Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Back to the 90s: The Death of Superman

By Chris Buchner

Featured Writers: Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Karl Kesel, William Messner-Loebs, Gerard Jones

Featured Artists: Jon Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice, Dan Jurgens, Dennis Janke, Denis Rodler, Walter Simonson, Curt Swan, M. D. Bright

In 1985, the DC Universe was rebooted in the crossover event “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” bringing sense and unity to a fractured continuity cause by the tonal change in stories between the Silver and Modern Ages of comics. One of these changes was a revamp of Superman, courtesy of John Byrne’s The Man of Steel mini-series. A dispute caused Byrne to leave DC, and Roger Stern took over the Superman books following Byrne’s blueprint. But, sales on the books steadily declined. DC tried to snag new female readers by changing the eternal Superman/Clark Kent/Lois Lane love triangle that had been in place since the characters’ creation in 1938. Byrne had already established that Lois was falling for Clark over Superman, and the creative team felt his continuing to keep his identity from her made him the biggest liar on the planet and thus tarnished the boy scout image of the character. So, they had him revealed his identity and a proposal later, the stage is set for the Superman wedding.

Except Warner Bros, owner of DC, had other ideas. They had cancelled the Superboy TV series to make way for the new Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman starring Dean Cain and Terry Hatcher in the lead roles. As the title implies, the focus was on the reporters and their budding romance, rather than the man of steel’s adventures. Plans to marry the two came up during production, and after a sit-down with the Superman writing staff it was agreed that the developing marriage plotline in the comics would be put on hold to allow the show to do the story first. Despite the aggravation over having a year’s worth of planned stories casually swept aside, the show had to go on and the comics needed a new original event to fill the gaping hole.

During some of the story meetings at DC where the Superman team would plan out an entire year’s worth of stories to make the four Superman books coordinated to feel like a weekly comic, writer Jerry Ordway had begun the running gag idea of killing Superman off. The gag intrigued editor Mike Carlin enough to eventually become an actual idea. In a world that had come to rely on Superman to solve all their problems, what would happen if they lost him?


Doomsday was created by writer/artist Dan Jurgens to be a big, hulking creature with bony protrusions all over that served as both armor and offensive weapons. His name was chosen simply because at the summit they wrote down “Doomsday for Superman,” and he literally was to be the end of Superman. However, nothing was revealed about the character in his first appearances. It would eventually be revealed that Doomsday was sent as a baby to a harsher ancient planet Krypton by the alien Bertron to become the ultimate life form. The infant was killed by the inhabiting creatures, and its remains would be harvested and cloned repeatedly to create a virtual accelerated form of natural selection. Eventually, he could adapt on his own and after killing all the creatures of Krypton he began an interplanetary tour of violence. It eventually took the destruction of a fifth of a world to put Doomsday down. His supposedly dead body was bound, placed in a casket and launched into space where it would eventually crash-land on Earth and end up deep underground.

Shrouded in a green body suit with one hand tied behind his back, Doomsday spent the last page of several comics hitting a steel door until he finally broke free of his prison in Superman: the Man of Steel #18. Thus began Doomsday’s rampage. The path of destruction eventually got the attention of the Justice League, composed of Green Lantern Guy Gardner, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Maxima, Fire, Ice and Bloodwynd, who proceeded to attack the monster with absolutely no success. Superman entered the fray, rescuing Booster Gold from being flung into space and allowing him the honor of naming Doomsday within the comic.

What followed was a brawl between two titans, as Superman fought to keep Doomsday away from Metropolis while also trying to protect any innocents that happened to be in their path. The League offers what support they can, which is just about the same as their initial confrontation. In fact, the only true damage Doomsday seems to have taken from all of their best shots combined was to his outer covering, revealing his true self once and for all.

On the human side, the Daily Planet had gotten wind of the battle and dispatched its best reporter, and coincidentally Superman’s love interest, Lois Lane with photographer, and Superman’s friend, Jimmy Olsen to cover the story. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (living as his own son as a cover for removing his brain from his cancer-ridden body into a younger cloned one) tried to dissuade the current Supergirl, also known as the shape-shifting protomass from another dimension called Matrix, from entering the fight and stay with him. Out of love for Lex, she did initially.

After trashing the mountain where Project Cadmus, a government genetic engineering project, was housed, the fight eventually moved into Metropolis where Doomsday decided to go after seeing an event for the city and a road sign leading there. The fight continues and the devastation brought outside the city now finds itself within. The police attempt to do their jobs, but have even less effect than the heroes have had to this point. Superman’s allies, the scientist Professor Hamilton and former longshoreman Bibbo Bibbowski, try to use a laser Hamilton invented but to no avail. Supergirl finally goes against Lex’s wishes and joins the fight, but one punch from Doomsday reverts her to her original humanoid state and takes her out.

