Sunday, May 30, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #20: June 1993

The Neverending Battle

Superman: The Man of Steel #22 
Writer: Louise Simonson
Penciller: Jon Bognadove
Inker: Dennis Janke
Colorist: Glenn Whitmore

The formation of Image Comics may have been the biggest story of 1990s superhero comics, but
"The Death of Superman" was the biggest storyline of 1990s superhero comics. In terms of publicity, short-term impact, and long-term consequences, there’s no question.

But is it a good story? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
Despite being the first and archetypical superhero, Superman seems destined to fight a neverending battle against being declared irrelevant. After getting passed-by in popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s by the likes of Batman and Spider-Man, he came roaring back with the release of 1978’s Superman: The Movie. This sustained him through the early ‘80s, even as his comic books started to buckle under the weight of 50 years of continuity (and considerable silliness). In 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths and John Byrne came along and streamlined the character, reminding a lot of fans of why they loved him in the first place.
But the honeymoon didn’t last. Byrne left after two years, and even Action Comics - the book Superman had called home since his debut in 1938 - reduced him to a second (actually more like third or fourth) banana. But in late 1988 the creative team began to form that would guide Superman to his next big moment in the spotlight: Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, George Perez, and Dan Jurgens together spearheaded the three Superman books – Action, Superman, and Adventures of Superman.
Perez left early on, but along with artists and inkers such as Bob McLeod, Kerry Gammill, Brett Breeding, and Dennis Janke, Stern, Ordway and Jurgens plotted out some ambitious changes for Superman. For one, Clark and Lois got engaged. Not long after that, he told her he was Superman. Under editor Mike Carlin, the titles started to become more and more interconnected, to the point that in 1991 they started to have little numbered triangles on the covers to indicate what order they should be read. That same year, a fourth title was added, Louise Simonson and Jon Bognadove’s Superman: The Man of Steel, meaning that every week when you went into the comic shop a new Superman book was waiting for you (except on those dreaded five-Thursday months).
The new Superman book may have also been an attempt to cash in on the Spider-Man #1 phenomenon, but wasn’t anywhere near as successful, and then of course along came X-Force #1 and X-Men #1, so DC and the Superman team were feeling the pressure amid declining sales. Their response? Create an epic storyline in which Superman dies saving the planet.

In late 1992 the story got underway. It went like this: An indestructible mindless monster called Doomsday arrives on Earth, shreds the Justice League, and causes wonton destruction on a path to Metropolis. In Superman #75 (January 1993), which is presented in a series of epic two-page spreads, Superman battles Doomsday. He defeats the monster but dies from the wounds he sustains. This was met by a massive media frenzy, and the issue itself was polybagged with a black armband, a poster, and a facsimile Daily Planet obituary. 

