Men of Tomorrow: The Death of Superman (Prelude)

Nothing cures nostalgia for a thing quite as effectively as re-experiencing the thing itself. Watch that movie again to find the performances wooden and forced, the special effects clunky and pixelated. Re-read that Stephen King novel and understand his tin ear for dialogue, his fixation on tropes that you now, as an adult, understand as hackneyed tropes. Drop in on the bar you loved as an undergraduate and discover to your horror that it is full of undergraduates.

Nostalgia is a function of absence. Naturally, its kryptonite is presence.

As nostalgia relates to comics, it’s been said, in a proverb lifted from music, that the best iteration of [Superhero X] is the one you read when you were twelve. Which means that The Death of Superman storyline is, for me, the best iteration of Superman. And I’m happy to say that, even with the vaseline of nostalgia wiped from the lens, this still somewhat holds true.

It is certainly true that this storyline, and the era of DC Comics it represents, formed my permanent understanding of what constitutes “good superhero comics.” Along with the 90s X-Men, which I am very glad that better minds than mine have taken as their row to hoe. The era I’m speaking about, the mid to late 1990s, which I’m going to call the “legacy era” of DC Comics, includes this storyline and its fallout, the Knightfall story in Batman comics, which takes easily triple the time this one does to cover essentially the same arc but is sprawling, goofy fun, Wally West’s tenure as the Flash, Kyle Rayner’s tenure as Green Lantern, Connor Hawke’s run as Green Arrow, and, maybe most explicitly, Jack Knight’s servitude as Starman.

Come to think of it, I’m going to add the Artemis-as-Wonder-Woman run, although I haven’t read it. Which I should, because I like William Messner-Loebs, and Mike Deodato…gets much better.

There are general qualities attributable to all of these. There was a sense of bigness in the storylines, and risk, even within a medium that is ultimately static. Maybe it was me, too naive to understand that in the end, Bruce Wayne would always be Batman, Barry Allen was the one true Flash (he is not and I will fight you), and that even Bucky Barnes could come back from the dead. But these stories set my expectations for how death functioned in comics, as yet another foe to be overcome.

They also played heavily into my pre-teen identification fantasies regarding these characters, because all of the sudden, it could be anyone. The arbitrary nature of the replacement heroes, with the possible exception of Wally, drove this point home strong. It wasn’t Dick Grayson that took the cowl, it was Jean-Paul Valley. Kyle Rayner stumbled out of a bar to piss in an alley and ended up Green Lantern. Jack Knight, the second son, who pined for his legacy so badly he spent his entire life running away from it, inherited the mantle of Starman. And for a brief time, the title of Superman was in play, with fans, who all knew the big man was going to come back, laying bets on which of the replacement Supes was “real.”

But we’ll get to that.

Let’s start at the end.

The Death of Superman, the actual issue where he dies, which is to say Superman #75, is what got me in the door. Literally the first time I walked in the door of a comic book store was to pick up the issue. I was a thirteen year old sports card collector, a statement whose truth still puzzles me no end. Sports cards were speculator items. You bought packs hoping to get individual cards that were valuable, that you could sell off for more cards, or treasure always, encase in lucite. In 1992, there were far more sports card stores I could get to on my bike than comic book stores. When you grow up in the suburbs, proximity has a heavy influence on your interests.

But the Death of Superman was a big deal in the media, even the media available to a thirteen year old, and the consensus was that this was going to be worth something. Magic words to a card collector, speculator, junior capitalist. I begged my dad to to drive me downtown to the comic book store to pick up a copy, because basically this was going to pay for my college education. I would buy it, hold it, then flip it for thousands of dollars.

By the time he was able to take me, I was only able to get my hands on a fourth printing, which even I knew would be worthless. But DC had also sped a trade paperback to print of the entire Death of Superman storyline, which they wisely priced cheap. So I picked it up. I also grabbed a copy of something called Batman: Vengeance of Bane, because it had a really fantastic cover by Glen Fabry. This, by the way, would end up the biggest flip of my comic book speculating career. Bane would go on to be the character who broke Batman’s back, and the copy I bought for $2.50 in a failed attempt to cash in on the death of Superman, I later sold for about a hundred bucks.

So I got home, with my comic book. Which was not polybagged. Which did not contain a black armband. In fact, the only thing you could do with it was read it, like one of capitalism’s marks instead of one of it’s movers and shakers.

But I did. And I discovered comic books’ greatest hook, its absolute narrative heroin.

When things seemed their most bleak, Lois weeping over the dead body of Superman, the next page promised, “Continued in…”

The next Wednesday, I was once again begging my dad to drive me downtown to get the next issue. It had, as far as I knew, no potential speculative value.

But I had to know what happened.

I’ve visited a comic book store, somewhere in the world, practically every Wednesday since. Or, for a time, had my dad stop by with my list on his way home from work. Which I would later come to realize was not remotely on his way.

“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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