“Let’s just kill him.”
That was Jerry Ordway‘s solution to the problem that the creative teams behind Superman were facing in the early ’90s. After building for years to a wedding between Lois Lane and Clark Kent — something that had been brewing in comics since 1938 — plans were put on hold so that the storyline could coincide with the upcoming wedding on TV’s Lois and Clark.
The idea was that timing the two versions of the wedding to run at the same time would lead the show’s audience into comic book stores and boost sales, but it left the comics with a year of space to fill, and finding something that would take up time and keep readers interested while the TV storyline caught up proved to be difficult. It was so frustrating, in fact, that Ordway’s solution ended up being the best idea, and on this day in 1992, DC published ‘The Death Of Superman’.
Killing off a character wasn’t exactly a new idea, of course. It had beem happening to other characters for years, and it wasn’t even a decade before that Crisis On Infinite Earths had given the axe to long-time characters like Barry Allen and Supergirl, along with plenty of alternate universes. Even Superman himself had been through the wringer before in the original ‘Death of Superman’, an “Imaginary Story” from 1961 that saw Lex Luthor finally get the better of his arch-nemesis.
This, however, was something different. It felt bigger, building on pieces of the new Modern Age Superman that had been laid down when the character was rebooted after Crisis. It’s teased very early on that there’s a limit to his invulnerability, and while there had been plenty of knock-down, drag-out dust-ups in the years since that idea first crept in, nothing hit quite like Doomsday.
Even the layouts of the issues themselves were structured to make things feel bigger. While it all culminated in Superman #75, the battle with Doomsday took place over four issues, and each one was gridded to be a countdown — a strict four panels per page in the first part, then three in the second and two in the third, until Dan Jurgens and Bret Breeding gave you the final showdown in an issue that was nothing but splash pages.
And to say that it was a success is putting it mildly. Maybe it was the result of a slow news day; maybe it was just the undeniable interest of finding out that DC was killing Superman; heck, maybe it was even the little memorial armbands that the packed inside that polybag with the issue (and that more than a few kids solemnly wore to school the next day), but the issue got a massive amount of media attention and drove customers to comic book stores in record numbers. It was DC’s biggest hit of the decade, and it’s still one of the definitive Superman stories over 20 years later.
But then, that’s not always a good thing. A lot of those customers who flocked to comic book stores never came back to see Superman’s eventual resurrection — I remember working in a comic book store as late as 2009 and having customers who were shocked that DC was still publishing Superman comics when they’d killed him off years before.
Even some of those those who did stick around for the return felt cheated by the idea that a high-profile “death” was just another example of how superhero mortality tends to be more of a minor inconvenience than anything else. It set an impossible standard — if even the death of Superman, the biggest story that it’s possible to tell in the DC Universe, wouldn’t stick, then what would?
But despite that, The Death of Superman remains a turning point for the character, and for the proof, you need look no further than Doomsday. Looking back, he might just be a bone monster in bike shorts who punched Superman a lot, but he was also a physical threat the likes of which the character had never faced before, and he endures as a villain because of that, and because this story is the touchstone of an entire era.
And if there’s one thing that we learned, it’s that Superman will always be there to fight him, even if it costs him his life.