This is going to be a much longer entry than previous ones and a bit different but this is a very different event and it demands the respect.
This is THE moment in comics everybody knows. Even if you don’t know comic books, you know this story. It’s the biggest selling graphic novel ever. It’s been adapted repeatedly. But one question never comes up: Is it good? Is it worth the hype? Should this be the ultimate Superman story?
The Death and Return of Superman (October 1992-October 1993)
Plot: Superman dies in battle against an alien foe. And that’s the start of the story.
Background: The Superman books were steadily and rather wonderfully building to a marriage between Lois Lane and Clark Kent when the Lois and Clark producers stepped in and ordered DC to hold off on the wedding until the show got there. Stymied, a running joke developed during editorial meetings that they should just kill him. Eventually, they decided to do just that, thinking that if the world was taking him for granted, it should see what things would be like without him. The world took notice with sky high sales fueling the speculator boom. However there was a violent backlash with many decrying the book as a publicity stunt, which DC very plausibly claims was never the intention. That backlash was so severe it’s come to dominate the conversation, fueled in no small part by Max Landis’ video essay which is, like everything about him, wrong and loathsome. The intention of this column is to get the attention back on the work itself.
Story: This is utter genius and a model for how comic book stories are meant to be told. In theory a story told by 7 different writers over 46 issues should not in any way be coherent. But this is a perfectly paced, brilliantly structured journey that never loses sight of its central question: What does Superman mean to the world? We see him in the eyes of his friends, those who admire him from afar, his enemies, and most vitally his parents and his fiance. All of these perspectives provide a multifaceted take on who the character is. And indeed, he’s really not in the story all that much, even when he comes back. But it’s still his tale. The epic size of the book works greatly to its advantage, allowing for this story to hit every note it needs to. As I said, the pacing is absolutely perfectly modulated. There’s a full build to his death, enough room for his death to matter, then when the rebirth hits, it takes enough time to feel like it matters. The book also benefits from great villains and new heroes. It really is a character story in the best way. If I do have a few gripes, the third act is a bit weaker than the first two and the method of his resurrection is a complete out of left field revelation. Just a reference to the regeneration chamber would’ve helped.
Art: I’m not much for 90s art but this is really fantastic work from 9 great pencillers. It’s filled with powerful imagery throughout including Dan Jurgens’ devastating iconic shot of Lois Lane holding Superman as he dies. (Jurgens was both a writer and penciller on the book which cannot be overlooked.) There are weaker spots, such as the meh work by Jon Bogdanove, but overall it holds up brilliantly.
Does it stand alone? Well, can a 1300 page epic not stand on its own? It has to and this does. The few things not commonly known, such as Luthor being a clone and the weirdness that is Supergirl, all get explained. The 4 trades are complete, even excessive with a few unneeded chapters such as the tie-ins to the Bloodlines event which will NEVER be mentioned again. You don’t need anything else but the book itself to get a satisfying read.
Importance and Impact: Seismic. I will never cover a single book that had a greater impact. Two titles, Superboy and Steel, spun out of the event with Steel getting a 1997 movie. The story was referenced over and over again in the comics. Doomsday eventually got three spectacular minis that are treated as an epilogue to this story and deserve to be read. DC was so eager to repeat the success they had with this book that Knightfall, the Batman version of this story, even bleeds into it. In fact pretty much every death that came next owes something to this book. It is frustrating to note that when The New 52 happened, this was essentially deleted, but Rebirth has restored this version of Superman (with Jurgens back on the team) as the true one. So yes, it was important and it had an impact like none other.
Final Verdict: If Crisis is the ultimate miniseries, then this is the ultimate crossover. Rereading it, I was floored by how much it hit me emotionally. Yes, he didn’t stay dead. That wasn’t the point. This is a mythic tale of a hero’s death and life. It captures the importance of Superman like no story has before or sense. This is a major event.
Bonus Material: OK, I’m going to try to cover every adaptation. There are a lot so:
- Superman: Doomsday is a mediocre animated take on the story that condenses heavily to fit a 71 minute running time. It’s not bad. It’s not great. My review is up under Comics For Rent.
- Batman vs Superman loosely adapted the idea of Doomsday. He looked cool but meh.
- There were two novelizations. The adult is by Roger Stern and it is definitive. Stern, a key architect, delivers a doorstopper take on the event that’s first rate and an invaluble read. I haven’t read the junior novelization but it’s by fellow architect Louise Simonson. Sight unseen, I’ll bet it’s great too.
- The BBC did a 2h36 radio drama entitled Superman: Doomsday and Beyond. It’s fantastic though imperfect.
- There was a videogame. It’s nothing to note.
- And yes, before there are complaints, WB did almost make a live action movie version in 1998. No I have not seen the documentary. I have read the Kevin Smith script. It’s ok.
Next time: Batman: Knightfall