Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the storyline that set the pop culture world on fire in 1992, the Death of Superman and its immediate sequels.
The Superman stable of writers and artists were in a bind. In 1992, four titles starring the Man of Steel were on store shelves: Action Comics, Superman: The Man of Steel, Superman, and Adventures of Superman. The four titles were interlocked with a tight continuity running between them. It was all overseen by Superman group editor Mike Carlin. Together, the group was decided that it was time for Lois and Clark to get married. Their relationship had developed very strongly since the DCU’s reboot in 1986 and it seemed like the right move. However, word came down from the Warner Brothers executives that they wanted to coordinate Clark and Lois’s wedding in the comics with the wedding in an upcoming hour-long television drama currently in development which would eventually be titled Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. That left the Superman team scrambling to think of a new massive storyline to fill the hole in the schedule. They quickly settled on an idea that had been tossed around as a joke for years: They decided to kill Superman.
The Death of Superman story began calmly. While Superman was busy with a threat to Metropolis, a bound figure broke out of a container buried far below the earth. When he reached the surface, the silent behemoth quickly proved his violent nature.
After stumbling upon a busy interstate, the creature set about causing enormous amounts of property damage and loss of life. Hearing of the situation, the Justice League America appeared on the scene and tried to contain the problem. With one hand still tied behind his back, the creature proceeded to dismantle the League. He sent Blue Beetle into a coma from which he barely recovered, nearly killed the Martian Manhunter (then disguised as someone named Bloodwynd), beat down a yellow-ringed Guy Gardner, and thumped Booster Gold so hard that his power suit was damaged for years.
It was Booster who named the creature “Doomsday” after the League’s collective butt was handed to them so spectacularly.
Soon after the JLA fell, Superman arrived on the scene. What followed were issues and issues, and pages and pages, of fight scenes between the two opponents. The longer the battle raged on, the most of Doomsday’s covering flaked off. Beneath the green covering and cables was a grey creature covered in spiky bone. Every time Superman punched one of these protrusions, it hurt him. But punch him Superman did. The two quickly went toe-to-toe as Doomsday continued his cross country rampage which seemed to focus on his getting to Metropolis.
On the street just in front of the Daily Planet, Superman and Doomsday had the last bout of their battle. In Superman (Vol. 2) #75, the battle concluded when the opponents each connected with one last massive blow, which killed both of them. The entire issue was made up of splash pages which filled every corner of the book with over-the-top action. As a sort of countdown to this issue, each previous part of the tale had featured a set number of panels per page. The penultimate chapter had two panels per page, the issue before that had three. With this final issue, the all-out art kept subtlety to a minimum but ramped up the melodrama to an almost overpowering degree. It was unapologetically in readers’ faces.
The tale divided readers. A slugfest killed Superman? Not some wonderfully devious plan by Lex Luthor? No mechanical menace brought about by Brainiac? Not even an exploding Kryptonite whoopee cushion supplied by the Prankster? No, this was Superman being punched in the face to death by a brand new character with whom readers had no emotional attachment. But to a certain subset of readers, like me, it was the greatest thing in the world. Of course, my being 10 when I first read this story might have something to do with that.
While the Death of Superman had little in the way of interesting characterizations, the followup tales were loaded with them. In the storyline immediately following Superman’s death, titled Funeral for a Friend, the impact of Superman on his supporting cast and the other heroes of the DCU was shown. For example, when Superman’s body was entombed at a memorial in Metropolis, a host of superheroes followed his casket to its final resting place.
Perhaps the most devastating moment from this issue wasn’t the funeral itself but Lois Lane calling Martha and Jonathan Kent for the first time following Superman’s death. As she and Clark were engaged to be married, she knew Superman’s secret identity. She also knew that the Kents had to have watched their son die on national television over and over again as the news replayed the footage of Doomday’s rampage. Their conversation was a tear-filled one that still tugs on heart strings.
