Hard-Traveling Fanboys: GIANT-SIZE (The Death of Superman)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. Some events, however, call for more than just two fanboys to discuss.  Banding together with fellow comic book aficionados on these occasions, Greg and Nick will present a GIANT-SIZED edition of their weekly column.

Greg: Welcome, loyal and first-time readers alike, to the inaugural GIANT-SIZE Hard-Traveling Fanboys! I’ll wait a moment while you finish laughing at that name.

… Very well. On months that have a fifth Thursday (our regularly scheduled release date), we plan to celebrate the occasion by bringing in some of our friends and fellow comic book enthusiasts to discuss and debate some of the biggest events to ever hit the comic book medium. This month, we will discuss arguably the biggest comic book storyline of all time, 1992’s “The Death of Superman.”


Joining us in this inaugural Giant-Size will be our fellow Place to Be Nation comic book writer Todd Weber, famous for his weekly Weber Has Issues column. We’re also joined by two newcomers to the site, but these guys know as much about comics as anyone we’ve encountered. Tim Capel is a lifelong fan of comics and the biggest Scott Summers fan you’ll ever meet. You can often catch his entertaining, informative takes on various topics at The Blog of Doom. Russell Sellers, in addition to being a good friend of both Nick and me, is both passionate and encyclopedic in his love of comics. You can catch some of the most refreshing, thoughtful comic book opinions on Twitter — @Russell_Sellers.

Without any further ado, let’s get right to the questions and see how our panel’s opinions line up.

1. Let’s take a step back to 1992. Were you reading comics at the time? If so, was the Superman line (Superman, Action Comics, Adventures of Superman and Superman: The Man of Steel) on your radar?

John Byrne's 1986 Superman reboot kicked off a lucrative era for the Man of Steel.
John Byrne’s 1986 Superman reboot kicked off a lucrative era for the Man of Steel.

Greg: As many may remember from our Secret Origins column, I was a voracious reader of comics at the time. I was only 8, but my favorite books were easily the Superman titles. I read all of them, though often in random order due to the grocery store having one and not the other. The first creator names I ever learned were Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson and Roger Stern.

Nick: I wasn’t really reading comics at the time, save for the rare grocery store issue I could get my hands on. I was definitely aware of Superman, though.

Todd: I was a compulsive comics reader back then-mostly DC and the X-books at Marvel.  I had a saver and a $30 per week comic habit (FAR too much of that was spent on my monthly Wizard Magazine).  At the time of the Death of Superman Storyline, I was collecting all four monthly Superman titles (Action Comics, Adventures of Superman, Superman & Superman: The Man of Steel) at that point, and had been reading them consistently since John Byrne’s post-Crisis revamp.

Russell: I was reading some comics at the time, mostly from the local grocery store magazine counter. I was really into Spider-Man so that had my attention, but I did notice what was happening in Superman. But 10-year-old me was more invested in Marvel. Superman was more important to me in TV and film than in the comics at that time.

Tim: I wouldn’t exactly say I was *reading* comics in 1992, but I was pretty voraciously consuming them and enjoying the pretty pictures. They were a shiny new thing that recently came into my life. I suppose the Superman line was on my radar screen to the extent that any imprint was back then: I was nine years old, didn’t really know how the business of publishing comics really worked, but Superman was a comic book character and I wanted his comics. I believe I was vaguely aware that he appeared in various series under different names, but no single title was more differentiated in my eyes than any other at this time. This was soon to change.

2. This story made international headlines. It was covered on news shows as well as magazines and trade publications. How did you first hear that Superman was going to die?

Entertainment Tonight led a show with news of Superman's death. Here's then-host John Tesh doing something.
Entertainment Tonight led a show with news of Superman’s death. Here’s then-host John Tesh doing something.

Greg: It was definitely on a TV program, perhaps Entertainment Tonight or A Current Affair. I remember a woman talking with a graphic in the background of the now-famous image that featured a bloody Superman symbol. I remember being really shocked and not entirely convinced it would actually happen.

Nick: I think it was actually a month or so after the death actually happened. I was only 4 in mid 92, so I think the first I heard of it was when I saw the black bagged issue at the grocery store. I asked my Dad, and he had heard about it through the news, so that’s how I found out.

Todd: I had seen the “Doomsday is coming” trade ads for a few months, and then as the issues ticked down to the final battle with doomsday (and each page reflected that as there were fewer and fewer panels as we neared the conclusion) buzz began to build around the comic shop that DC was really going to kill him.   There was no internet, and rumors were mostly word of mouth. Since we didn’t really know exactly what was coming I was skeptical, because dead is never, ever dead in comics (except for Uncle Ben).  Once CNN (owned by Warner Brothers, who owns Superman) started talking about it, we knew it was legit.

Hey, I remember that!
Hey, I remember that!

Russell: I remember seeing an Entertainment Tonight story just after the 6 p.m. news one evening that talked about Superman’s upcoming death issue. Superman wasn’t my favorite character at that point, but I loved the Christopher Reeve films and I was also a big fan of the Superboy TV that was canceled that year. The story didn’t give much detail on how he was going to die other than it being at the hands of a villain I had never heard of: Doomsday.