Superman finally finds out that the bony protrusions on Doomsday’s body that could cut his skin could also be broken, hurting Doomsday for the first time since he escaped. The two titans slugged it out in the middle of the city, before each deliver the final blow that knocks both of them down. Superman, satisfied with the knowledge that he managed to stop Doomsday, succumbs to his injuries and seemingly dies in Lois’ arms.

The final four issues of the story, an artistic decision was made to use increasingly less and larger panels to fully encompass the scope of the action in the conflict. Adventures of Superman #684 was done entirely with 4 panels per page, Action Comics #684 had three, Superman: the Man of Steel #19 featured only two, and Superman vol. 2 #75 was done entirely with one image per page. Because each issue came out successively, the change was subtle and flowed very well between them. #75 also featured two covers; a special bagged edition with a tombstone on the whole cover, and the regular newsstand cover of Superman’s tattered cape flowing amidst the rubble. The latter cover sold the most.

The event was highly publicized in the media at just the announcement of the story, and many people lined up at their local comic shops to pick up sometimes several copies of Superman #75. But it wasn’t just comic fans; it was also those who knew of Superman but never read a comic up until that point. There were even pseudo funerals for the Man of Steel. However, not all fan response was positive. DC was bombarded with letters blasting them for killing off their favorite hero and an icon. Others had come to believe that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt that wouldn’t last in order to generate more interest in the books and raise what was then slumping and stagnant sales, especially when it was closely followed by the Batman “Knightfall” storyline (See BACK TO THE 90s: KNIGHTFALL).

Chuck Rozanski, owner of retailer Mile High Comics, wrote an essay in the Comics Buyer’s Guide where he blamed this story as having a significant role in the comic industry bust of the late 1990s (See COMICS: THE FOUR-COLORED HISTORY). Indeed, many speculators had snatched up copies of #75 in its special black bag with simple S-Shield on the front in the hopes that it would become a valuable collectible, but upon Superman’s return its value was gone. It was also attributed to opening the door wide open for companies to embrace the concept of comic book death (see COMIC BOOK DEATH) and resulted in many character resurrections. Many fans also felt the further appearances of Doomsday added nothing to the character and cheapened his initial threat to Superman.

And the creators behind it all? For a brief time, they were comparable to celebrities. Magazines and TV shows would call them up for interviews, malls would be filled with people waiting for autographs, they gained notoriety at conventions, they were invited to be extras on Lois & Clark, and even met Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. And, like many celebrities involved in something controversial, they also received some death threats and at times were chased by fans.


The Death of Superman was nothing more than a glorified grudge-match, and the creators behind the story knew this. That’s why the follow-up to the actual fight was so important. In “Funeral for a Friend,” Superman was given a grand funeral that most of the DC super heroes and all of Metropolis showed up to attend, including then-President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary. The creative team also made a cameo within the crowd. A mausoleum was erected in Metropolis and every hero would sport a black arm band featuring the S-Shield.

The stories after the funeral dealt with the emotions of the general public and specific characters from Superman’s cast. Particularly heart-wrenching was the fact that Jonathan and Martha Kent, Superman’s adoptive Earth parents, could only watch the funeral on TV to preserve his secret identity as Clark Kent. To mourn their own way, the buried his childhood treasures near the crater where the rocket landed when they found him. That story came to a head when Lois, at this time engaged to Clark/Superman, had finally come to the Kents for emotional support after having avoid them to prevent making it real. These were arguably some of the finest moments to come out of the story as a whole.

The rest of the world who wasn’t mourning, it was business as usual. Without Superman, crime was on the rise and other Metropolis based heroes stepped up to fill the gap, including Team Luthor, a Lexcorp-sponsored team, but none of them could match up to the Man of Steel, Guardian and the vigilante Gangbuster. Project Cadmus had stolen Superman’s body from his mausoleum in what was believed an attempt to clone him, but Lois and Supergirl retrieved it. Supergirl would also go on to impersonate Clark Kent using her shape shifting abilities and the cover story that Clark was trapped in a well-stocked cellar from the Doomsday battle so as to reduce suspicion about why he disappeared the same time as Superman.

Jonathan Kent took the death of his son especially hard, and suffered a major heart attack. At this point, all the Superman comics went on a three-month hiatus. As great as the stories were that were being produced, DC felt that they couldn’t effectively sell the death of the title character if the books kept on going. The last Superman book published at the time was Newstime, which recounted Superman’s life and legacy like a memorial.