While Superman’s secret family had to morn his death in silence, the other heroes had to try to fill the void he’d left in his wake. The Matrix Supergirl, not a Kryptonian herself but someone who used the S-shield with Superman’s blessing, took to patrolling Metropolis while various ex-members of the JLA took up Superman’s annual ritual of helping as many people as he could on Christmas Eve. These stories helped explain Superman’s impact on the world and featured more story than anything that happened during Superman’s death.
To Jonathan and Martha Kent, it wasn’t Superman who died that day but their only child Clark. This fact wrecked Jonathan emotionally. He suffered a heart attack while burying some mementos of his boy in his backyard. It was supposed to be his way of burying his son. After being rushed to the hospital, his heart stopped. The Superman line of books went on hiatus as Jonathan flat-lined.
Three months later, the Superman books began to be published again. Picking up immediately where they’d left off, Jonathan found himself in the afterlife where he saw Clark’s soul being seduced by pleasant looking demons. Jonathan gave his boy the will to fight and the two of them left the afterlife together.
Waking up in a Smallville hospital, Jonathan told Martha he’d saved their boy. Believing Jonathan’s vision to be a delusion that his blood starved brain had concocted, Martha was shocked when soon afterwards four men came forward looking and acting like Superman. Which, if any, of these men was Superman reborn? The question enthralled me and the Reign of the Supermen story which followed was the first time I ever began hitting comic shops week after week to get each successive chapter.
The four Supermen who came on the scene each became known by one of Superman’s nicknames. The first was a tough, emotionally distant person who became known as the Last Son of Krypton. John Henry Irons, later known simply as Steel, was known as the Man of Steel. A Cyborg Superman was the Man of Tomorrow. A clone of Superman was really Superboy, but he also went by the Metropolis Kid.
As the Reign of the Supermen story shifted into high gear, it seemed clear that neither Steel nor Superboy were the real deal, but questions persisted about the Last Son of Krypton and the Cyborg. The Last Son looked just like Superman and his base of operations was Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, which accepted him as its master. There was also the question of the Regeneration Matrix suddenly located in the Fortress, which seemed to give this Superman his powers.
Meanwhile, the Cyborg sported Superman’s exact DNA as verified by Professor Emil, Superman’s go-to medical doctor and technological whiz. The metal pieces of the Cyborg’s body were also deemed to be Kryptonian in nature.
Just two months later, the Regeneration Matrix split open and answers were slowly revealed. Out of the Matrix fell a familiar looking figure in a black costume complete with Kryptonian trim.
Soon afterward, this figure commandeered a Kryptonian War Suit and slowly walked to Metropolis from the Arctic.
Meanwhile, the Cyborg showed his true colors. When a giant alien ship appeared over Coast City, Hal Jordan‘s hometown, both the Cyborg and the Last Son investigated. There, it became clear that aliens wanted to destroy Coast City and the Cyborg wanted to make sure they succeeded. Towards that end, he blasted straight through the Last Son’s head with an energy beam.
The aliens, organised by an old Superman villain named Mongul, were able to completely destroy Coast City. Soon after, the Cyborg revealed that he was Hank Henshaw, also an old Superman villain. Hank was now nothing more than a consciousness who could infect technology. The last Superman had seen him, Hank had been flying deep into outer space after taking over the ship which had brought Superman to Earth. When he’d heard of Superman’s death, Hank returned. Thanks to having been a part of Superman’s ship, Hank could now mimic Kryptonian technology and he even knew Superman’s DNA. He was able to create a new body for himself that looked enough like Superman to fool everyone. Hank’s plan was to turn Earth into a technologically powered world that would rule the universe and to blame Superman for betraying his adopted home.
