I finally finished and published the next video essay in my series, Series Consideration. I just realized that when I had my friend take that photo, I was still rocking the bald for the summer.
Anyway, as usual, here’s the written essay I used for the video’s narration. Enjoy!
The Death of Superman
So, imagine this kid in Grade 9 in the 90s: he’s new to a small town and feels like a stranger in an alien land. He’s not big into comics, but he watches the movies when they’re on TV. A large number of his classmates bully him relentlessly. He feels powerless. For some kids his age, comics are a fantasy escape.
He was always inexplicably drawn to Superman. He feels like Clark Kent, but without the powerful alter ego.. As Mark Waid describes Superman, “He’s not from around here. He doesn’t belong here. He’s an alien being, and he is probably more alone in this world than anyone else ever has been.” (Superheroes & Philosophy) Every day, similar thoughts run through this teenager’s head.
Although he relates with Superman’s feelings of alienation, the comics just aren’t on his radar.
Until the day that DC Comics kills Superman.
DEATH IN COMICS
Death in superhero comics is a running joke, as if Heaven installed a revolving door for anyone wearing spandex. It’s so common that there are in-jokes even within the comics themselves, like Superman praying for Martian Manhunter’s resurrection in Final Crisis.
In 1993, the death of a major character wasn’t common, but it wasn’t unheard of, either. DC’s 1985 event, Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped out entire realities. In that story, The Flash and Supergirl sacrifice themselves to save the universe. Jean Grey, whose codename Phoenix basically grants her a Get Out of Heaven for Free card, had died and already returned.
But Superman? Superman was the household name when it came to superheroes. Sure, he died before, but those were Silver Age stories. They were out of continuity! They didn’t count! DC wouldn’t kill him off for real.
WHAT SUPERMAN REPRESENTS
No one would argue that Superman was the first superhero as we know them today. He proved that comic books were a viable market. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation made everyone else try to mimic that success, which led to the creation of Captain Marvel, Batman, Wonder Woman, and really, every superhero owes their thanks to Superman kicking it all off. According to Bradford Wright in his book, Comic Book Nation, “A spokesman for DC comics claimed that ‘Superman literally created this industry.’” Grant Morrison once said, “From his creation, Superman was as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin, or Santa Claus.”
In other words, Superman is a cultural icon bigger than most of his contemporaries. He was an American icon right alongside apple pie and baseball.
By the 1990s, though, Superman wasn’t “cool” anymore. He represented the status quo and traditional values. Batman surpassed him in popularity, especially since the Tim Burton movie and the animated series. Darker, edgier, more violent heroes were even more popular. Fans swarmed around characters like Wolverine, Cable, and especially the recently launched Image Comics, with violent books like Spawn and Savage Dragon.
This is even reflected in The Death of Superman through the character of Mitch. He’s disrespectful to Superman, even when being saved by him, and prefers the cool, tough guy, Guy Gardner. And yet, when Gardner and his teammates fall, Mitch pleads for Superman’s help, realizing that Superman is needed.
LET’S KILL HIM
With a world more interested in grittier heroes, was there room for a Boy Scout who wishes violence wasn’t necessary? He says cheesy things like “As heroes, we chose to protect that good with our lives.” Or at the first sign of trouble, he “wonders if it’s anything [he] can do to help.” What good is a character like that in a growingly cynical world, even back in the 90s? And how would the creative teams handle it?
Since 1991, the four Superman titles carried stories and continuity from one issue to the next within the same month rather than having four distinctly individual titles. This led to heavy collaboration among the creative teams, including an annual “Super Summit” to plot out the next year’s stories. Doing this gave fans several memorable stories like Panic in the Sky, Exile, and Time and Time Again.
At one point, they were preparing for a big event: Superman marrying Lois Lane. But ABC was about to launch a new show, Lois & Clark, and demanded DC Comics postpone the wedding so they could do it first or at the same time. The creative teams scrambled to figure out how to delay their plans. As he did during every Super Summit, writer Jerry Ordway famously shouted, “Let’s kill him!” Except this time, the teams took the idea seriously and ran with it.
Writer Mike Carlin once said, “The world was taking Superman for granted, so we literally said ‘let’s show what the world would be like without Superman.’”
But how do you kill the Man of Steel?
