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

7. Many modern fans, such as film director Max Landis, have strongly criticized the story for its perceived effects on the industry. How, in your view, did The Death of Superman affect the overall industry long-term, and have those changes been positive or negative?

"Knightfall" (1993) came in the wake of "The Death of Superman."
“Knightfall” (1993) came in the wake of “The Death of Superman.”

Greg: Well, it sold a ton of copies, so there is that. However, this is one area where I can agree with the story’s critics. I don’t think Jurgens, Stern, Simonson and Jerry Ordway are to blame, nor is Mike Carlin. But an unintended side effect to this story, which was meant to emphasize why Superman was so important, was that publishers only saw the dollar signs and the death.  This, more than the Phoenix Saga or any other story in comics before or since, led to an almost obsession with killing off or maiming flagship superheroes. It also led to an increased reliance on “big events” across all the superhero lines. Things like the Clone Saga, Onslaught, Emerald Twilight and other crossovers relied upon major, destructive changes to the lead character, often without the emotional core or meaning that Death of Superman featured.

In a lesson that should be learned by serial media across the board, when you go to the same well too often, the well runs dry. Diminishing returns, unfortunately, haven’t stopped comic publishers from sacrificing long-term storytelling for short-term sales spikes by doing major death issues. This problem arguably reached its pinnacle in the late 2000s with the “deaths” and returns of Batman and Captain America.

Nick: It certainly popularized the “death” story in the early to mid-90s. Stories like Knightfall and Emerald Twilight were direct follow-ups based on the success of Death of Superman, and the results were largely a mixed bag, in my opinion. Knightfall has its merits, but Emerald Twilight on its own merits (meaning without Geoff Johns retcons) isn’t that great of a story, and it nearly destroyed a character who had been one of the mainstays of the DC Universe. These days, death books crop up every now and then, but none have been able to replicate the success of DOS.

Todd: There were many, many people who came into the local comics shops I frequented to check out The Death of Superman.  Unfortunately, many were speculators who assumed the comics they were buying would become valuable collectors items.  Speculators usually don’t translate into long-term comics readers, despite the cash flow boost they provide.  Creatively, the Death of Superman storyline proved that you can basically do anything to any character and eventually write your way out of it.  The most successful comic franchises ALWAYS return to their status quo (Batman wasn’t always going to be Azrael, Doctor Octopus’ mind won’t always control Spider-Man’s body).  Change in comics is always an illusion; characters always must return to the state (or identity) that the general public expects them to be.

Russell: The effects of Death of Superman have been good and bad for comics. Killing a major character was shown to be a great selling point, so now Marvel and DC do it once a year or so. That’s exaggerating it a bit, but the worst part is how death has become meaningless in comics. If a character dies, there’s a good chance he or she will be back within a year or two. Often with no good explanation for how it happened. The two worst in recent memory are Captain America and Batman. Both had these iconic deaths and passed the torch to legacy characters: Bucky (also somewhat nonsensically back from the dead) and Dick Grayson, respectively. Their titles suddenly became way more interesting and unpredictable. Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run with Bucky in the uniform was some of the best superhero work of the past decade and Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin turned the relationship of the dynamic duo on its head. There were fans who whined about neither of these being the “real” Cap or Batman, but the story quality was outstanding and had a real chance to succeed if given enough time.

But “Return” stories sell almost as well as deaths, so both were bound to come back and eventually did.    Still, the Death of Superman is one of the greatest comic stories of all-time and certainly a heavily emotional one for all of those involved in writing/drawing it. Just watch the documentary included on the Superman Doomsday DVD and you’ll see what I mean.

Tim: Well, I suppose there’s that whole “You almost killed the entire industry” thing, so that’s a pretty big indirect consequence leveled at the story. We’ll get to that. More directly, it spawned a bevy of imitators, to diminishing returns in terms of revenue and execution. That was maybe the most frustrating lingering effect for me as a fan. Event-driven storytelling wasn’t anything new; but suddently, every event had to be some iconic, transformative, radical new direction for a major character. Elements cribbed from Death of Superman would show up in stories centered on Batman, Green Lantern, the JSA, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Daredevil, Punisher, and the X-Men, just to mention the more notable. These derivative stories weren’t uniformly bad, per se. But as a fan, you couldn’t help but to approach them with a great deal of cynicism and a sense that these companies were just going through the motions with little regard for quality control.

