While thumbing through my copy of the April 2012 issue of Wired magazine recently – yes, I still read the dead tree edition, thank you very much – I happened upon a short opinion piece entitled Thanks for Nothing, Jor-El on Page 62:
Someone needs anger management. And access to the DC Comics archives.
Well, Angry Nerd, when you’re right, you’re right. The metaphorical stench of failure does indeed hang heavily in the air. Except it’s not Jor-El‘s. It’s yours. And it’s the smell of critical research failure.
Yes, I fully realize that this is supposed to be a humorous piece based on the (n)ever-amusing phenomenon of nerd rage, but that doesn’t excuse the convenient omissions, critical misrepresentation of the facts, false claims, and just plain old ignorance about Superman‘s history that’s being displayed here.
But before we tear this article apart piece by piece, let’s begin with the “latest retcon” it was referring to. The scene in question takes place during a flashback in Action Comics #5 (March 2012), where Jor-El, in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save his family from Krypton‘s imminent destruction, makes what the aforementioned rant would have us believe is a painfully obvious suggestion that’s been never been explored in 74 years of DC Comics.
Looks like desperation really is the best motivation.
Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, as the criminals in the Phantom Zone – who’re understandably pissed off at the scientist responsible for devising the means of their incarceration – are eager to take their revenge on the blasted Els and their little dog too.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
In the end, Krypto ends up being trapped in the Phantom Zone while the family he was trying to protect is left behind. How the rest of this story goes I’m pretty sure everyone out there already knows. (Spoiler Alert: Kal-El makes it.)
So what exactly did the Angry Nerd get wrong? Pretty much everything, really.
1. Blame Where Blame Is Due
The first problem is that he failed to specify which version of Jor-El he considers to be a dumbass. Due to various retcons, reboots, and ongoing storylines, no less than seven distinct and mutually exclusive versions of the character have been introduced in the comics – three of them in the last eight years alone – since Superman first appeared 74 years ago in 1938. And, of those seven, only four of them are known to have discovered (and thus had access to) the Phantom Zone. In fact, of the three versions that were in-continuity the longest – the Golden Age Jor-L (approximately 15 years, from 1938 to 1953), the Silver Age Jor-El (approximately 28 years, from 1958 to 1986), and the post-Crisis Jor-El (approximately 18 years, from 1986 to 2004) – the former and the latter came from Kryptons where its existence was never confirmed. Hell, the post-Crisis Kryptonians couldn’t have escaped the planet even if they’d wanted to because the entire population had been genetically altered by an ancient alien artifact known as the Eradicator in such a way that leaving the environment of their homeworld became an automatic death sentence, meaning that they were completely screwed either way.
Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don't.
So, to summarize: if you’re going to question Jor-El’s intelligence, you’ll need to be specific since it makes no sense to criticize a version of the character who was unable to even do what you’re suggesting in the first place. For purposes of simplicity, we’ll be limiting our examination to the Silver Age incarnation from here on out since he’s the only one for whom escape into the Phantom Zone was theoretically an option and thus presumably the intended target of the opinion piece’s ire.
Oh, and as an aside to Dan DiDio: completely revamping Superman’s origin three times in eight years – with all three revisions occurring during your tenure, I might add – is a perfect example of why the continuity of the DC Universe developed the reputation of being an impenetrable morass in the first place. If you want someone to blame for the mess its become in recent years, look in the bloody mirror.
2. Sorry I’m Late to the Party
The Angry Nerd seems to be under the impression that he’s one of only a handful of individuals out there to whom the idea of sending people into the Phantom Zone to escape Krypton’s destruction occurred. I hate to be the one to break this to you, buddy – okay, that’s a bald-faced lie; I’m totally psyched to be the one to break this to you – but an observant reader asked this very question in an Action Comics letter column. A female reader, no less. In January 1965.
Evidence that DC Comics actually had female readers at one point before Scott Lobdell came along and pissed them all off.
Diane Affeldt of Gales Ferry, Connecticut beat you to the punch by 47 years, which just goes to show that, just because a lot of Golden and Silver Age comic book stories may seem pretty stupid by contemporary standards, that doesn’t automatically mean that readers and writers back then were complete idiots as well. And then we have this panel from Superboy #104 (April 1963), where Jor-El not only broaches the subject himself, but also adds a new wrinkle to the original problem:
It's important to catch plot holes early, before they can fully form.
So what exactly does he mean by that? Well, that brings us to our next point…
3. Damn You, Logistics!
In the very first story officially featuring the Phantom Zone from Adventure Comics #263 (January 1961), a mysterious metallic container from outer space was seen crash-landing in the American southwest by Lana Lang‘s father, Professor Lewis Lang, and the other members of his archeological expedition team. Unable to open it themselves, they brought it to the one person they could think of who could help them unravel the mystery: Superboy.
