A Brief History of Superman’s Phantom Zone Villains
General Zod is the big villain in the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, but he's part of a legacy of villainy that stretches back more than half a century. Kneel before our history of Zod and friends in comics, animation, and live-action!
In the classic 1950 Columbia Superman serial, Atom Man vs. Superman, Lex Luthor, played by Lyle Talbot, traps the Last Son of Krypton, played by the great Kirk Alyn, in another dimension called “The Empty Doom.” It was a fun piece of serial melodrama, just another inescapable trap to get audiences back into the theater next week to see how their hero could escape the impossible. Though history never has confirmed it, many assume that “The Empty Doom,” would serve as the inspiration for the Phantom Zone in the pages of Adventure Comics eleven years later.From that first appearance in Adventure Comics #283, published in 1961, the Phantom Zone, and the criminals contained within, would plague Superman and his extended family of characters for generations to come, in the pages of DC Comics, on television, and on the silver screen. It allowed for other Kryptonians to exist beyond the destruction of their home world and showed fans what would happen if Superman’s amazing powers were wielded by someone not as altruistic. By allowing fans to see the despots, criminals, and tyrants wielding those amazing powers, the Phantom Zone shined a beacon on Superman’s selflessness and heroism. After all, he could be like those within the ghost prison, but he chooses to be like us. Now, with the release of Man of Steel, DC and Warner Brothers are hoping that a new generation of Phantom Zone villains will propel this new film into the same financial success they’ve only experienced through their Dark Knight franchiseWhen the majority of fans think of the Phantom Zone they, of course, think of Superman II and the villainy of Non (played by an imposing Jack O’Halloran), Ursa (the wickedly lovely Sarah Douglas), and General Zod (magnificently portrayed by Terence Stamp). Superman II remains a beloved piece of cinema that may seem a little goofy by today’s standards, but still pushes all the right buttons, especially Stamp’s signature cold stare and his immortal line “Kneel Before Zod!” Superman II solidified the Phantom Zone criminals forever in the minds of Superman fans, but the origins of Zod, his crew, and a myriad other Phantom evildoers began long before Richard Donner’s cameras began rolling. Since the Phantom Zone’s first mention in 1961’s Adventure Comics #283, the Phantom Zone criminals have been a staple threat for Superman, Supergirl, Superboy, and the entire DC Universe. The endless ghost dimension provided creators opportunities to create new and imaginative forms of evil just on the other side of reality. Some of the more memorable super criminals were:Jax-Ur, created by Otto Binder and George Papp in Adventure Comics #289 (curious that the early Phantom Zone stories took place in Superboy not Superman), played perfectly into Nuclear Age paranoia as he was exiled to the Zone for hoarding a nuclear arsenal and destroying an inhabited moon of Krypton. For years, Jax-Ur (who resembled a pudgier mustachioed Lex Luthor) was portrayed as the de facto leader of the Phantom Zone criminals. He made an appearance in Superman: The Animated Series voiced by Ron Perlman, though he acted more like Zod than the Jax-Ur portrayed in the comics. Jax-Ur often declared himself the worst criminal in Krypton’s history and gleefully bedeviled Superboy and Superman for decades. Jax-Ur shows up in Man of Steel played by Mackenzie Gray. One of the coolest uses of Jax-Ur was in Alan Moore’s immortal story “For the Man Who Has Everything,” as he was used as a symbol and martyr for the anti-Phantom Zone protestors during Superman’s Black Mercy induced Krypton dream.Faora Hu-Ul, created by Curt Swan in Action Comics #471 (1977). Superman: The Movie’s Ursa was pretty much a stand in for Faora, a genocidal serial killer of men who mastered a Kryptonian form of lethal martial arts in order to carry out her killing spree. Faora was often paired with Jax-Ur and Zod, ingraining the idea of a male/female Phantom Zone trio into the popular consciousness. Faora returned in Geoff Johns’ and Richard Donner’s Phantom Zone storyline (currently collected in the Last Son of Krypton graphic novel) as one of the “Hounds of Zod” with her beloved Kru-El. Faora supplants Ursa and finally makes her cinematic debut in Man of Steel played by Antje Traue.Nam-Ek, created by Marty Pasko and Ernie Chan in the Supergirl back-up in Superman #282 (1974). Nam-Ek was imprisoned for experimenting on the sacred Kryptonian animal, the Rondor. Nam-Ek tried to create an immortality formula from the Rondor horn but ended up turning into a purple-horned monstrosity himself. Other Phantom Zone villains include Kru-El, Superman’s villainous cousin. Ak-Var, a petty criminal imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Upon his release from the Zone, Ak-Var became the Kandorian vigilante, Flamebird. Doctor Xadu, a murderous physician. Jer-Em, a religious zealot and the man responsible for destroying Supergirl’s home, Argo City, and who died exposing himself to Kryptonite so he could achieve salvation in the 80s Steve Gerber Phantom Zone mini-series. Lar-On, a Kryptonian werewolf (because comics are awesome), Nadira and Az-Rel, two more petty criminals introduced by Steve Gerber who ransacked Earth during a series of thrill-seeking spree crimes, Zora Vi-Lar, who took up the identity of the Black Flame until she was defeated by Supergirl, and of course General Dru-Zod himself.While initially not the main Kryptonian villain, that honor would go to Jax-Ur, thanks to Terence Stamp’s portrayal and Richard Donner’s creative direction, Zod has become one of the greatest Superman villains in history. Since Superman II Zod has had surprisingly few comic appearances.In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths and John Byrne’s 1986 reboot of the Superman mythos (coincidentally titled Man of Steel), DC decided that Superman should be the only living Kryptonian. While fans were clamoring for Zod, DC stuck to their guns, introducing the Phantom Zone criminals as part of artificial pocket universe (because comics are confusing). In Adventures of Superman #444 (1988) by John Byrne and Jerry Ordway. Superman discovered this pocket universe, which once contained the classic Superboy, was destroyed by Zod, Quex-Ul, and Faora. To keep the trio from finding his reality, Superman murdered the trio with Kryptonite, sparking off one of the most controversial Superman storylines of the 80s and 90s. It was an intense story, fraught with drama, but it removed Zod from the playing field. If fans wanted to see the real Zod, they would have to wait awhile.The return of the real Kryptonian Zod was still many years way, but there was a demand for the character, and DC tried to meet it with a number of faux-Zods, the first appearing in 2001s “Return to Krypton” storyline by Jeff Loeb, Joe Casey, and Joe Kelly. This Zod was part of an artificial Krypton created by Brainiac 13. His appearance was vastly different from the goateed hellion fans were clamoring for and, while he still displayed the arrogant fascist tendencies of classic Zod, the villain quickly faded into semi-obscurity.An unexpected Zod was introduced by Joe Kelly and Duncan Rouleau in Action Comics #779 and was, of all things, the son of two Russian cosmonauts who were exposed to a radioactive meteor shower. The mother died while giving birth to her son, Zed, and the father was left horribly mutated. Zed grew up obsessed with the alien Superman. Zed believed Superman’s ship that brought him to Earth was part of the same meteor shower that killed his parents. Zed is mentally contacted by the Zod of Braniac 13’s dimension, and the disturbed Russian takes Zod’s name. Russian Zod even finds his own Faora in the form of a Russian meta-human madwoman. The story was complex and well crafted, but an armored Russian of tragic origins was not the Zod fans wanted and he too quickly faded into the Phantom Zone of continuity.The next Zod was introduced in the “For Tomorrow” storyline by Jim Lee and Brian Azzarello. This Zod was from an alternate Phantom Zone and appeared to be a bald old man beneath spiked black armor. Zod disappeared after Azzarello and Lee departed leaving a void for fans who were clamoring to hear the word “KNEEL!” again. This void was soon filled by Geoff Johns and the man who first brought Zod to prominence, Richard Donner. With Johns, Donner, and Kubert’s “Last Son of Krypton,” fans