Gimmick or Good? – Superman #75
In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” We continue with 1992?s black polybagged Superman #75…
Superman #75 (published November 1992) – script by Dan Jurgens, art by Jurgens and Brett Breeding
One of the most controversial and culturally significant comic books of the 1990s, Superman #75 is more popularly known as the “Death of Superman.” The release of this comic book garnered so much mainstream media attention, its shocking ending was reported by a number of broadcast news channels and national newspapers. Adding to the issue’s buzz was its packaging – special “collector’s” editions were wrapped in a black polybag sporting the iconic Superman “S” dripping in red “blood.” In addition to the comic, the bag contained a trading card, a Daily Planet obituary, a black armband, and other assorted paraphernalia. Of course, if you were lucky enough to score a first printing polybag, you would have been considered crazy to crack it open since everybody was convinced that this comic would one day be worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in its pristine, undisturbed form.
In the 20 years since its release, Superman #75 has become a lighting rod for angry comic book enthusiasts who essentially blame its mainstream popularity for sinking the industry and scores of local retailers in the late 1990s. Many people really only bought a copy as a dot com-esque investment, and when they were unable to get a serious chunk of change for it, they abandoned the comic book industry altogether.
But what about inside the polybag and inside the comic?
What makes analyzing the contents of Superman #75 a tricky endeavor is the power of 20-20 hindsight. In retrospect, of course, the death of character as iconic as Superman wasn’t going to be permanent and if people really purchased 20 copies of the book because they thought it was going to be as valuable as Action Comics #1 one day, they probably deserved to get swindled. With that said, the issue is such a cultural landmark for comic book fans because it’s exemplary of the excesses of the 1990s. Despite the speculator-fueled hysteria, 20 years later I still think everyone should get their hands on a copy and read it at least once. It will only take you about 10 minutes to do, which speaks volumes about the comic’s depth.
Superman #75 isn’t really so much a story as it is a series of great-looking splash pages of one brutally bloody brawl between the Man of Steel and Doomsday. There’s certainly an audience for something like this – why else would Michael Bay movies make millions of dollars if there wasn’t a significant portion of the population that wanted to pay to see stuff blow up? If you think of Superman #75 as the Michael Bay movie of 1990s comic books, I think you’ll have a good time reading it.
Of course, looking at it more critically, there are holes aplenty. The script is incredibly shallow. There are predictable and clichéd scenes galore like Superman and Lois Lane sharing a customary last kiss before he meets his impending demise…
and, of course, Superman dying in Lois’ arms. The last block of text of the issue (which is inside a gatefold final page) is “that a Superman died” which I’m sure is designed to be a chilling finale to the character’s story, but the most cynical part of me just wants to roll my eyes after reading it.
Other sappy visuals include a despondent JLA at the scene of the battle and Clark Kent’s parents embracing as they witness Superman’s death on the television. The whole time, Jurgens is selling the hero’s sacrifice and his relentless will to do right by everyone.
What always bothers me about this issue is the fact that Jurgens and Breeding never actually demonstrate what is so special about Doomsday that he should be the character to actually succeed in killing Superman. Sure, it’s established that he’s a mindless killing machine with immense strength, but outside of heavy-handedly telegraphing on every single page that Superman is going to die by the end of the issue, I never truly get the impression that there is something that much more epic or grand about this battle. Considering this comic was sold so hard to casual readers, you would think DC would have made fewer assumptions about what people checking out a copy already knew about Doomsday and his capacity to destroy Superman.
Meanwhile, there’s an old adage in writing that says “show me, don’t tell me” and Superman #75 is certainly an example of the creative team telling readers, over and over again, that something is critically dire, without ever actually showing us in a way that provides much clarity or depth.
So, while I may advise people to give this comic book a read because of its historic nature, I certainly can’t call it a “good” comic in terms of how it was written and crafted. It’s not Grant Morrison’s infinitely more insightful examination of Superman’s final days in All-Star Superman, but it’s hard to go the rest of your life as a comic book fan without giving the “death of Superman” a read at least once.
March 14, 2013 at 6:26 am
Gimmick? Definitely, but to try and condense the whole Superman/Doomsday battle to this one issue is wrong. If you want people to go back and read this issue, how about having them read the whole crossover. While Doomsday isn’t really fleshed out in Superman #75, we do get a bit more of him in the earlier issues of this series. Granted, not much, but enough to wet your appetite for this character. I mean, DC had to come up with a new character to “kill” Superman because everyone was familiar with his enemies that having them do it would have us all say, “How could kill him now when he/she couldn’t do it before?” It did a nice build up to a character that DC didn’t use enough of back in the day and setup what I thought was a great Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey series.
March 14, 2013 at 6:37 am
Hope it’s balanced with context and interpretation, not on sheer hindsight’s sake.
March 14, 2013 at 6:38 am
Perhaps it was because I liked the follow-up so much, but I can’t hate on this comic. This was generally a pretty good time to read Superman.
