Kneel Before the Many Incarnations of Zod

Thu, June 27th, 2013 at 1:58pm PDT | Updated: June 27th, 2013 at 3:32pm

Comic Books
Alan Kistler, Guest Contributor

Created over fifty years ago by Robert Bernstein and George Papp, General Dru-Zod began his existence as but one of several Kryptonian villains (and by no means the first) introduced in order to give Superman, the Last Son of Krypton, a formidable opponent. Thanks in large part to director Richard Donner's live-action film adaptations, Zod has grown to become a far more mythic figure in the Man of Steel's legend, becoming his opposite number and nearly his equal. If Superman is what we hope an alien visitor would be, Zod embodies our nightmares of what could happen otherwise, a near-invincible tyrant who declares that we must either kneel or die.

Fresh off his appearance in Warner Bros.' blockbuster "Man of Steel" feature film, and in advance of September's "Action Comics" #23.2, the Villains Month one-shot that introduces Zod to DC Comics' New 52, Comic Book Resources looks at the evolution of the villain and his many incarnations that have plagued Superman throughout comics, film and television.

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THE SILVER AGE ZOD

In 1961, "Adventure Comics" #283 featured a Bernstein and Papp story called "The Phantom Superboy," in which teenage Clark Kent discovers lost items from Krypton, including a "Phantom Zone projector." The Phantom Zone, discovered by Clark's Kryptonian father Jor-El, is a strange "twilight dimension" out of synch with reality and used by the anti-capital punishment Kryptonians to house their worst criminals. Once imprisoned, they become ageless, intangible spirits who can perceive reality but not interact with it.

The story spoke of two criminals exiled to the Phantom Zone long ago: Dr. Xadu (nowadays called Xa-Du) and General Dru-Zod, former Military Director of the Kryptonian Space Center. Zod had built an army of imperfect clones of himself and used them in an attempted military coup. When he discovered Zod's sentence was up, Clark released him from the Phantom Zone, willing to accept that the man had served his time. Unfortunately, the General sought to conquer Earth and Superboy sent him back to his extra-dimensional prison.

Over the years, Zod would occasionally escape the Phantom Zone with other criminals, sometimes acting as leader to other prisoners including martial arts expert Faora Hu-Ul, scientist Jax-Ur and hunter Quex-Ul. Later stories expanded Dru-Zod's backstory, tying his earlier years to Jor-El's beginnings as a scientist, and other flashbacks even had General Zod recommend Jor-El for a career in the space program, saying, "A young man with your talents can make quite a name for himself in rocketry!" After the Kryptonian space program is scuttled following a disastrous weapons test, Zod decides he is better suited to rule Krypton than its current leaders and leading to his failed coup.

FILM ADAPTATION

Zod's popularity soared when he appeared in "Superman: The Movie" in 1978 and "Superman II" in 1980. In this version of events, Zod (played by Terrence Stamp) attempts to overthrow Krypton's government not with an army of duplicates but with two military followers at this side: Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the mute thug Non (Jack O'Halloran).

In the films, Kryptonian society only exiles criminals to the Phantom Zone by unanimous vote. With Jor-El the final vote on the Council, Zod holds him alone responsible for his exile, swearing vengeance on the entire House of El. In "Superman II," the trio of villains is released from the Phantom Zone, leading to the first super hero vs. super villain battle in a live-action feature film.

Those who only saw the theatrical release of "Superman II" will recall Zod as a boastful and over-the-top villain, regularly proclaiming his superiority. In the Richard Donner director's cut of the film, later released directly to DVD, Zod is still arrogant and boastful, but noticeably colder and quieter in his delivery. In both instances, the general public now saw the character as one of Superman's arch-enemies, equal to Lex Luthor and outshining the villain Brainiac, who at that point had never appeared in live-action media. Although it would be decades before Zod was seen in another live-adaptation of Superman, pop culture never forgot the phrase "Kneel before Zod!"

FROM CONQUEROR TO GENOCIDAL MANIAC

In 1986, DC Comics rebooted much of its continuity and history following a crossover event called "Crisis on Infinite Earths." Following the reboot Superman was became the sole survivor of Krypton, which also meant there were no criminals from his home planet sentenced to exile in another dimension. The main force behind defining the post-Crisis Superman was writer John Byrne and his last story as regular writer utilized a loophole to bring back several Phantom Zone villains.

The 1988 story "The Supergirl Saga" sees the Man of Steel journey to a "pocket universe" where an alternate Krypton exists and resembles the pre-Crisis version. Following the death of this reality's Clark Kent, the pocket universe version of Lex Luthor learned about the Phantom Zone and released three inmates: Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora (who is identical in appearance to Faora Hu-Ul).

