The First Death of Superman

Wk6YpEqFrom his invention in 1938, it took Superman around sixty-four years to finally complete his journey from Jewish Messiah to Christian Son of God: in 1992, DC was so desperate to claim back some of the market that it had lost to Marvel and the newer, independent companies like Imagethat its editorial board decided to make Superman #75 very special. At first, they considered the marriage of Lois Lane and Clark Kent as sufficiently newsworthy, but the TV series, Lois and Clark was already planning this. So they killed him instead.

Much has been said about how the death of Superman destroyed the comic collecting bubble: a series of gimmicky releases (one special package included an armband to mourn the death), a media frenzy that died when Superman was resurrected, effectively marking the high-water point of the post-1986 maturing of the genre. Less has been said about how unimaginative Superman’s death was. He was punched to death by a new villain with a flimsy motivation and back-story. Even the name, Doomsday, was the placeholder name written on a brainstorming whiteboard by editor Mike Carlin. The entire team of writers working on the project couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything better.

It’s also intriguing that death was seen as more appropriate than marriage. At this point, maybe the mentality of the comic book industry needs to be discussed.

Superman died, the media cared briefly, DC got the sales and then brought him back, through a convoluted plot involving four new Supermen, the media didn’t care and Superman re-established the status quo of beating up bad guys, acting chivalrous with Lois and putting up with his pal Jimmy Olsen. It was a big deal at the time but, like the deaths of Phoenix, Captain America (which also got some media time in the 2000s), Wolverine, it didn’t change anything. Maybe it is the problem that Umberto Eco spotted in The Myth of Superman: nothing can really change, and the illusion of change in the narrative is secondary to the continuation of the expected and sterile.

And, just to reiterate, the actual story had little substance. It was a big load of punching. I don’t think Superman got to use his special powers, like breathing hard or seeing stuff with microscopic vision. He just did a punch, got a punch, kept going, fell over and died in Lois’ arms.

Like many crossovers (it went across all the Superman titles), it is a largely pointless exercise designed to generate sales, and it betrays how lightly DC regarded their most famous property. His death, as proved by the media interest, ought to have been a massive event, because it reconstructed the fundamental mythos of the character. in 1984, when they poached John Byrne from Marvel to give Superman a makeover, they consciously played with his core character and reconstructed him. The media attention that time suggested the Byrne Superman was a weak ‘new man’, a then fashionable meme that suggested masculinity would be less toxic if it could be more sensitive. Byrne also emphasised the human aspects of Superman, rather than his alien ancestry. In 1986, when the company wide Crisis crossover had left much of the hero’s continuity meaningless, they asked Alan Moore to write Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, and elegy to the bits of the character lost in the reboot. Both Byrne and Moore showed respect, even as they reimagined Superman’s character and motivations.

The Doomsday Team – editor Carlin, writers Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway and Louise Simonson, writer/artist Dan Jurgens, artists Jackson Guice, Tom Grummett, John Bogdanove and Brett Breeding – were either too excited by the whole concept or stifled by being part of a committee and went for the most basic conflict. The 1990s were already seeing an increased level of raw (and naturalistic) violence, muscles were growing and plots dumbing down. Perhaps it is just the era’s influence.

The Jewish identity of Superman has been a frequent theme in Superman commentary, and draws on diegetic details such as the similarities in his origin myth with that of Moses, the use of the name El, a Hebrew noun associated with G-d, historical context (he arrives and did, indeed, fight Nazis) and the racial identity of Siegel and Shuster, his co-creators. Danny Fingeroth explored Superman as a metaphor for the migrant experience.  And the character of Superman fits elegantly into a Jewish vision of the Messiah, with a more aggressive edge (the Crusades notwithstanding, Christianity’s Messiah tends towards ‘turn the other cheek’, which makes him a weak role-model for a superhero)/

But, Christopher Knowles aside, most contemporary readers don’t think of Mithras when they see a character dying and resurrecting. In 1992, Superman’s long list of powers now included the ability to die and come back. Apart from removing any dramatic tension from the stories – he can no more die than a member of the ensemble cast of Stranger Things – this elevates Superman into a new category. He is not a super-human, he is a divine being.

Any argument about which side Superman would be on in the big world religion throw-down is futile and a bit distasteful (even the idea that forgiveness is the key difference between Judaism and Christianity is simplistic, given Rabbi Hillel’s teachings on the Golden Rule). However, there is something unsettling about giving a character this much of a power boost and not using it ever again. At the very least, he could visit a few different dimensions, invade Dr Strange’s territory or, you know, have a new understanding of the nature of reality.

I am totally wrong again. Once Superman came back, he demonstrated a new-found insouciance, demonstrated by growing a mullet. Smooth move, Man of Steel.

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