It was always intended for Superman to return, the question was: how to do it? At the DC summit meeting for the story, the creators figured that his return should have something to do with Krypton and his alien heritage. Another idea was thrown about to make Superman different somehow, and they came up with various concepts based on the different nicknames Superman has had over the years. Instead of picking just one, it was decided to go with all four based on writer Louise Simonson’s suggestion and a new story was born. The Superman titles began again, starting with Adventures of Superman #500 which followed Jonathan Kent into the Afterlife following his heart attack. There, he convinced Superman’s soul to come back with him. It was believed to be a hallucination, until upon his awakening the four Supermen made themselves known.

Superman #78 saw the introduction of The Man of Tomorrow created by Dan Jurgens, known as Cyborg Superman due to half of his body being replaced with augmented Kryptonian cybernetic technology. Science helped prove he was the real deal, but claimed amnesia prevented him from recalling how he got to this state or much of his past. Suspicious, but the idea there was that everyone was so desperate for the void to be filled in the people would accept anything.

Adventures of Superman #501 brought us Superboy (who later became simply Connor Kent when lawsuits over the rights to the name Superboy came into play in regards to an earlier version of Superman when he was a kid) created by Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett. Superboy was a teenaged version of Superman cloned from his DNA and that of Lex Luthor’s by Project Cadmus. Unlike Superman, however, Superboy had none of the vision powers and relied on tactile telekinesis to simulate the flying, strength and invulnerability of the original. He was also severely arrogant, which was attributed to the arrogance of youth.

Superman: the Man of Steel #22 received The Man of Steel, later renamed Steel, creaed by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove. Ironworker John Henry Irons was an ex-weapons designer for the military. Seeing a need to be filled as the weapons he created made it out into the streets, he created a suit of armor and wielded a large hammer, complete with a red cape and S-Shied on his chest. Irons never claimed to be Superman, but rather sought to represent his spirit and continue his legacy while making up for his own sins in the past.

Action Comics #687 introduced physically the closest incarnation of Superman, The Last Son of Krypton created by Roger Stern, later renamed the Eradicator. Unlike the others, he claimed to have all the memories of Superman but lacked any emotion and often dealt with criminals in a lethal fashion. He also had energy beams that emanated from his hands and a light sensitivity that forced him to always wear a strange pair of glasses. He was Superman if he never had his Earthly upbringing.

Each introductory issue featured two covers; one with the character posing, the other featuring a die-cut cover with their particular logo that opened up to a close pin-up of each character. The initial stories featured each of the Supermen returning to duty to protect the city. The public readily accepted Cyborg and Eradicator as the original, based on the scientific test by Hamilton that confirmed the Cyborg and Lois interviewing both of them to find they had some semblance of Clark’s memory. Also, it was solidified by the fact Superman’s body was once again missing from his mausoleum. However, both of these turned out to be a little more than copies.

The mystery became which, of any of these were, the REAL Superman? As the story progressed, it was revealed that the Eradicator was actually an ancient Kryptonian weapon. He stole Superman’s body and brought it to his Fortress of Solitude, a lair similar to Kryptonian architecture in the arctic, and placed him in a regeneration matrix. It would later be revealed that Superman was not really dead, rather he went into a form of hibernation to heal from his injuries, and the Eradicator was using the regeneration energies to power himself.

Meanwhile, the Cyborg turned out to be Hank Henshaw, whom Superman had dealings with before. After exposure to cosmic radiation in space caused his body to deteriorate, he was able to project his mind into a computer and from there into the birthing matrix that brought Superman to Earth. He went off into space alone, gradually becoming delusional and paranoid, blaming Superman for his condition and the deaths of his friends and wife. He constructed his new body using the matrix and his ability to control technology. During his space travels, he encountered Superman’s foe Mongul and forcibly recruited him for his revenge plot. Together, they destroyed Coast City, home of the Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and erected a towering construct called Engine City in its stead.

Superboy had escaped capture and with Eradicator believed dead returned to Metropolis to recruit Steel for help. There, they encountered and battled a Kryptonian battle armor before learning that the real Superman, having been released from the matrix greatly depowered, used it to get from the Fortress to there. They, along with Hal Jordan who returned from space, launched an assault on Engine City and saved Metropolis from becoming the second version. Superman’s powers were returned when the Eradicator covered him from a dose of gas made from Kryptonite, the only thing that can kill Superman, and it interacted with his physiology passing onto Superman to restore his powers and degenerated the Eradictor’s body to a lifeless husk. Superman then destroyed the Cyborg’s body, but Henshaw’s consciousness lived on.