After destroying the technology that can send them back into the Zone, the three Kryptonian villains decide to destroy Earth and end the human race. Superman joins with the few human survivors of this Earth but cannot defeat the villains, each of whom is more powerful than he. Finally, before he dies along with the last of his people, Luthor reveals to Superman that he has hidden nearby samples of kryptonite. Bizarrely, he says hubris convinced him not to use the radioactive ore before, despite the death toll having reached into the billions. Because Superman's biology is tied to a different universe, the kryptonite samples will only affect the Phantom Zone villains.

Superman uses gold kryptonite to rob the three mass murderers of their powers, permanently destroying their ability to process the radiation of a yellow sun. The depowered villains swear vengeance against Superman and his universe, but with their death toll having already reached into the billions Superman exposes Zod and his followers to deadly green kryptonite, ignoring their pleas as they die before him. Though the use of lethal force haunted Superman and led to a mental break and subsequent soul searching mission through outer space, the decision remains a controversial one with fans. Many later writers have flirted with a similar decision for Superman, teasing killing as a necessary solution to a problem only to counter it with Clark finding an alternative, often merciful or redemptive option.

ANIMATED ZOD

Zod didn't appear in the famous "Super Friends" cartoon series, but a Kryptonian villain resembling Terrence Stamp named Zy-Kree did wreak havoc in 1981's "The Evil from Krypton." A version of Zod appeared in the cartoon series "Superman" in 1988, voiced by René Auberjonois.

Zod didn't appear in the live-action programs "The Adventures of Superboy" or "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman." Nor did he appear in the 1990s "Superman: The Animated Series," though there were episodes featuring the Phantom Zone criminals Jax-Ur and Mala. In this version, elements of Zod's backstory and personality were given to Jax-Ur.

In 1997, Zod appeared in "Superman Adventures" #21, a comic by Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer and Brett Blevins that echoed the style and continuity of the '90s animated series. This General Zod resembled Terrence Stamp and was a boastful, notorious criminal from Argo City, known as the "Merchant of Death" and the "Butcher of Argo." The comic featured Supergirl as the protagonist rather than Superman and this Zod finally fought Superman in his second and final appearance in 2007's "Justice League Unlimited" #34 by James Peaty and Gordon Purcell.

In 2006, the episode "Phantoms" of the animated series "Legion of Super-Heroes" animated series featured Drax, a super-powered boy from the Phantom Zone. Drax was voiced by actor Greg Ellis and wore Zod's seal from "Return to Krypton" and "Smallville," implying a family connection. Though Zod was seen among the Zone's prisoners, he didn't leave or directly fight any heroes.

THE MAN IN RED

In 2001's "Superman" #166 by writer Jeph Loeb, Clark discovered he could travel to the past via the Phantom Zone and visit a version of Krypton very similar to its pre-Crisis version. This led to a storyline called "Return to Krypton" where Clark and Lois journey back in time, encountering Jor-El, Clark's mother Lara, and the corrupt General Dru-Zod (who now had his own Kryptonian seal). Zod's plans backfire and he swears revenge before seemingly being disintegrated.

Around the same time, a new villain called the General was introduced, a man in red and black armor who took over the fictional Eastern European country of Pokolistan. After infecting the Man of Steel with kryptonite-based cancer, the General sent soldiers after the hero, one of whom was a woman named Faora. When he finally attacked Superman himself, the General displayed strength on par with Superman's and even broke the hero's jaw. In a moment of anger during their next battle, the General declared that the Man of Steel would "Kneel before Zod!", leading many readers to assume this armored General was in fact Zod, and that he had somehow saved his fellow Kryptonian villain Faora Hu-Ul.

Loeb left as writer of the series before the story was resolved, but his friend and "Action Comics" scribe Joe Kelley later revealed the Krypton Lois and Clark visited was merely a ruse. The General was actually a man named Avruiskin who was born on a space station and whose parents were killed by kryptonite meteors in the wake of Superman's rocket when he traveled to Earth decades earlier. Survivors including the young Avruiskin were mutated and given powers similar to Superman's as a result of exposure to kryptonite.

Avruiskin heard a voice while growing up, a voice that called itself Zod, and he grew to hate Superman. With armor that empowered him with red solar rays and protected him from yellow sunlight which diminished his powers, the General modeled himself after Zod and even had his face altered so he was identical to Superman. Despite his best efforts, the General failed to destroy Superman and died in the process, with only the Man of Steel taking the time to mourn him.

