Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - KRYPTON Couture

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It all started with Superman. Let's face it, it truly did. Costumed adventurers existed before him, but he was the first true example of what we now consider to be the superhero. Superman wanted not only to punish evil — and did so with impossible powers — but acted to inspire others and hopefully help change the world.

No wonder, then, that Superman's heritage and beginnings fascinate us almost as much. The depiction of his birth planet has varied not only due to changes in scientific knowledge and pop culture, but also in response to new ideas behind who Superman is and what he represents.

Join us on this venture through the world of Krypton, doomed home of Kal-El, the Star-Child, the Last Son of Krypton.

 

EARLY JOR-EL

The people of Krypton made their first appearance in 1939, not in the comic books but in the Superman newspaper comic strip. We saw Jor-L and his wife Lora (who were later renamed Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van). The original idea of Krypton was that its inhabitants were basically human, though a million years more advanced and biologically at the "ultimate peak of perfect development." So Jor-L and Lora didn't seem all that different from other sci-fi human adventurers like Flash Gordon — a simple dressing gown for the lady, and a loose shirt and trousers for the man (either casual wear or part of a uniform, it's difficult to tell in black and white with no context).

Superman was an alien, but would be someone who very much fought for Earth, and even internally saw himself as an Earthman. He was also someone whom the creators wanted to connect with readers, rather than seem distant and strange. Showing that Krypton is a lot like Earth — or perhaps what Earth might be like in the future — almost tricks the audience into seeing Clark as a human being who just happens to come from outer space. It suits his nickname as "the Man of Tomorrow."

 

Eventually, Krypton was depicted in the pages of the Superman comic books and in full color in the pages of a Superboy story. The 1945 version of Jor-El seen here clearly lives on a planet where everyone woke up one day and decided, "fashion is hard, let's all just dress the same and wear skull-caps."

In a lot of science fiction, there seems to be an idea that one day in the future everyone will basically dress in the same outfits and jumpsuits. This is no exception. These flashy, colorful jumpsuits still tell us that Krypton is more like a future version of Earth rather than a culture completely removed from our own.

At the time same, like the previous newspaper incarnation, this design is too generic. Is that Jor-El or a friend of Flash Gordon's or a colleague of Buck Rogers? Yes, these are throwaway characters fated to die so that Superman can have an epic origin, but it still seems a wasted opportunity. There's nothing in this outfit to give Kryptonians their own sense of style and identity.

LIVE-ACTION

 

In 1948, we got our first live-action look at Krypton and man, was it disappointing. The Kryptonians here seemed to be wearing a mishmash of costumes cobbled together from an old film. Jor-El and Lara were played by Nelson Leigh and Nuala Walters, respectively. Nuala looks quite pretty and stylish in her outfit, but there is nothing interesting or memorable about Jor-El's look other than a cape that's really just a beach towel that happens to fit him. And what is with his trousers?

When the TV series starring George Reeves as Superman first hit the airwaves in 1952, we finally got a live-action version of Krypton that basically borrowed wardrobe from a set. Rather than seeming that futuristic, the belt, collar, wrist guards and stitching all resemble a style you'd see in films of the time depicting Ancient Rome or Greece.

 

This new take on Kryptonian fashion isn't that far out of left field. Superman's story as the "Last Son of Krypton" is fairly mythic. Think about it. A great and powerful civilization is marked to die and only a single child survives, sent to live among more primitive people whom he can inspire and help with his god-like abilities. This new clothing definitely reflects this story, implying that Kal-El is akin to a demigod sent down from Olympus.

On the flipside, the comics had recently started using the idea that Krypton's fashion inspired Superman's costume (as we'll discuss in the next section). Yet here, we lose that visual explanation. I find it very interesting the TV show wouldn't copy this idea, since live-action media is often very concerned with justifying why superheroes dress in the flashy outfits they wear, since there's usually a fear that the wider TV audience won't just accept certain things that readers almost take for granted.

