Men of Tomorrow: The Death of Superman

It’s difficult if not impossible to separate the comics from the media and marketing around them. By the time the full story was done, The Death and Return of Superman would run over a thousand pages of comics and commit every indulgence of 90s comics. Variant covers, polybagged comics, die-cut covers, chromium covers, hologram(ish) covers. There would be a video game for the SNES and Sega Genesis, which I am very curious about and have managed to find an emulator version of, so that’ll be a later post. I mean, it must require you to lose, right? Like, the first or second board is you come up against the boss and you lose? And is there a funeral level?

There would be a novelization, which I have not tracked down, but the idea of rendering this in prose is fascinating. There would be an attempted at a live-action movie, with Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Nicolas Cage all attached to it at various times.

And there was news coverage, which was perhaps more a sign of a slow news week than the “real world” impact of Superman’s death. Here’s CNN reporting, two months ahead of Superman #75’s release:

Aside: I am 90% certain that the “anti-Superman fan” in this video is Ben Garant from MTV’s The State.

If you want core samples on the state of the culture wars, compare this to the way the death of Captain America was covered in 2007, when a superhero’s death was the result of not just normal generational divide, but THE ACTUAL END OF THE AMERICAN DREAM OH MY GOD YOU GUYS.

Anyway. To the comics. Some things to know going in: first, everybody knew ahead of time. This is before the age of endless advance solicits on the internet for fans, but fans knew when Doomsday made his first appearance (as a…green fist punching a door) that he’d end up offing the Man of Steel.

It’s fun to note that killing Superman was a sort of default suggestion in the writing room. Whenever they hit a wall regarding where to take the character next, someone would inevitably shout “Let’s kill him!” But they didn’t decide to pull the trigger until DC’s corporate overlords threw a wall in front of them.

The plan for the comics in 1993 was to have Superman and Lois Lane finally get married. The plot had been building for months, but at the same time, the Lois & Clark series had launched on television, which saw the two reporters still in their early flirtation mode. DC didn’t want to confuse people who might pick up the comics after seeing the show, so the wedding had to be called off, or at least delayed.

But they had to do something.

So they decided to kill him.

The storyline started a few months in advance, with one page teasers inserted in otherwise unrelated storylines. These were essentially Doomsday punching a wall:

I love that throughout, Doomsday’s location is always “somewhere else” and “elsewhere.” The indeterminate quality of Doomsday is so strong that he actually can’t be located until he moves towards and into Metropolis is built into the character from the beginning. And it’s because they had no details to fill in. The brief was “big monster kills Superman”, and that brief was executed to the letter with basically nothing added.

The actual plot began in Man of Steel #18, written by Louise Simonson and drawn by Jon Bogdanove.

Also, I just learned that Bogdanove’s son is named Kal-El. Is it weird that when Nic Cage names his son Kal-El, I think it’s lame and a little creepy, and when Jon Bogdanove does it, I think it’s adorable?

Through the first part of the story, Superman is totally unaware of Doomsday’s existence. He’s fighting some Warworld refugees who live under Metropolis, while Doomsday slaughters a Disney film worth of small woodland creatures.

Is there a better sound effect for crushing an adorable birb in your fist that is better than “blorch”? No. No my friend, there is not.

It’s an odd start, but it communicates the theme of the rest of the story: this is a threat that comes out of nowhere. Unlike the ending Alan Moore imagined for Superman, a culmination of a lifetime of villainous scheming, Doomsday emerges from nothing and runs roughshod over not just the landscape, but the ongoing plots of the Superman books. It would be years before anyone bothered to retcon up an origin for Doomsday. Which maybe we’ll get to. But probably not, because they had it right the first time: who cares? There’s speculation throughout the storyline as to Doomsday’s origins, but no answers given over the course of it. There’s no room for it. There’s fightin’ to be done.

For the record, he’s not even officially named Doomsday. Booster Gold just says at some point, “Wow, it’s like DOOMSDAY is here” and later, Superman says “What was that thing you said that time? Yes, let’s call him that.”

