It's 1994, and I'm beginning my first relationship with a superhero. Before Spider-man, Harry Potter, or even the Doctor, there was Superman. I belong to niche group of 90's kids whose sole introduction to the mythological monolith was the television show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. We were caught in between the Christopher Reeve movies and Superman's late-90's retreat from mainstream pop culture. The television shows continuing tension was the perplexing love triangle between Clark, Lois and Superman. It was family friendly, romantic, and moderately successful. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen.
I was amazed when my father told me that Superman had existed for a long time in comics. Just at the moment where the television show was teasing the eventual marriage of Lois and Clark (and Clark's inevitable 'coming out'), the comics were taking the character in a different direction. They were killing him. In a ferocious plea to publicity, The Death of Superman was heralded as DC Comic's official 'end' to the much beloved character. Of course, he would miraculously return within a year. The chart-busting sales figures that DC achieved with his death didn't stick around for his return. Most readers rightly felt ripped off by DC's transparent publicity ploy. This wouldn't stop them from repeating the trick with almost every other big superhero (or even smaller ones) in the years to come. (The Death of Batman out of the Final Crisis books is remarkable, and a much more compelling story.)
Superman's death by Doomsday was just one iteration of the character's end, but he had in fact been killed several years earlier in an 'imaginary story' by the legendary Alan Moore. His 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?' is a tribute to the end of the Silver Age of comics. Superman's plots during this time saw him tripping the light fantastic: rainbow coloured kryptonite, a replica city from his home-world shrunk down to microscopic size, and a super dog companion were just some of the acid-induced inventions that invaded the Superman world. Moore's rendition of this era is quite un-Moore like. Just one year after this book was published, he would work with illustrator Dave Gibbons on his masterpiece Watchmen, drenched in poetry and darkness. In Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Moore is acrobatic, light on his feet, and humorous, just like the era he was conjuring. His imagining of Superman's death, however, screamed of Moore invention. Clever, unexpected, and multi-layered.
In 2006, Grant Morrison would create my favourite Superman story. Once again a tip of the hat to the Silver Age, but also encompassing his eventual death, All-Star Superman is a twelve issue lesson in Superman history. His death is pleasingly sentimental without being over-wrought (a trap that few comics manage to avoid). In All-Star, Superman is uncomplicated and alien. Funnily enough, it feels like the most realistic depiction of him that I've encountered.
Superman is, fundamentally, a flawed character. His moral absolutism and physical invincibility renders him flat-out boring to most writers. The mark of the Silver Age was to mine his galactic surroundings and origins for the weird and wacky to contrast against his placid-ness. Any notable television or film adaptation has focussed just as much on Superman's supporting cast as the big man himself. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and Lex Luthor are usually the far more interesting characters. Their humanity hooks us in. By himself, Superman isn't terribly intriguing. This is why Morrison's rendition works so well. You only need to look at the beautiful artwork of Frank Quietly in the series to see his unmarked, simple gaze. He's a God, and God's aren't that interesting.
While Moore was writing Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Frank Miller was writing the revolutionary The Dark Knight Returns, a tale which sees a broken Bruce Wayne come out of superhero retirement. Broken? Retirement? Now there's a superhero we can follow. Interestingly (and wonderfully), the Superman in Miller's tale is a Republican mouth-piece. Law-abiding, corrupt, and right-wing, he's the antithesis to Batman's brand of vigilantism.
All of this is in complete contrast to where Superman actually began, and where his popularity is difficult to over-state. In the 30's and 40's, Superman was HUGE. He was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, and he was very different to the man we know today. Superman couldn't fly, he could leap. He was faster than a train, not a bullet. He had limits. He was also a kid, and a hero of the working class. He was written by two Jewish young men in the 30's. The early issues are drenched in a subtle anti-Government, anti-prosecutorial sheen. He reminds me of Peter Parker in these issues. He's a superhero, but he's trying to pay the rent like everybody else. Joe and Jerry ended up getting screwed out of a lot of money for their creation, and DC Comics would eventually evolve into the very same monopoly-like structure that I suspect the 30's Superman would not find trustworthy.
I wonder what Mr. Snyder, now creating the blockbuster Batman vs. Superman, will glean from the fact that the most popular Superman stories of the last three decades have been ones where Superman is either corrupt or dead? In Man of Steel, Superman is pleasingly dashing, but the attempt to emphasise his Batman like orphan origin story is limited. While Batman takes his grief to insane lengths, Superman hit the metaphysical jackpot as a result of his parent's death. At most, Superman can only feel lonely and isolated. He takes to his Fortress of Solitude, where any of us humans would take to drink, drugs or denial. Like our other alien saviour, the Doctor, Superman needs companions to render himself more human. Snyder's decision to re-invent a Superman world where Lois can already see through his Clark identity seems to erode this idea.
In the 21st century, we love our heroes dark and jaded. Give Superman a foe he can't beat, and then kill him. After all, perhaps the reason we're so attracted to Superman death stories is the journey of his companions after he's gone. How do we exist in a world where a force like Superman, a force of pure good, is no longer relevant? (It's telling that Lois and Clark resonated with me as a child. These days, Justice League, an animated series for children, is incredibly successful and is led by Superman.) This is the question that makes Superman relevant today. In the 30's and 40's, clear lines about evil and good were easier to understand. Singer's The Return of Superman felt like such a mis-fire partly because we didn't believe Superman would return to this world. Do we really need him?
DC Comics isn't going to ditch Superman any time soon, but they'll keep killing him, they'll keep pulling us in. There may come a day where his return story sells just as well as his death. There may come a day where we reach into our stories for tales of pure good once again. When we do, Superman will be there.