Superman #75 is one of the most important stories in comics, and of course it means attempts to emulate it have been far and wide. Not only with Superman himself in two separate animated movies, one of which has a sequel, but in the recent Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Injustice Against Characters You Love And Grew Up With. Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday was big news. At the time Superman was still DC’s flagship and most popular character. Now they use some dark and broody version of Batman but even now Superman is usually the superhero standard. He’s the highest we can achieve as being not because of “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men” but because of his love for people, his courage to press, his desire to instill hope and justice in others, and other things that come from his heart instead of a yellow sun. That’s why those of us who are Superman fans love him so much and wish we were him.
Granted, being able to fly through space and shove planets around helps. 🙂
I don’t think anybody actually believed Superman was going to stay dead even outside of comics fandom. Superman meant way too much back then. It was a marketing gimmick, but really what story isn’t? It’s all about coming up with a story that will draw in readers. “The Death Of Superman” was in turn followed by “Funeral For A Friend” and “Reign Of The Supermen”, the latter indeed finding a way to bring back the original Man Of Steel while also introducing three new character: a heroic version of The Eradicator, Steel, and a new take on Superboy, this time a teenage clone with telekinetic powers instead of typical Kryptonian ones. It drew a lot of attention…which sounds just wonderful to modern writers. They want the praise and adulation. They want to be able to say “I wrote the big life-changing event that everyone loved and changed comics forever”. The problem is they and their editors don’t understand what made the “Death & Return Of Superman” storyline work. Let me see if I can explain it.
What’s the biggest difference between deaths today and Superman’s? Superman died and came back after a long time. The thing is he was the first. Oh, he wasn’t the first comic death, and to be honest probably not the first resurrection. All you needed was a writer who really wanted to write a particular character and suddenly he’s back from the dead, either through retcon or some deus ex machina that restored them to the living world with a shirt reading “I went to the afterlife and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”. But Superman’s was the first one that carried any real impact. Supergirl and the Barry Allen version of the Flash both died in Crisis On Infinite Earths, but the Flash was only recently brought back and given a tragic backstory because today’s DC creatives can’t imagine someone becoming a superhero from something other than tragedy. The Kara Zor-El from the original continuity however is still dead. The Supergirl at the time of Kal-El’s death was a shapeshifting protoplasmic being with psionic powers, when we finally got a Kara she was some new incarnation of the classic Supergirl, and that’s been the trend. Silver/Bronze Age Supergirl is still among the deceased. Both her and Barry’s death mattered but only Barry was brought back, and darkened.
When Superman returned it was the same Superman. No changes to his history beyond the post-Crisis DC Universe’s alterations, and he was still alive when that happened. But it’s not his return that mattered. Now heroes return so often that death is meaningless. When Superman returned it was still rare. So at the time his return was a great thing. Now though? Even in-universe a hero coming back is no big deal. In one of the JLA comics I reviewed a reverend noted that nobody goes to superhero funerals anymore because they come back so often it isn’t worth mourning. Superman was mourned. Nobody in-universe suspected he’d come back. And we saw them mourn. We saw Lois crying of the loss of her fiancé, Jonathan and Martha their son, others their friend, still others their inspiration. We saw a boy get a better sense of life and his broken family after Superman saved them during the early fight with Doomsday, risking his life in the process. It was that time to mourn the fallen that made his death meaningful.
I seem to be going backwards in time here but that takes us to the fight itself. We were talking about Tasha Yar’s death as part of the Star Trek: The Next Generation story bible review last week, and how meaningless her death was. She didn’t die protecting the ship. She didn’t die protecting her friends. She died like the usual cannon fodder redshirt, which speaks poorly to how they approached her character. This was fixed in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, where knowing she wasn’t supposed to be alive in this altered timeline opted to go back with the previous Enterprise to the battle where the ship and crew were killed by the Romulans. She knew she was fated to die then, but this time her sealed fate meant something. With the ship’s usual tactical officer dead in the altered timeline war with Klingons she chose to go with them and have this death mean something. That’s much better than being backhanded by a tarpit.
