11 Reasons Why Someone Should Invent Time Travel and Stop “The Death of Superman” From Becoming a Thing That Happened
1. Because it perfectly symbolized the rise of Corporate dictating what goes in the comics.
The story goes like this: starting around the mid-1980s, the team in charge of DC’s Superman titles would go on annual retreats and map out the storylines for all the Superman books for the coming year. Everyone in the group would throw out ideas, someone would yell “Let’s kill him!” and they all had a good laugh before getting back to business. Then one year, they decided to do it for real. Why? It began in 1991, when Clark finally revealed his secret identity to Lois; the two got engaged not long after. A wedding was the next logical step, but the editors were ordered to hold off because a prime-time TV show starring Lois and Clark was set to debut on ABC Television in the fall of 1993… and the feeling in the corner office was that a comic-book wedding might steal the thunder of the inevitable TV wedding if one happened before the other. With that idea off the table, the writers decided to go for broke with “The Death of Superman,” a storyline specifically intended to stall for time until the TV show got to a point where the characters could get married. It wasn’t the first time a memo from Corporate influenced the content in a comic — a certain ill-advised Spider-Mobile comes to mind — but the decision sent a clear message to the writers: Do whatever you want with your comics, just check with us first so we can make sure it doesn’t interfere with our plans for the characters in other channels. You know, places where the real money is made.
2. Because it helped fuel a massive speculator bubble that popped, leading to lots of bad things happening for fans, artists and retailers alike.
The late ’80s and early ’90s were interesting years for the comic industry. After the commercial and critical success of a few high-profile projects in the 1980s — not to mention reports of key Golden Age issues fetching large sums in auctions — a lot of serious attention began to be paid to the value of the books themselves, with a rush of speculators pouring into the market in search of a quick payday. New publications and price guides encouraged the speculator boom with articles about “how much that stash in your closet is REALLY worth,” and soon people were buying up multiple copies of everything the publishers pumped out in the fear of missing out on the next big thing. “The Death of Superman” came out at the peak of the speculator boom, complete with multiple editions of Superman #75 (including a pre-bagged special-edition issue that came with an official mourning armband and other memorabilia). Roughly 3 million copies of Superman #75 were shipped out, making it one of the highest-selling books of the decade… but it turned out most of those issues went to speculators buying multiple copies and expecting a huge return on their investment. When that return didn’t materialize as fast as they had hoped (see also: “supply and demand”), it led to the collapse of the speculator market. Millions of people were stuck with multiple copies of Superman #75, Youngblood #1 and other “hot” issues they couldn’t unload, and the fallout came fast and fierce — about two-thirds of U.S. comic shops closed between 1993 and 1997, industry leader Marvel declared bankruptcy, hundreds of comic professionals were out of work, and titles that once sold in the millions dropped almost overnight to sales in the five digits. Was “The Death of Superman” solely responsible for all that? Not necessarily. But I’ll let Chuck Rozanski, owner of Mile High Comics, explain why he called “Death of Superman” the greatest catastrophe to hit comics since the Kefauver Senate hearings of 1955:
What made the “Death of Superman” promotion so much different than all the rest of the specious comics marketing schemes cooked up during the early 1990’s was that it was aimed at the general public… I forcefully made the argument [to DC] that since Superman was such a recognized icon within America’s overall popular culture, DC had no more right to “kill” him than Disney had the right to “kill” Mickey Mouse. I went so far as to state that, in my opinion, DC didn’t actually “own” Superman, but rather was a trustee of a sacred national image. My pleas for restraint fell on deaf ears… [DC editor] Mike [Carlin] was just as adamant as [DC President] Paul [Levitz] that deceiving the public into believing that they were actually going to kill off Superman would have minimal long term negative effect . Boy howdy, were they ever wrong.