THE DEVIL YOU SAY

In 2003, Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan presented a new version of Superman's origin and early days in "Superman: Birthright." Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee then followed some of these ideas in the yearlong story "For Tomorrow." According to Azzarello, Jor-El didn't discover the Phantom Zone but actually built it to imprison his mortal enemy: General Zod, who considers himself "Krypton's greatest visionary and its greatest threat."

"For Tomorrow" involved the Man of Tomorrow redefining the Phantom Zone, creating a safe haven within it known as Metrotopia. Zod takes great offense to this, having grown accustomed to the Hellish prison that had been his only home for decades, leading him to build an empire within Metropia in an attempt to destroy the son of his jailer. In a story rife with religious symbolism, this Zod, complete with horned armor, becomes the Devil who threatens Superman's paradise.

Though he plays a pivotal role, Zod's appearance in "For Tomorrow" is relatively brief. As their battle destroys the reality around them, Zod is headed into the depths of the Phantom Zone, possibly to be lost forever. Superman offers to save his enemy, but Zod refuses. In this way, the villain becomes a reminder of why Krypton's society met its end, despite Jor-El's warnings: "What doesn't want to be saved, can't be."

SMALLVILLE

In the CW TV series "Smallville" that ran from 2001-2011, Terrence Stamp portrayed the voice of the Jor-El A.I. program that inhabits Superman's Fortress of Solitude. In the season five premiere, "Arrival," two Kryptonians Nam-Ek and Aethyr (both of whom existed in comics previously) escape the Phantom Zone, claiming allegiance to Zod and wear the same insignia the General had worn in "Return to Krypton" four years previously. Later in the season, Clark learns Zod was a dictator his father helped overthrow before imprisoning him in the Phantom Zone. Here the Phantom Zone is more like another world, a strange wasteland out of synch with the outside universe where people can interact with each other. Having lost his physical form, Zod's spirit escapes and targets Lex Luthor as his new host body.

Although young Clark exorcises Zod's essence from Luthor's body, the villain's legacy continues to haunt him. In season eight, Faora's spirit possesses Lois Lane and reveals that she is Zod's wife. The couple couldn't have children, but DNA from the two of them was used to create one of Clark's greatest foes: Doomsday. Season nine features a younger version of Zod alive on Earth, hiding with other Kryptonians. This Zod does not remember the destruction of Krypton and has, as far as he knows, never risen above the rank of Major. Eventually, Major Zod (Callum Blue), learns he is a clone of the original Dru-Zod, just as his followers are all clones of long dead Kryptonians.

At first, this younger Zod attempts to befriend Clark and focuses on protecting his people. As time goes on, he concludes that humanity is flawed and his methods become more corrupt. Clark continues to reach out to Zod, offering a chance at redemption, but the villain believes he's fallen too far to be saved and refuses. After Major Zod and his followers wreak destruction across Earth, Clark finds a way to transport them all to another world where they can start a new Kryptonian society rather than kill them. After realizing how corrupt Zod has become, the Kryptonian clones agree to this plan, but the villain uses a kryptonite dagger to interfere with the teleportation process, ensuring that he and Clark remain on Earth. Rather than take responsibility for crimes, he challenges Kal-El to a life-or-death match on a Metropolis rooftop, declaring he would rather rule a primitive world like Earth than be a servant on New Krypton.

Wishing neither to kill Zod nor let him win, Clark sees one solution: he stabs himself with the kryptonite dagger and falls backwards off the rooftop. Major Zod quickly realizes he's been tricked. The teleportation process is still active and now the villain doesn't have kryptonite to counter its effects. Zod is transported through space to meet his former followers, who sentence him to the Phantom Zone. After his exile to the Zone, the younger, cloned Zod is found by the spirit of the original. The two merge into gestalt entity, their hatred for Kal-El magnified. Zod would appear again in the final season ruling a band of fellow Phantom Zone exiles.

COMICS IMITATE FILMS

In 2006, DC Comics altered some parts of their history and continuity. Much of the pre-Crisis ideas of Superman were brought back into the comics, including how the Phantom Zone was not a separate world but a twilight dimension housing ghostly prisoners who could still perceive the outside universe.

A new version of Zod appeared in the story "Last Son," which also marked the introduction of Ursa and Non into comics. In the new version, Kryptonian society is divided into different guilds, with General Dru-Zod a member of the military guild. Non is initially a great scientist and Jor-El's teacher. When he and Jor learn that Krypton's destruction is imminent, they are arrested by Zod who is told that the two are conspiring against the government. Zod later learns that this is a lie and Non continues to make public protests that the planet will die soon unless something is done.