Compare it also to the superhero comedy comic Love And Capes, where in one story a hero named Windstar dies rescuing people. These were not “blaze of glory” deaths. Windstar was dealing with an attack but he died holding up a building the supervillain had destroyed, not in actual battle with him. And in that same issue we saw how his death mattered to his family, how (with superhero deaths no longer permanent) a system had been developed to ensure the dead was and will most likely stay dead. (They called the procedure “Miracle Max” after The Princess Bride“.) It was also a death that mattered to all those people in the building he saved. By the way, I can’t recommend that story enough. Even if you didn’t follow Windstar in earlier issues you still see how he was missed and how they protect his identity even in death, which was one of the struggles Lois, the Kents, and Lana had to deal with. It’s proof that you don’t have to die gloriously as long as it matters and not just some “shock death” to show how serious things are.
Superman, on the other hand, did go down in a blaze of glory, at the hands of the only creature MORE powerful than Superman. While guys like Darkseid and Mongul were at his level and only Superman’s heart pushed him through, Doomsday was just above his power level and Superman had to kill himself to stop Doomsday…and even then he wasn’t really dead, as shown later in the arc and in Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey. Even then he took time to save other people, and before then (at least according to the novelization we just finished) he was giving an interview in front of kids and answering their questions. He also saved the life of one of the four “Supermen”, and it was that rescue that gave him the strength to become Steel and actually face the problems of his past. Superman inspired in life, and in death. Granted that included a Superman cult but that’s hardly his fault.
Compare any of this with two particular deaths of recent time: Batman, after being hit with Darkseid’s Omega Beams, and the former Teen Titans over in Heroes In Crisis. (What is it with DiDio’s DC and the obsession with “Crisis” titles?) The latter is just cannon fodder deaths because DiDio hates sidekicks and legacy characters (never mind that Barry Allen and Hal Jordan are themselves legacy characters but he grew up with them so they don’t count). In Batman’s case it started a battle for the mantle of Batman after Jason Todd (himself a result of the revolving door of the afterlife) tried to make a “superior” Batman. All we got from that was Damien Wayne as Robin and Bat-Cow. When’s the last time he was important once Damien got his gargoyle ride? By this point so many characters had been resurrected that nobody cared anymore both in and out of universe. Mourning was limited and until they killed Lian Harper, a child no less, there was no assurance that anyone who died would stay that way. And frankly I’m only convinced she’s staying dead because they altered the universe so she never existed in the first place. Because DC hates kids or something.
While Superman’s death was a gimmick it was one that wasn’t just treated as one. They worked to come up with a solid story, one that honored Superman and his legacy. It was a story that didn’t just kill off a character for shock but actually explored what Superman meant to Metropolis and the world, how they carried on, how some carried on in his name including Bibbo, a poorly educated bartender who adopted the dog he saved from an idiot and had already started doing good deeds around Suicide Slum in the name and respect of his “fav’rite”. They showed how his death impacted others, and how happy everyone was when he returned. Now it’s more like “Oh, you’re back from the dead? Did you pick up milk?” The shock is gone because it’s gone on for so long nobody cares anymore. Only seeing a minor hero someone might have liked die from a random energy blast gets is “hey look, he dead” and only someone who actually liked that hero is disappointed. Because the minor characters stay dead.
Superman’s death was, if not THE last time, then at least one of the last times until that Love And Capes story the last time anyone, from the citizens and heroes themselves to the readers and probably even the writers, cared about the death even when we knew it would be undone somehow. Maybe Marvel citizens cried at Steve Rogers’ death (who like Batman was also bouncing around time but unlike Batman didn’t make a lot of sense even in-universe). Then he came back and became Hitler. Because screw you and your heroes, but that’s a whole other topic.
If death is ever to matter again DC writers and editors need to just not kill anybody for a while. Make a series that focuses on the lesser-known heroes (like the old Showcase insertyearhere comics), and makes them someone you don’t want to see die beyond just human nature, which doesn’t work as well for fictional characters we’ve never gotten to know as it does real-life people you hear about dying on the evening news or some article your friend on Facebook posted. Make the characters matter, make DEATH ITSELF matter in the universe, and don’t kill anyone until you’ve found a way to convince us that being dead could be permanent. Until you can do that, don’t kill any character. You aren’t shocking us. You’re just annoying us, and the next stop is boring us. You want to excite me? Do a story where nobody dies, even temporarily, and still make it suspenseful and eventful. But I don’t think they can do that anymore. Body counts are more fun. And when you bring them back, you get to kill them again! Isn’t being lazy and torturing childhood icons fun kids?
The answer is “no, you sadistic jackass!”.