Superman has starred in dozens, if not hundreds, of iconic stories in his 75 year history. Arguably, the most well-known tale took place in the early 90s and involved his death and inevitable resurrection. I’ve known the bare bones plot of this story for awhile, but finally decided to read through the three volumes comprising this story (specifically: The Death of Superman, A World Without a Superman, and The Return of Superman). With almost twenty years of hindsight to help us out, let’s take a gander at The Death and Return of Superman.
Our story begins as an alien monster known as Doomsday arrives on Earth via spacecraft and starts a path of destruction across the United States. Inevitably, Superman and the Justice League of America arrive to stop Doomsday. After a series of battles. the big monster defeats every single hero leaving only Superman in his way. A violent battle erupts in the streets of Metropolis, ultimately claiming the lives of both Superman and Doomsday. A tearful funeral follows and people worldwide mourn their fallen savior. Things cannot stay quiet, however, as Superman’s body vanishes and four new “Supermen” appear.
The new clamaints to Superman’s mantle are each wildly different and hold their own aspects of the fallen hero. The first, called The Last Son of Krypton, is almost exactly identical to Superman but wears wide sunglasses to protect his eyes that are weak to sunlight; he is physically violent and often kills criminals with energy blasts rather than sending them to prison. The second, known as The Man of Steel (and later simply Steel), is a scientist named John Henry Irons who wields a massive hammer and wears a suit of armor he constructed. The third is a figure that is partially mechanized and known as Cyborg Superman. Finally, we have the Metropolis Kid, a young individual who looks like Superman back when he was Superboy, but insists everyone calls him “Superman.” These four individuals each have their own goals and claims to the title of Man of Tomorrow. It’s not long before different factions take sides behind each of these claimants. Everything gears up towards confrontations between these different Supermen, before, inevitably, the original Superman returns to save the day with help from a few of the others.
I can’t proceed without saying that this story is incredibly 90s. For those that don’t know what I mean, all I really need to tell you is that there’s a scene where the original Superman, having lost his powers, straps on a ton of pouches and begins dual-wielding two oversized energy guns. Yes, that actually happens. Even despite these ridiculous moments and even more ridiculous dialogue (Superboy: “We’re spotted like dalmations!”), the story is actually pretty good. The intial Death of Superman section is the dullest part, as each comic seems to repeat the endless formula of Doomsday appears and smashes things, heroes arrive to try and stop him, all the heroes get beaten, Doomsday moves on. Once the final battle between Supes and Doomsday begins, however, things quickly become powerful: after Superman’s death we’re treated to an exploration of how the world is affected. It may sound cheesy or dull to watch a bunch of people reminisce about the fallen Man of Steel, but it’s rather well done. The Reign of the Supermen is also pretty cool and, while I knew some spoilers going in, still entertained me a lot and would keep those not-in-the-know guessing. I’d also like to note that Lois Lane fans will like this arc since she gets a good amount of exposure and character development beyond simply grieving for her lost love-interest.
Art-wise, this comic is also indicative of its time period, the early 1990s. The art, like that of Knightfall, isn’t great. In fact, I think this art was an even lower quality than that found in Knightfall. Like that arc for Batman, however, the artists do manage to use styles similar enough that the comics transition almost seamlessly from one issue to the next even though different teams of artists took the reigns in each of the four main titles comprising this storyline. The character designs aren’t really anything special with the exception of Cyborg Superman (who is just awesomeness compacted). The battle scenes were entertaining at least, even if the initial fights with Doomsday were basically just punching matches. I’m rather torn about the black and silver costume Superman gets towards the end: on the one hand I think it’s cool, on the other it seems like an attempt to try to make him edgier than necessary (as with his newfound arsenal, as I noted previously). It’s hard to fault the artists because they were adhering to the period’s style, but looking back it’s nothing special.
The Death and Return of Superman is an arc that will always be remembered, if not for quality than at least for the fact that it’s probably the most famous superhero “death” story of all time. Furthermore, it set the stage for the famous Emerald Twilight and Zero Hour storylines. I think it’s entertaining, though I warn that it is long, spanning almost 700 pages of comics. I’d say that it’s a comic worth reading, but my advice is to borrow it from a friend or library rather than buy it all.
– Heartfelt exploration of a world without a Superman
-Epic battles, especially any involving Cyborg Superman
-Lois Lane gets a lot of time in the spotlight
– Art is mediocre
-Arc may seem dated: extensive use of 90s slang, clothing/hairstyles, pouches, giant guns, etc.
-Though I like Superman, his revival is a definite Deus Ex Machina
Brett Simon is a twenty-three year old comic enthusiast. He’s glad the 90s era version of Superboy is nonexistent in comics today.
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