Tim: I’m struggling to recall the specifics. I feel like there wasn’t any single “Oh my God!” moment where this bombshell was dropped on me. I definitely picked up on rumors from my classmates, but what did they know? It’s not like they were talking about Superman before any of this! They didn’t REALLY care about superheroes, not like I did! I think the “confirmation” came from my one-year-older cousin, by way of his mom. She was a stay-at-home mother and took care of us before and after school. As such, she kind of lived vicariously through the interests of her kids. The hype machine of the comics publishers really had nothing on my aunt. I am all but certain she worked us up into a frenzy, and delighted in it since she had enough authority that we had no choice but to believe every shocking morsel of it. (In other words, the ideal customer.)

3. The Superman titles of that era were uniquely tied together. From the 1986 reboot through most of the ’90s, the books intertwined closely and crafted a singular narrative, highlighting different aspects of the Man of Steel’s world while pushing a focused story. What are your thoughts on that strategy as opposed to something like the modern Batman books, which mostly keep to themselves and tell individual and separate stories? Which approach do you prefer, and which is best for the industry?

Bibbo Bibowski was just one of many great supporting characters in the Superman books.
Bibbo Bibbowski was just one of many great supporting characters in the Superman books.

Greg: This is a drum I’ll beat until it kills me, and I know I’m in the minority online, but I will always prefer the style of the Superman books from this era. I don’t want each book to necessarily end on a cliffhanger that will get picked up in a totally different title the next week, but I do want each title that stars a single character to tie together in a meaningful way. The Superman books at the time told their own stories (until it was a time for a crossover event), but it was very clearly the same Superman, the same Lois and the same Metropolis from book to book. Today, for instance, the Bruce Wayne I read in Detective Comics or The Dark Knight often reads nothing like the Bruce Wayne I read in Batman. It creates a level of disconnect with the character. Jurgens, Simonson and the rest of the Superman gang managed to craft some of the finest supporting characters in the history of superhero comics thanks to strong central planning and a commitment to making them shine. Thanks to having four books a month, the creators had the leeway to actually pull that off.

As for the industry, I confess that individual stories are probably better, simply because comic book fans are cynical and jaded these days and comic books themselves are probably overpriced. “Event fatigue” is a real thing, and I do think it drives people away from trying new concepts if they’re inherently tied to other books. For me, however, I think it makes the universe as a whole more fun.

Nick: I kind of like the books being able to tie together to tell a single narrative. To me, it makes the third or fourth title actually mean something. For example, right now, what incentive is there for a Bat-fan to be reading something like “The Dark Knight?” The book is clearly presented as a third or fourth priority within the Bat universe, whereas a more unified approach would make the book more important if it were presenting a vital piece of the narrative. However, by the same token, that would also mean that you essentially would have to buy a book every week to follow the major goings on. This could cause financial fatigue on the part of readers, something I experienced back when Amazing Spider-Man became a thrice-monthly book in the wake of One More Day. Honestly, I think the best approach is something similar to what the Green Lantern books are doing post-Geoff Johns. The books each tell a different story from different perspectives, yet have enough crossover that there is added value there for anyone who is reading more than just one of the books.

Todd: To me, the best approach (though it’s never, EVER going to happen again), is to have either one individual or at the most two non-connected books a month per character (not counting team books), but using solely top-tier talent.  I will always prefer quality over quantity.  In my opinion, being forced to buy four books a month in the age of $3 comics to keep up with a story bleeds the your core audience and ultimately bites the hand that feeds the industry.  It certainly isn’t new-reader friendly—it does nothing to build the comics audience.  Dear DC/Marvel editorial:  put your best creators on your most marketable characters and stay out of their way.

Russell: The continuity hound in me likes the idea of a single narrative being explored through all the titles in order to keep storylines straight and helping to move stories forward at a faster pace. But, the frugal comic buyer in me doesn’t like the idea of having to commit to multiple books to get one story. And, obviously, more writers and artists would have to be involved in order to tell a story that’s spread out over four books (Green Lantern’s Lights Out, for example) but I might not like those other writers or artists and wouldn’t want to buy a book that disappoints me just to keep up with the story. Modern Superman tried this during the H’EL on Earth story a few months back and the Superboy chapters from Tom DeFalco were atrocious.

The rather unfortunately named H'El on Earth storyline was mismanaged.
The rather unfortunately named H’El on Earth storyline was mismanaged.

Forcing fans to buy more books to keep up might sound better for the industry, but those fans might get fed up and drop even the books they like due to too many crossovers and/or a lack of funds. And having multiple books that explore different themes, ala Action Comics vs. Superman vs. Superman Unchained, gives more fans a chance to enjoy the character they love most without forcing a commitment to other titles.

Tim: It probably just comes down to nostalgia for what I grew up with, but personally, I liked the satellite books. It was fun being able to follow the characters week to week, but in different titles by different creative teams. That allowed you to play favorites and get a distinctive flavor for each. (Spectacular Spider-Man was to focus on Peter Parker’s college life. Web puts Spidey in different settings. And so on.)

In practice, this almost never works. With solo characters, you can only stick to these kinds of artificial ground rules for so long. The books eventually blur together in service to the big picture business agenda. At the same time, the lip service paid to diversifying the line creates the unintentional consequence of establishing a pecking order. Each title is unavoidably going to be perceived in terms of its level of importance–with at least one being dismissed as utterly disposable. This is to say nothing about the qualitative merits of the individual books.

From a marketing standpoint, the best strategy seems to be the current Spider-Man model. Just stick to one series, but publish it as frequently as you like. It allows them to have their cake and eat it too: the character still appears in multiple books per month, but readers do not have the luxury to pick and choose which of however many competing, semi-independent narratives they want to follow. The most “important” book is the only one the title character’s adventures are confined to.


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