PROTO-CLASSIC KRYPTON

 

By 1949, we were given a new version of Jor-El, one whose wardrobe was clearly not of any known Earth culture. An Earth native wear a shirt with a ringed planet on it, along with boots and wrist bands. But the cape, the shorts fitted over tight-fitting pants, and the headband all tell us this guy is from somewhere else. This still implies "future" more than "alien." The basic design here is very similar to ones seen in strips featuring futuristic adventurers, but at least now it has its own style.

With this new design, we got a visual justification for Superman's outlandish costume. You think it's a coincidence that Jor-El and his colleagues are dressed in bright colors like Superman? You think it's simple synchronicity that many Kryptonians here also enjoy wearing shorts over their pants? And notice many of them have shirts decorated with large symbols or geometric shapes such as diamonds and triangles?

 

Jor-El got his look tweaked during the Silver Age of comics. The ringed planet on his shirt was replaced with the symbol of a yellow sun. When you consider that Krypton's sun Eldirao is red in color, this is pretty strange. Is the symbol simply meant to be a star, indicating Jor-El's interest in outer space? Or is it meant to foreshadow that his son will one day derive great power from Earth's yellow sun? Either way, the idea works, though perhaps the image is a bit too large. It runs the risk of looking more like a t-shirt or a billboard rather than a tunic.

During the Silver Age and beyond, we got more and more into Krypton's history and culture. We saw that many of its people wore capes, cool boots and shorts over their pants (or just wore shorts instead of pants). Bright colors were present everywhere and adult men wore headbands that symbolized their status as free citizens. Years later, Supergirl would also wear a headband, despite not being a man. A progressive lady, that Supergirl.

 

DC did try to give the headbands a purpose besides just being decorations advertising citizenship. In a couple of stories, they were said to absorb data from the wearer, allowing someone who wore the headband later to see the previous owner's experiences. Superman used this to discover more about his ancestors.

To further the idea of Krypton as being part of a fairy tale myth, we got glimpses into its past. In ancient Krypton, when the first House of El was formed, we can see the outfits clearly emulating idealized depiction of Ancient Rome. This gives a sense of enlightenment, a place where a great civilization is born, because many of us associate those things with Ancient Rome.

 

But some futuristic and alien touches are added even to the wardrobe of Krypton's early history, causing some of its inhabitants to resemble characters from high adventure fantasy novels and Tolkien-inspired sagas. Thanks to this, ancient Krypton becomes not just the world of tomorrow but also a place where wizards and dragons may exist.

Small wonder then that during the Silver Age and the years following, we discovered that Krypton was a planet of incredible wonders such as the glass forest, the jeweled mountains, the scarlet forest and the famous firefalls. Not to mention the strange creatures that lived in the wild, such as thought-beasts who could project images of your fears at you.

One thing about Krypton though was there seemed to be no standard look or uniform to anyone. Sometimes Jor-El wore loose pants, sometimes he wore shorts over tight leggings. Sometimes he had a cape, sometimes not. This would be fine except we didn't have any reason for these alterations when they happened. Was the cape just for official meetings or was it up to Jor-El's whim? Were capes and shorts considered formal? Is that why General Zod's military uniform had both a trousers look and a short-shorts look?

 

Since the books never really dug into the matter, it seemed like the outfits were just at the whim of each artist. Which is OK, but a few notes of dialogue to indicate what was seen as casual wear and what clothing had purpose could've added greater depth to the sense that Krypton had a real culture.

In an issue of <em>Secret Origins</em>, Jor-El was depicted with a costume greatly resembling the first one he'd been seen with in newspaper strips but which had the color palette he'd had since the 1950s comics. An interesting compromise.

BYRNE'S HARSH REALITY

 

<em>Superman: The Movie</em> presented Krypton as an antiseptic, crystalline world where people dressed in monochromatic robes. They almost blended in with the buildings they inhabited. The only touch of color we truly saw were the blankets that young Kal-El was wrapped in.

The movie also brought forth the idea that the S-shield was not simply Superman's monogram, but a family crest of the House of El and thus an acknowledgment of his heritage.

Years later, in the mid-1980s, a crossover called involved the DC Comics continuity getting destroyed and recreated. Following this, DC Comics began revamping and revising a lot of their characters and history, in some cases basically rebooting from scratch. Superman was re-imagined under the direction of Marv Wolfman and John Byrne. In his new origin story "The Man of Steel," Byrne followed the basic idea of Krypton being an antiseptic world and increased it.

