I’m standing at the precipice of an immense fortress. Two Atlas-esque statues — a man and woman — tower above me, bathed in an icy blue light. They hold the weight of a sun above their heads, its tip nearly gracing the top of the cavernous space. The rest of the fortress is almost empty, save for what looks like a technologically advanced stasis chamber off to the right. From the statues’ point of view, you’d also see a strange symbol carved into the floor: a diamond-shaped sigil with what appears to be an S in the middle. Over 200 years from now, a Kryptonian named Kal-El will adopt this crest — his family’s — as a symbol for his superhero alter ego, Superman.
Compared to this Fortress of Solitude, my childhood one was much simpler: It was wherever I happened to be reading. Stories helped me survive boredom and bullying, my parents’ arguments and the resulting car rides to my aunt’s house. I was a self-proclaimed bookworm, hungry for bigger and better stories, and it was just a matter of when, not if, I’d discover comics.
I first met the last son of Krypton in a convenience store, the kind of nondescript place on the side of the road that sells liquor and Ritz crackers. This one also happened to sell plastic packages of assorted comics from a rickety newsstand by the entrance. My dad would buy packs for me when he stopped in to buy lotto tickets, and I’d immediately tear open the package to find out what I got. Soon, I started amassing a small collection. I’d get extra excited whenever I discovered a Superman comic wedged between the others; I wanted to be a successful, nerdy journalist like Clark Kent as well as a red-caped superhero impervious to almost everything on Earth. So when SYFY invited me to Belfast, Ireland, to tour the set of Krypton, a brand-new superhero story set in the same DC universe as my favorite childhood comic, it felt like fate.
Set in Kandor City, Krypton follows Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), Superman’s grandfather, who’s not exactly the upstanding Kryptonian you’d expect to be in Kal-El’s lineage. Living in a city whose people are divided into prestigious Guilds, Seg is a Rankless drifter, pulling scams and trying to survive in the sketchy, no-holds-barred Rankless District. “He’s aimless and has no sense of identity and no sense of purpose,” says Krypton showrunner Cameron Welsh, “and that’s the journey that we’ll sort of go on with him as he sort of discovers who he is and what he wants to do.”
Welsh often talks about Seg in relation to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, or “hero’s journey." It should be obvious by now that I'm a huge comics nerd, but this story structure allows anyone to easily fall into the story, whether you're a Superman superfan like me or someone who just wants to watch attractive people do badass things.
To continue Welsh’s comparison, Seg’s “call to adventure” arrives in the form of Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos), who sports a Detroit Tigers hat and carries with him a very familiar-looking cape. “The second I saw the script with Adam Strange,” Cuffe says, “I thought, Oh, we’re gonna have a lot of fun.” And Seg’s “supernatural aid” appears as his thought-to-be-dead grandfather Val-El (Ian McElhinney), aka Superman’s grandfather’s grandfather. (Yeah, you might want to start making an ancestry chart now.)
As I tour the several elaborate sets overseen by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, I don't miss Earth at all. Due to the unique characteristics of Krypton, nothing in the show is shot on location, so it truly feels like a sojourn to an entirely new planet. If not for the tour guides, I’d surely be lost down one of the Rankless District’s many dark, winding alleys by now. But at least there’d be places for me to go: Seg’s BFF, Kem (Rasmus Hardiker), has a tavern that puts NYC dives to shame. Bright liquids in glass cylinders hang from the ceiling like stalactites — and, yes, I would definitely try a drink if offered. There’s also Seg’s family’s house down another corridor, with uncomfortable-looking beds and mysterious blue crystals used for cooking. It’s a bit of a shambles, but it’s still bigger than my Brooklyn apartment. (Listen, I’m just really happy to be out of the city, OK?)
Despite the immensity of it all, there are minute details everywhere that breathe even more life into Krypton. For example, Nekvasil explains how each of the Fortress’s pillars tells the history of a different member of the House of El, from the minor players to the green death–curing, all pulled from canon. Hair and makeup designer Sian Wilson walks through the characters’ various looks: The Rankless are all about texture; military commanders look sharp and practical, ready to go at any point; lawmakers have lots of movement and style. Looking around, I see signs written in Kryptonian. Carefully stitched sigils on costumes. Props such as an alien iPad that lights up and displays its own text. The furniture, the uniforms, the weapons… They’re all bespoke, carefully constructed to be authentically Kryptonian — a feat as impressive as it is a relief. The crew’s level of care demonstrates a strong appreciation for the source material and an excitement to create something completely new.
