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The Death & Return of Superman Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

The Death & Return of Superman stands as one of the most influential and iconic Superman stories ever told. It was certainly the best-selling, even if that doesn’t necessarily make it the most-read, due to the nature of the nineties comic book speculation market. Read today, separate from all the hype and publicity and novelty items, it’s a very interesting part of the character’s lore. It’s certainly an ambitious tale, epic in scope. However, it’s very clearly disjointed and oddly paced and often demonstrates a strange disconnect with its own subject. A story with the title The Death & Return of Superman should probably offer some profound insight into its lead character. This just feels like a series of plot twists peppered with some casual observations.

Death of a hero...

Death of a hero…

To be fair, The Death & Return of Superman probably merits discussion in comparison to the other iconic DC comics event of the nineties. Knightfall followed a very similar pattern to The Death & Return of Superman, at least superficially. In that story, Batman was defeated by a new “badass” enemy, leaving his city unprotected. A newer decidedly more “nineties” stand-in character took his place, allowing the writers to offer some commentary on the popular trends in the nineties comic industry. Eventually, after showing the readers that this replacement wasn’t up to the task, Bruce Wayne got magically better and saved the day.

Knightfall is – I’d argue – a flawed epic. It’s a story that understands Batman as a character, even if the execution is a little clumsy. There’s the same sort of narrative disjointedness you find in these sorts of crossovers as writers baton-pass plot points across multiple books in the same line. Bruce Wayne’s miraculous recovery in the third act feels a little contrived and a little convenient. Denny O’Neil is reportedly so ashamed of his work on Wayne’s recovery that The Search (the arc covering that part of the plot) was omitted from the otherwise commendably complete Knightfall collections. It’s not perfect, but it’s interesting and fun.

Doomsday is coming...

Doomsday is coming…

I mention this because The Death & Return of Superman suffers from a lot of the same problems that plagued Knightfall, but lacked a lot of the redemptive strengths of that narrative. Christopher Nolan was able to use the rough outline of Knightfall for The Dark Knight Rises. It’s very hard to imagine The Death & Return of Superman possibly working as a film in its own right. The animated adaptation (Superman: Doomsday) had to massively alter the story, and even then the film was less than satisfying on its own merits.

The first major problem one encounters on reading The Death & Return of Superman is the death of Superman, as one might expect. Like Knightfall, this story decided that a new rogue should be introduced to humble their iconic protagonist. In the style of the nineties, both Bane and Doomsday were created as over-muscled hulks with generically “badass” names. However, while Bane actually works really well as a Batman antagonist when used correctly, Doomsday… just sort of is.

Carry on...

Carry on…

Bane provides a dark mirror to Batman, another abandoned child who honed his body into a weapon as a means of proving a philosophical statement. Bane might have been large and muscled, but he was also introduced as a rogue who could match Bruce Wayne’s intelligence and his ability to plan. Bane doesn’t beat Batman just because he has a massive cause of ‘roid-rage, Bane defeats Batman by planning and manipulating the Caped Crusader into the perfect position. He out-Batmanned Batman.

Doomsday, on the other hand, really has no real resonance with Superman. His defining characteristic is that he can hit things really hard. “He just seems to wander from place to place, attacking whatever catches his eye,” Superman notes, which really happens to be the only thing you ever need to know about Doomsday as a character. He’s only really a physical challenge to the Man of Steel, a test of Superman’s strength. The defining moment in the conflict comes when, to quote a by-stander, “They hit each other so hard the windows are shattering!”

The great beyond...

The great beyond…

We don’t find out who Doomsday is here, or what he’s doing. We eventually get a back story for the character, but it’s hardly a classic. DC seem to insist on bringing the character back time and again, to the point where Paul Cornell’s otherwise outstanding Action Comics run was forced to tie into some Doomsday-related nonsense. He occasionally works in a passable fashion, used as a stand-in for nineties comics excess or a piece of blunt symbolism, but he’s not a good character in his own right.

The fact that DC spends so much time trying to get Doomsday to work as a Superman foe is probably indicative of a lot of the company’s difficulties with Superman as a character. There’s a sense that this thing should be important because it was something that was part of some past popular facet of the franchise. So you end up with nonsense like Superman Returns, because it’s impossible to divorce the character from Richard Donner’s vision of him. You keep tying him into the Legion of Superheroes, because that’s deemed to be a vital part of his heritage.

