Thirty years ago, one of the most monumental events in comic books took place with the release of DC Comics’ Superman #75. As comic book fans know, the issue was the finale to the epic “Death of Superman” crossover storyline that ran across several other Superman titles, Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, and Superman: The Man of Steel. Superman met his physical match with the alien monstrosity called Doomsday that escaped from an unknown prison and rampaged across the countryside.
During the rampage, Superman and his allies desperately fought the hulking, grey behemoth, but were unable to stop Doomsday as he finally made his way to Superman’s home, the city of Metropolis. It was in that fictional city that Superman made his last stand against the creature and ultimately killed him, but not before Doomsday killed him, as well.
It was one of the finest Superman stories ever told, it was a true epic full of action and heart. It demonstrated why Superman was one of the greatest superheroes ever conceived, as he used all his strength and drive to stop Doomsday before making his greatest sacrifice.
Before the storyline came out in 1992, the creative team behind the Superman titles, which included Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice and Jon Bogdanove, were following in the wake of John Byrne’s run with the character in Superman, Action Comics and The Adventures of Superman. Byrne radically revamped and modernized Superman in the 1980s, which raised the superhero’s profile to an extent. But when Byrne left the titles it was up to this small army of writers and artists to continue creating quality storylines. The creative team at that time often would get together in a so-called “Superman Summit” to map out and brainstorm ideas for Superman.
Marriage & Death
During this period, they were developing the concept of Superman/Clark Kent marrying Lois Lane. But they came upon a huge stumbling block in that the same story was being used by the TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. This postponed plans to marry off the two lovers in the comic books because the TV producers wanted to be the first ones to play with the marriage concept and have the comic books coincide with the TV event. This frustrated the creative teams because this decision by the higher ups disrupted their carefully planned stories for the year.
It was back to the drawing board as the creative team held another meeting to conceive an alternative plot for Superman. Despite their efforts, they could not come up with a story that was as good as marrying off Superman. On a frustrated whim, it was suggested by Ordway to kill off Superman. At first, the idea was dismissed because he often would bring this idea up as a joke in previous summits. But this time, the joke began to germinate as the creators wondered what if Superman was killed, and their brainstorming led to the crossover event.
The “Death of Superman” garnered so much media attention because many who did not follow or understand comics actually wondered if this event was a publicity stunt to generate sales or if DC actually intended to kill off its flagship superhero.
When the storyline first debuted in Superman: The Man of Steel #18 (where all readers saw were fists thumping through reinforced walls at the end of the issue), interest in Superman was already percolating as fans latched onto the storyline and wondered themselves how it would play out. After all, for the first time one of the most prominent comic book icons was going to be killed off. Sure there were big deaths in comic books before such as Supergirl and the Flash in the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series and lesser known heroes like Invisible Kid and Ferro Lad, both from the Legion of Superheroes died, as well. But this time it was different. This was Superman we were talking about. By the time Superman #75 came out the storyline morphed from a media event to a pop culture event.
At this time, the story played out weekly as each title advanced the plot. It was a slow burn as each tightly coordinated issue advanced the plot, which enticed readers to come back to the stores the following week to find out what happened next. This generated a lot of interest not just with readers, but with trade magazines like Wizard. By the time the story culminated in Superman #75, the confrontation between Superman and Doomsday took up entire splash pages and concluded with a multiple page spread featuring Lois crying over Superman’s lifeless corpse.
Aftermath & Legacy
It must be mentioned that while the creative team planned Superman’s death and the aftermath, they always intended to bring him back. After a series of issues explored a world without Superman and how everyone mourned his death (collectively as the “Funeral for a Friend” arc), the sequel crossover event “Reign of the Supermen” came out the following year. It proved to be an equally epic story as four different successors to Superman debuted in the Superman titles, which included a modernized Superboy, a ghastly cyborg, a stoic Punisher-type, and DC’s answer to Iron Man, John Henry Irons. Out of these four, Irons best embodied Superman’s noble and kind nature. This storyline kept readers guessing as to who was the real Superman and reached its climax with Superman being resurrected and donning a sharp black suit, at least temporarily before he switched back to his classic suit. By this time, the story arc had changed into the justly titled, “The Return of Superman.”
The “Death of Superman” storyline turned out to have a much bigger impact than expected. Of course, it accomplished the goal set by the creative team behind the comics, which was to boost sales and raise Superman’s profile. Only, the storyline and Superman #75 captured the public’s attention and made it into the national news cycle. People from all over flocked to comic book stores, which had unusually long lines as the issue quickly sold out and had multiple printings. What was noteworthy is that many of these seekers were not comic book readers, but were drawn in by their curiosity. Some even became fans.
It goes without saying that this crossover was a smashing success for DC, which had not had these kinds of sales or attention for years. This was a textbook case of the right team and the right story coming out at the right time. The writers and artists were enormously talented comic book veterans who created some of their finest work with these storylines. While it is difficult to declare which creator was the best, Bogdanove and Guice stood out because their art evoked Walt Simonson and Jack Kirby, respectively, but was infused with their own unique style. Jurgens, as the artist (and writer) of Superman, captured the essence of Byrne and John Buscema and created his own more modern artistic style.
All this increased attention on the issue and the comic book industry itself helped raise the profile of comic books. It also led to other titles having their own super crossover events with varying degrees of success. For every “Knightfall” event which worked there was the “Clone Saga”, which is still infamous today. Frankly, it was and still is difficult to match, let alone top, the “Death of Superman” event because it is not easy to kill off and resurrect an iconic character in a grand and satisfying way. The closest successes were with “Knightfall” and “The Death of Captain America” arcs, though these events failed to garner the same level of media attention that Superman’s demise did.
It is incredible to think that a comic book event garnered so much attention, but it did happen. Not only did the “Death of Superman” rekindle Superman’s popularity, but with comic books overall. The legacy that remains and the expertly told stories from the event are what we are celebrating thirty years later.
Walter L. Stevenson and José Soto
I loved the “countdown” of panels- the book opens with varied panel configurations, but as the story progresses the panels reduce to four a page, then three, then two with the final battle consisting of one-page splash pages. However, I felt it was a publicity stunt at the time, and didn’t read it until years afterward.
It so was a publicity stunt but it worked because the story was so well executed. But it was so difficult to top it since every event afterwards couldn’t compare to the Death of Superman. It’s why it’s so revered to this day.
I think Doomsday / Death of Superman was the last time I got really hooked on reading Superman comics. It was such an epic storyline and the build up and aftermath were huge events in themselves. That Death of Superman issue was a classic, don’t think there’s ever been a comic that has had such an impact since really.
So true. They tried their hardest, but not even the originally planned wedding event had the impact that the replacement storyline did when DC finally allowed Superman to get married in the comics.
Agreed. Sadly modern Superman comics can’t hold a candle to the high level of writing and characterisation from this era of comics. The recent reveal of Superman’s secret identity has totally undermined things further.