As some of you know, I’ve done a couple of posts analyzing some of my favorite Superman stories. Since the 30th anniversary of The Death of Superman just recently went by, I’ve decided to do an analysis of that. As much as I really dislike most of what was going on with Superman in the 1990’s, I would be lying if I said this one wasn’t one of my favorites. The Death of Superman was the story that got me to read Superman comics as a kid, and it had a profound effect on the way I still see a lot of DC-related concepts. For instance, it’s probably part of the reason why I have a strong attachment to the Blue Beetle heroic legacy.
That being said, if you take off the rosy-colored nostalgia glasses, The Death of Superman is a pretty flawed story. One of the reasons for that is that it isn’t even the major Superman story that the writing team wanted to tell at the end of 1992/beginning of 1993. The Superman writers were building up to the wedding of Lois and Clark to be the major Superman event for the end of 1992. However, the DC brass decided that story should wait until the wedding took place on their new show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman because…synergy! You can read about that a bit more on this CBR article. You can even catch a glimpse of what that 1992 comic wedding timeline might’ve looked like in Superman Annual #3 from 1991 (which is, oddly, not on DCUI, but you can probably find it in the dollar bin of your local comic shop, if you’re interested).
What I’m saying is, The Death of Superman wasn’t a story that they had been working up to for years. It was a replacement for the Lois and Clark wedding story that they really wanted to tell (and it would be years before they were able to tell it, so if it ever felt to you like they were killing time with some of those 90’s plots… they kind of were). That’s possibly why the plot is a bit flawed. For instance, I’ve often argued that a random monster shouldn’t have been the one to kill Superman. It probably should’ve been Lex Luthor. The Superman/Luthor feud was a major strength of the Post-Crisis era, and, at the time, Luthor was in a prime position to be the killer (posing as his own long-lost son in a cloned body). Luthor killing Superman would’ve fit the narrative of the story they had been telling for years and would’ve had a profound emotional effect on the long-time Superman readers. However, that was not the story the writers wanted to tell with The Death of Superman…
Which, FINALLY, brings me to my point that Doomsday is not the real villain of The Death of Superman. Doomsday is the plot device which kills Superman, but he is not the true, thematic antagonist. So, if not Doomsday, who is? Well, first we need to establish what story the Superman team was trying to tell with The Death of Superman. I believe that 90’s Superman editor Mike Carlin sums it up best with this quote from the Look Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman documentary: “The world was taking Superman for granted. So we literally said, ‘Let’s show what the world would be like without Superman.’” (That quote can also be found in the CBR article I linked above).
What Mike Carlin was referring to was the fact that Superman was hardly the most popular superhero of the 1990’s. The 90’s were an era for anti-heroes and characters like Wolverine, Lobo, and Venom were having their heyday. It seemed that the appetite of most 90’s comic book fans was more geared toward violent heroes with combative attitudes who weren’t afraid to kill. In that climate, it felt like they could not appreciate what a superhero like Superman stood for, and, prior to his death, Supes’ comics were struggling a bit.
So, the real villain of The Death of Superman is, essentially, comic fans of the 1990’s. The fans who craved the death and destruction of those extreme 90’s stories are the fans that The Death of Superman is trying to speak to. Of course, you can’t actually put the fans in the story, so they created a proxy character or a representative for those fans: Mitch. Mitch is the actual villain of The Death of Superman.
We first meet Mitch in Justice League America #69 when we see him react to Superman’s student Q&A for The Cat Grant Show:
The first thing to note is that Mitch, obviously, prefers Guy Gardner to Superman. Now, Guy Gardner was an interesting character in the late 80’s through the 90’s. In Giffen and DeMatteis’ Justice League International, Guy was characterized as a parody of an anti-hero from that era. Gardner was a combative, aggressive, toxically-macho blowhard. It was meant to be a joke, but, because this was the 90’s, portraying Guy this way ironically made him very, very popular with the fans. This is the kind of superhero that Mitch respects and wants to see.
In Superman #74, Mitch communicates his disdain for Superman while reacting to Supes taking a punch from Doomsday:
Mitch is so unwilling to give Superman any credit that he watches him stand up to a blow from the creature that just dismantled the Justice League and essentially says, “big deal…” I should also take a second to note that Doomsday is built like the kind of anti-hero that people craved in the 90’s. With his bone claws and unreal musculature, Doomsday looks like a cross between Wolverine and the Hulk. His behavior channels the most cynical reading of those characters as Doomsday only craves violence, destruction, and death.
Mitch, eventually, learns the error of his ways in The Death of Superman. Doomsday’s rampage through his neighborhood leaves Mitch, his mother, and his baby sister trapped among the burning wreckage. Can his hero Guy Gardner save him? Nope. Guy’s aggressive behavior got him injured early on in the fight which lead to him being unconscious by this point. So, in Adventures of Superman #497, Mitch is forced to turn to the hero that he does not want to turn to:
And what does Superman do? He acts like Superman. He leaves the field of battle with Doomsday to save Mitch and his family because, to Superman, every life is worth saving. In doing so, Superman gives up a chance to stop Doomsday before he reaches more civilians. He knows he is potentially risking more lives that way, but Superman can’t help it. His heroic ideals make him the guy who does whatever he can to save whomever he can. Those are the ideals that stand Superman apart from the anti-heroes of the 90’s, and that’s why he was able to be Mitch’s savior on that day. That’s why we’re all supposed to miss him when Superman inevitably is killed by Doomsday. If he’s gone, who will stand for those ideals?
Essentially, that is my reading of The Death of Superman or, at least, that’s what I believe the core of the story is. Even in that, it’s not perfect. The portrayal of Mitch kind of feels like a straw man argument or like a younger generation being a bit unfairly characterized by an older one:
(Who blows up like that over soda?)
However, The Death of Superman got the job done. It successfully communicated to readers why Superman is important, and we all really, really missed him when he was gone. Superman not only defeated the monster, Doomsday, but he vanquished Mitch’s notion of a hero only being valuable when they are aggressively violent. That is what makes The Death of Superman one of the best Superman stories of the modern era. What do you think of my assessment? Are there any other notable moments or elements of the story I may have missed? Let me know in the comments and thanks for reading!