March 14, 2013 at 6:46 am
It’s tough to bash this for me for two reasons. On an absolute level, it sucks. But on a relative level, compared to other superhero comics coming out at this time, it was better than a vast majority, even though all of Greg’s criticisms were valid. Comics in general were so bad back then, even the ones that started out good and kept the same creative teams all seemed to be getting worse. Also, on it’s own it’s not so good but as a kickoff to what followed, that I enjoyed. I loved the four replacement Supermen storyline.
March 14, 2013 at 6:52 am
March 14, 2013 at 6:56 am
I have to echo David here. Sure, by itself, this issue doesn’t show Doomsday as much more than a big galoot. However, the preceding parts of the crossover had him surviving massive explosions, stopping the JLA, etc.–there was a much better sense as to why this thing was going to kill Superman.
What drove me batty was in the final pages, there’s a girl crying at Superman’s impending death, and she’s wearing a Bugs Bunny shirt. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that Bugs looks PERFECT–it’s not just a cheap quick drawing, but looks almost like Jurgens either traced or cut-and-pasted his face onto the shirt. So Bugs is giving you, the reader, this cartoony, “ain’t I a stinker?” look on a page that’s supposed to be incredibly smober. It drives me batty every time I look at it.
March 14, 2013 at 6:56 am
Since the issue was the last part of a story arc, bashing it for not “explaining” enough is like only watcing the final 15 minutes of a movie and then complaining there was no set up. And it only had 20 Panels because each page was a full splash or a double spread. As the story arc progresses from issue to issue, the panels per page dropped. The first part had regular panels, the next issue only had 4 per page, then 3 per page, and the penultimate issue only had two panels per page.
And going even further, this entire first “arc” was really just prelude to the meat of the story, which was the Rise of the Supermen and the Return after that. All of which was excellent serial storytelling.
The issue was both Great AND Gimmick.
March 14, 2013 at 7:15 am
When did this happen? We are only at issue 7? How the heck did issue 75 come out already?
March 14, 2013 at 7:16 am
It was a great gimmick.
Since Mark is just criticizing this issue instead of the whole event, it seems fair to judge it assuming readers just read this issue.
March 14, 2013 at 7:27 am
I agree in that the storyline was very shallow and cliche. It was the kind of comic book that people who *don’t* read comics think comic books are like. I had the same grievance with this whole thing as I did with the Knightfall crossover: I didn’t like that a new character was brought in and took down the hero the first time they fought. Had Lex Luthor or the Joker brought down their respective foes, that would have meant something. But bringing in new characters for the sole, obvious purpose of creating a big event stretched my willing suspension of disbelief way too far.
March 14, 2013 at 7:29 am
Ah, the good old times when Superman had a hairy chest and wasn’t afraid to show it even in death!
Also, add me to people who really like the post-Doomsday replacement Supermen arc. These are fun comics.
March 14, 2013 at 7:38 am
It might not have been a great stand alone issue but it was a story driven event that caught the attention of the world, not a gimmick that was looking for a story.
Of course the polybag and special cover were gimmicks, but I think the gimmick grew as the attention grew, and the attention it got at the time clouds to some extent how people look back at it.
March 14, 2013 at 7:44 am
I agree with T. I was a 14 year old that year and bought 5 of them. 4 are still sealed up somewhere—I suspect Capone’s vault.
March 14, 2013 at 7:53 am
Grant Morrison once referred to the 90s Superman stories as the time “when all the imaginary stories became true”, which I always thought was a pretty good description. These aren’t great comics, but they were consistently entertaining and showed a willingness to try new things – with the tacit understanding that we’d always revert back to the status quo eventually. The stories were gimmicky, but in a good “let’s shake hints up to attract new readers” kind of way.
March 14, 2013 at 7:59 am
You’re right this issue is valuable…I found a bunch at a con for $1 a piece. I’m pretty sure I have a few copies of this, along with some other “valuable” and “collectible” issues – All 5 covers of X-Men Vol. 2 #1, a few copies apiece of New Mutants #87 and #100, and easily 15 copies of X-Force #1, most of which were given to me as hand-me-downs. Can I pay off my college debt with these? Nope, but I can probably trade them in for a pack of gum.
The biggest faux pas of the collector boom is that something that sold millions of copies is essentially worthless. Action Comics #1 is valuable because there are less than 30 known to exist. I’m sure if the original print run was all intact it wouldn’t be anything special today.
March 14, 2013 at 8:19 am
There were some good things about the overall arc, especially afterwards (even though that did inadvertently lead to Emerald Twilight), but that issue in particular was a stinker. The problem with the idea of each part of the story having fewer and fewer panes is that the actual death issue took only about two minutes to read.
If you wanted to do a scene where Luthor is upset that *he8 didn’t kill Superman, it might have been to use another villain that the reader had some interest in (“Toyman?!? Toyman got him instead of me?!?”)
The sad thing is, this big event came immediately *after* what I think of as the best era of Superman, with the proposal and revelation to Lois plus a fun time travel story. So while World Without a Superman was decent, in my opinion a short hops in the opposite was the really good stuff. By the time I finally dropped the Superman titles, they had never fully regained that level of quality, despite some nice bits here and there.
