Columnists Joe and Kevin take you through the experience of learning to read comic books. Each week they alternate as Joe (the teacher) explains why he picked a specific book, and Kevin (the student) gives his impressions.
The first images you see in the bound collection that comprises The Death Of Superman are of a gloved fist repeatedly punching a steel wall, each panel accompanied by a blocky KRAANG! As the pounding continues, the glove is shredded, revealing a grey hand with bony spikes on its knuckles, eventually culminating in a devastating KRAKA-DOOM as the bound and masked Doomsday explode-punches his way out of the earth.
This is going to be one violent book…
We decided to kick off this feature with The Death Of Superman, the 1992 story-slash-media event that, as Joe points out in his write-up, “was the single most important event in comic book history” because of what Superman’s death meant for not only the DC world but our own. Of course, “death” in comic books is almost always temporary, and no matter how totally and completely dead someone is, some series of events or powers or accidents will result in a “rebirth,” usually with the unintended effect of the resurrected character being darker and/or edgier. (To wit: Superman comes back a few years later with a ponytail. Take that, 1940s America.)
And Superman’s death in the comics, just like in our world, was a media event. Two larger than life figures beating each other senseless in the middle of a major city is certainly going to make the news, and helicopters, cameras, and the intrepid Lois Lane are there to capture the action. We get glimpses of how this is affecting people around the world; Superman is the ultimate force in this world, so to see him doing anything other than winning a fight with ease is a huge shock. But before I spend too much more time talking about death, let’s see how the book gets there.
The first few scenes of The Death Of Superman are kind of a fakeout: Superman is going about his day, keeping an eye out for Underworlders, a small army of subterranean monster guys trying to steal Metropolis’ electricity to power their war machines. Even though it’s logical to assume the monsters-stealing-electricity plot is not going to be relevant for long in a story called The Death Of Superman, the writers take their time easing you in with standard hero business. (If Superman was to be killed by a guy named “Clawster,” I, for one, would have been very surprised.) In fact, the only reminders of the book we’re reading are the cutaways to Doomsday, whose first order of business is to smash a little bird in his enormous hands—clearly this dude is bad news.
One thing I didn’t realize when I picked up The Death Of Superman is that it’s comprised of multiple issues of different series—Superman, Superman: The Man Of Steel, Adventures Of Superman, Action Comics, and Justice League America—each contributing pieces of the full story from their unique perspectives. The Justice League America issue, is interesting in that it’s two stories at once. Across the top of the pages, Superman gives an interview on a local talk show for teens. The Q&A session touches on some important themes not only for Superman but for comic books in general: fear, violence, the lengths we sometimes go for the greater good. Meanwhile, the rest of the page consists of erratic panels of Doomsday leveling buildings, hurling cars, and all but killing every member of the Justice League. Oh, and did I mention he’s doing this with one hand tied behind his back?
Eventually Superman has to actually, y’know, fight Doomsday, and once he arrives, the scenes alternate between Doomsday punching things and other characters reacting to it. We see occasional civilians, such as the obnoxious teenager and his mom, whose house becomes ground zero when Ice comes crashing through their window, followed by Superman (who foreshadows his own doom with the line “I don’t know if I’ve ever been hit that hard!”).
The story concludes, inevitably, as the title suggests: Superman dies, bloodied and broken in the streets of Metropolis. His body is surrounded by cameras, onlookers, and the JLA, cradled by a sobbing Lois Lane. Doomsday is vanquished and the city is safe, but the battle cost him every last bit of strength he had. In the final scene, comprising two full pages, we see The Man Of Steel’s iconic red cape, in tatters on a stray beam, an impromptu grave marker in the middle of the rubble.
The final chapter, Superman (Vol. 2) #75, is fascinating in its execution. Each page is a single panel, beginning with Superman and Doomsday locked together in combat, each taking up equal space on the page. The white border around the panel is huge, and as the battle continues the border shrinks, little by little, until it eventually disappears completely and the violence conquers the entire page. It’s as if the battle is so massive it can’t be limited to the panels, and the lines between their world and ours are disappearing.
I couldn’t help but imagine what it might be like for the citizens of a world where superheroes are fairly commonplace. Being able to turn on the television and actually seeing Superman on it, whether it’s giving an interview or dying on the news, is hard to actually picture. But to see that character’s death must feel even more surreal: Superman is essentially godlike, more so than even some of the other heroes, and he walks (and flies) among the people regularly. He’s a comforting presence in their lives, and one that always gives them hope. And now he’s dead.
Of course, in this world superheroes are a dime a dozen, and in the aftermath of The Death Of Superman there’s a storyline called Reign Of The Supermen, so it’s not like the people of Metropolis are ever completely defenseless. But Superman was arguably Zeus to the rest of the DC Universe’s pantheon, and his exit serves to more starkly illustrate mortality than anything else that happened before or since.
What I Liked:
- I really enjoyed seeing the way different artists and writers take turns approaching their chapter of the story. The JLA issue maximizes its space to tell both stories simultaneously, while Adventures Of Superman #497 (“Under Fire”) takes a more sprawling, expansive approach, bringing in familiar characters without really integrating them into the story.
- Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot going on here besides the big fight, and I left the story with a lot of questions. Who are all these Justice Leaguers? What’s up with Lex Luthor and Supergirl? Why is Jimmy Olsen in a fucking turtle outfit? Obviously these are questions comic book fans already know the answers to, but it’s fun having a whole new universe of stories and characters to discover. And I’m pretty sure that’s the point.
- I hope Blue Beetle is OK. But I don’t really care about Guy Gardner; he seems like kind of a dick.
What I Didn’t Like:
- Comic book dialogue is unlike any other, thanks to the visual nature of the medium, and I find some of the writing to be a bit overly explanatory. However, knowing how popular this story was going to be, it’s possible that the writers knew they needed to give certain information away to newcomers, such as when Maxima announces “With my command over metals I can easily lower [the ship] to the ground.” I’m not sure if writing like this is unique to The Death Of Superman stories or if it’s something I’m just going to have to get used to.
- Thanks to Wikipedia, I was able to get a bit of backstory on Doomsday and what’s motivating his destruction. But without that resource, all I know is some guy comes out of the ground and kills Superman, which I guess is good enough for comic books, though not necessarily good enough for me. A half page or even a few lines of explanation might have been enough to give us some insight, and it’s too bad new readers twenty years ago missed out on that level of detail.
As far as I can tell, The Death Of Superman is a great place for someone like me to start. The story is easy to follow, and the emphasis on action keeps your eyes focused and the pages turning. Overall I enjoyed the book, although knowing that Superman just comes back in a few years certainly kills whatever emotional impact his “death” may have had at the time. I guess it’s comforting that even if a god dies, he can always come back with a ponytail.
Read along with Joe and Kevin!
Next up- X-Men: Fatal Attractions
- Spawn vol.1 and Gen 13 vol.1
- Batman: Knightfall
- X-Men: Age of Apocalypse Vol. 2-4
You can also hear Joe and Kevin on their podcast.