It began with an ending. The 1992 DC Comics storyline “The Death of Superman,” along with the subsequent “Funeral for a Friend” and “Reign of the Supermen,” served as my introduction to comics generally and the Man of Steel specifically.
For nearly 30 years, I have recounted my “secret origin” so many times — at the comic shop, in articles and on podcasts — that its elements have cemented themselves in my personal mythology.
The holiday setting at the local mall, the Heroes World window display with its Superman action figure in a toy coffin, and the recliner that I set next to my father on as he read the comic to me later that day are the hallmarks of my origin story. I suspect any comic book fan reading this has their own version of such a moment in time, when their passion for the hobby ignited and launched a lifelong pursuit.
Recently, however, I felt compelled to dig deeper — to mine “The Death of Superman” not just for the event it was, but as a story. After all, in the very first Superman story I read, the character died and then spent much of the next year on the bench. What effect does it have when your introduction to a character is that character’s death and prolonged absence? How did my start in comics shape the way I see the medium?
To answer those questions, I knew I had to go further than I had before. It would not be sufficient to merely reread the Death/Funeral/Reign trilogy in a vacuum, as I had previously. This time, I needed context.
I needed to read the seven years leading up to “The Death of Superman.”
Over the summer and fall of 2021, I read close to 300 individual Superman comics, from John Byrne’s 1986 revamp through the dawn of the so-called “Triangle Era,” when three (eventually four) separate books and creative teams worked in unparalleled tandem to create a unified, weekly Superman adventure that played more like an episodic television series than a collection of related comic book titles. Although I had read a smattering of these comics before, the vast majority of this reading project was new to me.
While stories like “Exile,” “Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite” and “Panic in the Sky” might get the trade paperbacks named after them, it was the subplots that made this entire period truly shine. It was Jimmy Olsen’s run of bad luck, Bibbo Bibbowski’s small acts of charity, Perry and Alice White’s heartbreaking loss and grief, and a surprisingly specific and accurate depiction of a hostile corporate takeover by Lexcorp that made this feel like a truly lived-in world.
Especially rewarding for this reader, of course, were the setups (intended or not) that would later pay off in “The Death of Superman.”
In the leadup to “Exile,” a psychologically compromised Superman, wracked with guilt over executing three genocidal Kryptonian villains in Byrne’s swan song, suffers a mental break and unknowingly masquerades as the vigilante Gangbuster. It gave greater context to ‘Reign of the Supermen’ and the mystery surrounding the four replacements; now, it felt far more believable for both characters and readers to speculate if one could actually be the real deal.
Some of the most gripping stories in the lead-up to “Death” came in the ‘Krypton Man’ saga, which pitted Superman against the Eradicator, a Kryptonian artifact-turned-humanoid with a single-minded purpose to preserve Krypton on Earth. That backstory gave far greater weight to the revelation that the cold, visored Superman in ‘Reign’ was actually the Eradicator.
One of the most resonant connections I made was a very small one, but it crystalized so much of what makes Superman special. In “Superman” no. 59, the newly engaged Clark and Lois spend some much-needed alone time discussing their relationship. Eventually, Lois asks Clark the fundamental question: “Why are you Superman?” He pivots, she presses, and he finally says, “Because no one else can.” Years later, Lois will plead with her fiancé in “Superman” no. 75 to rest and let someone else fight Doomsday, and — in a powerful echo of that earlier issue — he will say that he is the only one left who can stand between the beast and Metropolis.
For these and many other reasons, when I at last arrived at “The Death of Superman” in my reading project, it was as if I were experiencing that story for the very first time.
This time, I was not jumping into the story cold. Now, I had spent the time getting invested in this version of Clark Kent, the accomplished reporter who had taken down Intergang, loved “To Kill a Mockingbird” and proposed to Lois Lane. I knew the robust supporting cast who made Metropolis feel like a living, breathing character who was worth dying to protect. And this time, I felt the shock, mystery and fear that Doomsday created, bursting onto the scene like a force of nature after a relatively lull in the Superman titles.
In the end, I got the answers I had been looking for. The Death/Funeral/Reign trilogy contained genuine drama, mystery and redemption. It showed me that comics can run the gamut of emotion and storytelling and set a high bar for what I expected as a reader. As for Superman, just as the characters mythologized their fallen hero in the pages of the story, Superman’s death — more importantly, his ability to go the distance and his willingness to sacrifice — set him apart entirely from any other superhero for this five-year-old reader.
It showed me that an ending can be the absolute right place to start.