Comic book deaths have always been pretty toothless. That wasn’t anything new in 1992, but we did start seeing more of them. I think it’s just another facet of the rampant attention-grabbing, event-driven storytelling previously discussed. There are only so many ways you can shake a character up. Among the more common are a) make him a villain, and b) kill him. Sometimes both. So I’ll concede that DoS did contribute to the continual erosion of death as a meaningful, legitimate end for a character. Sometimes, a creator truly DOES wish for a character death to stick, but for every well-intentioned application, you had some publicity stunt diluting the impact.

Was this a change for the worse? I’m tempted to take a cop-out by declaring that it was chasing the prevailing trend anyway, so we’d be having this argument about, say, Batman had he beaten the Superman office to the punch. But let’s keep it contained to the context of what this meant for Superman and his world, first and foremost. The reality is that “Death” was merely Act I of a three-act structure. And what that first act most immediately led to was some truly superlative storytelling for a character on the brink of irrelevancy. I cannot stress that enough. The subsequent “Funeral for a Friend” and “Reign of the Supermen” far exceeded DoS and kicked off a renaissance for the character lasting years. Dying was the best thing that ever happened to him. Ultimately, it came down to celebrating and reaffirming what was *always* great about the character under the illusion of changing him. It teased you, threatened to throw tradition out the window, then peeled back the layers to show you why that wasn’t necessary. At the end of the day, all it changed was his haircut. That other events simply duplicated the surface trappings absent the underlying purpose is not the fault of this story.

8. Love it or hate it, the storyline remains one of the best-selling in the history of comics. The death issue sold well into the millions, and the story made headlines around the world. Characters, even iconic ones, had died in comics before, and certainly plenty have died since. What was it about this story that you think resonated so much with those outside traditional comic book circles and made it a bigger deal than the recent “deaths” of Batman or Captain America?

It was a big deal.
It was a big deal.

Greg: Timing and the shock factor. Remember that in 1992 we weren’t too far removed from the classic Christopher Reeve Superman films. The character was being seen still in the form of syndicated reruns of various TV shows, and he was firmly entrenched as an American icon. The idea of Superman actually dying meant a lot to a lot of people, and this was at the height of the speculator boom. More people were buying more comics than at any time in the modern era. More than Batman and at a bigger level than Cap, Superman represents an inspiration, and his death fit perfectly with things like Nirvana and other staples of that era that were tearing down many of the ideas that had become passé in the decades before.

Nick: Simply put, it’s Superman. He’s the character who started it all, and he’s arguably the most recognizable superhero of all time. Plus, at the time, it was still relatively new for an A-list character to be on the chopping block in his own title rather than an event book. And as time has gone, comic fans and the rest of mainstream pop culture have become increasingly aware of how these things work — heroes die for a year or two, then are inevitably reborn. This didn’t have that contrived feel.

Todd: It’s Superman, the granddaddy of them all. He’s ubiquitous.  Due to longevity, movies and TV, Superman, Batman and Spider-Man were at that point better known than any other super-heroic character.  Superman has long been thought to be a messianic allegory, and here he gave his life to save the world.  Everyone wants to believe in an ideal, and this story showcased the greatest hero of all giving everything he had to protect the planet that he loves.  That’s why his death resonated more with the average joe than say, Dark Phoenix’ self-sacrifice.

Russell: What made Superman’s death more notable than Batman or Cap’s was that it happened at a time when superheroes like Superman weren’t expected to face death. Sure, the stories would be exciting, but there was always that knowledge the character was going to make it out alive. Somehow he was going to win in the face of insurmountable odds. When Superman actually died, it was genuinely shocking. And, since the internet wasn’t around like it is today, the rumor mill about his return didn’t start circulating until the final pages of the World Without A Superman story hit and the empty coffin was revealed. With Batman and Cap, the countdown clocks to their returns started before the ink was fully dry on their death pages.

