The Untold Story of the Phantom Zone/The Kid Who Kayoed Superboy

The origin of the Phantom Zone is revealed in Superboy #104 (Apr. 1963), although you'd never guess it from the cover.

The Silver Age of Superman was famous for its misleading covers, of course, but usually they'd feature some impossibly bizarre scene to draw you in, then inside the book all manner of unlikely, implausible happenstance would unfold to get you somehow to that scene. The impression I always got was that editor Mort Weisinger would say, "We can sell a million copies if we put X on the cover, so that's what we're going to do. Now go and write a story that gets us there."

This one seems to turn that tradition on its head, picking easily the least interesting moment in a book full of amazing goings on and giving it the spot of honor. Thus a fascinating examination of one of the key elements of the mythos, to say nothing of the potentially disastrous arrival on Earth of three Kryptonian super-villains, is hidden behind the umpteenth variation on "How can the new kid in Smallville be stronger than our hero?" (Yawn)

The story itself begins in the past, and deep in space, where we see a still-living planet Krypton encircled by scads of eerie satellites; the orbiting, coffin-like "cells" of Krypton's worst criminals.

The key to this rather expensive-looking penal system is a gas that induces suspended animation, a gas developed by none other than Jor-El, who as its creator has drawn the duty of administering the substance, thus making him Krypton's official "executioner." (You know, just like we made Robert Oppenheimer drop the atomic bomb himself)

And thus begins a long series of confusing references in this story. Krypton, it is repeatedly stressed, "does not believe in killing its criminals," and yet it's made equally clear that no one ever wakes up from Jor-El's gas, and their capsules, says a judge, "can never return to Krypton!" So what, you may ask, is the difference between this punishment and the death penalty?

Anyway it's certainly the question on the mind of one prisoner, who pleads for mercy:

Curiously, even though Jor-El owes his "executioner" duties to his fame as the inventor of the "suspended animation" gas, he nonetheless wears a Medieval-style black hood, presumably to preserve his anonymity. Indeed the prisoner fails to recognize him, despite the fact that the hood only covers the top half of his family crest, and exposes 90% of the only suit he's known to wear 365 days a year.

Note again the hypocrisy as the official refers to the administering of the "non-fatal" gas as an "execution". Indeed, even as he slips into his eternal sleep, the prisoner asks, "Where's Jor-El? Long ago, he promised to invent a less cruel method of punishment! Why hasn't he kept his promise!" Which naturally makes Jor feel like a total heel.

As the capsule speeds away, Jor-El lets the judge know he's nearly perfected a new device that will vastly improve this situation, one that "will send a criminal away from Krypton for any length of time...yet bring him back when his sentence is up!"

This device, of course, is the Phantom Zone projector, capable of beaming persons into another dimension where they remain alive, but only as intangible wraiths incapable of communicating with the physical world. Before presenting the gadget to the Science Council, though, Jor-El decides to test it out...on himself. As we learn, this is perhaps not the brightest plan a "brilliant scientist" ever concocted, since he's the only one who understands the technology.

This being 1963, Lara of course knows nothing about "man stuff" like science, and has been told simply to press one button to "send" and the other to "bring back." Ooops. As it turns out, young Kal-El has removed a piece of the projector, temporarily disabling it. Luckily he alerts Lara to this fact by announcing "Haha! Me play with little ball," in a typically naturalistic line of Silver Age "toddler" dialog. With the "little ball" re-inserted into the projector, it functions normally again.

Back in the land of the living, Jor-El presents his projector to the Science Council, earning himself a position among its august ranks. Unfortunately, use of the projector seems to have accidentally ruined the invention of another Council aspirant, Gra-Mo, secretly the leader of Krypton's worst criminal gang.

When he fails to be appointed to the Council (which he secretly hoped to control), Gra-Mo uses a telepathic helmet to compel the entire robot police force of Kryptonopolis to take over the city for him. Jor-El defeats his plans in spectacular fashion, gathering up all the robot police with a magnetic satellite and dumping them into Krypton's "fire falls". After a swift trial, Gra-Mo and his two accomplices are sentenced to be the first prisoners exiled to the Phantom Zone. Unfortunately a malfunction in the projector means they have to be shot into orbit instead, in the old-fashioned method.

In the months that follow, other criminals are exiled to the Zone, and one day as Jor-El lies in a weakened state thanks to fever, they team up to telepathically command him to release them. Lara stops him, but aghast at what almost happened, Jor-El launches the projector into space.

As longtime Superman readers will know, this box would prove a font for all sorts of stories, but let's take a moment to consider what's happening here. Having at last perfected a more "humane" method of dealing with criminals, a method which allows for parole and release where the old one did not, Jor-El and the Council have now decided to send the projector into space, thus -- for all they know -- removing forever the possibility that the prisoners can be released from the Zone.

As we'll see in other stories, not every Phantom Zone prisoner was given a life sentence, and at least one was wrongly convicted; those poor souls are now condemned to the same fate as Krypton's worst murderers and traitors. Apparently this was done to explain a "loophole" that young readers would otherwise have pounced on. As Jor-El rockets Kal-El away from dying Krypton, he says, "It's a pity we haven't the machine I invented so we could project Krypton's people into the Phantom Zone where at least they would remain alive!"

