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Superman’s birth parents, Jor-El and Lana, stand puzzled at the appearance of Superman, in full costume, on the planet Krypton. “I’ve come back through the time-barrier to save them,” Superman muses, “but it’s hopeless!” on the cover of Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Curt Swan/DC Comics

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Superman comics did Back to the Future 25 years before Back to the Future

How Superman saved his parents’ marriage from the past and another planet

They say there are really only a small handful of different stories, but I don’t think any of them are the plot of Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly manufactures an opportunity for his dad to save his mother from a pushy jerk, thereby proving his dad’s strength and fortitude, and saving Marty’s parents’ marriage.

But even though this isn’t one of the great universal tropes, it also happened in a Superman comic 25 years before Back to the Future came out. I don’t know what to do with this knowledge, except share it with you.

Each Monday, while the comics industry takes a break, we’re looking back at some of the standout moments in comic history — or at least in weird comics history. Think of it as part society pages of superhero lives, part reading recommendations, part “look at this cool art.” There may be some spoilers. There may not be enough context. If you missed last week, read this.


Superman’s Return to Krypton!

It’s good to have a quarantine project, but it’s even better when it pays out an unexpected dividend, like discovering a Superman comic where he back-to-the-futures his parents. My quarantine project is reading up on every comics appearance of Brainiac. Why? That’s for me to know, and you to find out someday, after I’ve read every comic where Brainiac turns up.

Regardless, this is how I stumbled on 1960’s Superman #141, featuring the story Superman’s Return to Krypton!, written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, drawn by Wayne Boring, and inked by Stan Kaye.

Back in time, Superman checks into a Kryptonian hotel and broods about how the whole world will soon be destroyed, in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960).
Super-brooding is one of the Man of Steel’s lesser known powers.
Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics

At the time, Superman comics typically featured two to three different stories per issue, but Return to Krypton takes over all three sections of Superman #141. It’s an epic of its time. The story begins when, in pursuit of a space creature, Superman accidentally flies so fast that he breaks the “time-barrier” and yeets himself into the past.

When he tumbles out of the time-stream, Superman realizes he’s flown all the way to Krypton’s star system, but before the planet’s untimely demise. He makes it to the planet’s surface just before the red sun reduces him to a mere mortal, stranding him on the Krypton of the past.

This sort of contrivance was the bread and butter of superhero stories of the era, and to the modern reader it can take a little getting used to. Of course, there were some other reasons why Superman made a pivot from champion of the people to scifi adventurer. But keep in mind that the term “hard science fiction” was an extremely new concept in 1960, and that Superman was born out of a pulp scifi tradition that prized story over exposition. Questions like “Wait, Superman can just travel through time whenever he wants to?” will not be addressed! The point is to enjoy the possibilities that open up when Superman can travel through time essentially at will.

It’s important to explain this before I get to the next bit, where Superman stumbles onto the set of a Kryptonian science-fiction movie shoot. Prepare yourself. Remember what I said about suspension of belief.

Superman stumbles across a Kryptonian movie shoot and is mistaken for an extra because of his costume in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics

None of us are working on the same level as Jerry Siegel, clearly, because the writer breezes through the absolutely bonkers idea that Krypton has its own sci-fi genre and movie studios, in order to use this encounter to solve two necessary plot points. First, he introduces Superman to a new love interest, a beautiful Kryptonian actress.

Second, after the shoot wraps, the director orders all the extras to wear their movie costumes everywhere they go until the movie’s release date. This publicity stunt removes the obligation for the artists to design a new outfit for Superman for the rest of the book.

While on Krypton, Superman feels drawn to befriend his parents, and Siegel keeps alluding to their strange collective bond in a way that is never not weird.

Superman thinks his Kryptonian parents make a “beautiful” couple as he secretly attends their wedding, in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics
Superman’s parents think he’s weirdly familiar in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics
“Some overwhelming impulse inside me almost compelled me to be helpful to him!” exclaims Jor-El of his time-displaced son, Superman, in Superman #141 DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics
Superman spends an evening with his friends as his mother stares at the man she doesn’t know is her time-displaced son “I can’t explain it, but I have the strangest feeling whenever I see Kal-El,” she says, in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics

Superman attends their public wedding, and becomes Jor-El’s research assistant, a treasured family friend who gets invited over for drinks and a movie. “Gosh, dad’s swell,” he muses. “It’s weird having a father who’s practically your own age!”

But now you’re probably wondering how Superman can back-to-the-future his own parents if they’re already married.

It’s about Martha

The answer is that he BTTFs his adoptive parents, while still on Krypton. In the issue’s weirdest aside — and, as I have already explained with the sci-fi movie-shoot bit, that’s saying something — Jor-El tells Superman all about his secret research. This is the part we already know, that Krypton is headed for doom.

But Jor-El also shows Superman the plans he’s making, to craft an interstellar refugee fleet and light out for a planet called Earth, which he has been observing.

Jor-El shows Superman the observations he’s been making of the planet Earth, including of Smallville, Kansas, in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics

Yes, using a high-powered telescope, Jor-El has even been creeping on Jonathan Kent and Martha Hudson of Smallville, Kansas, for reasons that remain unexplored. He does seem really invested in their relationship, though.

“Jonathan is a quiet spoken young farmer,” Jor-El gushes, “who loves the girl he’s courting, but he’s getting severe competition from Gregg Halliday, a handsome smooth banker, who recently arrived in Smallville…” That’s a pity, he says, because Halliday is a fraudster and a thief, about to skip town with a cache of stolen bonds.

But no low-down crook is going to mess with Superman’s parents, no matter what planet he’s on. The next day, Superman gets his hands on a sniper rifle that fires a “tiny, explosive friction-proof needle missile.” Then, in a feat of sharpshooting to rival any assassin in the DC Multiverse, he points it at the Kryptonian sky and fires it directly at Smallville, Kansas, Earth, destroying the statue in which Halliday hid his cache, and revealing it to a passing policeman in one shot.

(At exactly the same time, a freak lightning bolt strikes the statue, establishing that Superman’s actions have not changed the timestream, and the police would have found all of the evidence anyway.)

In his haste to flee the cops, Halliday — now revealed as confidence man “Snark” McGill — accosts Martha. Jonathan gets his chance, and the parallels to Back to the Future become downright distracting.

A confidence man attempts to take Martha Hudson hostage, before Jonathan Kent slugs him one but good. “Land sakes,” Martha cries, “I never thought you could be so forceful! Oh, my!” in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics
Martha and Jonathan Kent pledge to marry now that he’s dispatched her attacker, in Superman #141, DC Comics (1960). Image: Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring/DC Comics

Back to the Future writer and producer Bob Gale has said that the movie was inspired by looking through his father’s yearbook and wondering if he and his dad would have been friends in high school. It was director Robert Zemeckis who added the idea of a seemingly prudish mother who actually slept around in high school.

And I want to make it clear that I believe them.

If infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters could eventually create the complete works of Shakespeare, it stands to reason that with dozens of writers writing dozens of Superman stories every year for 40 years, eventually one of them would hit on a shockingly close replication of Back to the Future.

The question now is: Are there any other Michael J. Fox movies that are also Superman comics? Maybe Teen Wolf? There’s got to be a Teen Wolf.