3. Because it helped turn critical discussions of “the best comics” into a numbers game.
Do you consider Avatar the best movie ever made? You might, if you believed the only thing that matters is how much money a movie makes. Discussions about the “best” of anything often leads to debates about what being the “best” really means. And while “number of units sold” is a good way to gauge how popular something is in a given moment, cultural critics have long insisted other things should also matter, like an artist’s mastery of the form, the product’s cultural impact on society, etc. Comics don’t tend to attract a lot of thought-provoking writing about the medium, generally because for most of their history there’s been a general belief that comics are for kids and therefore shouldn’t be taken as seriously as, say, films or novels. That was beginning to change in the 1980s with books like Watchmen and Maus suggesting comics were capable of presenting complex themes. For a brief moment, it seemed as if North American comics were about to attain the kind of respectability enjoyed by their counterparts in Europe and Asia… and then Todd MacFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 came out and sold 2.5 million copies. That made it the highest-selling comic to date… until Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 sold more than 7 million copies a year later. Rob Liefeld’s X-Force #1 sold 5 million copies the year after that. And later that year, it was Superman’s turn to rack up huge numbers. Pretty soon, all anyone in the business could talk about was how the old-fashioned hero who once sold millions of books in his sleep was now “hot” again and keeping pace with the new “big dogs” like Spawn and Cable. Any talk of comics maturing as an art form was shunted aside in favour of breathless commentary about which upcoming book by that month’s “hot” artist would set a new sales record. And watching DC add to all the hype was disappointing, to say the least, to the fans who appreciated the creative risks it had taken just a few years earlier.
4. Because it showed DC was content to raise a white flag and surrender to Image Comics.
Image Comics was formed in early 1992 when a number of Marvel artists jumped ship to form their own company. Their pitch to artists was their comics would be creator-owned and they would never be asked to sign away the rights to the characters they created. Let’s be clear: ensuring artists’ rights is a very good thing, and Image should be proud that its existence helped spur much-needed reforms in the comic industry. It also produced a lot of books worth checking out: Invincible, Stray Bullets, Savage Dragon and The Walking Dead, to name a few. In those early days, though… let’s just say the guys running Image were artists first and businessmen second. “Image” turned out to be an appropriate name for their venture, since a lot of its output was a clear case of style over substance. This isn’t to say an aggressive emphasis on style is always a bad thing, but fans who remember this era will tell you Image’s ascendancy caused significant changes at Marvel and DC that went beyond how artists were paid. Fearful of losing readers to the new kid on the block, both companies fought fire with fire, ordering artists to imitate the Image style and hiring new artists who were all too eager to imitate the Image house style. Male heroes were pumped up to proportions that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger blush, while their female counterparts inherited spines, waists and legs that made it easy for artists to draw their breasts and butts pointing in the same direction. “The Death of Superman” lays bare DC’s desperate desire to out-Image Image; Superman #75 consists of nothing but full splash panels on every page for no apparent reason other than to show it could be “kewl” just like the hotshots down the street. In the end, DC lost by trying to play by the other team’s rules, and it only regained ground in the following years by hiring writers and artists who brought their own distinctive visions of the Man of Steel.
5. It broke the unwritten contract between creators and fans.
No one has actually written it down as far as I know, but it goes something like this: “You give us your money for these comics we’re putting out, and in return we’ll do our best to not jerk you around and take advantage of your loyalty to our product.” When the news of Superman’s impending death was announced, plenty of hardcore Superman fans were confident (and rightly so) that DC wouldn’t do anything so stupid as to permanently retire one of their most valuable properties. There’s a reason, after all, why “comic book death” merits its own Wikipedia page. But a lot of casual fans, speculators and members of the general public were convinced the Superman they had known and loved would never appear in comics again, and their belief was reinforced by media reports treating Superman’s death as if it had happened in real life… and by DC, which was being too cute by half in its marketing. A brief story: back when “The Death of Superman” was an ongoing thing, an executive at DC was at a sci-fi convention fielding questions about the future of DC. Someone asked if Superman was truly dead, and he said yes. When someone else brought up the fact there were several upcoming Superman books on the schedule, he replied those books were going to explore the consequences of Superman’s death. And after that? “We’ll cease publication of all our Superman books,” he replied. The crowd treated this statement with the derision it deserved, and by all accounts the executive had the good sense to appear embarrassed by what he had said because he knew it wasn’t the truth. But DC had a marketing plan, and that plan involved convincing everyone that his death was the real deal — essentially lying to its customers to maintain the facade of Superman’s death being a permanent thing. Memo to future executives: lying to your most loyal customers about stuff they know isn’t true — and treating them as if they’re too dumb to be in on the joke — is a dangerous move. Especially if you want those customers to stick around.
