Once upon a time, there was only green kryptonite. This is type that even those cursed to go through life as non-comic book geeks know about. When the planet Krypton exploded, chunks of it were infused with a radiation deadly to anyone from that planet. When exposed to it, Superman (or Supergirl or Krypto or any other Krytonian) will grow weak and eventually die.
The first appearance of green K actually wasn't in the comics, but in the excellent 1940s The Adventures of Superman radio show. In that version of Superman's universe, kryptonite left him weak and helpless, but didn't actually kill him. On at least two occasions, bad guys used green K to render the Man of Steel helpless, then kept him locked away with the intention of starving him to death. It was an effective storytelling ploy that served twin purposes. First, it made for an extended cliffhanger that could last for multiple episodes.
Second, it gave actor Bud Collyer (the first actor to give Superman a voice) a chance for some time off. While Superman was in a kryptonite-induced coma, Collyer could take a vacation. Other characters--most notably Batman and Robin--would take over as lead hero until Superman escaped or was rescued.
Perhaps the most fun the writers of the radio serial had was from a 1947 story arc in which long-term exposure to green K left Superman with amnesia. After he got away from the villain, he joined a minor league baseball team. His amazing fastball and his tendency to hit a home run every single time he batted soon got him brought up to the majors. (This story was adapted by writer Bill Finger for the comics in Superman 77--August 1952.)
But Mort Weisinger wanted to have even more fun with kryptonite. So during the late 1950s and early 1960s, different colors of the element began popping up--each of which has a different effect on Kryptonians.
The most famous of these is probably Red K, created when a swarm of Green K meteors passed through a strange cosmic cloud. Red K can be a fun storytelling device, or a silly storytelling device, or a just plain dumb storytelling device. This is because every time a Kryptonian is exposed to a specific chunk of it, it'll have a temporary but unpredictable effect that is completely different from other Red K chunks. It once turned Superman into a baby. On another occasion, it turned him into an old man. It's also turned him into a kryptonian dragon, made him fat and bald, given him amnesia, took away his invulnerability on the left half of his body, made him evil, created an evil twin, made his hair grow, turned him into a giant, and gave him the head of a ant. And that's only a partial list.
With that much variety, it's no wonder Red K stories were so varied in their overall quality. Red K could be the Macguffin for a strong story--or it could be a crutch for telling a really bad story.
Gold K is created when Green or Red K is exposed to certain types of radiation--it can then permanently take away a Kryptonian's powers.
Blue K is created by zapping Green K with the same imperfect duplicator ray that created Bizarro Superman. If you have no idea what that means, be patient. We'll get to Bizarro. Anyway, Blue K is deadly to any Bizarro, whether he/she is a duplicate of a Kryptonian or a Earthman.
Jewel K was artificially created by a Phantom Zone criminal--we'll take a look at this more closely in a future entry, when we talk about the Phantom Zone.
White K was formed when yet another batch of Green K flew through a space cloud. That seems to happen a lot. White K kills all plant life. Supergirl once used it to stop some alien plants from overrunning Earth, but it's not something that writers--no matter how imaginative--are going to use very often. I'm not aware of more than two White K appearances during the Silver Age.
I'm not going to review a specific story this time, since we'll be running into kryptonite several times in upcoming entries.
Was kryptonite a good idea? Yes, it was--each type of the stuff contained potentially strong storytelling fodder.
But I would also agree that it was often overused. There were times during the Silver Age when it seemed like every thief, thug and mugger had a chunk of Green K in his pocket. It was something that even great writers like Hamilton, Binder or Siegel would sometimes use as a crutch. These were imaginative men and I have unending respect for their collective ability to wrap the internal logic of Superman's universe into entertaining stories. But they had to write an awful lot of stuff--it's not surprising that kryptonite became their quick "go-to" method for getting the Man of Steel in some sort of trouble.
But at the same time, I wouldn't want to live in a world that didn't have a rainbow spectrum of kryptonite stories to choose from. So I guess I shouldn't complain.
In a few weeks, we'll begin a series of posts on Superman's Rogue's Gallery. One would expect this would start out with a certain bald mad scientist, but he'll actually be second. Since we've already looked at Brainiac's first appearance when we covered the bottle city of Kandor, we'll begin with him. Though the story we'll be looking at does involve Lex as well, so hopefully this decision won't put me on Luthor's enemies list.
You don't want to be on Luthor's enemies list. It would take up an awful lot of your time.