Depending on how much you want to include, the Death and Return of Superman storyline consists of three or four parts. Going by the currently in-print omnibus edition, it’s three. Going by the trade dress of the currently in-print paperbacks, it’s four. Either way, we’re at part two, the relatively slight “Funeral for a Friend” arc that follows immediately upon Superman’s death.
I say slight because it doesn’t do much to pay off on what comes immediately before it, or set up what comes immediately after, with one major exception. It’s a lot of checking in on supporting cast members. Lex, Supergirl, Bibbo, Gangbuster, folks who end up not being central in the arc to come, get their moments here. If, like me, you showed up for the big fight scene and stuck around, you might feel a bit at sea with these issues.
It’s also going to serve as the exit for Jerry Ordway, who’s been involved with the Superman titles in some capacity since the Byrne relaunch. Ordway inked Crisis on Infinite Earths, handled art on Adventures of Superman with Marv Wolfman writing, co-plotted and drew the title under Byrne, and then took over as writer and artist with issue #445. He leaves the book with issue #500, which bridges the Funeral for a Friend and Reign of the Supermen storylines. It’s worth noting that Ordway inked Crisis and its immediate sequel, Zero Hour, and drew the Earth-2 sequences in Infinite Crisis. He was also marginally involved with the Countdown books that led up to Final Crisis, but we should never speak of Countdown. Because it is seriously the worst.
Like, when people complained how bad New 52: Future’s End was, and it was bad, I shook my head like a grizzled war vet and said, No, my friend. This is nothing. I survived Countdown. In fact, I blogged about half of it before just…not being able to stand it anymore.
For the sake of disambiguation: the original collection for this storyline was titled “World Without a Superman”, while the issues as they came out bore the banner “Funeral for a Friend.” Neither is all that indicative of the content.
Funeral for a Friend covers a lot of ground without managing to get much done. In short, it fails to communicate much of an impact of the loss of Superman. There are eight or eleven installments, depending on whether you include Adventures #500 (I’m punting it into the next entry) or Justice League of America #70 (I didn’t initially, because it wasn’t in the collection I had), and whether you want to consider The Legacy of Superman one-shot (I don’t, but I sort of have to).
The first two issues deal with immediate attempts to resuscitate Superman, and the removal of his body from the site.
Here we get some involvement by the Cadmus Project, in one of the only seeds planted in Funeral for a Friend that will actually bear fruit. Cadmus is a Kirby creation from early in his Fourth World run, and thankfully that means Walt Simonson brought on for a bit of art later in the storyline. Every Walt Simonson page is a blessing.
But tracing the actual plotline of the Cadmus story is a mess from start to finish. At times, it reads as if the writer hasn’t seen the Cadmus scenes from the previous issue, and is thus doomed to repeat them.
Those pages are in separate issues. I will yell at you in the streets and in a lobby!
Also, the dynamic between Lex Luthor and Supergirl in this era is deeply disturbing.
The third issue covers the actual funeral and the events immediately around it. One of the most potentially interesting aspects of Superman’s very public funeral is the exclusion of Lois Lane and the Kents. Lois’s grief is an odd object throughout the storyline, as it seems no one else in Metropolis knows that Superman was Clark Kent. In the moments she allows herself to grieve publicly, it’s written off by her co-workers as concern for Clark, who’s disappeared in the destruction caused by Doomsday. The Kents remain in Smallville, watching the funeral on television.
Let’s talk about what this means. It means no one involved has considered Superman/Clark’s death as a possibility they needed to plan for. Contrast this with Batman, who has grave sites prepared for every co-worker that has ever died while in his employ, who has an elaborate plan to deal with the disappearance of Bruce Wayne if and when Batman gets offed. It speaks to a certain lack of support structure for Superman at this point in continuity. Seriously, no one in the Justice League’s got a copy of a will?
It’s a narrative problem, because Superman’s secret identity produces narrative problems. Not narrative opportunities, mind you. If you want to see an attempt to mine the secret identity issue as narrative opportunity, try reading The Death of Clark Kent. Go on, try.