Let Lois her grief...

Let Lois her grief…

Anyway, regardless of Doomsday’s problems after this story, he is a major problem within this narrative. Really? You are going to kill Superman and this is how you do it? You have Superman go out punching a new bad guy really hard? This should be a big moment. This should echo through eternity. How Superman dies should telly you a lot about how he lived. Does he die to save the planet? Does he do something truly impossible and inspiring? Does he, as Grant Morrison suggests, leave us to sit in the heart of the sun?

Er, no. He just punches things.

Welcome to the punch...

Welcome to the punch…

Which is strange, because you get a sense that the writer know that punching things isn’t what makes Superman a great character. They understand that hitting a space monster with pointy bits all over his body is not the essence of what Superman is about. Funeral for a Friend, the second of the epic’s three acts, is arguably the strongest part of the event, if only because it seems to argue that Superman’s appeal as a character has nothing to do with clichés of masculinity. But more on that later.

As the news coverage during the aftermath of his death asserts, “…. but his greatest power was his compassion for his fellow man.” Probably the best chapter in this entire collection plays out as a bit of a hokey Christmas special, as the Justice League decide to honour their friend’s memory by trying to do one last bit of business for him. Answering some of the letters written to the Man of Steel, they reunite families and help those in dire situations. “For once,” Wonder Woman explains, “rather than combat threats, we want to help bridge the gaps that separate us all.”

With all the superheroes in Metropolis, America's crime rates skyrocketted during that three-hour block...

With all the superheroes in Metropolis, America’s crime rates skyrocketted during that three-hour block…

That said, even these scenes feel a little surreal. They make a lot more sense than simply treating Superman as a generic action hero, and his death guilting Guy Gardner into acting like a decent human being and helping a dying woman find her son is very touching. However, they don’t really bear thinking too much about. Reuniting a divorced family feels a little creepy, as Wonder Woman tracks down a deadbeat dad and pretty much forces him to say, “I want us to be a family again.” Is that a good idea for the man’s wife and kids? Surely there’s a reason the marriage broke down, and emotionally blackmailing them into sharing a house isn’t going to fix things.

There’s a strange sense of unease throughout the collection as the writers try to deal with the popular perception of Superman as a character. The nineties was the era of the anti-hero. Lobo was one of DC’s most popular characters. The Punisher and Wolverine were doing massive business over at Marvel. Here, the writers have a bit of fun with that, suggesting that Guy Gardner is the kind of hero who appeals to the type of teenagers buying comics. During an interview with Superman, broadcast to schools around the country, one student protests, “They shoulda talked to Guy Gardner… if they wanted to talk to someone with their head screwed on straight!”

That tears it!

That tears it!

Mitch dismissively refers to him as “the Super weasel”, while his mother is a big fan. “You must have been thrilled to see that!” she suggests when she hears about the interview. There’s a sense tat the writers are perhaps trying to acknowledge the generational gap that seems to exist for Superman, even today. Those old enough to remember the Richard Donner films have a great deal of affection for the character, while his ideals and his “simple country boy” characterisation probably seem quite shallow to a generation more comfortable with nuance and ambiguity.

Unfortunately, The Death & Return of Superman is never particularly sophisticated in its commentary. When the young characters in the story make criticisms of Superman, they are always presented as shallow and stupid, lacking substance. The fact that Mitch prefers Guy Gardner to Superman is used to make his position seem ridiculous. Similarly, when Adam protests, he’s displayed as insensitive. “Yeah,” he comments. “Big deal. Most of us kids at school thought he was a big weinie anyways!” It’s hardly the most substantial critique ever, but it’s especially stupid when Superman just died to save Metropolis.

A clear and President danger...

A clear and President danger…

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Superman as a character, and how he has been handled in the last couple of decades. Smugly dismissing the character’s declining popularity as the result of stupid kids feels like a shallow response to that. After all, Batman has remained consistently popular despite being just as old as Superman. Knightfall offers a critique of a lot of the same trends of the nineties as The Death & Return of Superman, but it never feels a petty – perhaps because it concedes that some of the creative decisions made with Batman during that period (isolating him from his supporting cast) were not ideal.

