If you’re a comics fan of a certain age, The Death of Superman remains a watershed moment in fandom. The 1992 storyline that killed the Man of Steel broke sales records and sparked enough mainstream media coverage to fill two Fortresses of Solitude – and one memorable SNL skit. To this day, it remains a flashpoint for discussions about whether ‘events’ are good or bad for the industry.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the best-selling story, DC Comics is releasing The Death of Superman 30th Anniversary Special #1 on November 8th (Final Order Cutoff is Aug. 28). The 80-page comic features four all-new stories that delve into how the death of Kal-El affected those closest to him. And yes, there is a premium polybag variant edition that comes with a black armband inside.
Reso recently spoke to nearly every writer and artist who worked on the ultimate Superman story to gauge their thoughts on returning to the iconic storyline, which writer-artist Dan Jurgens describes as “a fun time in comics.”
Revisiting The Death of Superman
For Louise Simonson, who co-created a number of major characters for Marvel like Cable, Power Pack, and Apocalypse, Death of Superman remains one of the top topics of conversation whenever she attends a comic book convention.
“At every convention, I talk to people who tell me it was their first comic or the beginning of them reading comics,” says the woman known by fans and colleagues as Weezie. “It’s really gratifying that they actually loved the story.”
Brett Breeding can’t believe he’s still signing copies of the comic all these years later. “Dan and I joke all the time about how are there any Death of Superman comic books left that we haven’t signed?,” Breeding says. “It just seems to go on forever.”
All four original creative teams who worked on the original story returned for the special issue – Jurgens and Brett Breeding, Roger Stern and Butch Guice, Jon Bogdanove and Simonson, and Jerry Ordway and Tom Grummett. Each team crafted a story framed from the point of view of different people in Superman’s orbit. The one-shot comic will also feature nine pinups and of course, variant covers. And just as with the original 1992 release, there is a special polybagged variant edition that comes with a black armband inside.
Commemorating a historic moment like the Death of Superman seems like a publishing no-brainer, but Jurgens says the wheels only really started turning after he asked a simple question. “I first mentioned it to DC where I just said, you know, it’s the 30th anniversary of Superman’s death,” Jurgens says. “Would you be interested in doing anything? And they said, ‘Well, what do you have in mind?’”
As the anniversary drew closer, Jurgens waited to approach his creative partners until he got the green light from DC. “I didn’t even mention it to any of them until I knew it was going to fly,” he says, “Because why bother if it doesn’t go?” Jurgens believed a reunion of the original creative team was essential. “I think that’s part of the fun for the fans is seeing us all back together,” he says. “Let’s kind of get the band back together where we all are working the way we did back then, where everybody would get to do their own stories.”
Ordway agrees. “I think from a fan point of view, it makes more sense. And it probably has more impact to have us donning the cape again to do it.”
The New Superman Stories
The original storyline consisted of three main arcs: “Doomsday!”, Funeral for a Friend”, and “Reign of the Supermen!” The new stories showcase specific stories at different points in the story’s timeline. Jurgens and Breeding’s story is titled “The Life of Superman” and shows how young Jon Kent learns one day in school that his father had died years earlier. It takes a meta approach by mirroring the real-world reaction – the breathless TV news reports, newspaper columns, etc. – that occurred when the Death of Superman was published, within the comics themselves.
“What we couldn’t foresee when we did the story back then as we were taking Superman out of the stories through his death and addressing his importance to the world at large, meaning the DC universe, is that we would see the same thing play out in reality,” says Jurgens, who wrote and penciled his story, with Breeding handle inking duties. “We had columns written about Superman and news media of all kinds focusing on the story, whether it be TV, radio, print or whatever.”
Jurgens says the inspiration for the story came in part from the countless encounters he’s had with fans in the three decades since the story was first published. “Any convention I do, any appearance I do, someone comes up and they’ve got Superman #75 and usually this person has like a third or fourth print and says, “This is what got me into comics,” he says. “Or “We stood in line forever to get this. My dad let me skip school that day and he took me to the comic store.” It’s all those kinds of stories that people have.”
Simonson and Bogdanove’s story, “Time,” focuses on John Henry Irons, AKA “Steel” and his reaction to Kal-El’s death. After surviving the devastating fallout from Superman’s fight with Doomsday, Irons vowed to “live a life worth saving,” and would become the superhero Steel. “This is John Henry doing that at the same time, trying to get to Superman, to save him and in a way failing, but in a way succeeding,” says Simonson, calling it a quintessential John Henry story.
“He thinks he’s failing because he never actually gets to where the action is, where the fight is. So he thinks he’s failing,” notes Bogdanove. “When he gets there and Superman’s already dead, he feels like this big failure. But he doesn’t appreciate that he’s been supporting Superman the whole way by saving everybody from all the collateral damage. He’s been pinch-hitting for Superman from panel one.”
Bogdanove credits his longtime friend Weezie for adding new depth to a well-established character in the course of an eight-page story. “Somehow she was able to go back to one particular point in the character’s evolution and illuminate his motivation in a way that gave us a snapshot of a character in development,” he says. “This story gave us a chance to expand on something that we didn’t have room to expand on in the original story.”