6. Because its success got Marvel and DC hooked on producing “events” instead of “stories.”
Right after “The Death of Superman” came “Reign of the Supermen,” in which four different characters with a connection to Superman came forward to claim his mantle. While that storyline was winding its way through all four Superman titles, an outer-space warlord came to Earth and destroyed Coast City. This led to “Emerald Twilight,” a storyline in Green Lantern that saw Hal Jordan go insane and destroy the Green Lantern Corps trying to resurrect his hometown. Meanwhile, Batman was put through his paces in “Knightfall,” with a mysterious musclebound villain coming out of nowhere to break the Dark Knight. Wonder Woman was stripped of her title and uniform in a rigged contest, and she was left with only a dominatrix’s cheerleader outfit to get her through the day. The entire Avengers and Fantastic Four lineup? Shipped off to a “pocket dimension” in one huge crossover, then brought back to the Marvel universe a few years later in a second, must-not-be-missed crossover event. Spider-Man? Send in the clones. Major characters appeared in multiple titles, which contained storylines with chapters weaving through all titles; meanwhile, company-wide events like Final Night and Our Worlds at War kept appearing with increasing frequency, testing the patience and pocketbooks of the most loyal comic fans. Again: this is not a trend that began with “The Death of Superman,” but it’s easy to see how DC’s bean-counters looked at the “Death of Superman” numbers and decided it made sense to focus their marketing efforts on the small core group of aging customers with money who were willing to buy as much product as the publisher pumped out. And it probably did make sense… for a while. But you can only push those fans so far before they start to feel taken advantage of, and bail out. And when you haven’t put in the effort needed to replace them with new ones…?
7. The story itself was ludicrous…
The marketing, the hype, the cynical corporate strategy, the unintended consequences of forcing hardcore collectors to buy more books — beyond all that, there’s also the matter of the story itself. And let’s be honest, “The Death of Superman” story itself was… well, not that great. It’s not the worst Superman story ever written, but considering how often it pops up in lists of the most important Superman stories (and let’s be fair, it was a significant event in Superman’s publication history) it’s not really anything spectacular from a story perspective. The entirety of the multi-issue storyline leading up to the big moment is “giant alien crashes on Earth; walks in straight line smashing stuff; kills Superman.” That is literally all that happens for the 10 issues leading up to the all-splash-panel Superman #75, in which Superman and Doomsday punch each other until they both fall down dead. I could go into a rant about how Superman ought to be smart enough to figure out how to neutralize Doomsday without dying in the process… or how he would have found a way to remove the threat from a major population centre instead of engaging him there… or what the hell Lois is thinking in the panel up top, spouting hackneyed lines that were cliches before George Reeves put on a cape… but I won’t do that. Instead, let me show you in eight panels the real problem with the story:
“Power cells… gone! Force field… gone! He’s… faster than… Flash! Can’t get… NO! (HA!)(SLAMM)(blood)” It’s B-movie dialogue at best, and it doesn’t even make sense — we’re setting Doomsday up as the ultimate engine of death and destruction who will destroy us all if Superman doesn’t make the ultimate sacrifice and… he’s slamming Booster Gold’s head with a car door? It’s not even simple logic like how would Doomsday even know about things like “car” or “door”; how are we supposed to reconcile him taking more than five seconds to subdue a powerless human who he doesn’t even kill? Which, note, is his own reason for being. If you, a comic writer, are proposing to show us, the comic-reading public, the actual no-fooling death of Superman, then you have to earn the right to tell us that story. And you do that by establishing a situation in which the stakes are so high and the odds so overwhelming that his heroic sacrifice is the only possible way for him to save everyone he loves. This story was the equivalent of settling in for a big-budget action movie with a jumbo-sized popcorn and watching the bad guy beat up a schoolyard full of handicapped kids before he meets the main hero… and then they both shoot each other dead halfway through the film.
8. …but not as ludicrous as the way DC resolved it.
Is it a spoiler if you’re talking about the plot from a 23-year-old comic book? Either way, brace yourself for a shocker: Superman came back! No, really! As I said before, Superman’s death led to four new individuals coming on the scene, each of them either claiming to be Superman reborn or being the most deserving of continuing his legacy. The year following Superman’s death saw these pretenders to the throne knock heads with villains (and each other) before most of them teamed up with the Real Deal to save the world. Turns out — and you’re not going to believe this — he was only sleeping all along! It seems his Kryptonian body works on a whole different level than our human bodies, so when he was placed in his tomb his body took the chance to grab a little “me time” and got itself a recharge — which somehow involved growing a mullet (because the ’90s). It was one of the more… let’s say unoriginal ways that a franchise reset the clock on a corpse, similar to the fakeout used in Star Trek III to bring Spock back from a very definite death (“Oh, his hideously irradiated body? We left it on a planet with magical resurrection properties. And his mind is doing a time-share in his buddy’s brain. What, you didn’t know any of that was possible? Um…. surprise!”). Many fans who had followed the storyline to that point groaned audibly in comic shops and in online forums, adding their numbers to those comic fans and speculators who had already bailed.
