the ship flying away. Most notably, instead of Jor-El and Lara running around during the commotion and Jor-El saving Lara from falling, as seen in the film, the comic shows us the couple seemingly standing nobly and then kissing — just before the planet explodes with the sun. This romantic image, far more in line with the comic book versions of Krypton’s destruction, is considerably at odds with the 1978 film.

from Superman Returns Prequel #1, page 20On page 22, the comic begins a verion of the film’s depiction of baby Kal-El’s voyage to Earth, during which the ship instructs him in history. The imagery of space is much more typical in the comic, whereas the limits of technology encouraged the film to depict the space voyage more impressionistically. Some of what the ship tells Kal-El in the comic is new, though none of it is particularly relevant. As the ship nears and crashes into Earth, Kal-El hears his father telling him words that he only said later in the film, where they were given as Clark Kent received instruction from recordings of Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude. The words, familiar to viewers of Superman Returns and included in that film’s trailers, speak of how Earth’s people may be great “if they wish to be” and of how they need a “light to show them the way.”

from Superman Returns Prequel #1, page 23When the ship enters Earth’s atmosphere, we do not see it partially melt, as seen in the film, perhaps because this would create confusion given that Superman apparently uses the ship to return to Krypton. As the ship crashes, Johnathan and Martha Kent are driving nearby in their red truck. Some of their dialogue is omitted or changed, but not in particularly significant ways. New imagery is provided of young Kal-El peering out of the ship and then climbing out.

from Superman Returns Prequel #1, page 28

When the Kents first see Kal-El, the child has his arms extended in the same pose as in the film. On the final page, which depicts a single image, a vision of Superman in flight appears above the young Kal-El, an impressionistic technique often used in comics and not meant to be literal. A couple captions provide yet more new dialogue belonging to Jor-El, here telling his son that he can provide hope for Earth and that this is the greatest thing the dying world of Krypton can give.

The issue is certainly nothing revolutionary, nor is its depiction of Krypton’s destruction particularly emotionally involving, despite the changes that humanize the planet and its population. Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, along with artist Ariel Olivetti, do a capable job of adapting the story given them. Ultimately, however, we can only speculate which of the sometimes subtle changes to the film’s version of Krypton were dictated by Singer, Dougherty, and Harris. Given this fact, it’s rather difficult to extrapolate from any changes to make conclusions about Superman Returns.

While avoiding conclusions based on the many changes to dialogue, one can certainly generalize the changes the comic makes. It does a much better job of making it clear that Krypton dies due to its sun exploding. Most importantly, however, it makes Kryptonian society far less cold and far less alien, giving us glimpses of a general population, complete with kids at play, that the 1978 film seemed to consciously avoid depicting. Jor-El and Lara are romanticized in the comic, and not only in their dying kiss but also in Lara coming off as less of a snob and in Jor-El’s added emotionalism over the planet’s people and heritage.

Continue to the second issue, which focuses on Ma Kent. Also available: “What Bryan Singer Has Done,” on the film itself.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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