Why Don’t We Just Kill ‘Im?
Alright, this is the one that it’s all been leading up to, the arc that defined an era and gave us some of the best storytelling of our lifetimes. The story behind the story is one that is a well known anecdote in comic book circles. The Superman offices held annual (sometimes twice annual), summits to plan future stories for the line. You would usually be planning at least the next year’s worth of stories, sometimes a bit longer. At the 1991 meeting to discuss Superman for 1992-1993, there was a kink thrown in the plans. You see, going into 1993, Adventures of Superman was going to be hitting a milestone few other comics hit: issue number five hundred. That issue had to be something special, and indeed the plan had been in place for that issue since 1990, when in Superman #50, Clark Kent proposed to Lois Lane. Adventures of Superman #500 was going to be the long-awaited wedding of the two. But in comes the hitch that stopped the hitching. In 1991, Warner Brothers and ABC greenlit a Superman tv show: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher in the titular roles. This meant that the powers that be, both in the DC Comics publisher and in the executive positions at the TV level, felt that it would be better for both if they could delay the wedding so that it could correspond with the same event on the show. The problem was that that would likely be years down the line, and several of the creators currently involved may not be anymore by the time they got to it. It was a devastating moment for several creators that had been working on the line for years, and also left them with a massive void in their plans. As former editor Mike Carlin recalls in the introduction to the 2007 The Death and Return of Superman Omnibus, a recurring theme of the summits would be the room hitting a block for a few minutes, and Jerry Ordway inevitably would break the tension with, “So let’s just kill ‘im.” Except this time, Carlin responded with, “Okay… so IF we kill Superman… what happens next?” And then they were off to the races. According to Carlin, the creators on the Superman books were frustrated by the anti-hero types popping up across the comics industry, and wanted to tell the story of what happens if the world loses “the ideal for which heroes stand” with this ambitious arc.
Back in the days before the internet, news about upcoming comics was harder to come by. There was no CBR, Newsarama, or ComicsBeat to get industry news on the regular or to check the solicitations of upcoming books. For news, readers had a handful of options in periodical form, like Wizard: The Guide to Comics or Amazing Heroes. For solicits you had the catalogs of various distributors like Previews and Advance Comics. None of this was nearly as easy to access as the various comics websites we have now. However, the solicits for the issues that came out in November of 1992 were very clear in what was going to happen. The solicitation text for Superman #75 read:
SUPERMAN #75–COLLECTOR’S EDITION
by Jurgens & Breeding
SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY: Part 6 (of 6)–In the climactic conclusion to the “Doomsday” storyline, Superman dies to save Metropolis and its inhabitants! This special polybagged Collector’s Edition includes a poster of the Man of Steel’s funeral with friends and allies in attendance; Superman’s obituary from the Daily Planet; a commemorative Superman mock-postage stamp; and mourning armbands featuring the Superman “S.” Continued in Adventures of Superman #498 this month. Computer cover and back cover fold-out by Eric Kachelhoffer. (NOTE: There will only be a small overprinting of this Collector’s Edition.) (RO)
FC …………………………………….. $2.50
The issues of Previews and Advance Comics that covered the November releases came out at the beginning of September, and one comics fan journalist decided it made for an interesting article. According to research done by comics journalist Michael Bailey of the Fortress of Baileytude Podcasting Network, reporter William S. McTernan of the Long Island newspaper Newsday saw the interview that Mike Carlin had done for Advance Comics and wrote a story on it. That story would run on the front page of the evening edition of Atlanta’s paper of record, due either just a really slow news day or an editor that was a very big comics fan. So with front page news, the word spread and news outlets around the world started reporting on the upcoming event.
This is where my personal connection to the character, the event, and the line come in. I was an eight year old with few interests of my own yet. I liked dinosaurs and the Ninja Turtles, but little else held my attention much at all. But I heard on the car radio that Superman was going to die. I vaguely knew who Superman was. I knew Batman. My uncle had taken me to see Batman in the theater when I was five. But my interest was piqued. I had to have the issue in which this character I didn’t even really know died. That Christmas I had three presents that were exceedingly special to me, and probably the most important Christmas presents I’ve ever gotten. Under the tree that year were copies of Superman #75 (I believe it was a second printing), Adventures of Superman #498, and Superman: Archives Volume 1. Those first two were the issue in which Superman died, and the issue immediately after, while the Archive collected issues one to four of the 1939 Superman book. I pored over these issues and the volume religiously for weeks. I was immediately in love with Superman, I loved the artwork of both Dan Jurgens and Tom Grummett. I even loved those classic stories that were much different from the modern books. A few weeks after Christmas, on a shopping excursion with my parents, I saw a bin at ShopKo filled with paperbacks and a Jon Bogdanove cover with Superman dying in Lois’s arms. I begged my mom for an advance on my allowance so that I could cover the $4.95 cover price. That price seems ridiculous by today’s standards, but even then that was really cheap for a trade paperback. The “Panic in the Sky” trade had one more issue than the “Death of Superman” trade, and was double the price, while the “World Without a Superman” trade had two more issues at $7.50. “The Return of Superman” trade was much heftier and clocked in at around 20 issues for $19.95. In the coming months I would get both of those first two trades but it would be decades later before I’d own that third one, because of the exceptionally higher price point. These stories are where my fandom for both the characters of the Superman books and the comics medium as a whole were cemented, and from “Reign of the Supermen” on, I tried to collect every issue I could at the newsstands.
After the media frenzy, the Superman office knew that this had gotten bigger than they had planned it to get, and they called an emergency Superman Summit to discuss how they could make this event be worth the media attention it was getting, but more on that emergency summit later. The attention that the event garnered also made stars out of the creators. They were suddenly getting interviews with bigger outlets, they were selling comics on QVC, they even got to cameo in an episode of that TV show that screwed everything up for them.
Now that we know the “why” of the “Death of Superman” we can move into talking about the “how.” Similar to Jerry Ordway’s “Why don’t we just kill him?” Dan Jurgens had an idea that he’d bring to the table several times during that 1991 summit, without ever getting it off the ground. His idea was always that he wanted to do a 22-page slugfest with Superman triumphant at the end. Carlin pressured him to give a motivation behind it, something for it to resonate with the readers. Finally, at the eleventh hour, when the news of the story changes needed due to the TV pilot hit, suddenly Jurgens had his reason. Superman would die at the hands of this new monster, defending his city and everyone he loved, going out a triumphant hero. The plans for what would become an epic were in motion.