The 1990s were a period of transition for comic books. The period has its own identity, with the rise of Image Comics and all of the mentalities that entails, not to mention the speculator boom. But it was also the first decade to really settle in after Crisis on Infinite Earths, bridging the gap between the shorter stories that we had in the 1980s with the longer ones that we have in the modern day. 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was a twelve issue event, with somewhere in the vicinity of forty tie-in stories, making it the grandest story of its time. 2008’s Final Crisis had a 52 issue prologue before the event even started. 2009’s Blackest Night, the first part of a two-part event, had 64 related issues. The time period that includes the death and return of Superman and Magneto had a lot to do with that change.
And if you think I’m just pulling this comparison out of my ass and that I’m ignoring the lists that claim over 100 Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-ins (many of these are simply comics that illustrate what the heroes were doing before getting involved in the Crisis), here’s some more concrete statistics that I can give you about the manner in which storytelling changed in this time period. The Death of Superman has 160 pages; World Without a Superman consists of 240 pages and The Return of Superman is a massive 480 pages. Simply by scrolling your eyes from one end of the bookshelf to another, you can watch the decompression of comic book storytelling unfold.
I mention all this because, as a reader of largely the modern era, The Death of Superman feels undeniably rushed for a story of this magnitude. It also feels undeniably ‘90s. Here we have the culmination of decades of Superman stories, the true opportunity for him to go out with a bang. Instead, we get a nameless monster with no motive or origin who beats up what I can only assume is the Justice League B Squad (Guy Gardner is the biggest name of the team), engages Superman in a game of “destroy everything” and then they punch each other to death. All the while, attention is being pulled away from Supes by a guy named Bloodwynd, who everybody on the Justice League seems to be investigating because he’s so mysterious. You don’t get more ‘90s than the titular character being upstaged by somebody named “Bloodwynd” with vague powers and origins.
And while I have no intention of downplaying the drama and the tragedy present in the comic, the comic distracts enough from it on its own. “Doomsday” is a name that was given to the monster because of Superman misunderstanding a comment made by Booster Gold. On top of that, if the random questions about Bloodwynd aren’t enough, everybody in the comic seems to have a theory about where Doomsday came from. I could see if there was an investigation going on, or Doomsday were to reveal his identity at the last minute to add insult to injury, but by all accounts Doomsday doesn’t even develop sentience for another decade and I have no idea when his origins are revealed.
The art isn’t the best either. It tends to go from average to worse. This collection comes from five different titles, some of which have pretty good artwork and some of whom look like the artists lack a basic understanding of human anatomy. I think Superman’s mascara is a little runny in some scenes as well.
The Death of Superman is an iconic story that defined a generation of Superman readers. It’s just unfortunate that there’s so little to it. You don’t get spectacular graphics, a massive Earth-spanning threat, or even a solid number of superheroes defeated by this monster who was strong enough to punch Superman to death. I spent half the book wondering where Wally, Hal, Bruce and Diana were. The answer: nowhere. The Justice League didn’t care. That alone cheapened Superman’s death for me. Add that to the goofy graphics when Doomsday and Superman are punching each other and everybody spending all day asking where Bloodwynd and Doomsday came from, and there’s no real reason for this to be the story Superman died, except for sensationalism. Change the last seven pages – which adds up to a grand total of five panels – and this would be any other Superman story, at least if the amount of destruction in Man of Steel is to be considered normal. Read this story, but I can’t guarantee you won’t feel bad doing it.