 

This new Krypton was a place where emotions and art were dismissed for the pursuit of pure science. Kryptonians wore black bodysuits that protected them from the environment, with large cloaks that, while brightly colored, hid all sense of sex and identity. This was not the promise of a world of tomorrow but now a harsh warning. When Jor-El sends Kal to Earth, it is partly because Earth is a place that still embraces things such as love, art and music. This child will have the life that his father never could on his own emotionally barren world.

 

It works for Byrne's intention, absolutely. The problem is, I don't personally like this intention. Again, who wants to visit this place? These Kryptonians make the Vulcans of seem like over-emotional mystics in comparison. And by having them dress in a way that is so antithetical to Superman's costume, it implies that Kal-El has very little to do with his native planet, which kills a lot of the sense that he is a man of two worlds.

This was confirmed at the end of Byrne's "Man of Steel" origin story when Superman stated that his knowledge of Krypton was "meaningless" because he considered himself an American and an Earthman. Krypton was just some strange heritage he had, but had little do to with his identity.

AN ANIMATED COMPROMISE

 

The 1990s animated series brought the character a fresh, younger audience in a whole new way. Rather than stay close to the comics, the production team decided to give us a version of Krypton that evoked a sense of the Silver Age, but had touches of Byrne's re-imagining.

By removing their skullcaps, we again have gender identity. Simply by having her hair out and down her back, Lara defeats any concern that this is the same emotionally sterile environment Byrne created. And the hair actually has some significance. Before, all depictions of the El family had Jor-El possess the same hairstyle and s-curl that his son would later sport. Here though, it is Lara who sports the famous Superman spit-curl on her forehead. It may not seem like much, but it's the first time we're given visual proof that Clark takes after Lara in some way and not just his father.

 

By replacing the cloth headband with a thin metal circle of gold, we modernize it and add a touch of elegance of regality. I now find it easier to believe it's a symbol of status or citizenship.

The animated series also depicted the S-shield as a Kryptonian symbol, though it was more vague as to what the glyph truly meant; a very nice compromise by the animation team.

MARK WAID'S BIRTHRIGHT

 

Over the years following "Man of Steel," many creators did their best to figure out ways to bring back as many elements of Pre-Crisis Superman and Krypton as they could. The TV and cartoon adaptations embraced many more Pre-Crisis elements, as we saw in the animated series take. Finally, with success of shows such as <em>Smallville</em>, DC gave writer Mark Waid (, ) the task of revising Superman's origin yet again, giving something that was consistent with today's continuity but would replace some of Byrne's ideas with what general audiences were more familiar with, balancing elements from the Silver Age and the live-action media. He was told to consider the myth of Superman first and established canon second.

With artist Leinil Yu, Waid threw Byrne's Krypton out the window and presented <em>Superman: Birthright</em> in 2003. Here again is a place of drama, color and high-concept sci-fi wonders. Jor-El was given a look that was both futuristic but also somehow retro. A jumpsuit with a highly decorative cape and collar, a proud S-shield clasp on it. The headband is replaced with the face-guard that was worn by many comic book characters starting in the early 1990s. Superman's father now looks like a superhero himself, once again justifying Clark's later costume.

 

In the past, Lara had often gotten the short end of the stick when it came to design. Usually, she was just put into an evening gown or was given a dress with a cape added to it. Here though, she's wearing something that looks like it's straight out of <em>Dune</em> or <em>The Fifth Element.</em> She's sexy rather than matronly, reminding us that Superman's parents never had the chance to grow old together before their world was destroyed. And we have her sporting the s-curl again. A very nice take on her.

Waid also finally gave the S-shield a definitive meaning. It was a design adopted by the House of El as a crest, yes, but it was also a Kryptonian symbol that meant "hope" and signified the desire to work for a better tomorrow. All of that is Superman's philosophy in a nutshell and so we now have a deeper reason, beyond even just a recognition of heritage, for Superman to wear this shield so proudly on his chest. A wonderful idea.

