Nowadays we think of it as the pre-mullet era of Superman, but at the time The Death of Superman was an incredibly big idea for DC. A story which killed off their main signature hero was not only an eventual inevitability, but also an idea which would actually have some resonance for the company. Superman is rightfully viewed as an inspirational ideal, both in the pages of the comics and in the real world – killing him, really, would have an impact no matter how well the story turned out. And his death became a slight watershed moment for DC as a company, leading them down a misery well which soon after broke Batman’s back and blew up Green Lantern’s hometown.
But anyway, the story itself. How did that turn out? DC have collected a new trade paperback of the seven-part storyline, so finally I have a chance to find out.
The main thing I took away from the storyline is that Supergirl’s continuity must be incredibly weird. She makes several appearances during this storyline which suggest she is living with a bearded version of Lex Luthor, who keeps her at home like a pet kryptonian. When she finally does race into battle her face gets smooshed and she turned into a purple worm thing. WHAT
Let me set the scene though, before we return to whatever the hell is going on with Supergirl. Doomsday is a cleverly mindless invention, a character who emerges from nowhere, never talks, and seems intent on destroying everything he sees. Rather than a tactically aware or capable enemy, Doomsday is a giant rock person who punches and smashes anything you put in front of him, without any agenda or interest in the damage he causes. He exists simply to destroy – he’s the definition of everything Superman fights against.
So Doomsday emerges from what appears to be a metal box buried two feet deep in the Earth, and promptly goes berserk, crushing canaries (in a typically Louise Simonson moment) and blowing things up. A team of local heroes go to fight him, he trashes them, Superman shows up, they fight to a standstill, then various other heroes show up/get knocked out while Superman and Doomsday continue their fight. It’s a rampage storyline above all else, but what struck me most is how many ideas are thrown into what at first looks like a mindless battle sequence spread over seven issues. Although don’t worry! There is still some mindless battle!
Rather than just allow the storyline to be a rumble with a winner and loser, DC’s writing team (made up of Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, Simonson, Jerry Ordway and others) take advantage of their ending. If Superman is going to die at the hands of a fierce and powerful enemy, then they can take the gloves off and cause some additional damage along the way. And so we get interesting – if distinctly dated at times – diversions to a family house, where Superman has to decide between allowing Doomsday to run off, or save a family from a fire. Normally this isn’t a decision at all – Superman will go save them, of course he will. But with the stakes suddenly inflated by the fact he’s going to die in this story, suddenly it’s far harder to predict what Mr Kent is going to do.
Perhaps because the gloves have come off, there’s a heightened sense of tension which the creative team could never play off in a regular, non-mortal storyline. This also extends to the supporting characters, including Guy Gardner, Maxima and Blue Beetle. Usually you would expect the characters to get beaten up to show off Doomsday, but ultimately all remain safe. The higher stakes changes that though, and the brutal beatings they receive seem far more dangerous and scary. If I were seven when I read this, I’d be pretty scared. The art – which is for the most part great – plays off on this.
There are several sequences where the horror of a scene is suddenly played up unexpectedly, with every action becoming far more ominous and brutal. There’s a sequence pencilled by Jurgens in the second issue in which Blue Beetle is beaten up and then falls through the air. Rather than being caught and saved by ‘Bloodwynd’ (again, WHAT?) before he hits the ground, Doomsday knocks Bloodwynd to the ground. We then watch in a three panel sequence as Beetle silently falls to the ground and is horrifyingly injured. Judgens sequences these three panels on top of one another to emphasise the extended tension of the fall, as readers realise nobody is going to save the character. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling, especially in a storyline where I wasn’t expecting much subtlety.
The last issue of the story is where DC get a little bit silly, with an all-splash finale which has about twenty full-page splashes one after another. This slows down the battle to a ridiculous degree, and forces the storytelling to jump between moments arbitrarily. Some of the artistic choices here are well-done – we don’t see the final blows land, but we see the impact reflected in Lois Lane’s camera – while some are more clunky and difficult to interpret. There’s an impact in escalating the size of each page, and I’m surprised DC didn’t decide to have the last double-page sequence spread out into an A3 fold-out which could cover the whole of your wall. It’s also very silly. Lois’ hair alone makes the book worth it.
Death of Superman is a lot more fun than I was expecting it to be, with some total nonsense in the subplots vying with some pretty strong storytelling and a simple, if well-done, central narrative. It’s not a cerebral masterpiece which tests Superman as an ideal – it’s a story where an awfully-designed rock monster punches a lot of things, some of them Superman, before getting punched back and dying. But for all that, this trade collects a story which could have been a complete mess, and shows off a coherent piece of work which DC planned carefully.
The trade collects only the battle and death, which means I have yet to see how DC followed up on this. A lot of the story hinges upon the ideas that Superman’s death will be meaningful and important in the long-term – just look at the cover, which makes a simple image resonant and moving. I have no idea if DC were able to follow up on that, but there is an immense amount of promise left for readers by the time Superman finally conks it.
This was a publicity stunt which arguably opened the doors for the constant cycle of death-resurrection which plagued comics throughout the latter nineties and new millennium. But at the same time there’s a sequence where Booster Gold gets his head slammed in a car door.
So it can’t be all bad.