Let My People Grow!

In 2009 a very long and ultimately pretty pointless storyline penned by industry superstars Geoff Johns and James Robinson saw the Bottle City of Kandor enlarged on Earth and subsequently relocated to space, with all sorts of nasty complications for both locales. Longtime readers may have felt a sense of deja vu -- up to a point -- as the first epic enlargement of Kandor occured exactly thirty years earlier in Superman #338 (Aug. 1979). Back then, however, writer Len Wein went out of his way to avoid all the thorny issues addressed in 2009's "New Krypton" storyline -- and indeed any future use of Kandor in any way, shape or form -- when he wrote "Let My People Grow!"

Illustrated by the legendary Curt Swan with inks by Frank Chiaramonte, the story opens with Superman in deep space, sporting an odd spacesuit and holding up a multi-mirrored contraption in the heart of an exploding supernova, the better to collect the flow of "expanding energy" produced by the once-a-millenium phenomenon.

As he reveals to Supergirl, the plan is to use the collected "expanding energy" to finally make good a promise made way back in Action Comics #242, (July 1958)) by enlarging Kandor, the Kryptonian city shrunken and placed in a glass bottle by the space villain Brainiac. At the Fortress of Solitude, Superman explains his plans to the people of Kandor via video signal:

The Kandorians are enthusiastic, with the notable exception of scientist Arn-Ul, who in a reference to the classic tale "Superman in Kandor" notes, "We have attempted to restore Kandor to normal before...and almost destroyed ourselves!" Personally, I think it would have worked better to make this character Than-Ol, the scientist from that earlier tale, but I admit it's kind of cool Wein called him "Arn-Ul" since he basically does a Gary Coleman impression in his scenes here ("What you talkin' bout, Superman?")

Superman agrees Arn-Ul has some valid concerns and decides to test the ray on himself before using it on Kandor. The problem is, in order to be enlarged he must first be shrunk, and by the same ray that shrank Kandor. That means finding a way to get Brainiac to shrink him. Superman constructs a "beeper" attuned to Brainiac's electronic brain waves, hoping the signal will bring the villain to him.

Now it's a waiting game, so Superman changes to Clark Kent and puts in an appearance at the Daily Planet offices just in time for an anniversary party for editor Perry White.

In a neat touch, the cake is shaped like a typewriter (Google it, kids) with candles for keys. I'm sure the names of the attendees are supposed to mean something to us, but today as 30 years ago I'm still mystified by some of them. Based on comic book tradition, we can at least make some guesses, however. "Meg Tempest", for example, would be either the office slut or a soap star on WGBS (or both). It's a sure bet "Percy Bratten" is the nebbishy guy with eyeglasses. "Dave Stevens" of course is the creator of The Rocketeer, but no one in the room resembles him.

Anyway, an atypically genial Morgan Edge presents everyone's favorite editor with a solid gold reproduction of the first story ever to carry his by-line:

It's a classy gesture, but there is a bit of a catch. You can't make it out in this panel, but I understand Perry's first published story ran under the headline, "Disgraced Cross-Dressing Scoutmaster Brutally Strangled With Own Pantyhose".

Suddenly the building starts shaking, and Clark knows Brainiac has taken the bait. He switches to Superman and battles the computer villain in the stratosphere. When Superman hurls a massive meteoroid at Brainy's saucer, the villain engages his shrinking ray to reduce the rock to harmless size. Instead, Superman smashes the meteoroid and takes the hit from the ray himself.

With Superman reduced to mosquito size, Brainiac tries to zap him a second time to reduce him "to absolute nothingness." In desperation, Supergirl fires back with the enlarging ray, causing the shrink ray to ricochet back at Brainiac and his ship. As he rapidly shrinks, Brainiac begs for his life, but Supergirl refuses to use the enlarging ray on him, saying there isn't enough energy left to save Superman, Kandor and the villain. Superman too asks Kara to intervene, but by now it's too late; Brainiac fades to nothingness.

Returning to the Fortress, and with all of Kandor watching on TV, Supergirl successfully enlarges Superman with the ray. That settled, the super-cousins offer to enlarge Kandor on Earth. "After all," as Superman says, "there isn't a nation that wouldn't welcome you with open arms!" (Guess he doesn't read Johns and Robinson, either). At this point, scientist, Superman-lookalike and one-time Nightwing alter ego Van-Zee pipes up to say no thanks: "One Superman and Supergirl is enough for any world." The Kandorians choose instead to colonize a pre-selected, large planet orbiting a red sun, like good old Krypton. Obligingly, Superman and Supergirl load Kandor aboard a spaceship and fly it to the chosen world, enlarging the city in a two-page spread.

This long-anticipated triumph for Superman is greeted with jubilation by the Kandorians, who give the super-cousins a heroes' welcome as they walk down the streets of the restored last city of Krypton. Kara enjoys a happy reunion with her parents Zor-El and Alura (late of Argo City but apparently relocated to Kandor in a story I must have missed), but the happiness ends when the city crumbles to dust around its inhabitants.

Too late, Superman realizes the enlarging ray works only on animate objects. Non-living structures, like Kandor's buildings, lose their molecular adhesion and fall apart. Superman is disconsolate, blaming himself for Kandor's destruction, and sourpuss scientist Arn-Ul is only too happy to agree, delivering a blistering tounge-lashing until Van-Zee tells him to shut up. This seeming reversal, says Van, may actually be the best thing that ever happened to Kandor:

Superman offers to stay and help build this new world, but Van-Zee responds by knocking him out. As he carries Superman to the spaceship, Van-Zee explains to Supergirl that the planet they've chosen is a "phase world" from another dimension, one which only appears in our universe during "a shift of the cosmic axis" and which will be fading away again in mere moments. He sends the cousins on their way, and our story ends.

Now, I'm not too big on the current "New Krypton" storyline in Superman comics, but I have to admit that almost any exploration of the repercussions of Kandor's enlargement would have to be more interesting than sticking them on a remote world and having that world disappear. For the life of me, I've never been able to think of a reason why Van-Zee and the other Kryptonians should want to remove themselves from Superman's dimension, except to make him more unique among Earthlings. And that of course is an editorial motive, not a character's motive.

In the book, The Krypton Companion, Wein himself admitted that enlarging and banishing Kandor closed more doors than it opened, saying "the idea of bottle city full of tiny people is a much cooler idea than what I left it as."

I remember being excited about this story back in 1978, when major, continuity-shaping events happened much more rarely than they do today, but even at the time I was disappointed with the ending. It was a miscalculation to think the desire of readers to see Kandor enlarged was based entirely on the visual spectacle of the process itself (even in a two-page spread by Curt Swan). What truly intrigued us about this giant, lingering "what if" were thoughts of what might happen AFTER the restoration. Where would you put thousands of Supermen and what would that mean for the original? Would they all be good guys? What would happen to the Justice League in a world where thousands of people outpowered them? Of course addressing those issues in anything but an "Imaginary Tale" would have meant changing the direction of the Super-books entirely, which was out of the question in 1979 (though it might have been cool -- and manageable -- to have a far-off world of supermen to visit every few months. If nothing else, it would have been easier to get super-enemies from there than breaking them out of the Phantom Zone all the time).

Maybe more importantly, the shrunken Kandor served as a living connection to Superman's alien heritage and a potential seed for Krypton's eventual rebirth. Its presence was at once a painful reminder that even his powers had limits and a refuge, a source of solace when his longing for lost Krypton became acute. In short, I liked it better in the bottle.

Anyway, somehow this story manages to enlarge Kandor and make it smaller at the same time.