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Weekend Aside: The Death and Life of Superman

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Written by Roger Stern
Amazon.com entry is here.

Well, this is going to be a rather morbid stretch of updates, since the obvious theme of the next Justice League is how to deal with loss – whether it be on a micro (the death of a close companion) or macro (the death of everything you know). But since the centerpiece of “Hereafter” is the first animated rendition of the most famous ‘death’ in comics history, let’s look at the first time it happened.

The story behind the landmark “Death of Superman” storyline is almost more famous as the story itself – for years, when the Superman writing team was stuck, someone would yell out “let’s kill him!” Eventually, they got really and truly stuck, and when the idea was mooted again editor Mike Carlin agreed, but then asked the question that wound up turning a desperate storyline into the event that kick-started DC’s 1990s renaissance: “… and then what?”

The storyline was overseen by Carlin and the then-current Superman creative staff of Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, and Karl Kesel, all of whom pretty much fit the definition of “solid professionals.” After the storyline hit it big – massive might be a better term – Stern was tabbed by DC to write a novelization of what became, by the end, a storyline spanning almost a full year and nearly 60 issues, as there were four Superman titles on the shelves per month at that point, and he wound up delivering a novel that I’m pretty sure is still the best-selling novelization of a comic storyline in history.

The catch is that while Stern had the advantage of starting off with one of the two best-known comic characters in the world, creating a novel out of a comic storyline that occured at a very specific time and place in continuity forced Stern to use just about all his storytelling abilities. Specifically, the Superman books in 1992 were dealing with past storylines such as Lex Luthor being dead and replaced by his redheaded Australian-raised “son” (a clone of Lex, obviously), Supergirl being a shapeshifter who was sleeping with Lex II, and Superman leading a Justice League that was by no means the Morrisonian ‘Big Guns’.

(Jurgens was writing Justice League along with the descriptionless Superman, and he cleverly gave his other book a massive sales spike by tying it into the storyline, temporarily reversing the readership bleed that had been ongoing since the Giffen era had crashed and burned a couple of years earlier with the “Breakdowns” arc. It actually probably did more harm than good, as the entire Justice League franchise struggled along for another three years or so until the revival).

Stern’s solution was to turn the novel into a textbook on the post-Crisis Superman, taking his time in establishing both the status quo and the origins of most of the important players in the story, even including a few JLA members (he was aided by a narrative quirk in the “Doomsday” arc that had Superman himself giving a lot of expositionary information during a television interview). While this does result in a few narrative problems that weren’t present in comic form – Stern unfortunately telegraphs the Cyborg Superman’s true identity – it makes this book an easy read even for a non-comic fan. Don’t believe me? My MOM read and enjoyed this novel.

(Granted, she was stuck on a train outside Nice at the time…)

I’m not going to recap the storyline, but Stern manages to get just about every important moment of the trilogy – Doomsday, Funeral for a Friend, and the Reign of the Supermen – into his book, even taking the time to give character depth to debuting characters like Steel and Superboy. Granted, these were well-designed characters from the ground up, but Stern’s easily readible text gets across things like John Henry Irons’ integrity and fundamental decency very well. Stern does streamline a lot of the “Funeral” material (which was a cameo-fest in comic form) and cuts Green Lantern out entirely from the finale… but, well, getting rid of Hal Boredom is never a bad thing in my eyes. It’s a good balance between the full-fledged comic storyline and the stripped-to-the-bone animated version.

In spite of the odd bad rap that this storyline has gotten for throwing fuel onto the fire of the comics speculation craze – a very strange thing to hold against a mere storyline in my opinion – it’s nevertheless something that every comic fan has to have some knowledge of.

After that full-scope take on the story, I think the next Weekend Aside will be something much more focused – a page-by-page (or panel-by-panel, given its unusual structure) of Superman #75, one of the most famous comics in history.

Oh, and the best thing about this? You don’t have to stare at the Super-Mullet.

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Categories: Weekend Asides

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