Instead, The Death & Return of Superman never really engages with any of the criticism of Superman as a character. Instead, it seems to argue that Superman is simply due respect because he is old. When young Clark Kent is embarrassed by the car his father drives, Jon Kent protests. “This ‘old bucket of bolts’, as you call it — will be a classic one day.” When the four possible successors to Superman appear in Reign of the Supermen, the defining criteria used to access their validity is their connection to the previous Superman. The story is more interested in who is the “real” Superman than who is the best successor to Clark Kent’s legacy.

Doomsday smash!

Doomsday smash!

To be fair, the idea of Reign of the Supermen is quite clever. It’s quite similar to the decision to have Azrael replace Bruce Wayne as Batman in Knightfall. It allows the writers to play with the notion of a nineties anti-hero essentially replacing one of the two most iconic characters in comic books. Azrael was a darker and more brutal version of Batman, pretty much a direct “screw you” to fans who wanted the Caped Crusader to learn a thing or two from the Punisher.

Reign of the Supermen attempts to one-up that. Well, actually, it attempts to three-up, offering no less than four potential replacement Supermen. On one level, it’s a nice hook. Rather than forcing one potential Superman down our throats, the comic generates some ambiguity. Which of these is the “real” Superman? And it allows to split the character of Superman through a prism, where each of the four characters embodies a particular facet of the hero or a potential future, albeit without the tempering graces we take for granted.

To El and back...

To El and back…

This creates a narrative problem though, as each of the four Superman books breaks off to follow one of the replacements. It diffuses the story too much, causes it to loose focus. It doesn’t help that some of these character stories (Steel, for example) seem to be in a holding pattern while the other books line-up their plot points. It might have worked better as one narrative with four characters than four branched narratives tying together at the end.

That said, the four potential replacement Supermen are interesting in concept, if not always in execution. Let’s start with the most nineties of these, the Eradicator who also calls himself “the Last Son of Krypton.” This is Superman as alien.” He slots himself perfectly into Superman’s life. He takes over the fortress of solitude and uses its resources to assist in his operation. Off-duty, he chillaxes in some of those wonderful nineties Kryptonian jumpsuits.

He wears his sunglasses at night...

He wears his sunglasses at night…

In case his status as übermensch wasn’t obvious enough, one of his chapters even borrows imagery from Watchmen, casting the Eradicator as Adrian Veidt processing information from multiple screens at the same time. The image makes it to the over of the comic book, as it asks “Who watches the Supermen?” This version of Superman has no interest in Clark Kent or Lois Lane. In fact, it’s telling that none of the three candidates purporting to be Superman try to assume Clark’s life in any way, shape or formed. Granted, Superboy is too young to be convincing, but there’s no indication he has a civilian identity. Each has lost contact with humanity.

In contrast, the real Superman is defined by his humanity. Once he returns, he almost immediately re-establishes his Clark Kent persona. At one point, in conversation with his son, Jonathan Kent speculates that dying was the most human thing that Clark Kent has actually done. “Son,” he begins, “I’m convinced that the only reason you’re here… is because we raised you with the concept of mortality!” It’s an interesting idea, albeit one not nearly developed enough.

Easy there, flyboy...

Easy there, flyboy…

Anyway, the Eradicator is very clearly an attempt to evoke a particular type of nineties Superman. “There is no escape for such as you!” he declares in his first scene. “You must pay the price for your crimes!” He boasts, “I shall use the power that is mine as Krypton’s son to bring justice to this Earth.” He is described as “Dirty Harry with a cape” and earns the approval of this event’s nineties whipping boy, Guy Gardner. “If the man I met wasn’t the real Superman, then he oughta be!” (Even the Eradicator notes the endorsement is a mixed blessing at best, “That alone is reason to question what I have done.”)

He wears sunglasses, despite the fact that the real Superman is powered by the sun. As Lois notes, “He looks like Clark, but he sounds so cold, so… hollow.” He is quite superficial, more a collection of hardass anti-hero clichés than a character in his own right. Lois protests, “Superman never hid his face! And he didn’t wear black like an executioner!” And yet it was quite clear that he cannot be Superman, for he is “nothing but an artefact of a dead world.”

Totally radical!

