DC Histories: The Death and Return of Superman

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.

Superman (Vol. 2) #75 (1993) Cover

Superman (Vol. 2) #75 (1993) Cover

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.

From Superman: The Man of Steel #18 (1992)

From Superman: The Man of Steel #18 (1992)

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.

From Justice League America #69 (1992)

From Justice League America #69 (1992)

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.

From Superman: The Man of Steel #19 (1993)

From Superman: The Man of Steel #19 (1993)

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.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #75 (1993)

From Superman (Vol. 2) #75 (1993)

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.

From Superman: The Man of Steel #20 (1993)

From Superman: The Man of Steel #20 (1993)

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.

From Adventures of Superman #500 (1993)

From Adventures of Superman #500 (1993)

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.

Reign of the Supermen Posters (1993)

Reign of the Supermen Posters (1993)

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.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #687 (1993)

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #687 (1993)

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.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #689 (1993)

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #689 (1993)

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.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #80 (1993)

From Superman (Vol. 2) #80 (1993)

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.

From Adventures of Superman #504 (1993)

From Adventures of Superman #504 (1993)

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.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #82 (1993)

From Superman (Vol. 2) #82 (1993)

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.

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #692 (1993)

From Action Comics (Vol. 1) #692 (1993)

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.

Superman: Doomsday and Beyond (1993) Cover and The Death and Life of Superman (1993) Cover

Superman: Doomsday & Beyond (1993) Cover and The Death and Life of Superman (1993) Cover

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.

Death and Return of Superman SNES (1994)

The Death and Return of Superman SNES (1994)

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.”

DC Skycaps (1993)

DC SkyCaps (1993)

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.

Comments

  1. Radmobile Radmobile says:

    This story played a big role in getting me into comics. This and the X-Men cartoon on Fox.

    • phess1 phess1 says:

      Exactly the same for me with the addition of the X-Men 1 with the Jim Lee fold out cover. I remember buying the death of superman issue at Target of all places and reading it over and over again until my cousin gave me his old comics.

  2. Mickey Mickey (@GeeksOfChrist) says:

    That SNES game is fun to look at, but it gets repetitive really fast.

    When was this removed from continuity? Was it the new 52, or some earlier reboot that finally unkilled Superman?

    • Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Superman alludes to his death in Swamp Thing #1. So it’s there if you want it.

    • Jeff Reid Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

      As Paul says, Superman did die at some point in the New 52, but it’s a different story than what we see here. After all, Steel and Superboy now have different origins, so something has certainly changed. Just what that change is hasn’t been revealed, nor may it ever be.

    • cosmo cosmo says:

      Also, if you threw our Reign of Superman, wouldn’t that majorly mess up Hal Jordon’s back story as well?

    • Jeff Reid Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

      Having read few New 52 Green Lantern comics, I have no idea if Hal Jordan even became Parallax anymore. But yes, the destruction of Coast City is what set Hal off on his path to becoming Parallax and destroying the Green Lantern Corps, at least pre-Flashpoint.

  3. Alexa D. says:

    Max Landis’s YouTube video about this story is the best. Elijah Wood plays Hank Henshaw. Mandy Moore is Lois Lane.

  4. Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    My introduction to this came by way of the junior novelization. It had a dramatis personae in the front with little thumbnail portraits of each of the characters. I was enthralled.

    • Jeff Reid Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

      Those portraits, and the illustrations inside the book itself, were done by Dan Jurgens and Jose Louis Garcia-Lopez. Really great stuff.

  5. WillMc WillMc says:

    “nearly killed the Martian Manhunter (then disguised as someone named Bloodwynd)”

    Bloodwynd. Oh nineites.

  6. cubman987 cubman987 says:

    I can’t believe it’s been 21 years since this came out, this was right when I started reading comics and I remember what a huge deal this was…my mom even read it when I was done.

  7. Skruff Skruff says:

    The Death & Return of Superman is really the only time when I’ve been completely enthralled with Superman comics in all my years of reading outside of the Man of Steel/John Byrne era. What’s more is that one epic storyline kept me engaged for several years afterward. I stuck with the Superman comics through the Super Mullet (and I was thrilled when Clark & Lois finally got married so he could get a much needed haircut), but I stopped shortly after the Electric Red/Blue Superman storyline.

    Nothing they’ve done with the character since then has drawn me back in to Superman. I was hoping the New 52 reboot would hook me, but unfortunately, it was too much of Grant Morrison’s unfocused playground of grandiose ideas that never converged into a cohesive narrative (at least to me).