When Non is found lobotomized, leaving him a mindless brute, Zod sees this as final proof that Krypton's ruling council is corrupt. He intends to overthrow the government and asks Jor-El to join him so they may rule together. The scientist refuses, believing Krypton cannot be saved without the Council's report and cautioning him against revenge and that taking power will not forestall the inevitable.

Zod's attempted coup is defeated and the Council decides he and his followers should be executed. Believing in the preservation of life, Jor-El successfully argues that the three insurrectionists be exiled to the Phantom Zone instead. In "Last Son," they finally escape and confront Superman for the first time, becoming major adversaries with regular appearances over the next few years. Zod is a villain but a complicated man, one who ultimately believes he is a patriot of Kryptonian society. While Non sometimes shows signs of a conscience, Ursa is portrayed as a killer who greatly enjoys violence, one who is willing to use a kryptonite knife against Superman despite the pain its presence causes her.

Despite the battles with Zod and his followers in these stories, Kal-El doesn't waver from his principle -- one shared by both his biological and adopted parents -- that it is better to preserve life and find solutions beyond execution. To do otherwise, he believes, will prove the villain's point of view on life and death is the correct one.

NEW 52 & MAN OF STEEL

A version of Zod appears in Kevin J. Anderson's 2007 novel "The Last Days of Krypton." The book depicts Zod as an opportunist who uses his position to forbid certain technology on Krypton that he deems too dangerous, secretly storing them for his own use. He is corrupt from the beginning, playing a long game of manipulation to become the ruling authority of his world. As first shown in "Smallville," Zod's two followers here are not Non and Ursa but rather Nam-Ek (who is now described as a mute) and Aethyr (now given the full name of Aethyr-Ka).

In 2011, DC Comics rebooted its universe again, ending all of its DC Universe titles and replacing them with a new lineup of 52 titles. In the "New 52" universe, the first prisoner of the Phantom Zone was not Jax-Ur but Dr. Xa-Du. It is said that the most dangerous Kryptonian criminals were sentenced to suspended animation, but Xa-Du's experiments corrupted this science and the Phantom Zone became the new alternative. As the years rolled on, many others joined Xa-Du in the Zone.

Zod has not been seen yet in the New 52 reality, though his voice was heard when Superman visited the Phantom Zone. He is set to appear during the upcoming Villains Month in "Action Comics" #23.2 by writer Greg Pak and artist Ken Lashley, with the issue's solicitation describing Zod as a "genocidal maniac."
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following contains MINOR SPOILERS regarding Zod's backstory in "Man of Steel."]

In director Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel," Kryptonians are genetically engineered to serve certain functions in society prior to birth. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is literally built to be a warrior in Krypton's army, bred to believe violence is the way of things. From birth, he is the antithesis of the classic depiction of Superman, a character who believes in life, hope and protecting others rather than ruling them.

Zod's genetic map does not, however, include loyalty to Krypton's government, and he attempts a military coup along with his second-in-command Faora Hu-Ul and a small group of loyal followers. As they have so many times in the comics, Zod's efforts to rule the planet fail. Before Krypton is destroyed, the general comes into conflict with Jor-El and kills him, marking a noticeable departure from previous versions of the story where the scientist always dies alongside his wife and his planet. Zod and his followers are exiled into Phantom Zone, but fortunately for them they are also given a spaceship, providing a means of escape. When General Zod arrives on Earth, he follows his genetic programming that he is to preserve Krypton by whatever means he deems necessary, even if it means wiping out humanity to make room for his own kind.

Thanks to military training, this version of Zod adjusts to his new powers much more quickly than Clark did, realizing during his battle that even indestructible Kryptonian battle armor is unnecessary, as he has become a weapon himself. Initially, he tries to recruit Superman to his side, not understanding that this is a Kryptonian capable of free choice, one who does not feel inherently loyalty to his native planet. The result is a vicious battle between opposite numbers.

Since his Silver Age beginnings, General Dru-Zod seems destined to be a thorn in Kal-El's side, challenging his physical prowess and his beliefs. While it's unclear the impact he will have in the New 52 prior to his appearance, the villain will soon appear as a DLC in DC's successful "Injustice: Gods Among Us" video game.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Superman and the future exploits of the Kryptonian general or you'll be forced to kneel before Zod.

TAGS:  dc comics, zod, general zod, dc entertainment, warner bros, legendary pictures, superman, man of steel, richard donner, zack snyder, terrence stamp, michael shannon, smallville

 
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