Read my column about Superman — The Last Days of Superman!
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Superman might be the world’s most popular superhero. He’s also among the most difficult to write. Through the years we’ve seen Superman travel through time, endure the heat of the sun, and perform so many feats of strength, speed, and stamina that every other superhero on earth seems superfluous.
Superman is a paragon — ageless, invulnerable, always a jump ahead. Even Kryptonite — one of Superman’s few vulnerabilities — eventually proved powerless over the Man of Steel.
With his secret identity as Clark Kent so carefully guarded, it is difficult to strike at Superman through the people he holds dear (though Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen have been threatened by more than their share of supervillians and runaway robots in their day). Being such an ultimate superhero with so few weaknesses it’s only natural that creators should desire to pit Superman against the one great villain that gets us all, in the end — death.
Superman has died several times. Most famous may have been 1992’s “Death of Superman” arc, where Supes met his demise at the hands of the killing machine called Doomsday.
Superman would return, of course, bigger and stronger than ever, and it was never a case of “if,” but “when.” A character like Superman could never die “for reals” — he’s too valuable a property. Only an “imaginary story” could kill off Superman, and make it stick. Two of the biggest names in comics got their chance to tell just such a story. Alan Moore told the death of Superman in 1986 in the two-part, “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” while Grant Morrison gave us his take two decades later in the twelve-part series, All-Star Superman.
With both Superman and Action comics wrapping of their runs in 1986 prior to John Byrne’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot of the Man of Steel, DC tasked Alan Moore with writing a coda for the Silver Age Superman. Alan Moore was the greatest comics writer of his generation, but he had to be handled with care — he seemed to write every comic story as if it were the last tale ever written. His stories were inventive and ferociously imaginative, but they also left their characters turned inside-out, with little left for the creative teams that followed. Moore’s best-known work at DC — Watchmen — was partitioned in a universe all its own, where it could do no lasting harm to DC’s heroes. Moore’s brilliant Saga of the Swamp Thing altered that character for all time, but few readers really cared about Swamp Thing before Moore got to him. Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke put Barbara Gordan (Batgirl) in a wheelchair for a quarter-century.
So we might have expected Superman’s crucifixion when DC tossed Alan Moore the keys to the Fortress of Solitude, but his two-part story from Superman #423 and Action #583 is more prosaic than apocalyptic. At least, it looks prosaic. Illustrated by classic Superman artist Curt Swan, these issues look just like any number of Superman books from the 1960s or 70s … but there’s something twisted and dark going on beneath those Silver Age surface impressions. Like a David Lynch movie, there is dysfunction behind the happy-looking facade, which begins to crack when Superman’s goofiest foes — characters like Bizarro, Toyman, and the Prankster — turn uncharacteristically homicidal. In penning this tale of the end of the Silver Age, Moore takes his brief literally, bringing down the curtain not only on Superman, but on an entire era of four-colored adventure when the good guys always triumphed and evil contented themselves with silly conspiracies that attacked Superman’s dignity but rarely left a mark. Bizarro’s suicide at the onset of this story heralds that things have changed, the stakes have been raised, and neither Superman nor the people around him will ever know peace again. Worse yet, there may be nothing that Superman can do about it.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly (with spectacular digital colors by Jamie Grant) was conceived as one of a series of stand-alone, out-of-continuity stories intended to reinvent DC’s biggest heroes. All-Star Superman was the only project that reached full fruition — the controversial All-Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder remains incomplete after nine issues (and I may be alone in liking this series), while Adam Hughes’ All-Star Wonder Woman remains one of the great “lost” comics of recent years. Only All-Star Superman went the distance, in twelve high-quality installments readily available in trade editions (volumes one, and two), collecting an Eisner Award for “Best New Series” in 2006 and even being adapted into a not-half-bad animated feature film in 2011.
Unlike Alan Moore’s tale, All-Star Superman wears it’s weirdness on the outside. Falling prey to the machinations of Lex Luthor, Superman suffers a fatal overdose of solar radiation which substantially increases his powers while also slowly killing him from the inside. Knowing he has only a short time to live, Superman races to make up for lost time, revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane, and embarking on a series of twelve labors to defend the earth and hopefully leave the planet in a position to survive without him. Along the way, Morrison touches on all the homespun elements of the Superman myth — the Kansas farm boy with his flying dog, the unlikely and bumbling Clark Kent deception, the relationship between Superman and his pal, Jimmy Olsen.
But we are through Morrison’s looking glass here, so there’s plenty of strangeness, too, like the exotic creatures and artifacts on display at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (viewed through the paranoid eyes of a Lois Lane suffering an artificially-induced nervous breakdown), and a 21st-century Jimmy Olsen who trails his own bizarre backstory, characterized as the kind of guy who casually hacks a commercial blimp network to engineer an aerial getaway.
Strangest of all the characters is Superman himself. Solar radiation didn’t just triple his strength — it also tripled his creativity, curiosity, and imagination — manifesting itself in an outburst of scientific experimentation that serves to illuminate Superman’s alien psychology. This series sees Superman concocting potions that award super-powers for twenty-four hours, creating miniature suns on a “Cosmic Anvil” to feed his pet “Sun Eater,” and using his x-ray vision to copy down his eight billion letter genome sequence into a book.
With twelve issues to tell his tale, Morrison sets out not only to show the death of Superman, but also to clarify his life as an alien exile of a lost and impossibly advanced culture. When Lex Luthor inherits Superman’s powers near the end of the story, and sees the world the way Superman sees it — across the entire electromagnetic spectrum — Luthor is humbled, and we realize in a moment how god-like and unusual Superman is even when compared to the world’s greatest (albeit evil) human intellect.
