Sunday, November 18, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: The Day Superman Died

Let us pause for a moment to remember the tragic events of exactly twenty years ago today -- the day Superman died. I still remember the blanket of media coverage in the weeks and months leading up to the comic's release, as various talking heads on the news breathlessly informed us that the Man of Steel would bite the big one in the upcoming Superman #75. I was twelve years old then, and used to read the Superman comics fairly regularly at the time, but in those pre-Internet days when pop culture news wasn't disseminated faster than the speed of thought, I first learned about this when my older brother, having seen one of those aforementioned stories, conveyed the news.

"They're killing off Superman," said he, matter-of-factly. Of course, a lifetime of comic reading had conditioned the both of us to take a reflexively dismissive position on this kind of thing. Back then, the saying went that in comics, the only characters who stay dead are Uncle Ben (Spider-Man's murdered paternal unit) and Bucky (Captain America's doomed World War II-era partner). In the decades since, the latter has not only been brought back quite successfully, but will have a main role in the next Captain America flick, so whaddya do. Anyway, I knew this was all just a gimmick, but that sure didn't stop the media from running rampant. He was going to be dead. Dead dead. Observe:

I knew better, of course, but even so I made sure that I'd locked in a pre-order for #75, which came in a black plastic bag emblazoned with a bleeding "S" symbol that also included goodies like a black mourning armband (which, gotta say, if you wore in public, you deserved whatever wedgies you got) and a Daily Planet obituary. My copy was delivered to the house, but anyone daring to hit up a comic store that day would have been caught in lines dozens of people deep, many of whom were snapping up multiple copies of the last issue of Superman ever (except for all the ones that came after) with visions of yachts and mansions dancing in their heads (a bagged copy goes for less than $25 today, so college tuition for junior might be a tall order).

In all the furor (I remember right wing bloviator Rush Limbaugh even talked about it on his TV show -- not sure what he said, but he probably blamed liberals for something), what got lost was what a great story the whole thing actually was (notwithstanding filmmaker Max Landis' proclamations to the contrary). "Doomsday" was a five-part story that saw a monstrous creature of pure malice make its way to Earth and engage in an hours-long, crosscountry brawl with the Man of Steel that finishes in his hometown of Metropolis, with the hero seemingly laying down his own life to put the monster down. But Superman's death was only the beginning of a year-long arc examining the character's importance in his fictional DC universe as well as the real world, both places where his constant, consistent presence became easy to ignore.

The subsequent events in the character's family of comics, four interconnected monthlies that formed one never-ending narrative, sure did the trick to jolt some sales and awareness back into the stagnating line, and also reinforced what those who were reading (this guy!) already knew -- this was one of the most consistently enjoyable families of books on the shelves at that time. As overseen by group editor Mike Carlin, a cavalcade of writers and artists, including Dan Jurgens, who wrote and drew the actual death issue, created a story that virtually necessitated a weekly trip to the comic shop if you wanted to know what happened next. And boy, did I. It was a great time to be a comic book fan. More than that, it was a great time to be a Superman fan.

This was arguably the highest high in terms of public awareness for this version of Superman, which had debuted in 1986 after a reboot (and has since had his history wiped out and restarted yet again). While the 1996 wedding of Lois Lane and Clark Kent also got some play in the media, it never quite measured up to the hype surrounding his death. I dunno, maybe that just says something about cynical times we live in. "Doomsday" and its follow-ons, "Funeral For a Friend" and "The Reign of the Supermen," were later adapted into a best-selling novel, a multi-hour radio drama that aired on the BBC, and in 2007 the first DC Universe made-for-DVD animated movie (the comic was better, FYI).

The "Death and Return of..." storyline played breathlessly through the first two thirds of 1993 before wrapping up in the fall, just weeks before the ABC premiere of the TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman which, in pretty direct way, was responsible for the folks at DC needing to kill the big guy off to begin with. I have a lot of love for that show -- at least in its early goings -- and one of these days I'm going to spend some time talking about Lois & Clark, so I'll hold that anecdote for the time being. In the meantime though, here's a Saturday Night Live skit that aired the weekend following Superman #75's release (with a whole host of SNL luminaries as various heroes and villains -- including Senator Al Franken as Lex Luthor):

Saturday Night Live _ Superman's Funeral by hulu


J.R. LeMar said...

I remember this as my first real notice of the speculator boom. The day that issue came out I went to a comic shop in Hollywood (the store no longer exists) to get it, and I was the only one in line who only had one copy of it. I also recall noticing the 6 or so issues that lead up to #75, books I'd just paid $1.75 each for a few weeks prior, all now marked up in price to double-digits, and I was thinking how crazy that was.

The Cool Guy said...

Great post, Zaki! I too remember the hype that surrounded this entire affair. And I've read all of the comic storyline since. "The Death of Superman," "World Without a Superman", and "The Return of Superman". It introduced some neat characters, like Steel.

It's cool because now you can get all 3 of those in graphic novels, so they can be read without worrying about damaging precious individual comic issues! (LOL, you know what I mean :)

Zaki, have you ever read "Superman: Red Son"? That is one AMAZING story and I highly recommend it! It explores what the world would be like if Superman as a baby had crash landed in Communist Russia rather than Kansas.

Rather than being raised as a good-hearted American, he's raised as a good-hearted Socialist. He follows Lenin, and says "Comrade" a lot. It's pretty jarring, but the amazing thing in that book is they made his character true. His idealogy is different, but he is still a good man.

That story also features Lex Luthor trying to stop him. Only in this case, Lex is more or less the "good guy".

Keep up the good posts! I always enjoy reading them.

Zaki said...

I have a copy of RED SON sitting around the house somewhere, but I never did get around to reading it. One of these days!

Speaking of damaging precious individual issues, I had my whole run of Superman comics custom bound into books...that way they'll NEVER retain their value!

Thanks much for the kind words about the posts! Always great to hear from you!

The Cool Guy said...

Custom bound into books? That's hilarious! But actually, not a bad idea. Then you can read them, and don't have to worry about oh-so-gingerly turning each page.