9. As a villain, Doomsday is a bust.
“Doomsday came about because as we considered Superman’s rogue’s gallery, Superman has not had a lot of good villains.” This was writer/artist Dan Jurgens in a 1993 interview with Wizard magazine explaining how they dreamed up Doomsday. “I went to a meeting with all of the other Superman creators once and I didn’t have a name for Doomsday yet. I just had a character concept and the character’s mindset. I kept calling him a force of nature and all this kind of stuff. I had a sheet of notes with a couple of ideas, one of which was that I was absolutely convinced that we had to do a villain who was going to give Superman a run for his money. We had done so many business-suit villains, so many lame old boring guys. We had to have something that could pound the crap out of Superman — that raised the stakes… That is how Doomsday began. He is primal rage incarnate.” Which sounds like a great idea for a villain if you’re angry and 14 years old. But the problem is the writers took the “force of nature” part too literally — for all the personality Doomsday brought to the story, Superman might as well have been killed by an avalanche or a rusty nail. There’s nothing to like about Doomsday because there’s nothing to not like about Doomsday; he’s not a villain with a tortured past, or someone who believes his noble intentions justify his evil actions. He’s drenched in “ex-treeeme” ’90s attitude: he flexes, he roars, he kills, break for lunch, rinse, repeat. About the only entertainment you can get out of a character like that is watching him get beaten up, or watch others beat him up — and where’s the fun in that? Later stories would give Doomsday a background and even make him sympathetic to a degree (he was the victim of alien experiments designed to create the perfect killer, etc.)… but even then his subsequent appearances only served to highlight how he was only ever created to do just one thing (and he wasn’t very good at it, either).
10. Because somewhere in 1992, a 26-year-old Zack Snyder saw Doomsday for the first time and said, “Eureka!”
Hands up now: everyone who says they enjoyed watching Batman v Superman — how many of you can honestly say you were only there to see Doomsday? I’ve gone on record expressing my massive disappointment in the film’s script and handling of its characters, but I’m also cool with other people thinking the film wasn’t that bad. Different strokes, and all that. That said, I’m still waiting for someone to explain why Doomsday’s appearance was at all necessary beyond Snyder thinking it would be cool to blow a wad on CGI effects by shoehorning him into an already overstuffed plot. Doomsday’s inclusion was a disaster of Sam Raimi-forced-to-use-Venom proportions; who out there was demanding to see Doomsday in this movie? Are there really people who have been waiting two decades to see a one-note, non-speaking character from a not-that-great storyline get the “leftover Orc” treatment at the tail end of a three-hour film? (And why after 20 years has no one figured out a smart way for Superman to neutralize a Doomsday-like threat that doesn’t involve him pulling out the “I’m just like Jesus!” symbolism for the umpteenth time?) It’s not as if taking Doomsday out of the script would have dealt with all of the issues in the film, but everything that happened built towards that final fight with Doomsday. And if the big emotional climax of your film boils down to “And then Superman gets punched to death!” — then maybe it’s time to rethink what you want your film to be about.
11. Because we’re still feeling the fallout of the stunt today.
Today, fans of superhero comics can look around and see a landscape that’s not encouraging. The characters are more popular than ever, but that’s because most fans now experience them as movie stars, TV actors, or video game characters. The books themselves are afterthoughts, created by small divisions of entertainment conglomerates who treat the actual books as content farms. Characters whose books once sold in the millions are now limping along in books selling several thousand copies apiece, and the only way the books can get noticed on their own is when the writers pull an obvious stunt to grab media attention (“Now he’s a Nazi!”)(“Now he’s a girl!”)(“Now we’ve re-rebooted everything yet again!”). Anyone who actually thought Superman would stay dead has figured out that nothing means anything in the comics, and so they’ve gravitated to other forms of entertainment that delivers something more substantial. As for anyone back then who thought there was money to be made in collecting comics, they realized that if a comic featuring the death of Superman — Superman, people! — wasn’t worth anything, then the whole idea of collecting and speculating on comics was just a huge joke. The industry never recovered from that, and it’s anyone’s guess where our heroes would be in the pop-culture pantheon today if those first few “serious” superhero films that came out in the late ’90s and early ’00s (Blade, X-Men, Spider-Man) had bombed. At least no one thought about putting Doomsday in a movie back then.