“Standing Guard” by Roger Stern and Butch Guice focuses on the Guardian as he viewed the final fight between Superman and Doomsday on the streets of Metropolis. Stern viewed Guardian as a stand-in for the reader, watching helplessly as the devastating battle unfolds.
“Guardian turned up two or three times at important points during the story, but we get to show how he first was clued in that something terrible was happening and getting him to that place,” the writer says. “He’s doing whatever he can to try and help. But every time he shows up, because Superman, of course being Superman is always two or three steps ahead of him. Every time he catches up, Superman looks worse than he did before. And Guardian’s wondering, what is this thing that he’s fighting that could do this to Superman?”
Stern and Guice did the story using the old Marvel Method, in which the writer provides a plot that the artist then draws, before the writer then adds the dialogue. “It was a joy just to have that little bit of extra elbow room so I could play with the visuals a little bit more,” Guice says. Stern agrees, saying this style played to both their strengths. “I’ve worked full script and I’ve worked plot script style and I always prefer the plot script,” Stern says. “It’s really more of a collaborative effort that way. It is crazy for me to choreograph a fight when Butch can do it on his own.”
“Above and Beyond” by Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett and Doug Hazelwood shows how Clark’s parents watched their son battle for his life on live television, while reflecting on his life through their collection of memories. When DC called Ordway, all he knew was that he had 10 pages for whatever story he came up with and it had to fit within the context of the original story. “That’s the type of stuff that was always fun as a monthly comic writer…the idea of finding a thread here and there that could be explored, and you can build it into something.”
A story about Superman’s parents watching their son fight for his life on television allowed him that opportunity. Ma Kent’s scrapbook offered the chance for Ordway to explore some previously-unexplored details the Man of Steel, but also to delve into their unique situation, which no one on Earth could relate to.
“I thought, how horrible as a parent to watch this happen to your son, but not having anybody know that that’s your son,” Ordway says. “In my story, I made a reference to a wrestling match because any kind of big thing tends to get hyped by the media. Even back then, if there was a hurricane or a flood or something, the media does milk it to a degree because of course people like seeing disasters. So that aspect of it immediately appealed.”
The Death of Superman’s Pop Culture Impact
It’s difficult to convey just how big a deal the story was in 1992 to those who didn’t live through it. During the ’90s comics boom, superheroes were getting plenty of attention. Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men were the top-selling books at Marvel and DC. Then-upstart imprint Image Comics had just debuted its first titles to blockbuster sales. But when advance word revealed that DC was going to kill the Man of Steel in Superman #75, comics received more mainstream news coverage than at nearly any other time in the history of the industry. Breeding vividly recalls the frenzy surrounding the story.
“The day that it came out, I had multiple signings and I ended up at the very last minute on CNN that morning,” he remembers. “A friend who had a comic shop, I was going to had been called to appear. And he said, “Oh, I’ve got one of the artists.” That was a very surreal day for me.”
Ordway remembers marathon signings at comic shops that seemed like they would never end. “It was definitely like we had our short period of being the Beatles,” he says. “We would show up for a store signing and sign until 10 o’clock at night because people kept coming. It was cool, but at the same time it was a little scary. It was so big…and all we wanted to do was for the book to get more readers. That was our ultimate goal.”
Guice remembers watching the famous episode of Saturday Night Live that referenced the comic storyline just days after Superman #75 was released. “They were holding a funeral and a character walks in,” Guice says. “My wife looks at me and says, “Who’s that?” And I said, “that’s Black Lightning. And as soon as I said that, on the show, somebody goes, “who are you?” And he goes, “I’m Black Lightning! The fact that Saturday Night Live was referencing this thing that we were working on was just…it was, uh… unlike anything else in my career.”
The Death of Superman storyline was a huge success for DC, with issue #75 alone selling six million copies and the collected edition being one of the top-selling trade paperbacks of all time. It spawned numerous copycat events from other publishers. But it also became a punching bag for critics who decried it as a publicity stunt existing solely to cash in on the speculative comics boom of the era.
The creators behind the story remain proud of the story and point to its enduring popularity as justification that the crossover was more than just a cheap stunt.
“I sign copies of those comics all the time,” Simonson says. “We did such a good job, not to brag or anything, to make a great story, and everybody did their best work. It’s kind of nice that 30 years later, anybody actually still cares.”
“It was a unique time in comics. It’ll never happen again, with every single comic store having lines out the door and around the block and the whole world talking about it,” Jurgens adds. “Plus, I really think it was a good story. If you take the Death of Superman and Funeral for a Friend and then Reign of the Supermen, I think those were really good kick-ass comics that also had heart. And that isn’t the easiest thing to always pull off.”
DC is also marking the 30th anniversary of The Death of Superman in Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths, a crossover that began with the deaths of nearly every member of the Justice League. Fortunately, Superman’s son Jon Kent is leading the charge and forming a new Justice League to combat this latest threat to the DC multiverse.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for Reso. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.