Totally radical!

Then there’s Superboy, who also wears sunglasses. He has a lot of the powers of Superman – maybe even more – and the wit and warmth, but he lacks the experience. He’s a totally rad kid, man, like with his hair slicked back and wearing an earring. It must be a clip-on, because I can’t figure how hard it would be to pierce Superman’s ears. Naturally, his inexperience and his lack of a decent set of ethical values instilled by the Kent family makes him reckless, potentially costing lives. As Martha Kent notes to Lois, “Now you know that no boy we raised would ever act that way, Lois — powers or not!”

Of course, while the Eradicator and Superboy might be misguided (to the point of getting people killed), at least they aren’t evil. There’s the Cyborg Superman. The Cyborg Superman is interesting on quite a few levels, none of which really make him an interesting character. For one thing, he is essentially a stand-in for Reed Richards, the lead character in Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Hank Henshaw was, as exposition clumsily informs us, a scientist transformed into something strange during an experimental space flight with his family.

Just in case you didn't get that he was eeeevil...

Just in case you didn’t get that he was eeeevil…

So having a stand-in for the patriarch of Marvel’s so-called “first family” effectively crash the Superman comic books and try to destroy Superman’s image is layered in subtext. After all, Fantastic Four #1 was the book which heralded the Silver Age and really ended DC’s domination of the superhero comics market. (Of course, it also broadened that market as a whole, so whatcha gonna do?) Using a knock-off version of Reed Richards to hijack the Superman brand feels a little petty, but we’ll let it slide.

Anyway, the Cyborg Superman embodies all of Superman’s superiority without any of his (in what’s becoming a recurring theme) humility or humanity. In case any kids reading this don’t get what the writers seem to be suggesting, the key point seems to be that those things kids don’t like about Superman are sorta what makes him a superhero. But I’ll digress. There’s is something deliciously angsty about the way that Cyborg Superman mumbles to himself like a spiteful teenager. “I’ll show those backward idiots they should have accepted me. I’ll make them all choke on their superiority and then –“ He sounds more like a kid than Superboy does.

A psycho cyborg...

A psycho cyborg…

Which brings us to Steel, the only imitation Superman who doesn’t claim to be Superman. He’s inspired by a casual act of heroism undertaken by the Man of Steel to emulate the superhero. “I owe you my life!” he tells the Man of Tomorrow. Superman replies, “Then make it count for something!” Various new age-y characters suggest that he inherited Superman’s spirit, and it doesn’t seem like they are too far wrong.

However, the biggest problem with Steel is that Louise Simonson is writing him. So he gets a convoluted “I used to build weapons and I’m guilty!” back story complete with cringe-worthy dialogue and whole host of nonsense that doesn’t seem to tie particularly well into anything. And yet, despite that, he’s the voice of reason. He doesn’t like guns. He represents the little guy. He advocates for a reasonable discussion with the other Supermen. He shows an interest in mentoring and developing Superboy. In short, Steel is the best successor to Superman of the bunch.

Steel yourself...

Steel yourself…

But then we hit a problem when Superman comes back. It isn’t just that his resurrection feels as contrived as it does inevitable. It’s explained with a dose of technobabble and a completely unreassuring mea culpa from the writers speaking through the Eradicator. “Another day, another set of circumstances… and your resuscitation might not have been possible. In fact, it’s safe to say this would not be possible ever again.” While it sounds like the writers begging to be allowed to use this “get out of jail free” card just once, on the promise they’ll never use it again, it doesn’t help the story feel any less convenient or dramatically vapid.

That’s not suggest Bruce Wayne’s recovery in Knightfall was that much more graceful, but at least there was an arc devoted to it, and he didn’t just show up magically better. (Even if he did get magically better.) It undermines a lot of The Death & Return of Superman, making it feel like a bit of a cop-out. The (Almost) Death & Return of Superman just doesn’t have the same ring to it, I suppose. It is frustrating, and it adds to the confused jumble of the third act of the story.

Superman's true power, it seems, was hitting things, really hard...