Moore is less concerned with Superman’s interior life — he has two issues to tell his story, and he fills them to the brim with the kind of funky Silver Age continuity that he so loved. In a subversive sort of way, Moore revels in all the little details that DC was so determined to clean-up and ret-con back in the 1980s, binging on robot monsters, time-traveling teenage Legionaries, flying dogs in capes, and superpowers for Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang like a condemned man ordering his last meal. But there’s an undercurrent of darkness in all these appearances — Supergirl is bundled back to the future with her Legionnaire pals before she realizes she is dead in Superman’s era; Jimmy and Lana are killed by the Legion of Supervillains (who have traveled through time to witness Superman’s demise); even poor Krypto bites the dust after absorbing a fatal dose of radiation from the Kryptonite Man. Moore isn’t out just to kill off Superman — he has the innocence of the entire Silver Age of comics in his sites.
Moore tells a fast-paced and fun story (in a grim sort of way) but we don’t learn a lot about Superman, or see him meaningfully change in the crucible of his last days. Instead, Superman remains Superman, largely stoic as the people he loves are taken from him, even to the point of (seemingly) taking his own life in a chamber of gold Kryptonite, punishing himself for breaking his own code against killing after ending the murderous rampage of Mr. Mxyzptlk by tearing him in half with a Phantom Zone ray. But Moore stops short of total despair with a postscript that shows Superman is still alive, years later, married to his love in Lois Lane and father to a son with superpowers. Now living a boring human life, Superman is dismissive of his former identity, saying that Superman was too wrapped up in himself, and overrated, and wrong in his belief that the world couldn’t do without him.
There’s still a bit of sting in this ending (poor Lana and Jimmy and Krypto are still dead, after all), but Moore can be forgiven for wanting it both ways. He kicked for the nuts in these two issues, but this was a send-off for Superman, and even Alan Moore couldn’t bring himself to dance on the grave of the world’s greatest superhero. Moore also telegraphed his conclusion in the first words of his story, telling us it would end with a wink, and reminding the reader that this was an imaginary story (and “Aren’t they all?”)
Morrison’s tale, being part of a longer-form continuity all its own, feels the more consequential story. While Moore’s tale is told at a frenetic pace, Morrison and Quietly can indulge in strong action set-pieces that also serve to show how Superman might have squandered his powers were he a less noble character — his battle with the time-traveling Samson and Atlas show us how the world would suffer from Superman as a sophomoric meathead, while his later battle with Kryptonians who have remade the earth in their own image shows how Superman may have been a tyrant, had he so desired. Mostly, though, we see Superman as selfless, working to his last hour to save the earth and ultimately giving his life to save earth’s sun, achieving apotheosis as a literal sun god (a fitting end, given that Morrison views Superman as a sun god figure, as revealed in his book, Supergods).
Selfless as he is, Morrison’s Superman is also selfish, or at least self-centered. He reveals his identity to Lois Lane, and treats her to a romantic, superpowered birthday, but then kind of hangs her out to try — obsessed as he is with saving the world — refusing to commit to a deeper relationship because their biology is incompatible, and they could never have children. Children aren’t the only reason people come together — would it have killed Superman to marry the girl? — but maybe here we see more of Superman’s alien psychology, a hint that a great gulf separates Superman even from the human that he loves most of all. Interestingly, Moore’s Superman is equivalently foolish when it comes to love, revealing that he could never have a life with Lois because he was afraid to break Lana’s heart. Maybe Superman’s greatest enemy isn’t death so much as it is romantic relationships!
In All-Star Superman and “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow” we have two entertaining comic book masterworks, by some of the most talented men in comics, both telling us their imaginary-but-not-really story of how Superman died. Both give us final and revisionist looks at the Superman mythos, and each story addresses Clark Kent’s relationship with the people he loves, and his enmities with the evil beings who have sought to destroy him.
Morrison’s tale tells us that the way Superman died was not so important as they way he lived, and he shows us how we never fully appreciated Superman while he was with us — and likely could never really understand him, owing to his alien psychology. Moore’s story is less interested in killing Superman than it is in killing the myth of the Silver Age of comics — a kind of prophetic, be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning from an author who saw more clearly than most that retroactively cleaning up the DC Universe through the contrivance of the Crisis on Infinite Earths would not serve to strengthen a great mythology so much as diminish it.
Neither tale is especially satisfying as a “death of Superman” story, but maybe a Superman death story is impossible. Moore’s Superman is unkillable because he is a figure of nostalgia, and even though Moore puts paid to the Silver Age in “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” that nostalgia has only grown larger in this era of endless THIS-time-we’ll-get-it-right reboots of comics and superhero movies. Morrison’s Superman is just as impossible to kill, as Morrison makes Superman a figure of myth, setting him to twelve labors before turning him into a god of the sun, positioning Superman’s demise not as a death so much as a transformation into a benign and functionally immortal presence that remains ever apart from a mankind that could never truly claim him as their own.
In both stories the world seems able to carry on after Superman, the “last days of Superman” proving to be a new beginning — of the modern and less soulful era after the Silver Age of comics for Moore, and of an era where Morrison leaves mankind to puzzle out the mystery of Superman’s transfiguration, and to follow him if they can. Whether Superman brought superpowered chaos upon himself and upon the world through his mere existence is beyond the scope of these tales, but in every other area, these stores grapple with big ideas — setting out to tell the death of Superman, they instead affirm his immortality. In writing these death tales, Morrison and Moore show us that while you can kill a man, you can’t kill an idea, whether it be the wistful memory of a bygone era or the legendary tale of a hero who died for the greater good.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #90 Red Sonja