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

10. Some remember The Death of Superman as a classic story and a prime example of strong ongoing storytelling. Others remember it as a cash grab and the epitome of ’90s excess. What is the story’s legacy to you?

One of, if not the, best-selling trade paperbacks in history.
One of, if not the, best-selling trade paperbacks in history.

Greg: I’ll remember it as the peak of comics being “cool.” Everyone at school read this story. We were talking about it on the playground, along with X-Men, Batman and other comics. Yes, it was very much of its era. But as much as grumpy online fans like to bury the ‘90s (and with some good reasons), I miss those first few years of the ‘90s. I miss people having casual conversations about comic book storylines, and most of all, I miss kids coming into comic book shops and discussing these concepts with adults. I’ll also remember the emotional ride these creators took me on as a kid, and I will forever thank them. Frankly, the entire two-year epic remains one of the best Superman stories ever told.

Nick: Ultimately, it goes down as a story that casts a shadow bigger than its body. It’s a good, not a great, story, but the impact it had on the industry in terms of financial success and popularizing death storylines make it one of the most influential stories of all time. However, it’s hard to deny that, for a lack of a better description, it is incredibly 90s. The hair, the characterizations, pretty much everything. The 90s had some good stuff, and I think you can count DOS among those good things, but not without the story having its share of warts.

Todd: Though I understand that some will cynically just think of the storyline as being all about the money, I think The Death of Superman holds up as more than that.

Since some pretty good things ultimately came out of the story (very thorough examinations of what Superman means to people, an interesting villain in the Cyborg Superman Hank Henshaw, the character John Henry Irons/Steel, and the clone Superboy/Conner Kent), I think that you can’t just write off “The Death of Superman” as a pure marketing bonanza.  Yes, they sold millions, and yes, we were all wearing the armbands they gave away inside the polybagged comic (and EVERYBODY bought at least two copies of Superman #75 so they could keep one in the bag), but anything that gets more people talking about actual comic books and into the stores to buy can’t be all bad.

Russell: The Death of Superman’s legacy to me is one of both incredible storytelling and publishers learning the wrong lesson from it. Superman’s death could have and should have been used an inspirational springboard for legacy characters to really step up and come into their own. Instead, it was translated as “comic fans just want to see characters die and come back.” If those issues didn’t sell so well, I’d call that assessment dead wrong. But, numbers (especially money numbers) are hard to argue with when talking with business people. And, despite the artistic love we all have for it, comic publishing is a business and those people have bills to pay, too.

Still, this story is referenced time and time again as a testament to the power Superman and other heroes still have over the public’s imagination. And that’s the true legacy this story will leave behind: one of inspiration.

Tim: Consider this: Death of Superman (and its ilk) financed your Starman. Your Sandman. Your Preacher, your Hitman, your Kingdom Come, your Marvels, your Invisibles, your Shade: The Changing Man — all your critical darlings circa 1993-1997. By no means do I refer to these projects in the pejorative sense. I’ve read and loved most of them. However, I am under no illusions that they would’ve gotten anywhere near the level of support (or even happened in the first place) had it not been for an overheated comic book market in the 1990s. The Big Two publishers–flush with cash thanks to the success of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man, Jim Lee’s X-Men, and, yes, the Death of Superman–could afford to actually take risks on creator-owned works and characters associated with more of a niche audience. If nothing else, these could be viewed as an investment. Even if the lower-tier books weren’t generating a profit on their own, the publishers were okay with treating them a loss leaders: worthwhile for the sake of building intellectual capital and/or goodwill within a small, devoted, readership.

Strip away that liquidity, and the pressure is on for every book to pull its own weight. It’s why you see acclaimed series crashing right out of the gate all the time now, if they manage to see the light of day in the first place. It’s the reason “diversity” has become a four-letter word in the New 52 and why Marvel Now! features zero new concepts. There was a mountain of dreck pumped out at the height of the speculator boom, no question; but let’s appreciate that its sales nonetheless paved the way for the better comics that everyone looks back on fondly today. Wading through the muck is kind of just a cost of doing business.

Setting commercial interests aside, I think what I miss most about those bygone days is the level of excitement month in and month out. Whether they loved it or hated it, people were damned passionate about what they were buying (and if you were anywhere in spitting distance of Usenet, you heard about it). That’s what I wish I could bottle, more so than any particular story or series. There was a sense that comics truly held something for everyone. And if you did try to stubbornly stand your ground on the outside, they would find a way to reel you in. “Death of Superman” was that gateway drug for so many people. For every clueless speculator who accused DC of pulling a bait-and-switch, you had a kid shocked and appalled that a comic book company could actually kill off the world’s first superhero, and equally delighted that they subsequently restored him to life. For every jaded, lapsed reader, weary of the endless publicity stunts, you had a new fan who literally learned to read thanks to comic books. That’s the story’s legacy for me. Other interests have floated in and out of my life, but there’s just something intangible about comics that makes me think, “I will never not care about this medium.” If it’s in my blood, then “Death of Superman” is what put it there.

And there you have it, folks. If you’ve made it this far, we thank you. Hopefully you were entertained and informed along the way. Major thanks to Todd, Russell and Tim for their awesome contributions! Be sure to join us next week when we tell you more about our Secret Origins!