The K-Metal from Krypton
In the modern comics industry, you can’t go a single month without an issue that claims it “changes everything” and that “nothing will ever be the same.” It’s been a long time since those claims were true. Way back in 1940, though, there really was a Superman story that changed everything: “The K-Metal from Krypton.”
Superman #8 is notable for several reasons. It introduced K-Metal, a mineral from Krypton which rendered Superman powerless and which predates kryptonite. It made the groundbreaking decision to have Superman reveal his identity to Lois Lane. Finally, it was a rare issue written by Superman creator Jerry Siegel that DC chose never to publish.
That’s right – this daring, groundbreaking story that would have changed the Superman mythos forever never saw the light of day. It remained forgotten in the DC archives until Mark Waid came across the original script and story outline in 1988, almost half a century after it was supposed to be published.
In the story itself, a strange asteroid enters Earth’s orbit. Originating from Krypton, the asteroid has two effects. First, humans in direct contact with it gain super powers. Second, Superman’s own powers begin to diminish while the asteroid is in orbit. He finds this out the hard way – by accidentally dropping a car on himself.
I’m a huge fan of stories where superheroes lose their powers, because it shows the audience who these guys are when they’re vulnerable. In Superman’s case, he decides that, powers or no, he still needs to fight evil to the best of his ability.
Unfortunately, this whole adventure is running parallel to Superman’s attempt to stop the exploits of gangster “Rocks” Murdock. He tries to be covert about it, but it’s not like stealth has ever been a staple of Superman’s crime-fighting repertoire.
Superman, Lois Lane, and several others wind up trapped in a mine that one of Rocks’ henchmen collapses, leaving them suffocating to death as the gangsters make their getaway. Fortunately, around this time, the K-Metal moves out of Earth’s orbit, restoring Superman’s strength. But saving the day means revealing his identity to Lois.
By this point in the story, everybody else had lost consciousness due to the lack of air. The easy storytelling trick would have been to have Lois lose consciousness too or have her think she’s hallucinating. Siegel even toyed with that by having Lois doubt what she was seeing – but Superman tells her the truth.
Ultimately, “Rocks” takes a tumble off a cliff in his attempt to get away from Superman. (“A fitting fate,” quips Supes, because Golden Age superheroes were pretty nonchalant about death.) Superman admits that his love for Lois is genuine, and Lois goes from being that chick with a crush on Superman to his partner in crime-fighting.
At the same time, there’s still romantic tension left over between Lois and Clark. After she gets a chance to think about things, Lois realizes that Clark has been lying to her for years. She still agrees to serve as his partner, but hits the breaks on any romance between them.
As one last bit of drama in this issue, it turns out that a mysterious thief broke into the lab of Professor Winton, who explained the K-metal phenomenon to Superman earlier in the story. Somebody broke into the lab and made off with the metal, which leaves a big loose end to be explored later.
So by the end of this story, Lois knows Superman’s identity, has gone from being just a romantic interest to being a full-fledged partner, Superman has been introduced to an element that can weaken him while giving others super powers, and an unknown villain has stolen that element.
Keep in mind that in 1940, most comic books were ripping directly off the Superman formula. This would have been a huge shakeup in the industry, not just for Superman but for all the other Golden Age heroes as well.
So why didn’t it get printed? Well, DC has always known what a commodity they’ve had on their hands with Superman, and from the very start they kept tight control over it. They decided that the issue introduced too many status quo changes and nixed it.
I think it was a missed opportunity. Even though the story is more than 75 years old now, it holds up very well. Even forgetting how groundbreaking it was, it’s a very high-quality story. It would have allowed for a stronger and more interesting Lois Lane, which readers wouldn’t really get until the 1980s.
While DC missed an opportunity to shake up comics in a huge way, people interested in this story can still read it for themselves thanks to a restoration project that uses the original script and layouts (and whose images I re-used here). At the very least, it’s an opportunity to look at an issue that really would have changed everything.