The Death of Superman was DC’s biggest – but certainly not most desperate, marketing stunt – of the early 1990’s. Taking place over all four core Superman books at the time – Superman, Superman: Man of Steel, Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman – and the Justice League title, this was an attempt to give DC Comics a sales kick for one of their flagship superheroes at a time when sales were in a rut.
The main problem is that, over the course of the comics in the five titles, it’s spread over amounts to nothing more than a giant alien monster called Doomsday hitting Superman, then the Justice League as a bit of a break, then Superman being pummelled again until they both drop dead. There is some nice art from artists like Jon Bognadove, Jackson Guice and the great Walt Simonson. But on the whole, it’s an average superhero story (at best) designed to get people outwith of the usual comic consumer to buy Superman comics while giving masses of publicity to DC Comics. In that respect The Death of Superman is one of the most successful storylines in American superhero comics history, because it did just that.
At the time I was helping manage a shop in Bristol and we sold boxes of these comics. People would come in and buy fistfuls of Superman #75, the issue where Superman dies. The commemorative version of that issue with the black Superman armband still remains one of my favourite sales gimmicks of the era. Ultimately though, the only thing that happens is Superman dies then DC sell millions of comics.
What was more interesting was the subsequent 8-issue Funeral For a Friend, which ran across the Superman titles after the death. These were nice little character studies of the cast of Superman’s world at the time. Creatively these comics are the highlight of the entire exercise, but as this is superhero comic, the dead don’t stay dead for long, and with what seemed like the never-ending Reign of the Supermen story, which again ran over all four Superman titles and one issue of Green Lantern, the Man of Steel was brought back to life (albeit he had a mullet for some odd reason that I can’t work out to this day) to carry on until the next sales gimmick a few years later (they got rid of Superman’s old powers) when sales dipped low.
There are far better Superman stories in the near 75-year history of the character – Denny O’Neill’s early 70’s run, Alan Moore’s stories, Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman – but it’s the Death of Superman that’s by far the best known, even if it’s such a coldly calculated marketing stunt. That’s a pity because there’s much that can be done with the character under the control of talented creators – but when your characters are sold like frozen peas to a slavering public, quality control goes out the window.
The Death of Superman was an experiment that paid off dividends, boosting DC’s dwindling sales during a period when the company really needed a boost. However, it came at the expense of a quality story: the concept was rife with potential for something much grander, but it wasn’t to be. It might go down in history as a resurgence of the character as a mainstream property; but that’s all it was.