Back in 2012, Max Landis (writer of Chronicle and s0n of John Landis) made this 16 minute short detailing in short funny detail one of the most critical moments in comic book history. The Death of Superman. In a nutshell, back in 1992, Superman fights his greatest enemy and for the first time, the most iconic character in history dies. I even remember the news reports going on about this. However it’s not as much about the death of Superman but of what came out of it. In trying to make a very old character be relevant again in the culture-clashing stewpot I call the 90’s the result would forever change the industry and break a sacred rule of death in comics, at least as far important characters are concerned.
At first, it was going to be a long and stupid little short like all the others and a love letter to the franchise. But after a closer look it was worth all the repeat plays and got a lot of quick lessons and thoughts out of this mostly seven, This is what I learned from The Death and Return of Superman.
1. The Audience Grows Up, And That Scares Us Shitless!
Everything we do in comics and I do mean everything comes with good story, action, drama, you know stuff for the hero to be a hero all for the intended audience. Which are bored kids with money in their pockets looking for good entertainment. However as life moves on so does the readers. They grow up, get jobs, have kids and find new forms of entertainment that for comics are too kiddy for them to take interests anymore.
So comic book companies decide to add more to their heroes with drama, problems, pathos, things that we can relate to in our adult lives. For Superman a very old character what to do with him gets DC execs scared shitless. What is for them to do? Kill him of course!
2. Sudden Realization Can Be A Scary Thing
Quick! Think of someone, who is pound-for-pound the strongest character in the Marvel or DC universe. If you think right off the bat that it would be Superman or The Hulk. Yeah this is what The Death of Superman is. There has been a lot of talk among fans of what would happen if the two strongest characters (there’s also Darkseid and Ultron and many others but screw them!) would fight against each other.
There have been animations, fan comics and stories telling that but no official version. Then came Doomsday which by Landis is basically the hulk and I think so too now when you think about it. Take the Gray Hulk, make him fucking ugly, add protrusions and shorter green pants and boom! You got Doomsday! This was preemptive wish fulfilment folks!
3. You’re Just Paying For The Brand
What do most tech critics and PC aficionados complain about those who buy overpriced and easily obsolete Apple products: They are most likely paying for the name of the product not for what it does even for the simplest of tasks. Basically you’re buying something that was just not meant for you and other better options are available but they’ll go for it anyway. With The Reign of the Supermen, four pretenders to the throne come along and take the place of the Man of Steel: Eradicator, Cyborg Superman, The Man of Steel and Metropolis Boy.
Each of them carry the symbol of Superman but do things that aren’t very superman-y. Eradicator takes the lethal approach and kills the bad guys. Metropolis Boy is basically a young punk, Cyborg Superman was former astronaut who got really fucked up by an accident but we’ll get back to that later and The Man of Steel who you know as Steel an iron worker by the name of *sigh* John Henry Irons. Each of them winning the hearts and minds of the people often with disastrous results. And on that note…
3A. The Next Black Thing?!
Landis says that for years DC was trying to push this guy to be the next big thing. I’m sorry but I can’t see what he means of how much they can push this guy to…
Oh right, Nevermind. Moving on…
4. Everything is Basically Superman’s Fault
Nature has a way to make big things out of little things, like the butterfly effect. In this short, one act of oversight on Superman’s part led to why death in comics is rendered inconsequential. Ask yourself this question, what would drive a good person to become a super-villain? Loss of a loved one? a result of someone else’s negligence or the hardened rules of an organization that can’t see past the needs of ones wants for the greater good?
Enter Hal Jordan and Cyborg Superman. Hank Henshaw was an astronaut who goes up into the space with three others in what can be described as a parody of the origin of the Fantastic Four but instead of gaining superpowers, they get horrifying deaths. In order to save his wife, he uploaded is consciousness into LexCorp computers and comes out this cyborg and his efforts to save her were in vain as she throws herself out a window. He basically blames superman for this? How? He was “resurrected” in superman’s birthing matrix something that should had protocols to tell the difference between the Man of Steel and Henshaw. Anyway he goes around as Cyborg Superman and after blaming his death and all that stuff. He partners up with Mongul and goes after Coast City to destroy it and install Machine City to make a new warworld.