The issue sold like hotcakes, and became “the best-selling non-premiere comic of all time” (according to Wizard 18). Superman was back on top, he just had to die to get there.
The Superman books then spent two months following the funeral and mourning process of its large cast of supporting characters. Where they took the story next is where it gets really intriguing. These days major characters dying in comics is commonplace, and everyone knows they’re going to come back. But that wasn’t a given back in the ‘90s, mostly because killing characters off hadn’t been done to death. Very few major characters had truly died - Barry Allen, Supergirl, Captain Marvel, Phoenix - and of those only Jean Grey had returned.
So while it was a good bet, no one was sure that Superman was coming back. The creative team decided to play off of that uncertainty by bringing in four replacements, each one with a supposed case for being the true Superman. In May 1993’s Adventures of Superman #500, Superman’s soul fights for life (with Pa Kent’s help) and then back in the real world his grave is found empty, a development that makes the parallels to the Jesus - dies to save the world, grave is discovered empty - a bit too on-the-nose. This is followed by a glimpse of each new Superman, each one a very sharp contrast to the original. One is angry and vengeful and wears a green visor. Another is nearly half cybernetic, and seems to have lost all his memory. The third one is a teenaged clone, and the final is a Black man who builds a Superman-inspired suit of armor.
Just as the “Knightfall” story in Batman and 1963 served as a commentary on and criticism of the Image approach to comics, so was Reign of the Supermen. It was also a message to those who might call Superman antiquated or out-of-step with the times. The writers and artists seem to be saying, you want a Superman who is tougher on criminals, one who shoots a cool big gun, one who’s younger and hipper, or one who isn’t so very whitebread, well here you go. This is what that would actually be like.
When looked at it through this lens, “Reign of the Supermen” is a pretty fun story. But the Superman team undermined it somewhat by presenting it as a mystery, and as though one of the four might be the actual Superman. But even this was half-hearted, as two of the subjects - the clone and the armored version – never even claimed to be the real thing.
And this idea of creating a mystery where two of your four suspects are eliminated immediately pretty much highlights the shortcomings not only of the “Death of Superman” storyline, but this era of Superman comics in general. There were really cool elements, but they didn’t always mesh, and the editorially-driven style imposed creative limitations. The stories were rarely completely satisfying. Kesel alluded to this in an interview with Wizard’s Norman Bertson: “The biggest drawback to the system is that you can’t write a continuing story that you get to finish. I finish Dan Jurgens’ story, and Roger Stern would finish my story.” 
A good mystery is one in which you are genuinely surprised by the solution, but also makes sense when you go back over the clues. The “Reign of the Supermen” story is not one of those, because the solution is that none of the characters are Superman.
The thing is that they didn’t even need the false pretense to make this an intriguing story. Whether it was actual long-term planning or just opportunistic use of previous stories, one can appreciate how “Reign of the Supermen” draws from earlier moments in this creative team’s run. The green visor Superman turns out to be a character called the Eradicator, a Kryptonian villain Superman had encountered in a 1989 storyline. The Cyborg Superman turns out to be the psychotic Hank Henshaw, a character who had appeared in a 1990’s Adventures of Superman #465, which was a homage to / parody of the Fantastic Four. The teenage Superman clone came out of Project Cadmus, which had been in the background of several stories.
The outlier was the armored Superman, and his story was the clunkiest of the four, for many reasons. First is the jumbled origin. In interviews Simonson and Bognadove revealed that their Superman, John Henry Irons, was a gifted inventor who learns his inventions are being used create deadly weapons, so he goes on the run, taking on a new identity as a steelworker. But that's not actually revealed in Superman: The Man of Steel #22. Instead it presents him only as Henry Johnson, a construction worker who was trapped under a building during the fight with Doomsday, but somehow survived. Inspired by the time Superman saved his life, he builds himself a suit of armor, and starts fighting street crime. There are a couple of clues to the rest of Irons' origin, but because there's so much information in the comic already, they just serve to confuse instead of intrigue. On top of all that, there's also an strained attempt to connect the story to the folk legend of John Henry.
Once again, it appears that editorial mandates were part of the problem. In an interview with Wizard, Bognadove expressed frustration at how much he and Simonson had to cram in to the issue: “In this issue I’m trying to give his origin, but I find he has so much backstory that I’m really having to do it shorthand. Sequences that should take two or three pages I have to cram down to one.”

Oh, and the story has some ill-advised and unconvincing portrayals of gangs and Black dialect, all the more glaring when compared to the Milestone comics that were hitting the stands at the same time.

Again, you kind of had to take the good with the bad during this era of Superman comics. It wasn’t just limited to this storyline. There were ongoing elements that, for me, just never quite worked. Characters like Bibbo (a bar owner who worships Superman), Gangbuster, Guardian, Lex Luthor in a clone body (with long flowing locks and an Amish beard), and a shapeshifting Supergirl (who’s Luthor’s girlfriend) got a lot of page time, more than some of the more classic Superman supporting players. On the positive side of that, though, police officer Maggie Sawyer was one of the first lesbian characters in comics.
“The Reign of the Supermen” would last for five months’ worth of Superman comics, 21 issues (including a Green Lantern tie-in), but by the beginning of the third month (Action Comics #689) the real Superman had returned and begun the process of coming back at full strength.
“The Death of Superman” had long-term effects, both good and bad. On the good side, Steel and Superboy each got their own books, and became much more interesting characters than their first appearances indicated was possible. Simonson wrote Steel’s adventures for over three years, before handing the book off to writer Christopher Priest. Cyborg Superman’s destruction of Green Lantern’s home, Coast City, would lead to massive status quo changes for that character, and, ultimately, the introduction of a new Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner.
But as we’ll see, the major theme of the 1990s in superhero comics was that companies learned the wrong lessons from their successes. “The Death of Superman” prompted DC to disrupt the status quo of all of their major heroes, with diminishing results. Over at Marvel, the team tried the same thing with Spider-Man, resulting in the convoluted “Clone Saga.” To this day, it’s a go-to move for both companies to kill off major characters as a stunt (to be fair, even at the time there were many who decried the "The Death of Superman" as a crass gimmick).

The creation of John Henry Irons also gave us the awful 1997 Steel movie, featuring Shaquille O'Neal 

But the worst of it is that Superman came back with a mullet, and we’ll never be able to unsee that.

Jokes aside, this particular illustration (by Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood) is further evidence of giving fans what they think they want in order to show them they don’t really want that. For all the recurring conversations about Superman’s irrelevance, what makes him great is that he doesn’t have to change for the times. The whole point of Superman is that he’s an orphan, an immigrant, and adoptee with great powers who does the right things because they’re the right things. That sort of thing doesn't go out of style in superhero comics, but it's good to have periodic reminders.


Works Cited

Bertson, Norman. “The Men of Steel." Wizard: Superman Tribute Edition (1993).
“The Death of $uperman.” Wizard #18 (February 1993).

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