Anyway, as we all know, the bad guys get the last laugh as they survive while Jor-El and the "good" people of Krypton are lost. Indeed, not only do the Zone prisoners survive, but so do Gra-Mo and his pals, luckily spun from orbit by the blast in their special economy 3-for-1 capsule.

The years pass, and Kal-El grows to a teenager in Smallville. Then one day Gra-Mo's capsule wanders into our solar system, where a chance collision with a meteor sends it hurtling to Earth. Awakening, the prisoners discover their new super-powers and correctly attribute them to the influence of Earth's yellow sun. Superboy comes to investigate and accepts the three as "old friends" of Jor-El who admired his creation of the Phantom Zone projector.

Gra-Mo and his pals ask Superboy to keep their arrival to himself while they train themselves in the use of their new powers. As soon as he flies off, however, they plot against him: "Jor-El is dead, but we can revenge ourselves against him by destroying his son!" they scheme, in one of several scenes that foreshadow the film, Superman II.

Gra-Mo builds a new telepathic helmet and contacts Jax-Ur in the Phantom Zone, who gives him the inside scoop on Kryptonite and prescribes a temporary antidote for its effects. Then they set in motion a plot to remove Superboy's interference so they can take over the Earth.

The next day, an Englishman appears in Smallville with his young son, a bespectacled nebbish in knee pants and bow tie who surprises everyone by exhibiting a super-strength that rivals Superboy's. When "Reggie" starts creating havoc in town, Superboy shows up to stop him, and takes that punch on the chin we saw on the cover.

When Reggie dares Superboy to hit him back, our hero answers, "You have a lesson coming to you! Since you obviously do have some sort of super-strength, one punch will probably do nothing worse than knock you out for a moment!" So he hits the kid, with disastrous results.

Now it's anyone's guess why Superboy thought super-strength was the same thing as invulnerability. By this point, he's met any number of strong characters who aren't invulnerable (like Samson), so why would he assume this one is? Also it's unclear how you could hit someone hard enough to knock them skyward at super-speed, but not enough to kill them on contact (Reggie seems to be alive after the punch, and screams from the heat of air friction).

Anyway, Superboy honors his long-standing pledge to give up his career as a superhero if he ever causes a death, which is exactly what Gra-Mo was hoping for. Turns out the "Englishman" was Gra-Mo in disguise, and his son "Reggie" was a specially-constructed android, just "lifeless chemical protoplasm" controlled by one of his accomplices with the telepathic helmet. With Superboy out of the picture, the Kryptonian villains run riot in Smallville.

Really, Earl? Is that what it is? There's always one guy like this in every story, isn't there? Before the villains showed up, he was probably saying, "Hello, you're Ralph, the salesman from the department store down the street. That's the hat your wife bought you."

The robbery doesn't get far before Superboy shows up, having figured out Gra-Mo's ruse with the android. Outnumbered 3-to-1 with the fate of the Earth in the balance, Superboy calls upon his great skill as a combat tactician and engages Gra-Mo in a two-handed contest of "Uncle."

When that doesn't work, he tries to even the odds with his Superboy robots, but Gra-Mo neutralizes them by creating solar flares that disable their mechanisms. Then he tries Green Kryptonite, but the villains are immune thanks to Jax-Ur's antidote. With Superboy seemingly stymied, the criminals hear a summons from their Phantom Zone buddies telling them Superboy has hidden the Phantom Zone projector in their prison ship. They run to fetch it, but find it's a fake.

With the criminals still inside the ship, Superboy coats it with "a new, plastic, super-opaque paint I invented that will prevent any sunlight from entering the capsule!"

With the source of their powers removed, the criminals are unable to escape the ship, and Superboy beams them, ship and all, into the Phantom Zone. And all's well that ends well.

Of course this seems a bit inconsistent with what we know about Kryptonian's powers. After all, Superboy's been locked away in dungeons and basements and coffins and who knows what all, well out of the sunshine, and he didn't automatically lose his powers. To me, this is like plotting to rob George Hamilton of his tan by locking him in a closet for 30 seconds.

Nonetheless, this is a fantastic story, at least for me, literally crammed full of amazing stuff including a lot of debate-worthy revelations about Kryptonian "justice", a heroic escapade for Jor-El, a showdown with three super-powered criminals and overall just a truly epic feel for a comic that, again, seems to promise so very little on the cover. It's anyone's guess why they didn't choose a cover image showing one of the many, many more awesome moments in this tale, like a fight with the three villains, or maybe the villains laying waste to Earth while an agonized Superboy stands by helplessly moaning, "I've sworn not to interfere!" Or heck, even Superboy punching Reggie to the stratosphere as horrified onlookers gasp, "'ve killed him!"

If it is indeed true, as I suspect, that the covers came first and the stories were written around them, maybe this is writer Edmond Hamilton's way of sticking it to Mort, writing a story so awesome the cover actually sells it short. A lot of the awesomeness comes from the art, this time contributed by both of Superboy's finest delineators, George Papp in part one and Curt Swan (with George Klein) in part two.

What really lingers, though, is the sense that Krypton was full of a lot of namby-pambys without the courage to face hard choices, clinging to euphemisms because they "don't believe in the death penalty." Just things exactly like it, or worse.