So you shot the forbidden weapons into outer space so they couldn't menace YOUR planet...but having them menace OTHER PLANETS is perfectly fine?
One of the devices in question turns out to be the Phantom Zone Projector, and Jor-El’s convenient disclaimer offers us the official reason why it wasnt used for an emergency evacuation of the planet: its use was prohibited. At the time of Krypton’s explosion, it had not only been banned by the planet’s ruling body, the Science Council, but also launched into outer space along with the rest of the forbidden weapons cache that Superboy found. In fact, DC editorial offered Ms. Affeldt this very same explanation when she wrote in to ask about it exactly four years to the month later, along with several additional reasons that we’ll be addressing later on.
It's like a paper version of Twitter.
Moreover, since the aforementioned launch event occurred a scant nine days before Krypton exploded, Jor-El probably couldn’t have built another projector even if he’d wanted to since he was too busy completing the rocket that would carry baby Kal-El to Earth.
As horrendously campy and dated as the aforementioned story is, at least some of the basic plot points can still be used to completely Swiss cheese the Angry Nerd’s claim that Jor-El could simply have “(rocketed) the projector to Earth – with instructions” because of the sheer number of obstacles and problems that such a supposedly foolproof plan would run into:
- Jor-El would have had to run his idea past the Science Council and get it approved. He could hardly have just gone running around randomly zapping unsuspecting people into the Phantom Zone without permission, now could he?
- He would’ve had to sell the idea to the Kryptonian populace. Given that the Phantom Zone had already gained a sizable inmate population by the time the planet was ready to blow, I’m pretty sure that a not insignificant number of people would’ve objected to the notion of being indefinitely locked up with a bunch of would-be dictators, lunatics, murderers, and that one really smelly Kryptonian/Rondor hybrid.
- Several additional Phantom Zone Projectors would need to have been built (or at least one extremely large one). The most criminals I’ve ever seen one device being used on at one time is six (though there’s absolutely no proof that this is its upper limit). The Silver Age Krypton had an estimated population of nine billion. You do the math on how long it would take to evacuate that many people, even assuming that not a single one of those projectors suffered from mechanical failure due to prolonged, continuous usage.
- 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. That means that you’d have to send a rocket across interstellar distances with some kind of computerized smart guidance system to make sure that it doesn’t crash land in the ocean or some virtually inaccessible mountain range that no one can easily reach. Or smash into a comet, meteor, or asteroid en route. Or fly into a sun.
- Instructions would have to be provided in at least one terrestrial language so that people would know what the hell it was. Jor-El’s warning was written in Kryptonese and the only reason anyone even found out what was inside the box was because Superboy was conveniently around to translate the messages. (Maybe he could’ve borrowed his brother Zor-El‘s equipment. The parents of Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Supergirl, used it to intercept broadcasts from Earth and teach her how to speak English, after all.)
- The vessel containing the projector would have to have some kind of time or manual release mechanism in place to open it since Kryptonian materials become nigh-indestructible under Earth’s yellow sun. The forbidden weapons cache survived an uncontrolled entry into Earth’s atmosphere and a crash landing in the desert without a scratch. That’s a pretty freakin’ sturdy container, people.
- You’d have to assume that any non-Kryptonian who found it would want to let you out of the Phantom Zone or think it’s a good idea. Call me crazy, but if anyone, civilian or military, found a crashed alien spacecraft containing a mysterious device with a button that said “PUSH ME” on it, they’d probably think twice about following those instructions considering how badly doing something like that usually ends for poor schmucks in books, television shows, and movies.
- Americans already have their panties in a bunch about a few million Mexican immigrants crossing the border into the United States every year. Imagine the crapstorm that would ensue if nine billion illegal aliens from Krypton were suddenly asking for temporary refuge on Earth.
Now, since I’m sure at least some of you are wondering why the Phantom Zone Projector was deemed too dangerous to keep around, there’s an explanation for that as well: turns out that one of the side effects of being trapped in the Phantom Zone is the development of latent telepathic abilities that can be used to not only communicate with fellow inmates but also to collectively influence the thoughts and actions of individuals who’re psychically vulnerable, have reduced willpower, or are in a psychologically suggestive state, something which can have potentially dire consequences.
Out of sight, out of mind.
4. Your Reputation Precedes You: 10000 Ways That Don’t Work
The magazine article has conveniently omitted one very important fact about Jor-El that factors heavily into this equation: his reputation and credibility. While the man was a universal genius and widely regarded as one of the greatest scientific minds that his world had ever produced, due to a combination of politics, a lack of corroborating evidence by other scientists, his almost single-minded obsession with saving the planet’s inhabitants, and just plain old bad luck, by the time of Krypton’s destruction, most of the population viewed him as an alarmist at best or a doomsday-obsessed crackpot at worst.
