Black History Month: Greetings from…Vathlo Island!
That’s right, True Believers…this was a real thing in comics. A real and awesome thing.
Vathlo Island is a Kryptonian island continent similar to Australia and populated by a “highly developed black race” of Kryptonians (I’m quoting the text of the actual issue here). Vathlo Island “retained its independence throughout history and did not join the planetary federation, though good relations were maintained”. So…the rest of Krypton…stereotypically ‘white” Krypton with Jor-El and all those guys had a planetary federation, that Vathlo Island didn’t join. It’s almost as if…almost…someone on the DC staff actually read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
Black Kryptonians were first shown in Superman No. 234 in 1971…before that, the planet was populated exclusively by aliens who were white people. The island itself was shown on a map in no. 239, a few issues later. Vathlo was rarely if ever referenced beyond these few issues, which is a real shame. Recent years have shown a resurgence of interest in the idea of Vathlo Island.
“Iph-Ro of Vathlo” appeared in the much more recent “Superman: The Man of Steel” No. 111 in 2001. An offhand reference to the island was made in Alan Moore’s story “For the Man Who Has Everything,” where “racial trouble with the Vathlo Island immigrants,” are mentioned in a dream world Krypton that had avoided destruction. It is believed, based on the appearances of black Kryptonians in recent Superman issues, that the Vathlonians eventually were integrated into Krypton proper. There’s not a whole lot of canon information to support that, though, and really…I don’t like it.
I much prefer the idea of a technologically advanced, Wakanda style state on Superman’s planet. It just seems…more awesome.
Grant Morrison made use of Vathlo island most recently in the pre-New 52 “Final Crisis.” In Final Crisis No. 7, an alternate universe version of Superman (modeled after Barack Obama) from one of the 52 realities of the multiverse is featured. This Earth-23 Superman resembles an African-American and is said to originate from the science-capital of Krypton, which is located on Vathlo Island. He even mentions it in passing.
Big Deal? Yes.
Let’s recap, shall we?
Initially, and for decades, Superman’s homeworld of Krypton was all-white. It was only in 1971’s Superman No. 234…33 years AFTER his debut in 1938…that the first non-white Kryptonian was seen. It took more than another thirty years for the idea of a legitimate, A-List black Superman to quite literally “fly” in “Final Crisis.”
Mark Waid, a writer I really respect, was quoted as saying “In issue No. 239, a two-page map showed that Kryptonians Of Color had an island all to themselves, which is pretty embarrassing.” He went on, pretty much an expert in all things Superman. “I cringe to tell you this, but the Kryptonians of Color were all on ‘Vathlo Island, Home of a Highly Advanced Black Race.’ It wasn’t until the mid-70s, when more ‘World of Krypton’ back-up stories ran more regularly, that we really saw any ethnicity whatsoever on the planet.” While Waid is not sure of how exactly Krypton got a sudden blast of ethinicity, he credits E. Nelson Bridwell, the assistant on the Superman books at the time. “He took a special interest in ‘caretaking’ the history and fictional culture of Krypton,” Waid says. “More than anyone else who ever lived, Nelson knew that world.”
Also…before debate starts up about Superman’s creators…Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were okay guys. Much like other mono-cultural planets of the Golden Age of science fiction, Krypton was a product of its time. A very white product of it’s time, but that was publishing in the late 1930’s.
Much like a whole lot of the comics that I’ve been focusing on this February, it was a first step toward diversity in comics. Waid may criticize the idea, but I personally find the idea of a technological utopia, completely separate from the Krypton that is usually depicted, to be a wonderful, interesting idea. An idea that I kind of wish a team of writers that could handle the idea well would pitch to DC Comics. It’s possible that in that pitch, there’s the germ of a Superman Family book that I might find readable in this New 52 setting.
About the art…it is directly based on the single panel depiction in Superman No. 239, in the Silver Age map of Krypton. As usual, our hero flies poorly and awkwardly…and no one on Vathlo Island would really be able to either coach or criticize. On Krypton, they wouldn’t have their awesome superpowers…just the beautiful techno paradise of their own devising that you see depicted. Again…on some level, I think that’s almost cooler than Superman’s awesome powers. It’s not like Superman had to work for those…but you have to build a Science Paradise.
While I was drawing this, a person over my shoulder asked me how she could be on Krypton, if Krypton exploded. I wasn’t troubling about it when I drew it, and still am not. In past issues, the protagonist has stolen at least two different time machines, so I’m thinking she can vacation on Vathlo Island if she wants.
If only DC Comics would let their writers’ imaginations vacation there more often.
Next Issue: Parent Conferences!