Why did he do it and why in Coast City. Turns out he and his wife lived there and this was an effort to erase all traces of his past. Seriously, that’s why. Anyway Hal Jordan comes in and wants to rebuild the city using his ring. Green Lantern Corps. says no because he can’t use his ring to rebuild or bring back everything he lost and he completely looses it and kills everyone save for the last member of the Guardians of the Universe. Now going around as the villain Parallax. While giving Kyle Rayner the reigns as the new Green Lantern. This has real world consequences with the rise of H.E.A.T. (Hal’s Extreme Action Team) and Geoff Johns’ involvement later on.
But when you think about it, if it wasn’t for the neglect of one of the most important artifacts Superman has at his disposal, this wouldn’t have happen. Kind of dropped the ball on this one Supes.
5. Good Heroes Never Die (But Probably Should)
Just as Cyborg Superman takes down the rest of the supermen, out of nowhere the real Superman comes in and kills him off. So? Superman’s back… yay. Fans felt betrayed, sales plummeted and death is an afterthought. Explains the why but not the how which will get to that in the end.
6. No Basis in Reality? Free Reign HO!
There is a great line in this movie when it comes to creating characters based on fictional lore. I don’t know if it s true or not but it really was inspiring. It has to do with dealing with established rules in movies for things that do not make sense in the real world. Here’s how it went:
How do you kill a vampire?
Stake through the heart, Garlic, Sunlight.
No. You can kill a vampire however the fuck you want, because vampires DON’T FUCKING EXIST! You can make up rules for any kind of thing you want.
…Immediately followed by this.
But the idea of that. Damn! But think about it, by that idea, it completely negates everything you know working around the rules of fiction. What it basically says is if there is something in fiction that has no basis in reality, you can make up rules for anything you want out of a character. Scientific consensus? Centuries of historical and cultural backing? Established rules of literary works of past authors and pioneers of the arts? Fuck that! If I want to make Dracula go after his victims wearing a pink tutu and he can only survive not by night by dusk or dawn, go for it!
7. Death? What’s That?
Hal Jordan and Geoff Johns. What do those names have to do with the idea of the death of death in comics? Hal Jordan being evil, breaking long-standing traditions and having a 90’s punk kid artist take up the reigns of an intergalactic space cop is enough for H.E.A.T. to take action even to put out full ads calling for the return of Hal being good and do away with Rayner. In the end, they won, and Hal’s good again, forgiven and back in business as the Green Lantern. Then there’s Geoff Johns with Blackest Night and the Emotional Spectrum more specifically the White and Black Lantern Corps.
Those two elements explain the how death is dead in comics (according to DC):
The Emotional Spectrum
When Geoff explains the original meaning behind the multiple colors of the corps. He decided to make the basic colors of the rainbow and the classical weakness of Green Lantern’s weakness to the color yellow to be more attached to emotions and not just plain colors: Willpower (Green), Red (Rage), Yellow (Fear), Hope (Blue), Compassion (Indigo), Love (Violet) and Greed/Avarice (Orange). With the absence of two other colors: Black and White and if history as often shows us the only things that are associated with Black and White are Life and Death.
Enter this guy:
Nekron is the main super-villain in the event Blackest Night and the reason DC’s heroes can’t stay dead, and this all in canon for gods sake! He is also the leader of the Black Lantern Corps. a legion of zombies armed with black rings. These black rings have the power to do two things: Suck out life force of the living and take control of the recently resurrected. Who has been resurrected? Oh.. most of the big name heroes of the DC universe to serve as Nekron’s sleeper agents to the corps all thanks to his leaving the door to the underworld open for heroes to escape. Leaving behind about why they can’t stay dead.
Now with that out-of-the-way, I can end this article with this: The short taught me a lot of things about how the strange world of comics work when it comes to iconic characters and death. Storytelling elements littered all over with blurred lines…
…and Death. As long as there is money, tradition and demand to be made, good characters don’t die… easily as we want them to.