The fact of the matter is that, when Jor-El’s discovered that Krypton was doomed, he only had four Earth years’ time to come up with a viable plan for a planetwide evacuation. His first attempt was also the one that stood the greatest chance of success: building a giant space ark to relocate Kryptonians to another planet. And, with the help of a time-displaced Superman working incognito as his lab assistant, he managed to do just that using the (rather unimaginatively-named) construction super-robot Robo and a rare rocket fuel mixture discovered by his associate, Professor Ken-Dal.
Dammit, Superman, don't say stuff like that! You'll jinx it!
Unfortunately for them, the chosen site for the construction of the ship was the city of Kandor. And, as fate would have it, where there’s Kandor, Brainiac is sure to follow…at the worst possible time.
Ugh...see what I mean?
Things pretty much continued going downhill from there. Though Jor-El successfully managed to salvage a fully-operational alien spaceship belonging to an ancient spacefaring race known as the Krull, its guidance system was damaged during its test flight after being sideswiped by an experimental nuclear missile launched by Jax-Ur, former chief rocket scientist at the Kryptonopolis Space Center and would-be conqueror. This fateful collision ended not only in the accidental destruction of Wegthor, one of Krypton’s inhabited moons, by the atomic rocket but also in the loss of the technology that could’ve been reverse-engineered to build new escape ships after the damaged Krull spacecraft crash landed on the planet and subsequently exploded.
The final nail in the coffin came when the Wegthor incident prompted the ban-happy dumbasses on the Science Council to prohibit any further rocket technology development, thus crippling the entire Kryptonian space program and forcing Jor-El to continue his research in secret. In fact, if the planet hadn’t blown up when it did, he would’ve been arrested for breaking the law, if not for the development of the warp engine that powered his son’s journey to Earth, then for helping the visiting teenage Daxamite astronaut Lar Gand – who would later join the 30th century Legion of Super-Heroes as Mon-El – escape before he could be taken into custody by the local authorities.
5. The Outer Circle of Hell
But the ultimate refutation of the article’s claim is that Jor-El actually did explore the option of using the Phantom Zone as an escape route early on. And he also abandoned the idea pretty quickly after making a trial run.
The Phantom Zone apparently causes terrible ice cream headaches.
What the Angry Nerd’s conveniently failed to mention in his rant is that the Phantom Zone is essentially an interdimensional sensory deprivation tank and thus an extremely unpleasant place to be stuck in: while you can see and hear what’s going on around you, you can’t touch, taste, feel, or otherwise physically interact with anything or anyone. Sure, you can use telepathy to communicate with the poor souls who’re trapped in there with you and occasionally influence any weak-minded individuals you happen to stumble across, but those’re about the most productive things you’re going to be doing (unless there happens to be some Jewel Kryptonite lying around).
So they'll be contemplating the folly of their crimes after they get tired of brooding and thinking of ways to kill you and your family, then? BRILLIANT.
See, there’s a very good reason why it was chosen as a method of incarceration rather than a viable escape route: doing time there is like being imprisoned in Hell. Or, more specifically, the version of Hell from the Divine Comedy in that it’s divided into multiple levels, with what’s commonly thought of as the Phantom Zone – an eerie twilight realm blanketed in mist and fog – being roughly equivalent to Limbo, the First Circle in Dante‘s system, and a kind of dimensional intersection between the real world and the realm of an immensely powerful demonic being known as Aethyr, who can reshape reality with a thought. While Jor-El didn’t live long enough to find out exactly what he’d discovered, based on his glowing review after having spent just a few minutes in there…
"Merciful Rao...it was like watching a 'Jersey Shore' marathon."
…it doesn’t exactly sound the kind of place I’d want to spend any length of time in. Imagine floating around in nothingness, doing absolutely jack squat for years, decades, or even centuries, never getting any older, watching your friends and loved ones die as the outside world passes you by, with only a faint glimmer of hope that you’ll one day be released keeping you sane. Now imagine something going horribly wrong and your never being let out, which is a very real possibility with the “let’s rocket the projector to Earth” plan. When the light at the end of the tunnel is death and that light can be turned off until further notice…let’s just say it makes for a very long and very uncomfortable eternity. If you had the option of choosing between a relatively quick demise and existing as an incorporeal wraith until the end of time…well, that exploding planet you’re standing on is starting to look pretty damn good in comparison.
6. The Real World Explanation
While Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 (April 1938), the Phantom Zone itself was a relatively late addition to canon and only introduced 23 years later in Adventure Comics #263 (January 1961). Moreover, Jor-El wasn’t established as its discoverer until Superboy #104 (April 1963) and that very same story provided a solution for the plot-hole-in-waiting before it could even develop into a problem. So it was a non-issue from the outset.
Sorry, Angry Nerd, but if you want Jor-El to wear a D-minus on his chest, you’d better start wearing an F on yours.
Special thanks to Brian J. Philbin of AllExperts for providing some additional information that I was initially unaware of.