The second chapter takes place in Justice League #69, by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding. It consists of two storylines running in parallel. The first is a television appearance by Superman. The second is the Justice League having their asses handed to them by Doomsday. And we meet Mitch, who will, unfortunately, be plot relevant later.

I want to take a quick second and talk about Bloodwynd. This guy:

Apparently, he’s the Martian Manhunter? Or, at this point in continuity, the Martian Manhunter is being forced by the mystical Blood Gem to impersonate Bloodwynd. And apparently the first clue to his identity is in this issue, where he shies away from fire. But man, is there a lot of people wondering “Just who is this Bloodwynd?” in these comics. Possibly more characters wondering than fans wondering.

Also, his powers include a total rip-off of Ghost Rider’s penance stare. And thus this storyline contains two Nic Cage connections.

The issue ends with Superman, who’s spent a lot of his interview denying that he’s the most important member of the Justice League, showing up and being the most important member of the Justice League.

From here out, it’s pretty much a straight slugfest. Adventures of Superman #497 features a literal turning point, when Superman has a chance to finish Doomsday off, but instead turns back to save a young Jay from Clerks.

He is totally Ben Garant in that CNN video, talking about how lame Superman is and how cool Guy Gardner is, until he needs some saving, and then it’s:

Superman saves Mitch, and his family, then leaps back in. Superman and Doomsday proceed to just knock the crap out of each other all the way to and through Metropolis. As the action gets more intense, the panel numbers per page start to decrease, from four in Adventures of Superman #497:

to three in Action #684:

to two in Man of Steel #19:

Until we arrive at Superman #75, an issue consisting entirely of splash pages.

Leading up to:

And finally, a pair of two page spreads:

As it was originally printed, this was a gatefold page, so the reader saw Superman’s last words, then folded the page out to reveal a panoramic of the two shots, including his sprawled body, grieving Lois, Doomsday’s corpse, and mourning onlookers, all in one shot. Trade paperbacks and omnibus editions opt to print the pages as above, separate, and this trifold panel has been pretty much lost, even though it’s the way readers would have initially experienced the death of Superman.And that was it. Four issues of fighting, and the Man of Steel was dead. There were people who were not happy. Fans wanted an ending more like the imaginary one Alan Moore had given them, where Superman was brought down by a perfect storm of his enemies. They wanted an ending that grew out of fifty years of Superman stories, rather than showed up a month beforehand.

The same outcry would arise around a similar Batman story, where a character named Bane shows up out of nowhere and breaks Batman’s back. Batman writers, having watched what their colleagues went through, had the sense to bring Batman’s rogues gallery in on the action, with Batman running a gauntlet before he arrives at his final fate. Knightfall, a sort of sister-storyline to the Death of Superman, runs three or four times as long as the Death of Superman, measuring from the first appearance of the villain to the hero’s defeat. Of course, that may have just been cashing in.

But let’s talk about why it works. It works because, in the end, there’d be something cheap about the death of a major character at the hands of a villain they’ve been battling for years. We think we want this. We want Moriarty to be the one to kill Sherlock Holmes. We want the Master to off the Doctor. But neither of those examples quite map on to the way comics work. The death of Moriarty and Holmes works because it’s an actual ending for both. There doesn’t have to be another Moriarty story or another Holmes story. And yes, I understand that there are more stories for both of them. I’m talking original intent, so hush a minute. As for the Master and the Doctor, they’ve got resurrection built into the narrative system. There’s no trickery involved in how they’re going to survive or come back. It makes a sort of narrative sense for the Master to always be the one to kill the Doctor, because they can both come back.

This is not to say death in comic books is permanent. But it is understood as death. The character actually goes away for a bit, and the writers find a clever way to bring them back. Death of/Return of is standard billing in modern comics. But the death has to be real, and has to have some level of meaning. So to have, let’s say, Braniac be the one to finally kill Superman is different from having Moriarty kill Holmes, in that it is not final, and different from having the Master kill the Doctor in that it is an actual death, rather than simply forcing a change.

