It's easy to look at the resurrected Superman's hair, those handful of panels with him in black and holding big guns, or even the version of Superboy that came out of this event and think "this is a crazy 90s stunt event comic." But it's not remotely like that, although to be honest it's partially responsible for the crazy 90s stunt event comics that came after it. In fact, while the coming years of superhero comics would become a insular, repetitive messes, Death of Superman was more externally 90s than internally 90s.
Those external forces are clear in the elements I mentioned above. Beyond that, the story itself was impacted by the Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman television show that was airing at the time. As the story goes, the creative team on the Superman books in 1991 had hoped to marry Lois and Clark in the pages of the comics the following year. But DC nixed the plan, as any marriage involving those two characters was to be saved for the television show.
With the wedding no longer an option, the creative teams decided to kill off Superman, instead. It should be noted that they also decided to bring him back.
The Death of Superman has a number of things working for it that would be questionable for other, similar events later in the 90s.
- It was well planned. The collected editions lay it out pretty clearly: there were four chapters to this story. Superman died in the first. The world mourned in the second. We met the new version of Superman in the third. And the real deal returned in the fourth and final chapter. There were no left turns made in an attempt to drag the event out. The sales department didn't deliver any orders for chromium covered one shots or relaunched titles. This was a story that was driven by the creative team.
- The creative team was made up of some of the most talented professionals in the industry, none of whom were really big names. That's not say that fans didn't know who former X-Factor writer and Cable co-creator (you heard me, Liefeld) Louise Simonson was, or who long time DC writers and artists Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, and Jerry Ordway were. But none of them were big the way that creators were becoming big in the 90s. This meant that they were professionals aka the comics actually came out on time. It also meant that the storytelling was clear.
- The Superman books had already been interlinked. One of the problems with later events is that they incorporated a line of comics that weren't usually dependent upon one another. The Bat books, the Spider books, even the X books all had their own stories going on at any time. But the Superman titles had begun the "triangle period" a year earlier: each issue of every Superman book featured a triangle with a number on it, which reflected the order in which the comic should be read among all the other titles. In other words, the triangle would show up on 48 (and eventually 52) comics a year, connecting all four Superman books. It was a lot like reading a weekly Superman comic, although each title had some room to do its own thing. In other words, if you were already buying all the Superman books, you didn't have to add more titles to your list (okay, fine, one Justice League comic).
- It matters to people when Superman dies.
So I left that last point unexplained because I think it's the crux of why the Death of Superman works far, far better than any other replacement hero story, be it the clone, Azrael, Kyle Rayner, or teen Tony Stark. The public doesn't know who any of them are. Maybe they know Tony Stark is running around as Iron Man again, but he's still a guy in a suit and that's the extent of what they care about.
Superman dying had impact on the world and part of the reason this story worked is because the creators were smart enough to embrace that. The second arc is entirely about how the world responds to no longer having a Superman. This could have been something they simply wove into the bigger story line of the imposter Supermen, but it was too important.
And this focus made the rest of the story that much better. After we see how much the world is hurting after Superman's death, it's understandable, then, when they convince themselves that any one of the four Supermen is the Superman reborn.
Let's talk about those four possible Supermen. I really love the idea that each is based on a title that has been given to Superman over the years, although I had honestly never heard anyone refer to him as the Metropolis Kid until this event.
The Last Son of Krypton - The Eradicator initially appeared in a Superman annual three years earlier, which was keeping in the general marching orders of the Superman offices at the time: incorporate things from Superman's glorious history in a new way. He ultimately become an anti-hero of sorts, even joining the Outsiders.
The Metropolis Kid - And speaking of things from Superman's past, the original Superboy had been written out of DC continuity by this point, mostly because it was an extremely problematic concept. Hey, look, Superboy fights crime in Smallville! Hey, look, years later there's a SuperMAN who fights crime in Metropolis! I wonder who he really is? Wait...is there anyone in Metropolis who used to live in the small town of Smallville? You can see the problem there. So if Superboy couldn't be a young Superman, then the creators had to come up with the next best thing. If you guessed the son of Superman, yes, that would make sense (and go read the current Superman comics). But since they couldn't even get Superman married, they certainly couldn't give him a kid. And so we got Connor Kent, a clone made up of Superman and Lex Luthor, the love child we always knew they'd have.
The Man of Tomorrow - The story of Cyborg Superman is amazing in how it merges various elements of Superman's life. Not only was he originally introduced two years before this story, he's only in his predicament -- and only hates Superman -- because of something Superman did with the Eradicator. How perfect is that? That's part of the brilliance of all of these Supermen - they didn't just pull elements from the past, they set up stories for the future.
The Man of Steel - Steel was easily my favorite of the four Supermen. While his initial stories were somewhat questionable from a representational standpoint (there are an awful lot of unfortunate cliches at work), Steel stood out not only because he truly wanted to do good, but because he made no bones about the fact that he was not Superman.
The introduction of these four Supermen was an incredibly smart move. The death of the real Superman had put interest in the comics at an all time high and no readers were getting the first appearances of brand new characters. This wasn't just great for the regular audience, but played on the speculator insanity of the time. It was also brand building at its best.
The final chapter of the Death of Superman story establishes that the comics and the character will be at odds with the comic book trends to come.
Cyborg Superman reveals himself to be the villain of the story. He teams up with Mongul (not willingly) and they destroy Coast City, a nod towards the "big screen" destruction that would become commonplace in superhero comics in the years to come.
Fighting Cyborg Superman and Mongul is just extreme enough for the Eradicator to join in, allowing him to maintain his anti-hero status which is a characteristic we'd see an awful lot of during the 90s.
Superboy adds in the edgy attempt at being cool that was so prominent as comics tried to keep teenagers from leaving them for video games and Steel represented the long over due, still underwhelming, attempt at diversifying the DCU. I actually wonder how much Steel's success may have influenced DC's decision work with Milestone.
There are a few moments towards the end when it looks like Superman might fall to the dark side: the all black costume, the terrifying panels in which he's holding a machine gun in each hand. But in the end he saves the day by being the same Superman we've always loved, albeit now with a mullet.
(The mullet is awful, yes, but also baffling, as they explanation is that it grew while he was gone...yet he doesn't show up with a beard.)
The Death (and Return) of Superman wasn't just a great event, but a statement on who Superman is and will always be. There is a purity that will never go away, not if they kill him off, split him into two characters, or reboot him over and over again. The true Superman always finds a way back.