Ask Chris #295: Rocketed To Earth From The Dying Planet Krypton
Q: What's your Superman preference regarding the Byrne Kryptonian Gestation Matrix versus being "rocketed to Earth as an infant?" -- @charlotteofoz
A: In the grand scheme of things, even I have to admit that this seems like a pretty minor distincton. That said, if there's one thing we've all learned over the past 300 installments of this column, it's that there are few things in this world that I love more than obsessing over what the most minor details mean for the overarching story that makes up a character like Superman.
I mean, really, if I can somehow wring a thousand words out of whether or not Batman's costume should have a yellow oval on his chest, we can probably get into a pretty good discussion of whether or not Superman should've actually been born on Earth.
For those of you who might not be familiar with what we're talking about, the Kryptonian Gestation Matrix was a twist on the origin story that John Byrne came up with when he rebooted Superman in 1986 with The Man of Steel. It plays into the idea that Krypton was a dead planet long before it exploded, a cold, sterile world where emotions were repressed, and where even children were born from machines rather than their parents --- parents who never even touched each other.
And that's an aspect of the story that I really love. There's a strong possibility that my attachment to it comes largely from the fact that it's the version of Krypton that I grew up with, but I've always been a fan of the idea that Krypton shouldn't just be a place that you can't go back to, but that you'd never really want to go back to. For me, making Krypton a cheerful paradise doesn't add to the tragedy of its destruction, it just creates a situation that distracts from the real story of Superman on Earth. The more emphasis you put on Krypton, on Jor-El, on ancient House of El crests that stand for hope, the less you can put on the idea of Superman being embraced by humanity as one of our own, the idea that I'd put right at the core of the character.
For all his flaws --- including making Lara the passive counterpart to Jor-El as the First Person In Centuries To Feel Something, an aspect that later origin stories like Birthright would make an attempt at correcting --- Byrne found a way to do that without removing the very personal tragedy of Superman's parents being exploded into radioactive space dust. The idea that on a world without love, Kal-El's parents felt the emotion that would drive them to send him to Earth for a better life is hugely appealing.
And all of that is tied in with the idea of the Gestation Matrix. It's essentially a machine that handles pregnancy so that nobody on Krypton is inconvenienced for nine months, combining the parents' DNA and sequencing it into the ideal form. The thing is, at the time of Krypton's explosion, when the Gestation Matrix is rocketed through space to escape a dying world, Kal-El's not done cooking yet. So with that, you get the idea that not only do Jor-El and Lara feel a genuine, protective love for their chid, something that's all but unheard of in their society, but they feel it before they've held him, before they even see him.
And because of that, there's a small but significant change to the narrative. Since he's sent to Earth on what is essentially a rocket-powered techno-womb, Superman's Kryptonian in his genetics, but he's "born" on Earth, right there in a crater on the Kent farm in Smallville.
A few more twists on this to get through before we move on:
First, Byrne's original idea took this a step further by making Kryptonians themselves a non-humanoid species. In his first draft of the story, Jor-El and Lara would've more lizard-like on their home planet, and the Gestation Matrix was designed to adapt to the creatures who opened it. This, I think, was Byrne's way of getting around the nagging idea that Krypton was just a planet full of aliens that happened to look exactly like human beings --- specifically caucasian human beings --- by having Clark's appearance reflect Jonathan and Martha Kent rather than his planet of origin. In the end, though, DC decided that having their flagship character secretly be a snake-man might not be the best idea.
Second, since he had never been outside of the Gestation Matrix, this setup allowed for the idea that Kal-El could be in stasis for an indefinite amount of time --- or at least made it a little easier to get to than the idea of putting an infant into a rocket with enough supplies to last for a journey across the galaxy.
Again, it's a very minor and ultimately inconsequential change, but it allows you to play with the timeline in a really interesting way, distancing Superman from Krypton through time as well as space. It probably came through most prominently in Starman, when James Robinson and Peter Snejbjerg came up with the idea of Krypton's destruction happening in 1938, a nice little nod to the Golden Age that still allowed for the rocket to land on Earth on the sliding-scale timeline's "thirty years ago."
Third, the Gestation Matrix was the key factor in The Death and Return of Superman. The only (canon) reason that Superman was able to come back from being beaten to death by a bone monster was that he just happened to have a piece of Kryptonian technology that was built to combine, resequence and nurture his specific biology, and the fact that this was a perfectly logical use of something that had been established so many years before is one of the better things about that story --- if you're the kind of person concerned with the minutiae of how Kryptonian technology works, anyway.
But while I prefer that origin story, the original version certainly has a lot to recommend it.
Before 1986, the origin story as established involved Kal-El being born on Krypton and living there long enough to grow a full head of hair, an origin that also has a lot to recommend it.
Obviously, there's the fact that we're dealing with an infant rather than just a space-egg. As much as I might prefer the cold sci-fi remoteness of Byrne's Krypton, you can't really beat the symbolic imagery of Jor-El and Lara placing their infant son in a rocket basket and sending him down the cosmic river to Earth. The idea of seeing him, of giving him one last touch, connects him to them and their hope for a better life --- a chance at even having a life at all --- is powerful stuff, and when it's done well, there's not much that can beat it. Birthright in particular, which ends with Superman sending a message back through time so that the last thing Jor-El and Lara hear before the explosion comes is that they did the right thing? That's so good.
But long before that, one of the major twists to Superman's Kryptonian infancy was the idea of Superman's perfect memory. Back in the Silver Age, mixed in with the minor super-powers like super-ventriloquism, was the idea that his evolved Kryptonian brain gave him an eidetic memory from a very young age, meaning that he had total recall of his pre-explosion life on Krypton.
It's a weird touch, but it does have some advantages. It allows him to have the kind of familiarity with his origins that we have as readers, but without having to go through the storytelling gymnastics of having it all explained to him --- and anything that gets us away from Jor-El's floating head showing up to issue storyline proclamations is fine by me. In reality, though, this mostly manifested itself in moments where Superman would go, "Oh right, I remember that that my father also shot my dog / a gorilla / some random Kryptonian artifact that's going to cause Jimmy Olsen some trouble this week into space as well! I just haven't thought about it in a while!" But aside from that, it did create a connection there, a sense of loss and mourning that underscored the tragedy.
In the end, I think it comes down to how much you want to play up the idea of Superman as a Kryptonian, and how you think Superman should think of himself. For me, it's always felt more important that he saw Earth first and foremost as his home, that he was Clark Kent, not Kal-El, but there are equally valid interpretations --- particularly the ones that emphasize the idea of Superman as an immigrant --- that could find a lot more meaning in a tangible, physical connection to his home planet. Either one can work.
But, you know, only one of those options leads directly to being pooped out by a giant purple battlesuit in 1994.
So, you know. Take that into consideration, too.