The Wedding (remember the wedding? The whole reason this story had to happen?) ended up being delayed further in order to coincide with the wedding episode of Lois & Clark, so the Superman writers featured stories where the relationship between he and Lois became rocky and they separated for a time. It wouldn’t be until 1996 when Lois would return and the two made amends. Superman had cut his hair short as it had been long since his resurrection, and the two were wed in Superman: the Wedding Album; a giant one-shot featuring many creators from Superman’s run. Meanwhile, Superman was experiencing an increase in his powers, leading towards his becoming electrical. But that’s a story for another flashback.

Steel and Superboy would go on to have their own monthly titles. Superboy was a founding member of the team Young Justice and later became a Teen Titan. Just before the court ruled that the rights to Superboy had reverted to the estate of Jerry Siegel, the character was killed off in the recent event Infinite Crisis. Although, DC attributes that to just timing and not a direct cause for the character’s death.

Steel continued on as a hero, even joining the Justice League, until an eventual retirement but remained a close ally to Superman. He also scored his own movie in 1997 starring Shaquil O’Neil. Recently, he returned to active duty in the series 52 to save his daughter, Natasha, from the schemes of Lex Luthor. He briefly gained powers from Luthor’s Everyman Program, which created superheroes Luthor could control, and now led Natasha and other super powered victims of Luthor in the now-canceled series Infinity, Inc.

The Cyborg had battled Superman and Green Lantern many more times on many different fronts, his body often destroyed and his consciousness stored somewhere else until a new one could be built. Most recently, he became one of the fallen Green Lantern Sinestro’s Sinestro Corps in the hopes that it would lead to his ultimate demise. However, destroyed once again, he was found and revived by the technological race called Manhunters that he had taken over prior to Sinestro’s recruitment of him.

The Eradicator was killed and revived several times in a new form, as both a hero with the Outsiders and enemy to Superman. Eradicator’s last appearance to date was Superman #220, where he was seriously injured by an OMAC, a cyborg that took over a human host and became a lethal killing machine. It was mentioned during Infinite Crisis that he was in a coma at Steel’s headquarters, Steelworks.

Doomsday wasn’t done in the pages of the comics. Cast into space tied to a meteor by the Cyborg, he was still very much alive and Superman goes after his body in the mini-series Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey. His origin was revealed there and in his own 1995 annual featuring three stories of death and destruction he’s caused galaxies away. Superman: The Doomsday War saw Superman’s old foe Brainiac take over Doomsday’s mind and Superman must defeat them both to save his ex-girlfriend Lana Lang’s newborn baby. Superman: Day of Doom explored how the original fight affected those that knew Superman and introduced the new villain Remnant.

The destruction of Coast City led to DC revamping Green Lantern. Hal Jordan suffered a mental breakdown after using his power ring to rebuild the city, and was called back to Oa, the planet that houses the Green Lantern Corps, for punishment for using his ring for personal gain. Jordan rebelled, destroyed the Corps, and absorbed the power of the Corps’ main power battery turning himself into the entity known as Parallax. Kyle Rayner would be introduced as his replacement, and Parallax would become the central villain in the event “Zero Hour.” The Corps have since been restored and Jordan returned to normal after returning from the dead.

The story was adapted by Roger Stern into a novel called The Death and Life of Superman in 1993, followed by a young adult version by Louise Simonson called Superman: Doomsday & Beyond with Alex Ross’ very first work for DC on the cover. The story was also adapted into an audio dramatization for BBC Radio 5 and a videogame for the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive consoles. Doomsday and elements of the funeral also made a couple of appearances in the animated Justice League/Justice League Unlimited shows, but Doomsday wouldn’t directly kill the animated Superman until 2007’s direct-to-video Superman: Doomsday.

The reaction was tremendous, and it changed the shape of comics in both good and bad ways. The idea was to take people’s perceptions that the story would essentially end happily (Superman will always live, Lois will always live, Jimmy will always live, etc) and completely throw that on its side. The creators did the unthinkable, and it paid off. Since then, the success of the story has attempted to be duplicated with various franchises and various properties, but none quite reaching the same level. Many more events have followed, but none have ever been The Death of Superman.


The Death of Superman TPB
Superman: World Without A Superman TPB
Superman: The Return of Superman TPB


Superman #73
Superman: the Man of Steel #18
Justice League #69
Superman #74
Adventures of Superman #497
Action Comics #684
Superman: the Man of Steel #19
Superman #75


Adventures of Superman #498
Justice League America #70
Action Comics #685
Superman: the Man of Steel #20
Superman #76
Adventures of Superman #499
Action Comics #686
Superman: the Man of Steel #21
Superman #77
Adventures of Superman #500
Superman: The Legacy of Superman


Action Comics #687-691
Adventures of Superman #501-505
Green Lantern #46
Superman #78-82
Superman: the Man of Steel #22-26
Got a 90s moment you want to see explored? Let us know!

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