Tim: Slow news day?

OK, seriously. We’re talking about a worldwide cultural icon. Kids can recognize the “S” shield before they are forming coherent sentences. People know who Superman is without even necessarily realizing he debuted in a comic book. When you hear, “They’re killing Superman!” the next logical question is, “Hold up, who’s killing Superman?!” It would be a big deal at any point in the character’s history, but DC did it at the height of the speculator boom. There’s no other time when more eyes were on the industry. This was a perfect storm, so DC struck when the iron was hot.

Digging a little deeper, all archetypal characters carry a certain connotation. DC could have killed Batman or Wonder Woman instead of Superman. Marvel could have put Spider-Man, the Hulk, or Captain America in the dirt. Any of these would have been similarly viewed as newsworthy and moved a ton of comics. But they picked Superman. His death wasn’t a big deal because the marketing machine told us so, it was a big deal because it was a big deal. Superman is pure, and noble, and indestructible, and the one looking out for all of us. You don’t fuck with Superman. You certainly don’t kill him. It was so unfathomable that everyone had to know if they truly had the audacity.

9. Have you seen Max Landis’ Youtube film about the story? If so, what were your thoughts on it?

Greg: Saw it. Hated it. Landis’ dismissive attitude toward the creators pissed me off more than anything else, though his pretentious unfunny humor hurt as well. Louise Simonson, for instance, has forgotten more about comics than Landis will ever know. Hopefully someone else does a video tackling “Chronicle” 20 years from now.

Nick: I hadn’t until a few minutes ago. There’s 15 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Thanks for that, Greg. Dude had some OK points, but he clearly finds himself far more humorous than he actually is.

Todd: I really tried to watch it.  Honest.

Even though I agree with some of Landis’ (the son of  John Landis, the multi-millionaire director of Beverly Hills Cop) thoughts on the story (DC perhaps feeling that they needed to kill Superman to make him relevant again), Landis’ film comes off as the “hey, I’m really clever” musings of a entitled brat.  In wrestling carny talk, he’s just trying to get himself over.  If the film were done more as a true documentary and not basically a monologue where we have to look at him for most of the movie, I might feel differently.  I guess I’m just a hater sometimes.

Russell: I have seen that horrible, cynical piece of garbage. It’s some of the most disrespectful, trite and condescending crap I’ve ever sat through. I can understand not enjoying the story and hating what it ultimately did to the industry, but such blatant disrespecting of writers and artists like that is inexcusable. That being said, I actually really liked the guy’s pitch for a New 52 version of the Death and Return of Superman and his “silent” origin of the Atomic Skull in Action Comics was really good.

Tim: Yeah, I’ve seen it. I thought the film was dusting off the same tired arguments we were having in 1994 without bringing anything new to the table. I suppose one could take the view that this story sold millions of copies, so it really doesn’t need anyone to defend it. Nonetheless, I feel like it–and DC comics–are consistently criticized for the wrong reasons. It did no harm to the character (for that matter, I take the position that it strengthened him). None of the creators involved have disavowed their participation. The company did not engage in a willful campaign of deceit in selling their product. I don’t recall it giving any of its customers cancer. It was, above all else, a commercial endeavor, but–aren’t they all?? Was DC Comics truly supposed to take the position, “Guys we can’t publish this! We’ll just make too much money. That would be bad for the industry!” There’s no denying they were riding high on a comics bubble, but no one could be sure when it would burst. It might be a cutthroat attitude to take, but bringing in as much cash as possible at the time would at least provide a soft landing once the bottom fell out.

DC Comics did not damage the industry by selling truckloads of Superman #75. People who purchased outrageous quantities of Superman #75 under the laughable assumption that it would one day finance their kids’ college education did. Blame capitalism. Blame poor investments. Blame greed. Blame stupidity. Blame irrational exuberance.  Don’t blame the publisher for being in the business to sell comics. More to the point, don’t blame a specific story; that’s an exercise in convenient scapegoating when any informed consumer knows that the factors contributing to the decline of the industry are more complex and varied.

Final thoughts on Page 4!