4 Ways 'Death Of Superman' (Accidentally) Changed Pop Culture
Between the debuts of Zack Snyder's Justice League and Superman & Lois, this month is shaping up to be unusually Supermanly. To celebrate, Cracked's on-call Supermanologist Maxwell Yezpitelok will be conducting a week of lectures on the superhero who is a metaphor for absolutely everything. So please: settle in, and mind your Supermanners. Check out part 1, part 2, and part 3.
The most overused phrase in comics is "everything will change." Batman stubbed his toe? Everything will change. Spider-Man got a parking ticket? Everything will change. Groot's mother-in-law filed her income taxes improperly? EVERYTH-- you get the idea. "The Death of Superman," the heart-wrenching tale of the Man of Steel punching an ugly monster for 100 pages until they both drop dead ...
... was one of the rare occasions where everything did change -- even more so in the real world than within the story itself.
Yes, Superman came back some months after being killed off in 1992 (to the shock of no one who had ever read a superhero comic), but some of the consequences of the storyline remain to this day, like ...
It Only Happened Due To A Last Minute Change ... And Ended Up Spawning Endless Copycats
It's easy to assume that the idea to kill Superman started out as a stunt to get massive media attention and sell shitloads of comics because, well, it got massive media attention and sold shitloads of comics. Also, if a famous superhero so much as gets a cold these days, you can expect a series of articles and interviews in major news outlets hyping up their death as an epic event that will change everything (TM). Those superhero deaths are following the "Death of Superman" formula, but here's the thing: "Death of Superman" had no formula. It only happened due to a series of mishaps and coincidences.
The decision to whack Superman can be tracked down to a moment in 1990 when writer/artist Jerry Ordway was plotting an issue in which a Clark Kent proposes to Lois Lane, and she says, "Nah." This was kind of par for the course of their relationship.
But, while writing the issue, Ordway thought it "felt right" for Lois to say yes, so he called up editor Mike Carlin, who approved the last-minute change. You can tell how improvised everything was by reading the comics, which jump from the Clark/Lois engagement issue, to a bunch of random stories like Superman fighting a Batman animatronic in a theme park, to the issue where Clark gets around to telling his new fiancee that, by the way, he's a mega-strong flying alien and stuff.
By 1992, the writers felt the super-engagement plot had run its course and planned a whole storyline culminating in the wedding. And then came last-minute change #2: DC decided Superman couldn't get married to Lois yet because a new TV show about them was about to start, and they didn't wanna spoil the whole "will they, won't they" thing.
While the writers were trying to figure out how to fill the giant Dean Cain-shaped hole in their schedule, Ordway said what he always said during moments of creative frustration: "Let's just kill him." (Superman, not Dean Cain.) As it happened, fellow writer/artist Dan Jurgens had been toying with an idea about what would happen if Superman croaked and pitched that to the group, who were in exactly the right state of mind to actually consider doing it. It also helped that another writer in the room, Louise Simonson, had plenty of experience murdering superheroes, having previously worked on X-Men.
The team crafted a cool story that they thought might get some media coverage here and there (like the engagement issue did), but no one really expected it to blow up because, well ... it wasn't the first time DC "killed" Superman. They did it in a classic "imaginary story" from 1961 and, more recently, in a 1987 issue where he fakes his own death and pretends to be a ghost to mess with a villain. And the media didn't give a crap.
But then, a reporter for a Long Island newspaper happened to see a comics preview magazine where Carlin candidly talked about the upcoming "Death" issue (all but spelling out that Superman would be back in a jiffy). The reporter spun that into a front-page "SUPERMAN DIES" story that soon spread to other newspapers. DC was so unprepared for the media attention that they didn't even have a press release ready when reporters started calling; one newspaper described their spokeswoman as "despondent." And, unfortunately for that poor spokeswoman, that was just the beginning of the media frenzy ...
It Got The Media (And Hollywood) To Look At Comics More Seriously
Here's how millions of children found out Superman was going to die in 1992: through a reporter saying, "It's a bird, it's a plane ... it's a CORPSE?"
That report aired on CNN's Headline News, a whole channel that did nothing but repeat the same 30-minute chunk of topical news stories over 24-hour loops, making it very popular in places like bars, airports, and your grandma's house. Point is, it was seen by a lot of people. The Washington Post also wrote about Superman's untimely demise on the same day and decided to go with "Zap. Pow. Kaput." for the mandatory cringe-inducing pun. It was really, really obvious that most of the journalists covering Superman's death hadn't thought about superheroes since Adam West last squeezed into a Batman suit.
But then, something unusual happened: this oddball story turned out to have legs. Everyone knows "The Death of Superman" sold millions of comics, but they forget that it also sold millions of newspapers. As the comics continued to sell out at historic levels, the tone of the media coverage began to change. Columnists wrote heartfelt pieces about what Superman meant to the world -- which mirrored and enhanced the fan-favorite "World Without a Superman" section of the saga. For the first time, TV reports showed regular people of all ages buying and talking about comics' emotional impact, along with the usual goofballs cosplaying as Batman or ... whoever "Louis Lane" is supposed to be.
Hollywood also took notice. The early superhero movies weren't really about adapting comics -- they were about adapting popular characters who happened to come from comics. The Superman films had no relation to any existing storylines, and Tim Burton made sure everyone knew he didn't read that crap. But when Warner Bros. realized "The Death of Superman" was a big deal, they immediately began developing a movie based on those specific issues. Superman Reborn, later renamed Superman Lives, got pretty far into pre-production but got Doomsday'd into development hell, probably because this unclean world didn't deserve to see Nicolas Cage in a Superman costume.
