1. General feeling of weakness
Back in the good old days, when all kinds of color-coded kryptonite was lying around ready to muck up whatever plans Superman had that weekend, red kryptonite was definitely the weirdest variation. While other remnants of Superman’s home planet generally made him feel weak in the knees or took away his powers, Red K could always be counted on to cause bizarre behaviors and transformations in our leading man. Except in the very beginning; in its first appearance, in 1958’s Adventure Comics #252, Red K only weakened our hero, just like Green K. Trust me when I say that wouldn’t last long.
2. Loss of super-powers
In “Superman Duels the Futuremen” (Superman #128, 04/59), Earth Bureau of Investigation agents from the year 2000 (the fuuuuu-ture!) arrive in 1959 claiming Superman is an escaped criminal from their time; they then expose him to Red K to take away his powers for a few hours. Which doesn’t really explain how they expected to keep him incarcerated after the Red K effect wears off and he’s back to full power, but hey, we’re not writing Shakespeare here.
What’s worse than losing your powers? How about losing your memory? In “The Week That Clark Kent Lost His Memory” (Adventure Comics #268, 01/60), Red K makes Superboy lose his memory and leaves him stranded far from home after — and I am not kidding here — he falls into a circus cannon that fires and sends him sailing out to sea. And if you thought that was ludicrous, Clark falls prey to the Red K after a boy tosses his “lucky stone” at an ostrich that swallows it just before Clark walks by. So… pieces of an ancient planet billions of miles from Earth are now ending up in kids’ rock collections? Boy, that must make Superman feel secure.
4. Amnesia and loss of super-powers
In 1963’s “The Sweetheart That Superman Forgot,” Superman loses his powers and his memory, and ends up working as a farmhand named Jim White. He meets and romances Sally Selwyn, but a fellow suitor by the name of Bart Benson wants Sally for himself and knocks “Jim” into a river, where he’s later saved by… oh, let’s say Aquaman and Lori Lemaris. Superman regains his powers and memory, but he doesn’t retain any memories from his time as Jim White. Given the way he treated Lois Lane and Lana Lang back in those days, I’d say Sally dodged a bullet.
5. Complete Paralysis
1960’s “The Impossible Mission” finds Superboy, after attending a local re-enactment of the Gettysburg Address, inspired to travel back in time to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Because heck, what’s the point of having nigh-omnipotent powers if you don’t monkey around with history without the slightest bit of concern for the repercussions? But our time-travelling teen is startled to find an adult Lex Luthor cooling his heels in 1865 after escaping from Superman in a future that’s yet to happen for Superboy. Got that? Long story short, Luthor hauls out a piece of Red K he just happened to be carrying around for just these kinds of situations, which renders Superboy completely immobile right about the time John Wilkes Booth shows up. Luthor is genuinely horrified by what he’s done, because he realizes Superboy was there to save Lincoln and now “Lincoln’s blood is on [his] hands…!” Um… but you can both travel back in time, right? What, there’s no such thing as a do-over in the DC universe?
6. Vivid dreams and nightmares
Sometimes the effects of Red K don’t hit Superman until he’s getting a good night’s rest, because that’s exactly what you want to see: someone with Superman’s powers having nightmares that might cause him to respond involuntarily in his sleep (rest easy, people living in the apartments next to Clark’s). It happened in 1962, when a group of aliens exposed him to Red K in “The Jury of Super-Enemies,” and it happened again in 1966 when Superman-in-Batman’s body (don’t ask) is exposed to Red K and ends up having weird dreams about Batman’s villains. Hmmm, a guest appearance by Batman… and cameo appearances by various Bat-villains… in a story that appeared in the fall of 1966… gee, I wonder what popular television program at the time inspired that particular acid trip?
7. Loss of vulnerability to Green K, vulnerable to everything else
How’s this for a classic switcheroo? In 1962’s “The New Superman,” a dose of Red K makes Superman able to withstand the radioactive rays of Green K. The downside? He’s now vulnerable to everything else. Which of course turns him into a big weenie, because it’s not as if us poor normal folks can’t go a whole day without a deadly encounter with an escalator or can opener.
8. Loss of invulnerability on just his left side
Oh, come on. How is that even physiologically possible? In 1962’s “Half a Superman,” Red K particles in a comet cause Superman’s left side, and Krypto’s right side, to become vulnerable, so they both have to be extra-careful when they’re performing their super-feats. (The option of just chilling in their Fortress for the 48 hours it takes for Red K effects to wear off apparently doesn’t occur to either of them.) Trouble is, this awkward predicament happens on a day when Lois is once again out to prove Superman is really Clark Kent — which in the ’60s was also known as “any day ending in Y.”
9. Loss of invulnerability to just one part of his body
In 1966’s “Superman’s Achilles’ Heel,” the Man of Steel resorts to wearing a steel box on his right hand after Red K gives him a vulnerable Achilles’ heel… which of course he advertises to the world via a press conference. Seriously, man. Put a PlayStation and hi-def TV in your fortress and just chill out, already. The world will survive if you take a break.
10. Jealousy, general insanity
A recap of 1965’s “The Jealous Clark Kent,” courtesy of the Grand Comics Database: “Superboy is exposed to red kryptonite which causes him to create a life-size puppet of himself. As Clark Kent, he berates the Superboy puppet and tells it to mess up various rescues so that people will like Clark better than Superboy.” I bet Clark used the Red K excuse a lot when he was in high school.