 

A little before this story came out, DC Comics had begun depicting Superman's people as reliant on crystalline computers and machines akin to Donner's film. In the story "Up, Up and Away" by Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek, these crystals were finally given a name: sunstones.

Sadly, <em>Superman: Birthright</em> did not get the advertising it should have gotten at the time and so some readers were not sure if this was the new status quo or simply an alternate take on things. A few years later, the miniseries <em>Superman: Secret Origin</em> would replace it as the official story of Clark's origin and early days (and then that story itself was officially replaced about a year later by the New 52 reboot). However, since we're talking about it, I suggest you read <em>Birthright</em> if you haven't already.

WHAT'S OLD IS NEW

 

In 2006, DC was revamping Superman again. We started seeing flashbacks of a world not unlike the one seen in Richard Donner's film. We saw Jor-El wearing a simple tunic and pants that, on the surface, were similar to Marlon Brando's Kryptonian outfit (though simply gray and black rather than glowing).

At last, thanks to "Superman: Secret Origin" and the series "World of New Krypton," we've gotten a full on view on what the new state of affairs was. Rather than simply tossing in a whole new way of looking at things, a combination of past takes has emerged. Kryptonian wardrobe no longer has one look or design but several. In the new version of things, Krypton's society is divided into several guilds, each of which dresses differently.

To the delight of many readers, the Artist Guild and Science Guild is garbed in very familiar ways, namely the Silver Age style and Byrne style respectively. The colorful and sometimes gaudy ways of the Silver Age make sense for a culture of artists and Byrne's designs nicely illustrate a guild that, as he intended, worships science and logic above all else.

 

We also got some new outfits. The Labor Guild dresses in loose jumpsuits of Earth tones, which tells us at a glance that these are people who are grounded and pretty pragmatic. There's the Military Guild, dressed in black uniforms that have only small touches of color to indicate rank or unit. It's practical and utilitarian.

And there's the Religious Guild. We're told that Krypton's Religious Guild are fairly secretive and anti-social, wearing faceless masks. This behavior and the masks indicate that this guild's members see themselves as instruments of providence and a higher power rather than as individuals with Earthly needs. The masks and amulets glow different colors, presumably to indicate the different gods of Krypton's mythology.

This paradigm of Kryptonian fashion finally gives us something that all previous takes were lacking: a multi-faceted society. As I mentioned earlier, there's a common practice in science fiction to have all members of an alien or future society dressing in the same basic style. But now we have several different styles which all speak of that particular person's background and philosophy.

And the members of the different guilds are not locked into that one dress style. They might wear markedly different clothing for certain occasions, such as when a trial is held and those in attendance wear robes similar to the dark ones Marlon Brando wore. And that's not all that was taken from the Richard Donner film. We see that during special ceremonies, Kryptonians wear glowing white robes.

 

This all makes Krypton seem much more real, since we ourselves often dress in ways that reflect our function or how we operate in the world. You might wear a suit to the office and then a t-shirt and jeans at a barbeque, followed by a tuxedo on the weekend when you attend a wedding. People change clothes depending on what they're doing and what impression they want to give.

THE NEW 52

 

In 2011, DC rebooted the majority of its continuity and relaunched its superhero titles with 52 new series. The New 52 also had a different take on Superman and his origins, as depicted in the pages of <em>Action Comics</em>, written by Grant Morrison.

Gene Ha gave us our first look at the new version of Krypton. This was clearly a modernized version of the Silver Age incarnation, with a little bit of Birthright's fashion forward thinking thrown in. Now this is a planet where technology and fashion are mixed.

 

Devices we don't fully understand glow all over the outfits. The headbands connect Kryptonians to a telepathic version of the Internet, allowing for long distance communication and information exchange. Even the robots around them seem half decorative. We also later learn that Kryptonian "bio-tech" cloth will actually redesign and color itself according to the bearer's thoughts.

This is a very interesting compromise of different ideas behind Krypton, more dynamic than the animated series and emphasizing that this is both an alien culture and a culture mankind may want to emulate (at least in part) in its future.

 

And that, folks, concludes not only our look at the world of Krypton but also our column. This is the last Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. The past two years has been very fun and I thank you readers for all the support and questions. For the last time in this venue, this is Alan Kistler signing off.

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