The Death of Superman
One of the most talked about event comics of all time, The Death of Superman kicked off a new craze in killing off legendary characters, and came at a time when comic collecting was truly mainstream. As a result, Superman volume 2 issue 75 (the issue in which he actually dies) may be one of the most widely distributed single comics anywhere. Event comics have a notorious reputation for being more about selling copies than they are about telling a high quality story that is important to the mythos surrounding the beloved characters involved. Does the Death of Superman follow in these footsteps, or does it transcend its cynical origins to become a truly essential part of the legacy of the Man of Steel?
There isn't much of a story to behold in Death of Superman. It's obvious what will happen early on, and the rest of the book is just setting the stage and drawing that out for as long as humanly possible. A strange new villain dubbed Doomsday has appeared on Earth, and Superman, his Justice League friends, and Supergirl (in probably the worst moment of the entire book, Supergirl joins in on the fighting only to be literally turned into goo with one punch) must try to stop him. This battle consumes almost the entire book, as Doomsday moves east across the United States, wreaking havoc all the way and stifling all who would deter him. The Justice Leaguers get their moment in the spotlight as they try to take down the monster without the aid of Superman, who is too busy fighting random monsters that apparently lurk beneath the surface of Metropolis at the onset of the adventure, and the usual random sub-plot involving Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson's efforts to report on the event, but otherwise this book is all about Superman fighting Doomsday. It's established early on that Superman is the only one who can stop him, and eventually he does, at the price of his own life. If you were expecting any degree of nuance, a well-thought out plan, or some deeper message, this is going to be a very disappointing book. It's telegraphed from miles away, involves nothing more than a villain that is Superman's equal in the strength department, and never goes deeper than superficial demonstrations of how far Superman will go to protect humanity.
Doomsday feels like an antagonist designed with the explicit purpose of killing Superman, which doesn't help the credibility of this story when all he can do is basically be stronger and faster than the Man of Steel. There's no master intellect here, no origin story to flesh out the character, no motivation beyond just destroying everything. We don't get a look at where Doomsday has come from, and no information on what he's trying to accomplish, and all these factors combined make the book feel more and more like a stunt than a work of art. A new villain with a compelling backstory and well developed physical and mental abilities would be a far better choice, like Bane was in the Knightfall arc in the Batman universe.
Doomsday, for all his flaws, isn't even one of the three worst characters in the book. The appearance of several Justice Leaguers that do battle with the monster proves to be disastrous filler as they all get beaten to a pulp, in a few cases multiple times, without accomplishing anything. These B and C list superheroes (the most prominent character that appears is probably Booster Gold, a character who I would bet 80% of the non-comic reading population has never heard of) use this book as an arena for proving exactly why most people have never heard of them. They simply aren't particularly powerful or likeable. The banter between the group is really cheesy, their powers aren't all that memorable and don't compare well with either Doomsday or Superman, and worse still are the ham-fisted doubting moments that some members will have about others, where they question a teammate's identity, methodology, or personality. These characters are terrible, so this wouldn't be interesting in the first place, but to make things worse the delivery is atrocious. A thought box will appear and the plot point will be spelled out for us in an utterly laborious manner. And then there are the un-powered characters. This group gets fleshed out in the laziest, most hackneyed way imaginable. Example #1 is the interaction between a single mother and her rebellious teen. The teen does all manner of scumbag things, from getting an attitude because his mother has failed to re-stock the family soda supply, to taking that attitude to the absolute extreme and blaming her divorce from the boy's father on the fact that there is never enough soda in the house. Meanwhile mom takes all this in the best possible manner, grinning and bearing it in the most unrealistic way possible just so you make sure that you know who to side with. There's also the stereotypical homeless hippie from the 1960's, a ditzy rival news anchor obsessed with ratings, and a ghetto black kid who is looking for his mother. All of this is absolutely dreadful, and reinforces every common criticism of comic books as a vehicle for advertising movies aimed at small children.
With so much of the book being dedicated to Doomsday blowing things up and punching people, the art teams were tasked with carrying quite a bit of the story, and particularly with conveying Doomsday's utter power in a way that words simply couldn't for the unintelligible villain. Unfortunately, the storytelling is a little bit week. Faces don't typically convey much of anything, and while there aren't many bad drawings, there aren't many that are evocative of anything, either. Ditto for the paneling. There are a few confused segments where form is placed far above function, and the overabundance of splash pages towards the end of the book reads more like everybody ran out of ideas, so just draw yet another panel of Doomsday punching Superman. It starts to feel like we see the same things over and over again, something that can partially be blamed on the repetitive story, but the art doesn't do much to alleviate that burden.
The good news is that the various artists did manage to succeed on the latter count. Doomsday does a few cliché, laughable things like squishing birds in his bare hand and breaking the necks of deer, but when it's time to get serious, the artists do a really great job of showing us how destructive he is. It all starts at the very beginning of the book when we get a scene of Doomsday repeatedly punching a solid steel wall until his gloves begin to peel away. It's arguably the second most iconic moment in the entire book and a perfect intro to what this character is all about. From there, it only gets better. We get plenty of panels showing devastated cities, blazing infernos, and massive car wrecks all caused by Doomsday, and in this respect the book does manage to capture the devastation that the character has brought with him to Earth. It's an apocalyptic vision entirely appropriate for the type of character that Doomsday is and for an event of this magnitude.
It can't be entirely blamed on the art teams working on this book, but something readers more familiar with modern comics will notice while reading this book is that many of the costumes are truly horrendous. Superman looks as good as ever in his iconic outfit, but almost nobody else is quite so lucky. The Justice League look totally absurd, especially the haircut that former Green Lantern Guy Gardner is rocking. Other particularly bad standouts include Ice, a character dressed in an unflattering blue jumpsuit and sporting a hideous bowl cut, and Maxima, a cheesy rip-off of Wonder Woman with a terrible attitude and an outfit that calls to mind the ever-present mantra that sex sells, even when it makes absolutely no sense. As for the character newly introduced in this series, Doomsday, his all-green jumper is drab and unfit for someone of his overwhelming power. His actual appearance, all bony protrusions and flowing grey hair, is pretty interesting, but for at least the first half of the book he is covered by a completely bland outfit that doesn't communicate anything about the character.
Luckily, despite the fact that the art teams varied from one chapter to another as a result of this story originally being published across so many monthly series, there is a pretty good sense of continuity at play here. This cohesion does come with a bit of a drawback though, as the only reason the transitions aren't more jarring seems to be that the artists are using such a stock style that anyone reading comics at the time would be familiar with. There isn't a lot of risk-taking with the artwork here, and almost nothing that is truly exemplary, with the exception of the first and last handful of pages in the book.
For one of the biggest event stories in comic book history, The Death of Superman leaves much to be desired. Weak writing, a totally uninspired villain, and the presence of an incredibly annoying, useless Justice League all conspire to make this the embodiment of a story that has far more value as a historical curiosity than as a work of entertainment.