It’s difficult to imagine a comic that has had a greater influence on the industry than the Death of Superman. Since its original publication back in 1993, the book has been reprinted, resold, coped, adapted, readapted and has since became one of the best selling comic book crossover storylines of all time. Yet somehow, with all of this history and magnitude behind it, the book manages to be, without a doubt, one of the most underwhelming event comics to ever hit the medium. And it’s one that actively draws comparisons to similar, better stories.
This is a comic that we at The Nerd Hub have been meaning to cover for a while, but also one that has also been avoided. Mainly this is because, despite its stature, The Death of Superman is not a particularly interesting book that requires a lot of discussion. The book was originally published from December of 1992 through January 1993. It was the brainchild of DC editor Mike Carlin and writers Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, and Jerry Ordway. Over the course of the event, the story would be published in Superman, Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, Superman: The Man of Steel and Justice League America. And despite all of these people on board, with so many titles involved, all that they managed to do was create one of the industry’s most lackluster crossover events ever. The issue with the book, however, begins and ends with one simple problem: The Death of Superman isn’t about anything.
The plot can literally be summed up with a few short sentences. A big, strong, angry Hulk knockoff called Doomsday appears out of nowhere. He beats the snot out of the Justice League America before fighting Superman. They battle each other across the countryside before ending up in Metropolis. Superman decides that the fight cannot go any further and the two punch each other to death. That’s it. And that is the book’s biggest problems through and through. It was one of the most overhype crossover events in the history of the medium that’s influence can be seen in the industry to this very day. And it’s about nothing.
This is what makes the book rather difficult to analyze because there really isn’t much to the work itself. From a sheer craftsmanship perspective, the book is rather shoddy. Often the art features people with grotesque proportions that causes many of the supposed human characters to look alien. In addition, the pencil work is often inconsistent between issues with glaring continuity errors that sometimes breaks the suspense by retconning the previous issue’s cliffhanger ending. At times, the art is even inconsistent from page to page with certain major details being forgotten about or simply ignored.
In addition, the story itself literally begins in the middle of a completely unrelated Superman story. This, unfortunately, make new readers feel like they’re seeing the conclusion to a completely different book. Later issues constantly bring up other plot threads that have nothing to do with the story at hand and grinds everything to a screeching halt to address them. It also has to be said that the dialog is rather clunky. Often, it feels like the characters are constantly reciting exposition as opposed to talking like normal people. But the book’s biggest failure has to be Doomsday himself.
It would probably be accurate to say that the character of Doomsday is the collapsing star of gravity that consumes the entirety of The Death of Superman. This is the character who, after all, killed Superman. Unfortunately, all that his characterization amounts to is a big spiky, grey, Hulk knockoff, killing machine simply who does what he does…because. In the story that is presented to us, Doomsday has no real connection to Superman. He was never mentioned in any Superman comic before the start of the arc. The character had never appeared in the DC Universe before this event and wouldn’t get a proper backstory until much later. In other words, you have a character who was designed from the start without any real depth or complexity to him, with the sole purpose of killing off Superman on a semi-permanent basis. He has no real motivations, personality, or backstory beyond being the rampaging monster that kills The Man of Steel. And this is the problem.
You see major characters had been killed off and/or crippled in other comics to varying degrees of success in the past. In order for these deaths to be effective, however, they have to mean sometime or make a larger point with the character. In one great example, you have the death of the Barry Allen. During the event comic, Crisis on Infinite Earths, he died saving the universe from the Anti-Monitor’s anti-matter cannon, giving everyone else the time they needed to form a plan against the antagonist. Earlier in the same book, Supergirl was killed by the Anti-Monitor but not after destroying his body. This forced him to retreat, giving the characters the time that they needed to fight back against this ultimate foe. Unfortunately, this level of tension and scale is completely absent in the Death of Superman.
The best comparison that can be made to The Death of Superman is the Batman storyline Knightfall. Both stories came out around the same time and featured one of DC’s most iconic characters being killed and/or incapacitated in some way for a significant period of time. Both books likewise featured multiple writers and artists for the story over a long period of time. In addition, they both had followed up story arcs that involved replacement hero/heroes who tarnished the reputation of the original before said original hero took back his mantle. The big difference, however, is that Bane actually had a distinct personality beyond hating his foe for no reason. In addition, the book overall amounted to a lot more before the iconic Bat Breaking panel even happened.
Throughout the first part of Knightfall, Bane does everything he can to keep Batman mentally and physically exhausted. His big play early on is breaking all the inmates out of Arkham Asylum, arming them, and setting them loose upon Gotham City. This forces Batman, who was already ill and exhausted at the time, to push himself even further physically and mentally as he runs around taking down Gotham’s lowlifes. By the time Bane finally confronts him, the Caped Crusader is so exhausted that he is able to do little against his onslaught.
Now what’s made this storyline more fondly remembered is that it’s one of the few early 90s comics that still holds up thanks to its writing. Throughout this storyline, we see both Bane and Batman’s strengths and weaknesses on display. We see that Bane is a monster of a man with a massive ego and a flair for theatrics. At the same time, it’s very clear that he is far smarter than the average Gotham criminal. Throughout the story, he manages to deduce Batman’s identity before their confrontation. He also realizes that he cannot beat Batman in a straight fight and intentionally uses inmates of Arkham to ware him down before confronting him.
With Batman, we see his dedication and resourcefulness in battling Gotham’s criminal elements as the storyline goes on. Unfortunately, we also see his obsession with his battling of the city’s underworld and an idea that he is the only one who can do it. This ultimately alienates him from his friends and loved ones and causes long-term damage to those relationships. And sadly, this level of creativity and cleverness is nowhere to be seen in The Death of Superman.
In the end, The Death of Superman is the definition of an underwhelming book. There just isn’t anything to it beyond Superman and Doomsday punching each other to death. Doomsday is not a particularly well thought out character and lacks any defining characteristics, making him a complete waste of a villain. What ultimately brings Superman down has nothing to do with any personality flaw, nor any of his personality traits. The one that seemingly takes him down that he is a hero and quite frankly that just isn’t enough.
Since the book’s original publication, it’s been reprinted, adapted, and readapted so many times that people seem to have forgotten that this all began with an incredibly subpar book that is only remembered because of its name. And all that name has ever amounted to is an underwhelming spectacle event that caused more harm to the industry than good. In other words, people need to let The Death of Superman die.
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