Shortly after it became clear to the world that something had happened to Coast City, the black clad figure arrived in Metropolis. There, he claimed that he was the one true Superman. Though he was able to convince a skeptical Lois he was the real deal, others weren’t so sure. Anxious to find the people who had taken his name after his death, this Superman teamed up with Steel and Superboy to investigate Coast City. There was one slight problem: death had taken away Superman’s powers. In the end, Steel and Superboy agreed to go with this familiar looking man to take down the Cyborg. Once they arrived in the remnants of Coast City, Superman had to arm himself in order to augment his nearly non-existent powers. As the trio were mostly fighting robots, taking up a gun wasn’t the anachronism it could have been.
By the time the trio reached the Cyborg, it seemed clear to everyone that this Superman was the real Superman. Most convinced of all was the mostly regenerated Last Son of Krypton. Now revealed to be an ancient Kryptonian artifact known as the Eradicator, he was bound to see that Krypton would live on in the universe in one form of another. While his previous encounters with Superman had been in an attempt to make Clark Kent act more like a true Kryptonian, the Eradicator used the technology in the Fortress of Solitude to bring Superman back to life. Without the Regeneration Matrix he had placed Superman’s body in, Clark would have been dead forever. However, in order for the Eradicator to regenerate after the Cyborg’s attack, he sucked up all the energy in the Fortress, destroying Superman’s hideaway.
His return to Superman’s side came in the nick of time. The Cyborg had powered the remnants of Coast City with a huge hunk of Kryptonite. Seeing he was caught by the real Superman, he attempted to weaponize the Kryptonite chunk. Only the Eradicator jumping in the way saved Superman’s life and, somehow, allowed him to regain his lost powers.
Just like that, Superman was back to full power with a newly developed head of hair. While it was clear that the Superman team was attempting to make Superman look like the mighty Samson with long, glorious locks, the need to keep Superman’s S-curl in place on his forehead meant that it was really a mullet that the newly revived hero was sporting. It wasn’t his best look. Still, it didn’t stop him from quickly destroying the Cyborg and allowing Hal Jordan to defeat Mongul.
Shortly after his return, Dr. Occult, a creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster just like the Man of Steel, came to Superman and explained to him the details of his resurrection. He explained that Superman wasn’t immortal, no matter that he had just returned to life. The technologies that saved him were now destroyed and could no longer bring him back from the dead. The next time he died would be his last time.
The Death of Superman and the stories that followed were a huge deal on the pop culture landscape. News reports, unaware or willfully ignorant of the soap opera nature of mainstream comics, ran with the story that Superman’s death was permanent when it originally happened. That drove readers to stores, convinced that his death was a big deal and would be worth thousands of dollars one day. Both of those assertions would prove to be wrong and helped lead to the comic market bubble of the mid-1990s.
Superman didn’t simply die in the pages of the comics. This story was adapted to nearly every storytelling medium available save for film or television. Louise Simpson, the then current writer of Superman: The Man of Steel, adapted the story for a ‘tween readers market while Roger Stern, the then current writer of Action Comics, wrote an adult novel.
The following year, The Death and Return of Superman hit retailers shelves as an SNES game. In 1995, a port of the game for the Sega Genesis followed.
Also in the mix were several trading card sets, one focused on the death of Superman and another on his return. A radio adaptation was undertaken by the BBC. A pencil-and-paper role playing game was produced. But perhaps the quintessential ’90s version of the story came in the form of pogs, though DC and SkyBox tried to make them sound even cooler by calling them “SkyCaps.”
For a story which had begun only because the writers had smacked up against publisher interference, the success of the entire Death of Superman endeavor is mind blowing. It launched a pair of new heroes, Steel and Superboy, who both remain a part of comics to this day in the New 52, it sold a boat load of comics, and it enticed me to give this whole weekly comic book thing a chance. It remains a touchstone of the comic book medium twenty years later, for better or for worse.
Jeff Reid blames his mother for buying his brother a copy of the Death of Superman trade paperback. Without her giving that one birthday present, he wouldn’t be writing this today. He needs to thank her via Twitter.