The “Death of Superman” was my introduction to comic books, and it has forever been the very best story told in any comic book ever in my mind. I think every comic collector on the planet remembers the first comic they bought, or the first story line that really grabbed their imaginations. Well Superman #78 (the first full issue dedicated to the Cyborg Superman) was the first book I bought, and the Death of Superman story line is THE story by which I have compared all others for twenty years. Let’s be honest that year was a pretty big year for Superman and DC Comics, and if you were entering your first comic shop in 1993 the “Death of Superman” was hard to miss and avoid.
In fact the “Death of Superman” story arc was the most successful promotional campaign DC Comics had ever pulled off, and as Larry Tye reveals in his book: “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero”, it was almost all by accident.
Killing Superman Was Nothing New.
For years the Mike Carlin the Superman group editor between 1986 and 1996 and his creative teams would hold annual meetings in which the team would plot the coming year’s story lines. Tye describes these meetings as being full of ideas, and at times full of tension. When it would all get to be to much Jerry Ordway would throw out the remark “everyone dies … the end.” (Tye: 243) It had become something of a yearly tradition for Ordway to throw out this idea but in 1991 he changed it up a bit, suggesting just Superman dies.
In 1991 there were external factors playing on the Superman creative teams. When DC re-booted their universe in 1986′s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” the team had been moving Lois Lane away from her infatuation with Superman, and towards falling in love with Clark Kent. By 1991 Lois and Clark were engaged and the team was preparing to write a year’s worth of wedding themed story lines culminating in their wedding. Those plans were forced to the back burner when Time Warner (the owner of DC Comics at the time) forced the creative team to put those plans on hold. The television division of the company was getting ready to air “The Adventures of Lois and Clark”, and planned to have the two characters marry on TV. As Tye explains Time Warner wanted the marriage of Lois and Clark to happen at the same time on TV and in the comics, and so that left Carlin and his creative team with short notice to come up with another year’s worth of story lines.
So when Ordway threw out is annual suggestion Carlin was all ears. They weren’t breaking any new ground by killing off Superman, after all he had “died” for the first time in 1943, and then again in 1950, and again in 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1984, and twice in 1987. The difference was these stories of Superman’s demise were just part of a ruse Superman would use to capture the bad guy, this time in 1991 the Superman team was thinking about putting the Man of Steel in the ground and keeping him there for a good long time. So from the creators perspective they were simply going back to the well again, but sticking out for a little longer then an issue or two.
After the annual meeting Carlin and his team had the rough outlines of what would become the epic Doomsday/Superman battle and the death of Superman at the hands of this new foe. The story was going to take place over a series of issues, and that’s about as far as they got. What would happen after the killed Superman was still yet to be decided. You don’t get the sense from Tye’s interviews with the creative team that there was any sense of urgency to think that far ahead. They were going to kill Superman for a twelfth time, and bring him back, just like the company had done time and time again in the past. There was nothing different about this time, other then the foe they were creating to do the dastardly deed.
An Unexpected Reaction.
Something different did happen this time though. Somehow word leaked that DC Comics was planning on killing off Superman, and for the vast majority of Americans this was a real shock to the system. Superman had been around for decades, and at least three generations had gotten to know the character as a symbol for the “American way” – a determined, moral compass. Killing him off was something entirely new and unexpected to most people. It didn’t take long for the news to hit the national media outlets, and when it did DC started to reel with the attention. This was not new to them or the audiences they had been writing for, and so they hadn’t considered another death of Superman story line to garner any more attention then the previous eleven times the company had “killed” off the last son of Krypton.
Realizing that so much attention was focused on the Death of Superman the creative team scrambled to extend the story line a few more months. This is when the “Funeral for a Friend” and the “Reign of the Supermen” story lines were born. Growing up I had always thought of the “Death of Superman” as a fully planned event. It was so big, and so influential on the comic industry as a whole (it spawned the 1990′s speculation craze), as well as in the DC Universe itself that it seemed impossible that it was all by accident.
Tye does a really excellent job of explaining how this actually wasn’t the case, and the various ways in which factors external to the comic book industry lead to the Death of Superman becoming a reality. The Death of Superman is only a small part of a late chapter in Tye’s book which is rich with the history of Superman throughout the 20th century. It’s worth picking up for anyone interested in Superman, but also anyone interested in how Superman shaped the comic book industry as a whole.