No one Superman villain feels deserving of the right to kill Superman. It’s true of Batman, too, although perhaps a little less so. But thinking of Batman, the heavy symbolic twinning of Batman and the Joker wasn’t as central to canon then as it is now. It’s a given in contemporary comics that the Joker is Batman’s dark double. But Knightfall era Joker, while arguably Batman’s arch-nemesis, still had goofy qualities of the Caesar Romero television performance, and little of the pathos he has in, say, The Killing Joke.

When it comes to Superman, there’s no villain that serves as a dark mirror or doppelganger. Superman villains tend to embody one aspect of the character, isolated and out of whack. Lex Luthor is his arch-enemy, sure, but he’s more often a kind of foil, or pulling strings behind the scenes. Having one of Luthor’s plans pay off cheapens every other plan, and leaves Luthor with really no place to go, narratively.

Superman’s never dealt with someone who’s a real physical threat. This is in part because of Superman’s power creep. It’s the unspoken rule of the comics that he’s the strongest one there is. So the idea of having him die at the hands of a physical equal is powerful stuff, although Superman is arguably handicapped by his good nature, pausing to save people whenever possible, while Doomsday is unhindered by any kind of morality. His sole purpose is destruction. And specifically, it turns out, the destruction of Superman.

Okay, so yes, I’m talking a little about Doomsday’s origin, which we learn several years after the fact, in a miniseries by Dan Jurgens that is very pretty to look at. Doomsday is a weapon bred by ancient Kryptonian science to embody a Lamarckian model of evolution. I mean, to survive any threat and evolve past it. And because the process of creating him involved basically killing him over and over and harvesting his DNA, he is not fond of Kryptonians. So he was gunning for Superman the whole time.

To be clear, this is a complete retcon. There is no evidence of this on the page, and arguably there’s evidence against it. Also, I find all non-Brainiac villains who come after Superman because of his Kryptonian heritage pretty dull. Especially because the nature of that heritage often has to change drastically to set up the gross wrong the villain is out to right.

*coughBendiscough*

Maybe the best argument for Doomsday working in this story is that he doesn’t work in any other story. Like Bane with Batman, attempts to bring Doomsday back as a major threat consistently fail. He’s a perfect one-off. Every other Superman villain wants to kill Superman and fails. Doomsday wants to kill Superman and succeeds, and then he’s out. There’s nothing more for the character to do. When he shows up anywhere after this, it smacks of a writer screaming LOOK, HIGH STAKES! DOOMSDAY’S BACK! He and Bane become, after their victories, the personification of Red Skies: symbol of a threat without the actual threat. They’re not sustainable antagonists because their only motivation was to destroy the hero. And then they did it. So they should get a cookie or something and be done.

Killing off superman with an out-of-nowhere threat achieves something kind of wonderful in its brutal simplicity. Superman dives into the fight with no sense of what he’s getting into, and no sense of self-preservation. He has moments of doubt, and they’re beautiful, heartfelt beats within the story. But throughout, he does the most Superman of things. He jumps in without question. He gives it his all. And he only gives in once he knows the fight is done.

It’s not the end. With Superman, it can never be the end. And we’re not expected to take it as such. But it’s a good death, one that feels like it means something. Superman #75 contains some of the most iconic images of the character’s tenure, and for a story that’s basically a hundred pages of punch-up, it remains one of greatest Superman stories ever told. Certainly, in modern comics continuity, it’s the most important Superman story, the one that feels most necessary for everything that comes after.

Before it happened, the death of Superman was unimaginable (although, as Jerry Seigel told then-editor Mike Carlin, Seigel had murdered the Man of Steel way back in Action Comics #125). Afterward, it became impossible for many readers to imagine a version of Superman who hadn’t died. His death was as fundamental to understanding him as his birth on Krypton, his Smallville childhood. What began as editorial mandate becomes a permanent part of the mythology.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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