Can a Kryptonite Bullet Really Hurt (or Kill) Superman?

Today, we look at the surprisingly complex history of Kryptonite bullets and their effect upon Superman.

This is "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," a feature spotlighting notable examples of retcons that don't fit into the framework of Abandoned an' Forsaked, which is specifically about stories that outright "overturn" older stories. There are many examples of "retroactive continuity" that do not actively abandon the works of the past (especially cases where the overall continuity was rebooted). Some of them are minor, some of them are major, all of them are interesting enough to me that I figure that they are worth writing about.

As I noted yesterday, Fred Van Lente (the great comic book writer that you might know from his holiday here at CBR, Fred Van Lente Day) was re-reading Mark Gruenwald's epic 1985 miniseries, Squadron Supreme (the Squadron Supreme was Marvel's answer to the Justice League, filled with heroes who were analogues to members of the Justice League), and in the first issue (by Gruenwald, Bob Hall and John Beatty), Nighthawk (the Batman of the Squadron Supreme) wanted to stop his teammates, led by his best friend, Hyperion (the Superman of the Squadron Supreme), from taking control of the planet to fix the problems of that universe's Earth. So Nighthawk took some Argonite, the only substance that Hyperion was susceptible to (obviously a stand-in for Kryptonite), and made a bullet from the material and planned to murder his best friend to protect society from his benevolent tyranny.

He ultimately couldn't do it, but Fred was wondering if that was the first time that somebody had fashioned a bullet made out of Kryptonite (or, you know, a stand-in for Kryptonite, like Argonite). It was not, but what struck me as interesting was how the very history of Superman and Kryptonite bullets was a lot more complicated than you might think.

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WHAT WE TYPICALLY THINK OF NOWADAYS WHEN WE THINK OF SUPERMAN BEING SHOT BY KRYPTONITE BULLETS

In the 2003 launch of Superman/Batman (by Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinnes, Dexter Vines and Dave Stewart), Batman and Superman found themselves in a seemingly normal conflict with the villainous Metallo when the bad guy suddenly shot Superman with a Kryptonite bullet!

The bullet pierces Superman's skin and Batman has to quickly move to get the bullet out of Superman before it kills the Man of Steel...

That's what we typically think about Superman nowadays when it comes to Kryptonite bullets. They are bad news for the Man of Steel.

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HOW KRYPTONITE BULLETS WERE ORIGINALLY TREATED IN THE SUPERMAN COMICS

However, interestingly enough, Kryptonite bullets didn't use to have that same effect on the Man of Tomorrow! Mort Weisinger, the longtime editor of the Superman titles, was a bit ahead of the game when it came to interacting with his rather large audience. Even before Stan Lee was doing reader columns where he interacted with Marvel fans, Weisinger was doing the same with the Superman letter columns (I have a whole feature "Don't Send Me No More Letters No" where I examine some of the odder responses that Weisinger had to letters). When Weisinger gained E. Nelson Bridwell as his assistant editor, Weisinger also suddenly had one of the most knowledgeable minds about comic book history that there ever was, and Bridwell paired well with Weisinger's access to the readers and would take an idea that Weisinger had instituted of giving the readers occasional general facts about Superman and Bridwell went way in-depth with these pieces. In a 1967 piece about Superboy, Bridwell and Weisinger explained,

"Though exposure to KRYPTONITE rays can harm SUPERBOY, a bullet made of it cannot penetrate his skin, because, unlike other materials from KRYPTON, KRYPTONITE is not indestructible. KRYPTONITE bullets or shells would merely shatter against his invulnerable body. However, he would be weakened by the fragments if he remained within their range."

We saw this in a story that same year (which was towards the end of Weisinger's tenure as editor of the Superbooks) in 1967's Superman #195 by Jim Shooter, Curt Swan and George Klein, when someone shoots at Superman with basically Kryptonite bullets and they don't pierce Superman's skin...

So that was the position back in the day, Superman COULDN'T be killed by being shot by a Kryptonite bullet.

WHEN DID KRYPTONITE BULLETS CHANGE IN THEIR EFFECT ON SUPERMAN?

Well, as soon as Weisinger stopped editing the titles, his successors didn't particularly care one way or the other and as we saw in 1971's Superboy #180 (by Bob Haney, Bob Brown and Murphy Anderson), Superboy notes that he was lucky that he temporarily lost his superpowers (due to instead gaining, like, werewolf-style powers) right before being shot by a Kryptonite bullet or else he would have been screwed...

The trick there, though, was that that comic book was written by Bob Haney, who wasn't one for following continuity period, so that's not necessarily indicative of the overall position on Kryptonite bullets. However, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it seems like more and more writers just seemed to think that it made sense that a bullet made out of Kryptonite SHOULD hurt the Man of Steel, whether Weisinger agreed or not (and since he was retired, it wasn't like he had a say any more).

And then Crisis on Infinite Earths occurred and Superman was rebooted and in the John Byrne reboot, Kryptonite was much less plentiful than it was before Crisis, but at the same time, Superman #4 (by John Byrne and Karl Kesel) made it clear that yep, Kryptonite bullets are bad news for the Man of Tomorrow...

And it's been that way ever since. Isn't it fascinating how something like this could change like that over time, from definitively one way to suddenly being definitively the OTHER way?

Thanks to Fred for bringing up what became a surprisingly complicated tale of Superman history! If anyone else has similar questions, feel free to drop me a line at [email protected]!

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Brian Cronin (15296 Articles Published)

CBR Senior Writer Brian Cronin has been writing professionally about comic books for over fifteen years now at CBR (primarily with his “Comics Should Be Good” series of columns, including Comic Book Legends Revealed). He has written two books about comics for Penguin-Random House – Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed and Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent? And Other Amazing Comic Book Trivia! and one book, 100 Things X-Men Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, from Triumph Books. His writing has been featured at ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, About.com, the Huffington Post and Gizmodo. He features legends about entertainment and sports at his website, Legends Revealed and other pop culture features at Pop Culture References. Follow him on Twitter at @Brian_Cronin and feel free to e-mail him suggestions for stories about comic books that you'd like to see featured at [email protected]!

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