If you’re looking to find the story of Seg-El in any Superman comics, you’re going to have a tough time. Superman’s grandfather has appeared in a handful of stories (where the name was spelled as Seyg-El), but never as a primary character, and certainly never as the potentially revolutionary force for change that he is on TV’s Krypton.
If anything, TV’s Seg-El has more in common with Van-L, the great, great grandfather of Superman, a Kryptonian noble who lost everything when the planet was wracked by a horrific civil war. You can find Van-L’s story, as well as the first appearance of Seg-El, in the pages of The World of Krypton by John Byrne and Mike Mignola. It’s a hell of a read, and elements of it have certainly found their way into SyFy’s Krypton, but it’s still not really a window into the story of the Seg-El who is played by Cameron Cuffe on TV.
Krypton tells us how the House of El fell, and how Superman’s grandfather fights his way through a deeply classist society, albeit one that is menaced by a time traveling alien foe and that we all know is doomed to extinction after another 200 years or so anyway. The series opens as the young Seg-El witnesses the public execution of his beloved grandfather, the scientist and explorer Val-El, guilty of believing there is other life in the universe. Val-El’s “crime” strips the El family of their name, their crest (the famed “S” symbol), and their status. I have more details on the culture of Krypton and the making of the show right here.
“When we find him in the story, a few years later, he’s rankless and proud,” Cameron Cuffe told us on the set of Krypton last year. “He’s a bit of a hustler. He’s a bit angry. He’s willing to do dishonorable things to get by. But he’s a bright kid with a good heart, who’s quick with his wits and his fists.”
In other words, Seg-El isn’t a superhero. And Krypton is a show that tells a science fiction story on an alien world at street level. While you can see flashes of the heroic destiny of the El line in Seg’s behavior and Cuffe’s performance, there’s still a long way to go.
“The interesting thing about Seg as a hero is that he’s not fully formed,” Cuffe says. “He doesn’t always know right from wrong. The only thing he really has in his life are people he loves. When he is finally motivated to come out of that shell, and to prove that he has to be a hero, it’s a role that he doesn’t really know he can fill. He doesn’t think he’s the guy. But he does it anyway, and that ultimately is what being a hero is.”
Detractors often (wrongly) point out that Superman is less interesting than other heroes, in part because he’s too polite, too quick to do the right thing and make the right choice. That isn’t going to be a problem with Seg-El.
“He’s a bright kid. He has a good heart. And he’s funny, and he’s roguish, and he’s charming, but he’s really angry,” Cuffe says. “He’s got a lot of rage and he’s really rash and he makes stupid, stupid decisions. But he’s willing to throw it all away for the people he loves and willing to sacrifice everything. Over the course of not just the season, but the whole show, you’re gonna see Seg learning from his mistakes, and paying the price for them.”
“I kind of feel like I wanna see Seg reach his potential,” showrunner and executive producer Cameron Welsh says. “We don’t want Seg to start out as the finished package. He’s meant to be unshaven and scruffy and when we first meet him he’s drunk in a bar fight, and he’s kind of a con artist, and we wanna see him grow into, you know, into somebody who’s worthy of wearing that ‘S’ on their chest.”
“One of Superman’s greatest powers is that he knows right from wrong, and Seg doesn’t,” Cuffe says. “Most of the time he has no idea what he’s doing. He’s just buckling down and holding onto it, and believing in whatever he can believe in, in that moment. And he waivers. He questions himself all the time. But ultimately he stays the course.”
One thing that is unique about Seg-El is that the actor who plays him is a genuine fan of the world he’s inhabiting. Not in the way that most actors love their characters or those who undertake parts in massive franchises claim to understand the responsibility of it all. Cameron Cuffe really, really knows his Superman lore, and he uses that to bring a particular point of view to his portrayal of Seg-El.
“I think that was one of the reasons why I’m so fortunate that I know this character. That when I see lines like, there’s always a choice. You know, that is Superman, down to his core. I got chills just saying that now. It’s awesome. But that’s the thing. I think that actually at their core, in their nature, they are very similar. They are very similar people. That there’s this drive. And they will never, ever quit. And they always believe in the best in their friends. And they believe in a world that is fair, and just, and truthful.”
“Clark Kent had the benefit of growing up in Smallville with Ma and Pa Kent who taught him that you have these incredible gifts, you have a responsibility to share them with the world,” Cuffe says. “Seg grows up on the bottom rung of an authoritarian society that’s leaning towards fascism and theocracy. Where it’s step out of line even a tiny bit, is rebellion. So that informs who he is, and it makes him angrier and more rash. So there are definitely those moments of his nature that he’s a deeply good person, who believes in those ideals of truth and justice, but they feel very far off in this world.”
So the seeds of Superman’s heroism are indeed present in the El family line, even 200 years in the past. But there’s still a long way to go. Cameron Welsh has a vision for Seg as a revolutionary, who will “usher in a new golden age” for Krypton. “If we think about Krypton as being where Superman comes from, the ideals of this planet are sort of baked into his DNA,” he says. “[but] if Superman was born right now and went to Earth, what’s inside him probably wouldn’t lead him to become the hero he is today. It’s kind of like Seg’s duty in some way to help shape a new Krypton that is more conducive of producing the greatest hero of all time.”