  8. JokersNuts JokersNuts says:

    This story was HUGE for me, I had all the novels and cards and comics associated with it. My dad would read it with me. This story and Knightfall had a huge hand in getting me seriously into comics when I was a kid.

  9. thompsonlive thompsonlive says:

    This youtube video has always been my favorite synopsis of the death and return of superman http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PlwDbSYicM It also stars Elijah Wood, Mandy Moore, and a cameo by Ron Howard.

  10. BanjoDuck BanjoDuck says:

    This is pretty fascinating, thanks Jeff! I did not know that the whole “Death of” storyline was a time filling measure so that they could line the wedding up with “Lois & Clark”. Last year at C2E2 I found a bunch of Superman titles that were before the “Death of” storyline, and I started gathering all of those wondering how it all lead up to Superman dying, and I’m still in the middle of reading through those.
    I remember “Funeral For a Friend” breaking my heart when I was a kid, up to that point I don’t know that a comic book had ever really had a strong emotional impact on me.

  11. cosmo cosmo says:

    I read all of these when they came out (I was in my teens), but don’t really remember that much about them, so I guess they weren’t as huge for me (I was already making weekly trips to the comic store), I do recall guessing pretty early that none of the four Supermen were the true thing and that DC had a fifth surprise up their sleeve. Also, I always thought that Doomsday was pretty lame — at least with Bane, DC did a little character building before Knightfall. Still, always loved Steel; I’m so glad he survived into the New 52 . . .

    As always, great article Jeff. I’ve been curious about revisiting these issues someday . . .

  12. IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

    This was a terrible storyline and “Death of Superman” remains one of worst GNs I’ve ever read. The first book is all about one long drawn out fight , the next is an entire book devoted to every single character crying, the thrid… well I didn’t mind the third one so much because it was like a breath of fresh air compared to the first 2. Sorry to everyone that loves this story, but to me this a classic example of how not to write Superman. I remember reading somewhere that DoS and Knightfall were DC experimenting with making Supes and Bats more contemporary (IE darker and more violent), knightfall was written much better but DoS did dream big; if the real Superman died it would take 4 people with a fraction of his power to fill the void. Looking back tho, Supergirl (if she hadn’t been a Luthor clone that is) should have been enough to protect Metropolis. The whole “superman gang of imposters” is parody kinda in the “World’s Finest” maxi series if anybody’s interested.

  13. ghettojourno ghettojourno says:

    Reading this makes me want to buy that Death and Return Omnibus.

  14. God that SNES game. That was the first real disappointment I had when it came to video games. It was so hard for me, and I have no idea why, I got bored of it really quickly.

  15. BCDX97 BCDX97 says:

    I thought the Death of Superman was really quite dumb, but the Reign of the Superman was great. And then when Superman came back I lost interest and quit reading the books.

  16. Cyborg6971 says:

    I love these articles. This and the flashback ones keep me coming back to this site daily, thanks for this.

  17. jmv jmv says:

    I remember collectors paying outrageous prices for the death issue on ebay thinking they were going to be millionaires or something. Now you can get the issue for cover price or less. I guess all that hype worked for the secondary market at least.

  18. When I was a child, I had a poster of all the DC heroes surrounding Superman’s coffin. I remember staring at the poster thinking, what could kill Superman. I didn’t read comics back then, and the internet wasn’t really a thing at the time, so I never found out.

    Fast forward to a few months ago, I happened to pick up “The Death of Superman” TPB on discount sale. I immediately bought it and went home to devour the book. I have to say, I was completely blown away! It was terrible! Down right terrible! Just awful. God awful. It was like reading a Dragonball Z comic. Honestly, it was like watching Goku and Frieza grunting at each other for 40 pages! Heck, it even ended like the first season of Dragonball!

    I cannot imagine how this comic was received as anything other than discontent. Superman deserved a better death. One where he goes out trying to save the world, where the world does more than sit idly by and watch their hero fight on TV. A death where his enemy is more than an unknown quantity. Someone like Lex Luthor or Braniac. Someone that truly inspires fear. Not Doomsday. No, Doomsday is a villain of the week, at best.

    Superman deserved better than this trite. We all know it.

  19. BC1 BC1 says:

    I’m sort of glad that it was such a basic story, because having read it a few years ago it was bogged down with a lot of mythos that I knew nothing about. The alien Supergirl, “Alexander” Luthor (who was really Lex but acted as his son), and a bunch of other stuff that just made me scratch my head and say “huh?”

    But then it also ties into Green Lantern, because this was the moment that led him into becoming Parallax. Though I always thought he got the white hair above his ears after merging with Parallax, but these books already have him with it.

    I always wondered if the tie-in to the TV show was apocryphal, but I guess it’s true.