Even so, Superman's death and return saga is directly or indirectly responsible for the following movies: Steel (1997), Superman: Doomsday (2007), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Justice League (2017), The Death of Superman (2018), and its sequel Reign of the Supermen (2019). Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) looks like it'll owe even more to the comics since Henry Cavill's post-death Superman wears the same black costume he rocked in the source material.
The above movies aren't exactly Stanley Kubrick's filmography, but they demonstrate how this one storyline managed to break through and get Hollywood to look beyond comic book covers and adapt more than costumes and logos. At the very least, the hoopla around "The Death of Superman" served as a preview for today's superhero-dominated media landscape, where the movies go out of their way to recreate specific moments from the comics and reporters actually know how to spell the names of the characters.
That said, not everyone involved with "The Death of Superman" made good bank ...
It Helped Burst The Comic Book Speculation Bubble
Sadly, not everyone who bought "The Death of Superman" did it intending to read it -- a lot of people got it thinking they might use it to put their children through college, or maybe buy a college and let their children run it. You see, in the '80s, a bunch of investors realized that a lot of older comics had dramatically shot up in value, with some going from a few cents to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
These investors began buying up tons of comics that they deemed potentially valuable, apparently envisioning a future in which old superhero rags would become humanity's main form of currency. The comics industry leaned heavily into this trend, pandering to speculators through gimmicks like multiple #1s, holographic covers, or putting a bullet hole through the whole damn comic. What speculators didn't realize (but really, really should have) is that those old comics had only become valuable because in some cases there's, like, 50 of them left. A comic with millions of copies going around is the opposite of rare, especially if many of those copies were kept in airtight vaults by assholes who thought they could sell theirs for 1000X the cover price.
Many industry insiders have pointed to "The Death of Superman" as the moment of "bitter disillusionment" when speculators realized they F'ed up. Unless you have a first printing edition in pristine condition that's signed by the creators and accompanied by a vial of Christopher Reeves' urine, Superman #75 (the actual death issue) rarely fetches "buy a PS5" money. No one's quitting their job over this one.
And that's the most valuable issue in the bunch. Adventures of Superman #500, the one where Superman comes back, suffered from unrealistic expectations from retailers who thought it'd be even bigger than #75 and ended up stuck with hundreds of copies when speculators started to drop out. One store owner reportedly built a throne out of unsold copies of #500. Too bad he couldn't build a new store because it wasn't long before comic retailers started closing down.
Obviously, the bubble would have burst without Superman's help because that's what bubbles do. Maybe there's a parallel reality where Superman got married in 1992, and the speculation lasted longer and ended up doing way more damage to the industry. In our reality, the inevitable comic book market crash took hundreds of stores, dozens of independent publishers. It even bankrupted Marvel -- causing the restructuration that eventually led to today's pop culture behemoth. So, hey, that's another way "The Death of Superman" (maybe) led to more and better superhero movies.
Okay, so that's what happened to the people who bought the comic and never even opened it. But what about the ones who did?
It Created A Whole New Generation Of Obsessive Readers
If you look at the top-selling comics of all time, most are #1 issues, anthologies, or one-off stories like the one where Spider-Man pals around with Obama (Where's their podcast?). They are made to be as accessible and new reader-friendly as possible. "The Death of Superman" is not like that. It's the opposite of that. And that's why it works so well.
The story starts with Superman fighting a bunch of sewer mutants created by a secret genetic experimentation facility who had teamed up with some alien warriors that got stranded on Earth during a recent invasion and now planned to take over Metropolis. None of this has anything to do with Superman's death. In fact, everything in this comic seems specifically designed to stump anyone who only knows Superman from TV or the movies. Why is Lex Luthor a red-haired young Fabio with an Australian accent? Why does Supergirl turn into putty upon being punched?
Why is the Justice League made out of characters no one's ever heard of, like Maxima or Bloodwynd? Who thought "Bloodwynd" was an acceptable name for a superhero or for anything else? Why does this comic devote several pages to a Popeye lookalike called "Bibbo" crying over Superman?
To a lot of readers, these and more details are just frustrating -- but to hundreds of thousands of others, they were endlessly fascinating. And we say "hundreds of thousands" with confidence because if you look up variations of "Death of Superman got me into comics" on a search engine, you'll get almost 200,000 results. According to Dan Jurgens, there isn't a single signing event where four or five people don't come up to him and tell him they started reading comics because of "Death of Superman," despite all the confusing stuff ... or maybe because of it?
All those top-selling #1s and anthologies might have gotten some people to buy future issues of their respective series, but "Death of Superman" accomplished something even more impressive: it got the readers to dig deep into the older issues, too, if only to figure out what the hell was going on. It also helped that, you know, the story was actually good. The "Death" part, which has been criticized for having too much punching (as if such a thing was possible on a superhero comic), is actually the shortest section in the overall saga. It's followed by "Funeral for a Friend," which includes genuinely moving scenes, like the Kents having to watch their son's funeral on TV because no one knows they're Superman's parents, and later finding purpose in comforting Lois Lane.
The third part, "Reign of the Supermen," is the longest and mixes action with character moments and even more stuff that made new readers go, "Huh?" Out of the four replacement Supermen that showed up in Metropolis, three were revealed to be evolved versions of existing characters. Unlike other famous comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the overall "Death" saga didn't exist in a vacuum -- it was the nexus point for years of plotlines. The current Superman continuity (which had started in 1986) was secretly one big, messy story, and if you dug through the older issues, you could put the puzzle together and see how it all fit by yourself.
"The Death of Superman" didn't just create new readers. It created hardcore nerds. Some of which will write 2000+ word articles defending this dumb comic, almost 30 years later.
Maxwell Yezpitelok's grandma accidentally bought him "The Death of Superman" instead of Bugs Bunny in 1993 and now he writes about this stuff for a living. Follow his heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com!
Top Image: DC Comics