I’m overstating (as usual). The thing about the basic narrative problem generated by Superman’s secret identity is that it’s easy to solve. You do away with it. You establish Clark Kent as a skin that Superman ultimately sheds. It’s important he existed, but his usefulness is largely outlived. It’s what they tried to do in the Pak/Yang run at the end of the New 52, and the amount of hand-wavery it took to reestablish the status quo after is indicative that maybe it was not a thing worth saving.
The problems around this issue are sapped of meaning by the fact they’re never addressed afterward. Not to give away the ending, but in a post-script to The Reign of the Supermen, Supes rescues Clark (Supergirl in disguise. Because she’s a shapeshifter, don’t you know) from the rubble under which he’s survived for over a month of narrative time. They don’t even clear it up in the first epilogue issue. There is a whole issue of Superman boning Lois, thwarting a bank robbery, and rescuing a Timmy before anyone bothers to worry about Clark. This is not, notably, followed by a serious discussion of what to do if this happens again. Instead, Dr. Occult shows up. But that’s all much later.
To the extent Funeral for a Friend is interested in grief at all, it’s interested only in public grief, so that Lois and the Kent’s exclusion from the funeral somewhat excludes them from the narrative. At the same time, we the reader are mostly kept out of the funeral ceremonies, which happen in the story’s third installment . We see a couple of DC heavy-hitters working crowd control, along with some crowd shots of others on the fringes. We get a full page funeral oration by…Bill and Hilary Clinton.
Which is maybe the last time we see the DCU with the actual president as president? I’m happy to be proven wrong on this, since the President Lex storyline is still years off at this point.
The funeral procession as a snapshot of the DCU’s A-list is worth a look.
Prime spots for Bloodwynd, Geo Force and Ice. Batman is keeping the peace elsewhere, for the record. But that means any sense of the World’s Finest friendship gets omitted. We get very little in the way of reaction from his fellow heroes. His friends, if you will. And I don’t think DC continuity was tight enough at this point that we would have seen those reactions in other books, with the exception of Justice League of America #70, written and drawn by Jurgens and sporadically collected with the other Funeral for a Friend issues. It carried the storyline banner but wasn’t numbered. Narratively, it takes place immediately after Superman #75, concurrent with Adventures of Superman #498.
In the wake of Superman’s death, the Justice League is ill-defined in terms of mission and membership, so this book is a perfect place for heroes to breeze in and each give a single thought on their loss.
The best thing here is that Aquaman is like “The worst kind of death is the death of a child, you guys.” I don’t want to belittle his loss, but Aquababy died in 1977. Like, leave it out one time.
And Oberon, who clearly scored a stack of polybagged first print copies of Superman #75, distributes the black arm bands contained within.
Following the funeral, we get a Christmas mailbag issue. In the history of comics, there has only been one use of this trope that’s worked for me, and that’s during the Outback years of the X-Men, when they use Longshot’s telemetry to try to return everything the Reavers have ever stolen. It grows out of what’s already happening in the book, and effectively advances the story. Here, it clumsily maps Superman onto Santa Claus, revisits that unpleasant kid from the Death of storyline, and uncomfortably reunites his family.
The bulk of the back half of Funeral for a Friend gets into some convoluted plots about Superman’s body. It’s basically a three card monty wherein Superman’s grave gets robbed twice in incidents that are largely identical. The first is by Cadmus, who get caught, but not until they’ve extracted a bit of Super-DNA. And the second…I’m going to hold off on that. Because I’m still re-reading Reign of the Supermen, and there is something that I either can’t remember, or has never made any sense to me at all. Possibly both.
Let me try to break this down. Cadmus steals the body. Lex finds out in Part 5 and dispatches Supergirl to investigate. She and Dan Turpin of the Metropolis Major Crimes Unit go into some tunnels to investigate. They fight the Underworlders from before all this shit happened. Clawster shows up again!
I missed that guy.
