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Monday, January 16, 2006


1975: Krypto

Back in college I took a creative writing workshop in which we were all asked to name the fiction that had most influenced our own work. "The Yellow Wallpaper," said one student. "White Noise," said another. "Krypto the Superdog" said a third. In a voice that sounded just like mine.

As a four-year-old, I had already seen a lot of crazy shit in comic books in 1975: a freckled ghost in a bowler hat, a devil in a diaper, a girl who essentially became sexually excited by dot patterns. But none of that prepared me for the sheer creative gall of Krypto the Superdog, whom I first discovered in my very first issue of Superman, #287.

The story, "Who Was That Dog I Saw You With Last Night?" (recently--and rightly--reprinted in the Superman in the Seventies collection) returned Krypto to Superman's life after years of absence while DC did its relevance thing in the early 70s. Writer Elliott S! Maggin explained Krypto's disappearance with a convenient bout of dog amnesia. (I'm pretty sure my dog Hope suffers from similar brain damage.)

But let me back up a bit to explain Krypto. Of course, the minute you see a dog streaking gracefully across the sky in a bright red cape you've pretty much got the concept. For many years a staple of the Superman legend was that he spent his childhood in Smallville, Kansas as Superboy, foiling robbers at the local seed exchange as he geared up for an adulthood of smashing killer robots and throwing shit into the sun. After about 10 years of this, the Superboy writers hit on the one-shot idea of introducing a super dog to keep their super boy company. So, in a 1955 story, Superboy first met Krypto. Seems that Superboy's birth father, the kindly Kryptonian scientist Jor-El, ripped his toddler son's puppy out of his arms to conduct a rocket test. Well, wouldn't you know it, years later that rocket coincidentally made its way not only to Earth but straight to Superboy's town. It's a small universe. At any rate, young Clark is all excited to have his own superpet, but soon realizes that a dog who plays by ripping the wings off airplanes is a giant pain in the ass. At the end of that first story Krypto heads out into space to chase comets, and Superboy sheds a self-pitying tear for himself. I guess the letters from readers rolled in hot and heavy, becuase Krypto found his way back pretty quick, this time with his own thought balloons, a full-time cape and a much mellower personality. He remained as a staple of Superboy (and occassionally Superman and Legion of Suepr-Heroes) comics for the next 15 years. Then around 1970, DC decided to sidestep some of the sillier aspects of its Superman lore and Krypto was quietly shown the doggie door. But you can't keep the greatest, most absurd single idea in comics down for long, and thanks to Maggin Krypto was back yet again within just a few years. Precisely in time for me to start reading Superman. Thanks, paws of fate!

While the other students in my college writing workshop laughed at my "joke", I really kind of meant it. In the years since first discovering Krypto, I've witnessed a lot of things. I've seen Shakespeare use language to perform graceful dances of ideas that leave me breathless. I've fallen in love. I've seen women naked. I've gotten married. I've seen my words on billboards as I roll down the interstate. I've seen my first son carried through the gate at the airport, looking up to meet me for the first time. I've watched my wife give birth. None of these things has a doghouse on a fucking asteroid, okay?

While many modern Superman fans cringe at the idea, I insist that Krypto is everything good about superhero comics. There's such joy and imagination in the concept--an absurd idea built on a history of other absurd ideas, one clearly designed to appeal to kids. Most of the classic Superboy and Krypto stories from the 50s and 60s revolve around loyalty and abandonment issues--the perfect themes for stories about a boy and his dog. "Why is my master Superboy poisoning me to death with these Kryptonite bones?" To fool the gangsters! "Why has Superboy left me here to die while he plays with Cosmo the Space Canine?" To trick the alien invaders! It's totally maudlin, utterly retarded and simply wonderful.

If there's no room for Krypto in superhero comics today, to me this indicates that superhero comics in general have overstayed their welcome, not that there's anything wrong with the Dog of Steel. Krypto is big. It's the comics that got small.

I'm glad I live in an age where I can see Krypto bloodily tear into someones shoulder, then take a kick to the head (with even more blood and a "KRAK" sound effect) that sends the poor dog bouncing down the street.

Did I say "glad"? I meant "depressed beyond measure".
The Post-Crisis Superman comics are plagued by creator after creator thinking they're paying homage to a Silver Age idea while actually urinating in its face. In each case, you can see the people behind the reintroduction thinking, "this is a cool idea, but we have to make it work for today's audience"--which invariably means stripping out exactly what made the idea fun and interesting to begin with, and leaving a shell with surface similarities but none of the same imaginative spark that transforms a bottle city or a flying dog from the ridiculous to the sublime. The only good Krypto stories of the past 20 years have been the ones where he's died or sacrificed his intelligence to save his master. I think a guy like Jeph Loeb genuinely loves Krypto, but doesn't see that "Savage Krypto" doesn't satisfy anyone--the new fans still find the idea pathetic, while the older fans roll their eyes.

The Krypto cartoon isn't great, but at least they're aiming for the right audience with something relatively gentle.
This is precisely what's wrong with comics today. There is no need to update Krypto, he fits perfectly int the scheme for what he is. Comics have few young followers because they are aimed at adults, primarilly young adults.
it used to be comics were written for a broad range, from child to senior citizen. Children had to "read" up to them and older people saw a "few" new Ideas without trouncing their values of right and wrong. Sure the world is a dark terrible place where monsters just arent on the tv or movie screens, though comics used to be a place to escape into where good always triumphed over evil. The evil was more of a "take over the world", "get some revenge" and "steal for fun and profit".
Today it's killing and rape and torture for the sake of it. Yea I know the real world is like that, but these are comic books not the real world, Withh CNN and fox news 24 hours a day I don't need comics like this. Except for the comics specifically aimed at the young (which is kind of patronizing and insulting) there are no "decent"
comics out there anyomre.
I remember at 6 or 7 reading superman and at 8 or 9 the x-men.
I learned things I didn't know and saw a good moral code put into practise.
Now I'm not saying the "adult comics" don't have there place obviously they have a place and an audience, it doesn't seem to be enough to generate the sales comics once did (I know otrher factors are at play here too, woth video games and the internet)
One day very soon there will be no new generation of comics readers and buyers because the industry is slamming the door on yong readers. Readers who want to read well written, exciting stories of fantasy and adventure, but don't need all the sex and gratuitous violence. You know the 8-12 group. that used to be the back bone of the industry and the kids had to "read up" to the stories. So Krypto is fine you can do "really good" maybe even great stories with a super dog that don't have to be silly or stupid or violent. Any hero for that matter. (why not the moral superboy from all of these stories defeating the rogue evil super boy from recent memory, with out compromising his values) They can be serious and exciting and thought provoking and importantly fun. There just not being written. Jbaker
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