Welsh and the rest of the creative team behind the show have the full backing of DC Comics, as well as access to the company’s entire library. Narrative, thematic, and visual influences run the gamut from Byrne and Mignola’s Superman: The World of Krypton to 2013’s blockbuster Man of Steel, whose opening offers a rare glimpse at the planet pre-explosion. But Welsh — with the help of various DC mainstays such as Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) — is most excited to tell his own story. “We haven’t really seen much of this world before,” says Welsh, “and it’s just this open book really, and it allows us to tell a story that hasn’t been told. … Here’s a fresh opportunity to explore a part of the DC universe, which is super important to the entire DC universe, and it’s relatively unexplored.”
And explore they do. The universe is perfect for hardcore nerds as well as the Superman uninitiated, as most settings are a brand-new vision. In addition to the Rankless District, I stroll through the super-schwanky Guilded Area, where Kandor's elite can chitchat about how rich and beautiful they are. The atmosphere starkly contrasts that of Seg’s Rankless hangouts; gold furnishings, plant life, and natural light abound. Here, everyone is closest to Rao, the sun god worshiped by all of Kandor. And I’ll be honest: Although it’s a sun-worshiping, theocratic society with an unequal class system, Kandor is still a refreshing change of pace from Earth. #NothingButRespectForMYGaseousRedDeity
Though the chances of seeing Superman in the show are slim, the city is filled with such a unique and exciting cast of characters, both new and familiar, that there’s plenty to be invested in. “Millions of people across the multiverse are gonna die if we don’t do this,” Cuffe says about the characters’ missions. “It’s no longer a prequel. It makes the whole story immediate and important and relevant to the now.”
Many of the actors I talk to refer to their character as wanting either to usher in a new Golden Era for Krypton or else restore Krypton to its former glory. I admire the Vexes, the political talkers, who are comfortable pulling strings from behind desks rather than getting down and dirty. The Military Guild, on the other hand, uses brute force to maintain order. When I sit behind the desk of Jayna-Zod (Ann Ogbomo), Primus of the Military Guild, I can feel a fraction of the authority and power she must wield — and I like it. Being a Zod, I realize, is not without its perks.
And at the center of it all lies Cameron Cuffe. As a self-identified DC fanboy and comic-book nerd, Cuffe is often approached by other cast members as a fount of knowledge when it comes to all things nerdy. His energy and excitement on-screen is just as palpable as it is off. Without missing a beat, he can immediately rattle off some of his favorite Superman comics — Johns’ Secret Origin, Landis’s American Alien — and you can sense the restraint it takes for him not to go on for hours. When he says, “I truly believe that there is no actor in the world right now who loves this stuff more than I do,” it’s impossible to disagree.
Seg elicits the same charm and likeability as his portrayer, but "even after [Seg] answers that call to be a hero,” Cuffe says, “he’s constantly questioning it. One of Superman’s greatest powers is that he knows right from wrong, and Seg doesn’t. … Most of the time he has no idea what he’s doing.”
After exploring and meeting everyone, I sigh knowing my time on Krypton is soon coming to an end. I think about something showrunner Cameron Welsh said earlier: “The sort of role of science fiction, I think, is to help hold up a bit of a mirror to contemporary society in a way, but also to be kinda entertaining at the same time.” He’s right. Contemporary society is a lot less entertaining than the science-fictional mirror being held up to it.
Instead of going back home, I’d rather nerd out about comics with Cameron more. I’d rather drink a neon-blue drink at Kem’s bar. I’d rather command a small militia from behind Jayna’s desk or pretend to be royalty in the Guilded Area or meditate in the Fortress of Solitude. The world I’ve inhabited the past few days has been a comic book brought to life, and it reminds me of long nights as a kid spent nose-deep in the latest Superman issue. I’m sad to leave the safety of this fictional world, but in a weird linear-storytelling way, I realize I’ve stepped into Superman’s story before he stepped into mine.
I will return home; I'll have to. But I will return a Kryptonian.
Photos by Sarah Stone © BuzzFeed