Anyway, they come back above ground. The Guardian, who’s a Cadmus clone already, discovers that Cadmus has the body. He’s like “Dick move, guys!”
The Cadmus scientists are like “We’re only trying to clone Superman” and Guardian’s like “Well, then I can dig it.” Supergirl and Turpin go back into the tunnels, but the tunnels flood for some reason, so they come back up. The Newsboy Legion, which I do not even have the time to get into but they are also clones who live at the Cadmus Project, discover Superman’s body too. They are also upset.
So they convince another clone to destroy a data disc containing Superman’s DNA, which is a big deal even though Cadmus still has the body. Who cares? It’s drawn by Walt Simonson and is really the beginning of Karl Kesel’s run on Superboy. Then Lois goes into the tunnels, ninja kicks some dudes, and finds the body. She gets help from a telepathic sea lion.
Dubbilex the DNAlien (take a beat right here to smile and thank the lord for Jack Kirby) shows up and says that Superman has moved, and that clearly a powerful telepath has been at work here. Spoiler: it was the sea lion. Lois uses the power of the press! Except not really. She just writes an article and shows it to Lex Luthor, who is ONCE AGAIN OUTRAGED. And once again sends Supergirl to Cadmus to get the body. This time she goes through the Habitat, a very nice forest and some tunnels controlled by a hippie motorcycle gang.
They are called the Outsiders (but not those Outsiders). Need I say, also a Kirby creation. Turns out it’s a lot easier than going through extensive underground tunnels. She gets the body, and they return it to the coffin, where Lex Luthor monologues angrily over it. And then forty pages later, it is gone in a shocking last-page reveal that is slightly less shocking because it’s already happened like, four issues back.
Oh, and Superman’s dad has a heart attack. That’s important.
The bit with the Newsboy Legion takes place in the Legacy of Superman one-shot, which is a collection of attempts to spin new characters out of this storyline and into their own series. This includes a story about Gangbuster, who shows up throughout Funeral for a Friend, Rose and Thorn, who most definitely do not, and Sinbad. Holy fucking shit, Sinbad. He is a young Quraci (generic DCU Arab) boy with superpowers. Also a magic carpet. He and his sister honest to god have lunch on a magic carpet flying over Metropolis.
There’s a Waverider story, proving once again that Dan Jurgens really likes Waverider. I started to do a little internet research on Waverider, and then my skull collapsed. Suffice it to say, he is a character very important in both Armegeddon 2001 and Zero Hour, two stories that make not a whole heap of sense.
And there’s the Newsboy Legion story, written by Karl Kesel with art by Walt Simonson. Which proves to be a successful backdoor pilot, in the sense it leads directly into Kesel’s portion of Reign of the Supermen, which leads to the Superboy series.
Falling in between Funeral for a Friend and Reign of the Supermen, there’s Adventures of Superman #500, “Life After Death”, which deals with the metaphysics of Superman’s death and return. I’m kidding, it does not do that at all. It’s a really good-looking issue, though. Pencilled by Tom Grummet and inked by Doug Hazlewood, it charts Jonathan “Pa” Kent’s near-death experience. Also there’s some Gangbuster stuff, the casual sexual harassment of Cat Grant, and the Prankster. It’s a double-sized issue.
Curious point: Jerry Ordway’s writing credits always come after the penciler and inker. Not true of any other writer on the books at this point.
As mentioned at the start, I’m punting Adventures of Superman #500 into the next entry, because reasons. But I do want to mention that although it seems like all of the afterlife stuff is a hallucination, Dr. Occult shows up later to confirm everything in Adventures of Superman #500 really happened. Canonically, Ghost Jonathan Kent smacked Demon Ghost Jor-El with a magical ghost shovel.
Also, we get one of the rare appearances of Kismet, who is so very clearly the lady version of Marvel’s Eternity. Check them out:
Cute couple, am I right? In the JLA/Avengers crossover, they meet and fall in love. Just thought you should know.
