It is said that anyone alive in 1963 knew where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot. It’s one of those events you just can not forget where you were. And for comic fans in 1992 we knew the same, as did many others: 1992 was the year that DC was killing Superman. Now, this did not just hit the comics arena – this was the second time in my recollection when a comic book made international news (the first was when DC opened up the phone lines to determine if Jason Todd should live or die).
The Death of Superman story arc was headlined in newspapers and TV news on a global level. It hit home on many fronts, as there wasn’t anyone who seemed to not have an opinion on one of the most visible superhero’s life. What made it even more unimaginable was that – “Hey, this was Superman! No one can kill him! He’s pretty much immortal!” And that was probably one of the reasons why DC took such a chance.
Superman was just that – the most immortal character out there. Yes, he fought for “Truth, Justice and the American Way!” as the old serials used to say, but his supposed immortality also kept him a step above humanity, those people whom he loved and vowed to protect at all costs. This story arc, where Superman would give his life saving Earth from a creature known as Doomsday, set the tone for the next year of Superman comics.
The full story for Death of Superman played out in 3 parts, similar to what we would see on stage.
Act 1 – The Death
- Superman: Man of Steel #18-19
- Justice League America #69
- Superman #74-75
- Adventures of Superman #497
- Action Comics #684
The story ran through all of those issues and culminated with Superman #75 – a story I remember all too well. It was the first time I had read a comic where every single page was a splash page. Each page was a single panel, and it covered the epic battle between Superman and Doomsday. The final scene was a 3-page spread, showcasing the tragedy.
We see the destruction of Metropolis, and the pain across the faces of those in attendance.
We see the pain on Lois Lane’s face as she holds Superman in her arms as he passes away.
We see members of the Justice League, standing off to the side, incredulous as to what has happened: that the most powerful member of that team – ever – is gone. Artist Dan Jurgens made this scene what it needed to be. There is triumph, but there is also tragedy.
Act 2 – The Funeral
After his death, the entire DC Universe was in mourning… well, the heroes anyway. Each of the heroes wore a black armband with Superman’s S shield on it. Even fans of the comics were participating in this – the bagged issue of Superman #75 contained an armband for anyone to wear.
This act, labeled Funeral for a Friend, spread over the DC Universe for several months. It was still an incredulous loss to the world that this hero had fallen, and it showcased how heroes deal with the death of one of their own. This is one of the first times I can recall a major hero getting a send-off such as this, and the writers, artistss, and everyone at DC should be commended for how they conveyed such emotion to the reader.
One need only look at some of the covers of the issues involved in this arc to know that every single artist involved in this story made sure they were at the top of their game:
Act 2 ends with the final image you see above: simply “The End”. In it, Superman’s Earth father, Jonathon Kent, is on the verge of passing. While approaching that infamous white light, he turns back and heads back to his life. He shoots up in his hospital bed, Martha Kent by his side, and exclaims: “He’s coming back.”
Act 3 – The Return
Although known more as The Return of Superman, when it first came out the story arc was called Reign of the Supermen. This is because there were 4 iterations which seemed to emerge at this time:
- Superboy – A young version of Superman, sporting a leather jacket and shades on his eyes. He was a typical, hormonal teenager, and Lois even sees a young Clark in him. Ultimately, it turns out that Superboy is a clone of Superman (from when his body was stolen during Act 2).
- Steel – A construction worker risks his life to save another without any thought for his own safety. It is thought that the spirit of Superman now rests within this man – John Henry Irons. He creates a suit made out of – you guessed it, steel – for him to do what he can in a world without Superman.
- Cyborg – This version of Superman is half man, half machine. He takes on various mannerisms of Superman which leads Lois to believe that this is, indeed, the man of steel returned from the grave and suffering from some sort of trauma.
- Kryptonian Superman – With his costume outfitted to be more of a traditional Kryptonian piece, with the accessories down the sleeves of the outfit, this Superman appears to be somewhat more… final in how he deals with threats. In other words, this Superman is not opposed to taking a life when he deems it in mankind’s best interests.
Ultimately it turns out that neither of these 4 are the real Superman. The real one has been recuperating in the Fortress of Solitude, and emerges when the villain in their midst – Cyborg-Superman – makes his move to dominate. This re-emerged hero dons a black outfit with a silver S emblem, but even with longer hair (think: MacGyver mullet), there is no mistaking that this is the real Superman. Kryptonian Superman is defeated in this battle, but Steel and Superboy live on, helping Superman to defeat the Cyborg.
So where are we now?
Superman’s death set a number of events within the DC Universe into motion. Cyborg Superman paired up with an alien warlord named Mongul, who then proceed to destroy Coast City, the home of Green Lantern Hal Jordan. This sets Hal on a crash course for his destiny, where he loses his sanity, attacks the Guardians and destroys the Green Lantern Corps, and becomes Parallax. Hal eventually dies saving the universe, but the turning point here is that Coast City needed to be destroyed in order for this to happen.
But we now live within the New 52. Past actions are being cherry picked as to what happened and what did not. If Superman did not die at the hands of Doomsday, then Coast City was never destroyed. Which means Hal Jordan did not go insane. Which means Kyle Rayner never gained a Green Lantern ring. But Kyle DID get a ring, which means Hal DID become Parallax, so Coast City MUST have been destroyed. Right?
The Death and Return of Superman brought exposure to comic books in its day more than any other event. It brought up the industry, but one could also argue it brought forth its eventual decline. How often do we see comic books on a newsstand or in a grocery store magazine shelf? Here in Canada, it’s rare to find non-Archie books except at comic stores or book stores. But DC did something remarkable with the Superman franchise and made him mortal with this story – and with this new Superman that mortality appears to not be present (at least in my opinion).
As such, we should all remember the Death of Superman story as the defining point that proved that, even though he was an alien, Superman was one of us.