March 14, 2013 at 8:25 am
Gimmick yes, but as a plot-point story that was a great springboard for other stuff, it was good.
In hindsight, if this book (and series of stories around it) were used as the templete to a Zelda-like videogame, you’d have a really rich world to play in. So, maybe its not the message, but the medium that need to be told and sold here?
March 14, 2013 at 8:28 am
The BOTTOM, bottom-line was to get people who never read comics, interested in reading them. It worked and people bought this comic in droves (is it one of the best selling or THE best selling of all time?) I’m sure some folks bought many issues in the hopes that this would be worth something (90?s excess for sure, agreed) someday. Ultimately, I believe people were startled by the death an American icon had truly come to pass. Basically, everyone knows or grew up watching , reading or at the very least, hearing about Superman. It was like a death in the family (although, fans of the comic genre knew it was only a matter of time before his return). I remember reading about an aboriginal tribe that lived in the Outback and wghen National Geographic did a special on these “ancient” people, in one of the dwellings, in a place used for reverence, someone had a Superman poster tacked to the wall, along with other various articles of special meaning. Just goes to show you about the universal appeal of everything Superman is. As for the comic #75 itself….it was perfect for the story it had to tell…
March 14, 2013 at 8:53 am
Ironically, opening the bags finally became acceptable because the acids of the bags were destroying the unopened comics. Hopefully that led to copies being read that wouldn’t otherwise have been read.
Probably the biggest problem with the issue for me is that it actually took longer to open the bag, put on the armband, and put up the poster than it did to actually read the issue. In fact, once the overall story moved past those one-page teasers, it could be argued that this issue was actually the one where if you missed, you could most easily still follow the plot (you knew that Superman and probably Doomsday were going to die, so if you jumped from the chapter right before to the first part of World Without a Superman, you could still follow along pretty easily, though you’d miss a bit of the payoff in the process).
Another problem with that period of Superman, including the better written materials is that they often offered fancier/pricier covers and regular covers. Now the choice was nice, but Superman was essentially a weekly comic at the time due to tie-ins. Despite my repeated requests the dealers at the shop would often just get in the pricier covers, forcing me to pay more or read a chapter out of sequence (or try to hunt down a copy somewhere else and not get my discount).
March 14, 2013 at 9:03 am
March 14, 2013 at 9:11 am
I don’t think it’s fair to blame Superman 75 for the ’90s speculator boom and crash as it was simply the latest (and far from last) in a long line of gimmick covers/polybags from the Franklin Mint Age of Comics. I don’t recall seeing an upsurge in long-term sales from people outside comics fandom continuing to but Superman or checking out other books, there was just the spike in interest in this one issue thanks to a slow news day.
Definitely a gimmick, though, as the entire storyline was just a protracted, boring fight (and quickly-plotted fill-in for the scrapped marriage with Lois, since the TV series called “dibs” on that story. The most interesting aspect about “The Death of Superman”, artistically, was the ever-increasingly large panels (becoming full-page splashes in 75).
As bad as the whole story was (and as dumb a concept as Doomsday was), what was good was the follow-up, “World Without Superman”.
March 14, 2013 at 9:16 am
Gimmick, yes, but one of the greatest — if not THE greatest — gimmick in comics. As a standalone issue it certainly has *plenty* of flaws, but the overall arc was actually quite impressive. #75 itself is still quite enjoyable, and really does tug at the heartstrings (ugh, did I just say that?).
Every seemingly untouchable hero has at some point been killed/revived in an effort to boost slagging sales. Batman, Robin(s), Spidey, Lantern, Flash, Supergirl, Cap, Hawkeye, Thor (hell, pretty much every classic Avenger has been through this), and in every case it’s been ridiculously gimmicky but at least with Supes it was a tad, well, better.
March 14, 2013 at 9:18 am
Shoot, it just occurred to me that this era of Superman was the original “52.” The challenge of “52? was whether a team of writers and artists could tell a continuous story in the space of 52 weeks. The “triangle” teams had been doing this the whole time–it just wasn’t unified under a single title/numbering system.
I guess this technically didn’t become a reality until SUPERMAN: MAN OF TOMORROW was launched in the mid-90s to fill in the “skip” weeks. Before that, it was 48 issues of Superman per year, or 36 before MAN OF STEEL was launched. Man, the early-to-late 90s was a great time to be a Superman reader. No wonder I completely lost interest by 2004.
March 14, 2013 at 9:56 am
Starting with the John Byrne reboot through this period and a few years after were great Superman comics for me. Even the Death storyline, while not a favorite, is better than 90% of the Superman stories told the last 10 years or so.
March 14, 2013 at 10:40 am
Ten minutes? If you linger over the art and turn the pages slowly, it might take THREE minutes to “read.” And that’s being charitable.
I guess I’ll go with “gimmick” since “piece of garbage” isn’t one of the choices. This is one of the worst comics of the decade.
beta ray steve
March 14, 2013 at 10:55 am
I’m sorry, but what the hell is Jimmy taking a picture of? The back of Lois and Superman’s foot?