Funeral for a Friend is a missed opportunity, for the most part. Tidying up loose ends of what came before, trying to salvage B-plots few were invested in. The thing is, I wouldn’t slag it if Reign of the Supermen didn’t end up being really good even without it. It could have dealt more fully with the individual grief of the central characters. It could have explored the impact of Superman’s death beyond “crime is up in Metropo—oh, cool Supergirl lifted a car, all’s well.” If it wanted to look forward a bit more, it could have foreshadowed Warworld, or fleshed out the Superman cult, or set up the backstory for John Henry Irons that gets crammed into Man of Steel #22. It could have introduced the idea of cellular regeneration that ultimately leads to Superman’s revival.
The thing to keep in mind is that they’re operating a bit without a map here. It’s difficult to even imagine who they understood their audience to be at this point. Superman #75 sold three million copies, and was the top selling book of 1992, beating out the first issue of Wild CATs, Jim Lee’s Image debut. But sales immediately plummeted. The first issue of Funeral for a Friend ranked 198th in sales that year, behind juggernauts like Predator vs. Magnus Robot Fighter, Warlock & Infinity Watch, and Lobo: Infanticide. Adventures of Superman #500 topped the 1993 charts selling less than a quarter of Superman #75’s numbers, partly by virtue of a high cover price. The collector’s edition was $2.95 with the polybag and the removable translucent cover, while the newstand edition was $2.50. The Superman titles at the time were running at $1.25 an issue.
Sales numbers indicate a highly speculative market around the Death of issue, but there were books with numbers that big before. A single issue topped two million in sales every year from 1990 to 1993. But the death of Superman had garnered unheard of media attention to the usually hermetic direct market, bringing in hordes of new buyers, if only for a moment. It stood to reason that while loads of them were pure speculators, some portion might be readers. And there was no model for how to keep them on board. Take another look at Superman #75 and you know what’s missing? The equivalent of a post-credits sequence. The hook to get people to buy the next thing.
It’s not here either. It took months to find the ideas that would bring readers back, and the structure that would keep them. They were inventing the wheel on Big Event Comics, and it’s sort of a wobbly wheel to begin with. At the same time, over in the Batman offices, plans were being laid to call down a second lightning strike with the Knightfall storyline.
The rollout for Knightfall is brilliant. A couple books snuck into the market while DC comics were under the microscope for speculators, with indications that two new characters introduced would be big. This created actual speculative commodities. When the storyline kicked into gear, Vengeance of Bane, a one-shot which introduced the antagonist, and Sword of Azrael #1, which introduced Batman’s replacement, became crazy valuable in the secondary market, in a way Superman #75 never could because there were so many copies, and because everybody knew about it. Both Batman and Detective built up to Knightfall, introducing Bruce Wayne’s depression as a foreshadowing of his fall. When the storyline proper started, every issue was clearly branded with the same banner, numbered in the corner with the bat signal being slowly eclipsed. And the big issue, the one where Bane breaks Batman’s back, was part eleven of nineteen. There was no way a reader was going to jump ship before the next issue, because it was made perfectly clear that this story wasn’t over.
Knightfall, Knightquest, and KnightsEnd covered roughly the same battle-defeat-return arc as the Death and Return of Superman, but they took three times as long to do it. If individual issues never outsold their corresponding moments in Superman (and the books suffered attrition after a saggy second act), the cumulative boost came out about the same. And the Knightfall stuff is coherent from its earliest rumblings, while the Death and Return of Superman feels like it doesn’t know where it’s going until well into its third act.
A lot of the credit for this has to go to Denny O’Neil, who was editing the Batman books at the time. Unlike Superman editor Mike Carlin, O’Neil was a writer before he moved into editorial. Some of the Knightfall-related books were written by O’Neil himself, but his editorial hand is heavy on all of them. Carlin was managing a team of talented writers, but was doing so by letting them throw ideas at the wall to see what stuck. In the wake of a huge success, there was a feeling of “Oh fuck, what do we do next?” Funeral for a Friend is the pause where they figure that out.