Contains spoilers for numerous Superman stories, including this year’s animated The Death of Superman.
During this weekend, my Blu-ray copy of The Death of Superman arrived through the post and I began to watch it with this recurring thought in my head: “Why are people so fascinated with The Death of Superman?”
When it comes to comics, ideas are often recycled for each generation. When it comes to superheros, that character might quit fighting for justice, die at the hands of their arch-nemesis or even sacrifice themselves in the most heroic way imaginable. This is exactly what happened to Superman even before Dan Jurgens killed the Man of Steel during the nineties when mad scientist Lex Luthor finally defeated the hero in an issue during the Silver Age. Obviously, the Man of Steel is safe and well, not just because he’s Superman, but also because DC Comics wants their titles to keep going (This year came the publication of Action Comics #1000).
Jump forward to the nineties and an interesting (and troubling) period that continued the Dark Age of Comic Books that began with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. This decade paved the way for “extreme” creations with titles such as Spawn and The Maxx. It’s fair to say at this point the X-Men were gaining more popularity than the Big Blue Boy Scout. What was DC’s solution?Devised by editor Mike Carlin and the Superman writing team of Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway and Karl Kesel, Superman met his end when battling the force of nature called Doomsday. Issue #75, which features the actual death, sold over six million copies and was the top selling comic book issue of 1992. There was incredible mainstream attention over the death of a fictional character who had long been seen as an American icon. It was as if everyone experienced a loss of innocence and was possibly symbolic of where America’s mindset. Following the death, the Superman titles continued and showed a world without him, with numerous characters left in mourning and trying to continue their lives.
As depicted in the late Jon Schnepp’s documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, Warner Bros. were planning to reboot the Superman film series by capitalizing on the success of the Death of Superman storyline, with Tim Burton directing Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. This film never got made and Superman finally made his return to the big screen with 2006’s Superman Returns, which oddly put its own spin on his death and return. In fact, throughout various media from 2007’s animated Superman: Doomsday to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, filmmakers have adapted the events of issue #75 many times.
Zack Snyder’s film, in particular, was very problematic in how it approaches the death. Although the scene itself is very emotional, it felt like a payoff to an arc that was never explored. Instead, it showcased a mopey Christ-like figure in muted blue that doesn’t seem to have fun being Superman; this is best displayed in an image where he feels instant sadness at the center of fire and death, caused by an incident he could’ve prevented.Contrast the dour nature of Batman v Superman to how he is depicted in the 2018 animated adaptation of The Death of Superman, in which we see a man conflicted over his dual identity. Despite his love for Lois Lane, he never truly commits to the relationship by refusing to reveal who he is behind the glasses. Meanwhile, his fellow colleague from the Justice League, Barry Allen is about to get married to a woman who knows everything about him.
However, if there’s one story that gives us the best version of Death, it is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. From its initial issue, it sets up that due to heavy solar exposure Superman’s cells are deteriorating and thus he has one year left to live. Throughout the twelve issues, All-Star isn’t about preparing the reader for the impending fate of the Man of Steel, but him fulfilling his lifelong dreams while still saving the Earth from various threats. Stories about death are ultimately about life and by stripping the character to his timeless, essential elements, he represents the best of humanity and embraces what life has to offer. This can be something as simple as taking his pet super dog for a walk around Earth’s moon.
Much like Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? — DC’s final send-off to Superman of the Silver Age — when Superman from All-Star sacrifices himself for the safety of humanity after leaving such a huge impact, the world isn’t left in mourning but is alive with optimism the next day while life just continues.
This may sound like running away from the contemporary horrors we’re facing, but since there is no Man of Steel to defend us against people who see themselves as the Übermensch, we have to be our own Superman so that life is worth living. Personally, I have my own Superman T-shirt and even on days when life’s Kryptonite gets to me, I’m still standing.