Oh yeah. DOOMSDAY. [Use panels where Superman says those same words]
[Start with clip from Requiem & Rebirth quote by Dan Jurgens & others (10:35-10:58)]
Look, let’s be honest: as much as I like Doomsday, there’s not much to him. Grant Morrison describes him as “the unfortunate collision of Marvel’s Hulk with a load of slate, dinosaur bones, and broken tusks.” (Supergods, 325). Chad Nevett calls him a “walking plot device.” (CBR). Other critics believe that Doomsday is poorly designed and came out of nowhere. And they’re not wrong. Doomsday is impressive and terrifying, but he’s a one-trick pony. After the villain successfully kills the hero, what’s left for them? Every time Doomsday has appeared since then, it’s a case of diminishing returns. And I often wonder if demand for the character is largely nostalgia-based.
And yet…there are two interesting things about him. For one, he’s physical equal to Superman. Few of Superman’s rogues gallery can take him in a fair fight. Most are more formidable on an intellectual level, like Luthor, Brainiac, Mxyzptlk. Or they need an edge like Metallo’s kryptonite heart. Doomsday is without intellect or an edge. He has seemingly no weakness and appears to only get stronger as Superman fights him. He’s “Death and bloodlust personified. Nothing more.” (Maxima, pg 39). “There is nothing in his mind but anger. No thought but destruction. There is no way to tell where he came from. Not that it matters.” (Dubbilex, pg 131-132)
It’s Doomsday lack of origin in his first appearance that also makes him interesting. At this point, it doesn’t matter if he’s an alien or a lab experiment. He’s here. He’s unstoppable. Deal with it. He’s less a villain and more of a force of nature. Unlike other villains, with schemes or motivations, Doomsday just destroys. Characters compare with a hurricane. His first appearance resembles an earthquake. His path of destruction and the aftermath resemble scenes from natural disasters. He doesn’t even care about Superman. Doomsday attacks whatever’s in front of him, whether it’s Superman, a semi-truck, a bird, a deer, or the Justice League. The only reason he fights Superman is because Superman keeps confronting him. When Superman is taken out, even briefly, Doomsday just moves on to his next target.
The Justice League, comprised of C-Listers at best, are glorified punching bags to show Doomsday’s deadliness. Doomsday’s first engagement with the heroes is showcased perfectly with quick, moment-to-moment panels, highlighting his speed and ferocity. However, the panel structure in The Death of Superman’s final four issues are the most interesting:
[Play clip from Requiem & Rebirth: “The number of panels in each comic shrink per page. The action in each issue gets bigger and bigger.” “Subliminal ratcheting up of the fight.” (13:00)]
While Doomsday certainly became a notable and permanent fixture in Superman mythology, the impact that The Death of Superman had on the industry was even bigger…and possibly more destructive.
Soon after the massive success of The Death of Superman, headline-catching stunts filled the shelves. Hal Jordan went nuts, slaughtered the Green Lantern Corps, leaving Kyle Rayner in his place. Bane broke Batman’s back, with Jean-Paul Valley taking up the mantle. Oliver Queen died and his son Connor took over as Green Arrow. Most infamously, Spider-Man’s Clone Saga was Marvel wanting their own big event for their hallmark character.
It’s been 25 years since The Death of Superman, but its effect is still felt in the industry today. Character deaths and replacements has become so predictable that I tell people to just wait a year until the status quo reasserts itself. It’s now expected a major death – or several – will occur during a major event, which means they’re not shocking at all. Death and resurrections were somewhat of a joke in the 90s, but they’ve become completely meaningless. Now, they don’t create even a ripple compared to the shockwaves of Superman’s death.
Bagged comics like Superman #75 became the norm for special issues. The 90s were wrought with needless foil-enhanced covers and other gimmicks that speculators bought in large numbers for their potential future value. People who didn’t even buy comics regularly would purchase multiple copies, which conflated sales figures and made companies push even more flash-in-the-pan gimmicks. As a result, the speculator market was a major contributing factors for the comic book market crash that closed down hundreds of stores and drove fans away.
But The Death of Superman had one last, major impact.
And it takes us back to that kid in Grade 9.
The Death of Superman got me hooked on comics. I’d asked for Superman #75 for my birthday, but when my parents couldn’t find a copy, they got the collected edition. 25 years later and I have three bookcases of trades and graphic novels. This very channel resulted from my love of comics, wanting to share that love with others, and getting more people reading comics. And it all started with this book.
It made me appreciate Superman in ways that still inspires me today. He’s the character I needed at the right time in my life. Superman, his stories, and what he represents to me, helped me through my own never-ending battle with depression. It even inspired what some say is my best piece of writing, my short story, The Never-Ending Battle.
It’s kind of ironic that headline-grabbing events like this turned me away from most of today’s superhero books. I barely read DC & Marvel these because of it. But the creative teams have my eternal gratitude for the impact The Death of Superman had on my life.