The highest quality Superman stories involve Superman wrestling with himself. This is a solid truth.
The first half of Season 1 of “Superman & Lois” was so profoundly good because they understood that. Superman’s most powerful and persistent enemy is his own set of internal conflicts; juggling his human side with his Kryptonian heritage, maintaining close relationships while protecting his real self, saving humanity by doing enough, while not damaging it by taking away our agency. The best written Superman stories are always less punchy and more about how to balance strength and mercy. They’re a commentary on wielding power among those who are less powerful than you.
So, when I say that Superman should absolutely not be the sole survivor of a doomed planet, believe me when I tell you it’s not just because it’s easier to work in conflict with characters who have the same powers as him. It’s partially that, but it’s so much more.
Sometimes a good Superman story requires him to punch someone in the face. The climactic fight between Superman and Darkseid at the end of “Justice League Unlimited” was epically satisfying. Doomsday made for good entertainment in the “Death of..” arc, even though the character’s returns decreased as they tried to rationalize him. Every so often Clark needs a Mongul sized threat so we are reminded that he’s not just about saving kittens, he is also competently dangerous.
But you don’t need Kryptonians to tell those stories. You could have Mxyzptlk fling fifth dimensional, building sized poop trolls at him all day long if the point was just having Superman hit things.
No, the reason other Kryptonians are so vital to telling good Superman stories, is that Krypton is Clark’s source of angst. Krypton is his constant “what if” haunting him, and it’s the reason he can’t ever truly just enjoy being Superman. Because being Superman is only possible if billions of people on his home planet died and he had to be sent away to be saved.
It’s not about the other Kryptonians around him being evil, or violent, or bent on turning Earth into a new homeworld at the expense of all human life. It’s about the fact that in each additional Kryptonian Superman encounters there is the potential to tell a great inner conflict story. Clark WANTS, desperately, to belong to a people. Each time his hopes are dashed by a Zod who he can’t draw to love humanity, or he has conflict with a Kara who grew up on Krypton and whose human experience will never be the same as his, we wind up with a Superman story that is full of potential for real joy, reminders of his loss, rejection, and even grief when the encounters become violent. Other Kryptonians meld the opportunities for a good physical conflict piece with the constant inner tensions of the very best writing we get in Superman tales.
Other Kryptonians make the punches hurt, and in that hurt we readers are gifted amazing stories.
In the Silver Age Supergirl made her debut. Some readers were surprised that not only was Superman not the sole survivor of Krypton but he had a cousin! We also had the bottled city of Kandor and various Phantom Zone villains. Krypton was also very prevalent in the Silver Age. There were countless flashback stories and those with Superman time traveling to Krypton prior to its explosion. Let’s not forget Krypto! Then Kandor was enlarged, Supergirl’s Argo City where she grew up, and so on and so on and so on. Let’s just say everywhere you looked there were survivors of Krypton.
Now I’m not saying this was a bad thing. It was nice for Superman to have companions from his home planet and the stories were fun. But the early effectiveness of the character was that he was the one and only sole survivor of Krypton. The LAST son. Going in to the post-Crisis era that changed when John Byrne rebooted Superman’s origin. I’m not going to get into that whole story, that’s for a later time, but suffice to say, Byrne wanted to bring Superman back to basics – the one and only sole survivor.
The way I see it, Superman is more relevant as the Last Son. Superman is an icon. And while that status doesn’t change when he’s not the last survivor, it does lessen his importance. What makes him unique is that he’s one of a kind, the Champion of the Oppressed, the Man of Tomorrow. The people of Earth look up to him because they know he’s the one that’s going to save them from disasters and mad geniuses and the dumb-witted bank robber. When you bring others with the same abilities into the mix it just takes his hero status down a few pegs. In any iteration Superman is the one people call out to. He’s the one they look for to save them. Superman is supposed to have god-like powers, different from everyone else. Why would he need help from others of his kind? Looking up at Superman flying through the skies we know he’s protecting us. We know his abilities are all we need to be assured we’ll be okay. We don’t need Supergirl to swoop in and lend a hand because we know Superman can handle it.
Stories of other Kryptonians on earth, or even out in the cosmos, is so unnecessary. The galaxy is too crowded with these super beings. The stories we’ve seen in the comics were a lot of fun, and Supergirl is a great character, but we don’t need them to tell a great Superman story. While the planet Krypton is very important, some people believe it was put there simply to blow up to bing Superman to earth. Krypton’s gone. Finished. We don’t need it anymore because Superman is here and he’s going to save us all! At least we have faith he will. Superman is all the Kryptonian we need. That’s what makes him so special.