Superman’s true power, it seems, was hitting things, really hard…

However, the biggest problem isn’t the mysterious and convenient resurrection of Superman. It’s what he does once he gets back. We’ve just had a whole host of stories about how creating a nineties anti-hero version of Superman is not something that you want to do, and how the simple honesty of John Henry Irons is the best way to honour the hero. So it would stand to reason that Superman should return in all his iconic glory and save the day by virtue of being the Superman that the Cyborg, the Eradicator and Superboy just couldn’t be.

He doesn’t do that. In a wonderfully hypocritical example of trying to have their cake and eat it too, after months of demonstrating how you couldn’t replace Superman with various nineties anti-heroes, they decide to turn him into a nineties anti-hero. Lois’ remark to the Eradicator about how Superman doesn’t wear black seems hilarious in hindsight, as we’re treated to a mullet-haired black-suit-wearing gun-totin’ Superman.

This is the Superman we've all been waiting for!

This is the Superman we’ve all been waiting for!

Listening to a radio account of Jimmy Olsen’s Turtle Boy TV show cash-in, one prison inmate notes, “It don’t know, it’s, y’know, very nineties!” The resurrected Superman might not wear sunglasses, but otherwise he’s the most nineties image of the entire collection. Given how the entire arc seems written as defence of Superman against the excesses of the nineties, it undermines the whole effort to bring him back in that style.

“Superman is back — and somebody’s going to pay for what they’ve done!” he vows on his return, expressing a sentiment not too different from the vengeance-hungry approach of the Eradicator. Arming himself, he reflects, “Things aren’t going to get any easier. I’ll need something else to give me an edge.” He even kills Henshaw at the climax, offering the justification, “I doubt any prison can effectively protect society from you.” Given how Steel criticised the Eradicator for killing, it feels a bit silly. (He also starts calling people “punk”, to play into that “Dirty Harry” vibe.)

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Then again, there’s a very strong sense of hypocrisy around The Death & Return of Superman as a whole. I’m reluctant to categorise any comic book hook as a “gimmick”, because that seems pejorative. However, the story was written to sell comics, and it succeeded. Reading the comic, you get a sense that some of the writing staff disagree with this, but none of them really manage to make it work. For example, one Simonson chapter features a guy hawking shirts and bagged newspapers at the funeral.

“Whaddaya mean tryin’ ta cash in on Sooperman’s death?!” one by-stander protests. It seems to be criticism at how relentlessly gimmicky and exploitative the sales campaign for the event had become, with bagged comics and black arm-bands and holograms and so forth. However, Simonson then goes on to painfully justify the gouging. It’s okay, it turns out, because the vendor claims, “My family’s got to eat somehow!” Either have the guts to make a criticism, or don’t.  (“Where’s the dignity?” Martha asks, watching the funeral on television, ironic as Funeral for a Friend is the best part of the event.)

Blown away...

Blown away…

Roger Stern gets in on the action as well, with the Eradicator protesting, “The name Superman will not be turned into a franchise.” At the end of the same chapter, several characters are served copyright papers, as it’s suggested that the name Superman has become a piece of commercialised intellectual property to be protected and exploited.

Still, there are some nice moments here. I particularly like the handling of the Kent family, even if it feels a little all over the place, what with the journey to hell and all that. It does reinforce the idea that Clark Kent is as important as Superman, and that nobody is trying to fill that gap, even the plucky replacement reporter. One of the better sequences of the comic has the family sitting at home during Superman’s funeral, and hosting their own. They can’t go to Washington. “We couldn’t get anywhere near him, Martha,” Jon Kent confesses.

Four of a kind...

Four of a kind…

Still, The Death & Return of Superman feels like a waste. It is a massively influential story, and it has some powerful moments, but it feels too disjointed and too internally inconsistent to really work. More than that, though, it’s never sure what exactly it wants to say about its lead character, so it winds up saying pretty much nothing at all.

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2 Responses

  1. The key issue with Doomsday is he doesn’t talk. I wish there was something profound about him as if he were traveling across space to take down stronger and stronger opponents. That being the strongest is all that matters. You could say this is because he’s become so powerful that he can no longer lead a normal life, and this contrast Superman who has that power but isn’t cursed with it.

    • Yep, that’s not a bad hook for him.

      Bane was conceived to do the same sort of thing for Batman, but I think he works a lot better because he does have a character with clear motivations and back story. Bane has not always been used well, but he has been better served than Doomsday in the years since his debut.

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