11. Hair, beard, nails start growing uncontrollably
In 1960’s “The Untold Story of Red Kryptonite,” Superman has no choice but to expose himself to a fragment of Red K when a bathyscaphe (that’s a deep-sea submersible for you landlubbers) needs a rescue from the bottom of the ocean. After remembering some of Red K’s greatest hits, he goes back to Metropolis to find his hair, beard and fingernails have all grown out, leaving him looking like a hippie in desperate need of a manicure. A bit on the non-life-threatening side, perhaps, but (gasp!) how will he explain this when he shows up for work the next day? And on the same day he invited his boss, church minister and disapproving great-aunt home for dinner!
12. Splitting into two separate beings
Long before Superman III used the idea, Superman’s writers used Red K as a handy excuse for stories in which Superman’s greatest enemy is literally himself. It happened in 1958, when a Martian uses Red K to split Superboy and Clark into two people… then again in 1962, when Red K causes Clark and Superman to split into two separate beings and Superman tries to prevent them from being reunited after the Red K wears off… then again in 1963, when Red K once again splits Clark and Superman into two people, and an evil Superman demands the world bow down to him while Clark forms an underground movement to overthrow his evil “brother.” But for my money, the best of these split-up stories is a 1959 tale in which exposure to Red K seemingly causes Superman and Superboy to exist at the same time, and Luthor takes advantage of the situation by trapping Superboy and forcing Superman to choose between Lois and Lana. Don’t ask me why Luthor cared enough to find out who Superman loved more; just enjoy the fact he did.
13. Drastic changes in size and shape
One 1965 Superman story found our Red K-tainted leading man turned into a giant without super-powers just when he has to stop aliens from stealing Earth’s iron, but never mind that. Five years earlier, in Adventure Comics #270, there appeared what might be the greatest Superboy story of all time. Ma and Pa Kent are just chillin’ at home one night when — voop! — they’re kidnapped by aliens via transporter ray. Of course, these aliens don’t know they’re messing with Superboy’s adoptive parents; they were in the market for a nice couple from the American heartland to impersonate and they just happened to pick the two people who tuck Superboy into bed every night. So of course Ma Kent stupidly mentions her boy’s one weakness, and the aliens use Red K to turn Superboy into a fat Boy of Steel, a giant Boy of Steel and a bullet-sized Boy of Steel. Why? Who cares? Just sit back and let the insanity unfold.
14. Transformation into infant with mind of an adult
What I love about this cover for 1962’s Action Comics #284 is how shocked the police officer looks. He’s got a flying kid who’s smashing his desk to smithereens right in front of him, and somehow his mind can’t accept the fact this kid might be Superman. You know, the same guy who holds a press conference every other Tuesday to announce whatever wacky transformation is happening to him at that time. “Superman, in a child’s body? Utterly preposterous! Now, if there were two Supermen here, or a giant one, or one who looked like a pink panda in heat, that I could believe. Now run along, sonny, before I call your mother.”
15. Transformation into a monkey
Yeah, you had to know this one was coming.
16. “Mood ring” face
You know how we sometimes describe people as turning yellow, or growing purple with rage, or being green with envy? Well, in 1964’s “Superman’s Rainbow Face,” Red K causes our Man of Steel’s emotional state to literally be reflected in the color of his face, which means (all together now) he has to keep Lois from figuring out that Clark and Superman are the same person. Girl needed a hobby.
17. Stealing things that begin with “S” and giving them to the poor
1965’s “The Strange ‘S’ Spell on Superman!” finds our hero compelled to steal things beginning with the letter “S” and give them to the poor. And when a bunch of gangsters figure this out, they order him to fetch something that reveals the Secret of his identity. Which… I guess is valuable? Wait a minute — “something” begins with S. You could literally ask Superman to fetch you something and he could get you anything you wanted! This is totally better than the wishing-for-more-wishes loophole!
18. Transformation into flying Kryptonian beast
In “The Monster from Krypton,” Superman takes on the shape and size of a giant snake-like flying Kryptonian monster known as a drang. Which makes absolutely zero sense scientifically, unless we’re supposed to believe Kryptonian people and these drangs shared similar DNA patterns. You know, I’m starting to think the writers of these stories just made up whatever they felt like writing.
19. Growing giant ant head, antennae
This one just annoys me. The whole point of Red K as a plot device is that it’s unpredictable, and that Superman can never know what kind of effect it will have on him when he’s exposed to it. But in “The Invasion of the Super-Ants,” Superman deliberately uses Red K to grow ant appendages, which allows him to communicate with giant ants that invade Metropolis and kidnapped Lois Lane. Turns out all they wanted to do was warn us humans of the dangers of atomic war, which destroyed their homeworld. Um… thanks?
20. Gaining the ability to make his wishes come true
A 1961 story finds Superman battling shape-changing Durlans from the 30th century who come to the fight armed with both red and green kryptonite. A decent plan for dealing with Superman, perhaps, except for the fact the Red K grants Superman the power to read minds, shoot fire from his mouth and make his wishes come true — three attributes that don’t exactly work to his opponents’ advantage. And while it’s nice to see Superman get something good out of all his exposure to Red K, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how a rock that usually causes changes to Superman’s physical and mental state suddenly has the power to magically alter the laws of probability in his favor. What, was Mr. Mxyzptlk on strike that month?