finally had a General Zod that they recognized! He was an exile from Krypton, not from a pocket dimension or alternate reality, but the actual Krypton. As a bonus, this Zod had Ursa and Non in tow and swore to turn Superman’s adopted home of Earth into a New Krypton. The “New Krypton” storyline served as a modern amalgamation of all previous Phantom Zone tales. Appearing with the three famous movie villains were older Zoners Jax-Ur and Val-tay. Johns, Donner, and friends ably combined the film legacy of the Phantom Zone villains with the comic legacy started by Papp and Binder.What was awesome about this storyline was the fact that it not only crafted a definitive origin for Zod by Richard Donner, the man who made him famous, but also for Ursa and Non. Ursa was no longer interchangeable with Faora, but was her own character, and Non was revealed to be Jor-El’s mentor, who had been lobotomized for daring to confront the Kryptonian government about Krypton’s impending destruction. After Non was lobotomized because of his suspected insurrection, the trio rebel against Krypton and are exiled. Non was no longer the grunting heavy from Superman II, but a sympathetic victim of a corrupt regime. Zod keeps him around not as a minion but as a reminder of the man Non once was. Fans saw Last Son of Krypton as one of the greatest Superman stories of the new century, one that finally returned Zod to the glory fans have been clamoring for since Terence Stamp demanded Christopher Reeve KNEEL.It seemed Zod was back for good, as he became a recurring supporting character for Superman and Supergirl. That is, until the DC Universe rebooted a few years later. In the New 52, there have been a few mentions of the Phantom Zone, but Zod and company have yet to return. One would think with Zod’s cinematic return, this will soon change.Comics and film are not the only places Zod and the other villains of the Zone have been featured. In 1978, the Super Friends episode “Terror of the Phantom Zone.” features the escape of the three Zone villains, Hul, Logar, and Ram-Luk, while the Super Friends themselves are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. The episode marked the first time the Phantom Zone criminals were used outside the comics. The three animated Zoners would return to the Super Friends in the 1983 “lost episode” “Return of the Phantoms,” in which the three bad apples travel back in time to take out Superboy before he can become Superman. Superman and Green Lantern travel back to stop the Phantoms’ nefarious plan (and I would actually read the hell out of a comic with the same plot).The first appearance of an animated General Zod would appear in the 1988 Ruby-Spears Superman series. In an episode entitled “The Hunter,” Zod is seen briefly with Ursa and Faora in the Zone.The legendary Superman: The Animated Series foreshadows the Zone in its premiere episode, “Last Son of Krypton,” when Jor-El begs the council to use the Phantom Zone to help Krypton’s populace survive the coming destruction. In “Blast From the Past,” Superman frees Mala, another Ursa lookalike, from the Zone only to discover she is power hungry and malicious. Mala frees a version of Jax-Ur who is almost identical to Zod, until Superman exiles them into a black hole.In the fifth season of Smallville, Clark battles Nam-Ek and Aethyr, two evil Kryptonians who call themselves the Disciples of Zod, and no, Nam-Ek does not have a horn. A complex series of Phantom Zone stories follows which features a Zod able to possess people, a real Zod, and a clone Zod. The show even sees Clark and Oliver Queen sending Deathstroke into the Zone. A Smallville version of Faora also makes an appearance as she possesses Lois. Smallville took the Phantom aspect of the characters pretty literally to various degrees of effect.The Phantom Zone and its inhabitants also had memorable mentions in Family Guy, American Dad, and South Park, with South Park featuring a fetus-eating Christopher Reeve exiled to the Zone for his crimes. All this shows that the Phantom Zone is engrained in the minds of comic loyalists and casual fans alike. As DC and WB are banking on Man of Steel to make DC films viable beyond the world of Batman, it will be following a legacy of villainy that has entertained fans for half a century.Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!