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Archive for February, 1993

The Death of Superman

Sunday, February 7th, 1993

Let’s start off this column with a discussion of what was probably the biggest event in comics in 1992 and threatens to continue into ’93: the death of Superman.

Let’s get one thing straight: DC Comics, which has been creating monthly Superman comics since 1938, is a business. It is owned by Time Warner Inc., who are responsible fully to their stockholders. The stockholders only want one thing out of Time Warner, which in turn only wants one thing out of DC Comics: money.

Okay. Now, Superman may be the most well known, as well as one of the oldest comics characters, but in comics old and familiar is boring, which translates into poor sales.

DC has been publishing for a while, so they’ve come up with a number of schemes over the years to try to improve sales. The 50’s and 60’s saw the use of the imaginary story, with stories like “What If Superman married Lois Lane” or “What if Superman lost his powers”. The stories came with disclaimers, but the sales were good. In the 70’s and 80’s, Superman was reinvented several times. His origin was updated (so that instead of him being 40, he was now 27), and new themes were introduced (Clark Kent became a television reporter, villains like Lex Luthor got more powerful). The most thorough reinvention was for Superman’s 50th anniversary in 1988. Many parts of his past 50 years were cut, such as the existence of Superboy, Supergirl, the Phantom Zone, and Krypto the Superdog. Sales were much improved, but after the popular writer/artist who had controlled this left, sales started to slip again.

In 1990, the current writers on the Superman books (three at that time; a fourth was added in 1991 to have a Superman book out every week) decided that they would have Clark Kent pop the question to Lois Lane, in Superman (v.2) 50. This created a surge of media interest and the book sold out. However, this did not translate into increased sales in general in the Superman titles. Take note that there is one way to get out of an engagement without argument.

The Superman writers tried a number of different storylines in 1991, but none proved wildly successful. In early 1992, they were having a meeting when the topic of killing Superman came up. It’s their character; why not? Worked out that day was where and how he should die. They decided to announce it publicly way in advance (they had taken heat over not releasing the engagement plans), and came up with a gigantic alien mental patient to fight Superman (mental patient later changed to escaped prisoner in the interests of PC).

DC was fortunate and released the news about Superman’s death on a slow news day. Every media organization known to man covered the story, and Leno and Letterman talked about it for weeks. The story itself was a long, drawn out “Rocky” movie, a six issue slugfest ending in a typically cliched fashion: Superman’s last punch kills Doomsday, but he then succumbs to his injuries.

The recent storyline has been a huge success. For months, all four books, plus some issues of Justice League America have been selling out. The collector’s edition of Superman 75 (where he dies) has been commanding prices of $25 to $50 around the country. Superman 75 was the third biggest selling comic in history (@4 million), and the fastest selling ever (four printings in a month). The best way to catch the story for yourself is to pick up a copy of the Death of Superman trade paperback, a compilation of the whole storyline, now available at your local comics shop.

Wait a minute, Superman’s dead, right? DC screwed up because they can’t publish a book without its title character, right? Isn’t that the end of the story? Not quite. Most comics readers said “Superman’s dead? So what?” Why? Because death in comics ain’t quite like real life.

If you recall, there was a small media furor in 1987 when DC killed off Robin. However, that wasn’t the original Robin. The original one had a new costume, and the new one had only been around three or four years. Batman has since found another one. In comics, heroes and villains die all the time and come back to life. Readers have become immune to death. What may be original is how Superman comes back.
From Superman’s death until now, the four Superman books have focused on the supporting characters, as well as the attempts to revive Superman and perform an autopsy on his body. Jimmy Olsen has enjoyed success as a result of his exclusive photos of Superman’s death. Lois Lane and Clark’s parents have been shown dealing with his death on a personal level. Jonathan Kent, Clark’s father had a heart attack, slipped into a coma, and apparently died as the Superman titles suspended publication.

Several “one-shots”(one-issue specials) will be published in the next few months will detail how Metropolis handles life without a Superman, especially the large crime wave once criminals realize there’s no one to stop them.

The big news happens on Friday, April 16 when Adventures of Superman 500 ships. But how? Isn’t Superman dead? Yep.

In the double-sized issue, Superman meets his foster father, when both of them are traveling “towards the light”. Their combined force of will enables them to stop themselves passing on to the other side. At the end of the story, Pa Kent awakens from his coma, but Superman is nowhere to be found.

Two weeks later, on Friday, April 30, all four Superman titles ship on the same day, starting a new storyline – “Reign of the Supermen” – That’s right – Supermen. Four different super-powered individuals claim to be the Man of Steel.

Action Comics features a cold, logical (Vulcan?) vigilante who will kill if he thinks it’s necessary. Adventures of Superman features a “superboy” who appears to be a young clone of the original, and apparently has no memories. Superman features a cyborg from space, who claims to be Superman, retooled for the future. Superman: The Man of Steel features a steelworker, John Henry Iron, who was buried alive in the rubble when Superman and Doomsday fought, trashing Metropolis. He creates a high-tech metal suit, becoming a true man of steel.

The kicker is, any or none of these individuals could be Superman. They could be split personalities of the original, or the original is hiding out. In any case, it is unlikely that any of these individuals are Superman, since Clark Kent is nowhere to be found. If sales increase dramatically on one or two titles, that could affect the eventual outcome. If Adventures with the super-boy is successful, watch for him to be expanded into his own title.

Early predictions from fans saw Superman coming back as a grim and gritty vigilante, which is reflected in one of the Supermen.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]