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The Death and Return of Superman might be remembered for a lot of things – some good, some bad – well, mostly bad, but it still had moments where true substance shined through. Or at the very least, a great deal of entertainment was able to display itself. Not everything was shortsighted or “90’s” as people like to comment upon. When you take a look at a series as a whole it wasn’t really that bad, and when you take a harder look there were parts that just stood out, like beacons of quality. That is what I hope to have presented with this list, in time for the 25th Anniversary printing of The Death and Return of Superman Omnibus – which should be on sale as of yesterday. If you have any favorite parts of your own, or least favorite even, please don’t forget to post in the comments section.
10. The Revelation of The Cyborg Superman
One of the biggest surprises (and this means SPOILER ALERT for any of you who even read past this first item) was the revelation of a secondary antagonist throughout the entire event. Everyone knew that Doomsday was coming but that there was another villain lurking in the shadows? Of course this is not the freshest twist in history – classic misdirection – but how the trick was pulled off within this narrative that earns it a bit higher rating and a place on this list.
It was not up until around the last 4th of the event that the true villain behind the entire story was revealed, and it wasn’t Doomsday – he was something more akin to a McGuffin – but rather a character that had been known as a hero for almost the entire thing: Cyborg Superman aka Hank Henshaw. Of course we all know now that he’s a villain, for he’s been a big part of the DCU ever since, but at the time it came as a genuine shock. Cyborg Superman had been built up as the character perhaps closest to the original (and many of the characters did indeed believe this as well) but for it to turn around like that, and so late in the game, was a well-played twist. Needless to say that his actions (ie. the destruction of Coast City) have had ramification in the decades since.
9. Superman’s Last Speech
One of perhaps the least outright exciting parts of the initial “Doomsday” arc, or the “Death” arc, is the simple exchange between Superman and a normal high-school student. Sure, this little dialogue is interspersed with scenes from Doomsday fighting then current Justice League – but those interludes are merely distractions from the main point.
The point? That Superman is giving a very basic and understandable discussion about the times when it seems “necessary” for Superheroes to kill, or the times when superheroes are killed. Of course it is obviously blunt foreshadowing to the events that would occur directly after it, but when taken out of that situation it still works as a good argument for the question that fans usually ask – usually in the “why don’t they just kill the bad guy?” form. Not the most solid argument and I’m sure any decent debater might be able to scrounge up some sort of response – but it is exactly the kind of answer that one could expect Superman to give and good prologue to the events to come.
8. The Introduction of The Replacement Supermen
Now everyone who knows the story knows the so-called “Replacement Supermen”: Steel, Cyborg Superman, The Eradicator, and – of course – Superboy. All supposedly in the “running” for the position of new Superman (even only two of them truly claimed to be the real deal resurrected) with each of them divvying up one of his ongoing titles – eg. Action Comics, Superman: The Man of Steel etc.
Now while most of these have either been forgotten in the years since or radically changed since then it’s perhaps a bit hard to remember how exactly exciting and cool these four were. Nothing attested to that more than the ways that they were first introduced to readers. They were intriguing, exciting, and most of all they left us wanting more. Steel – rises from the rubble holding only a hammer and holding only one creed: “Gotta Stop Doomsday!”; Cyborg Superman – a lone metallic figure defacing a memorial to Superman; The Eradicator – a dark shadowy spectre clothed in Kryptonian garments dispensing justice; and lastly, Superboy – the very clone of Superman revealed as nothing more than a “hip” teen. Needless to say, at the time, this drew people in. Where could they go from there?
7. The Death of Superman
Now this is not in reference to the name of the first “act” of the saga, but rather the actual sequence of Superman’s death. Namely, the last 6 pages of the actual “Death” issue. Say what you will about what come after both in story and throughout various retcons – ie. The whole “healing coma” fiasco that some like to harp on – but the fact of the matter is that the final moments as they were are still very powerful stuff. Not for the fight itself, which was rather generic and big fights go, but rather that the final set of pages/panels show us the world around the fight.
It showcases the very tangible sorrow and horror of the bystanders to the fight. The deep emotional thoughts of Superman’s co-workers, of his friends, and most sad of all – of his family. The bombastic script coupled with some of Dan Jurgen’s most stable work has an astounding effect, even to this day. The lead up to the death and the fight itself were nothing to write home about, the last six pages are what make up for all of that.
6. A Funeral For A Friend
This is slightly related to the above, but distinctly different. The above was about the reactions during the final moments, but this is about the moments that occurred post-mortem, as it were. Seeing more in-depth reactions to his funeral from his various allies, acquaintances, and even the normal everyday man during his funeral provided much needed and provided backdrop to the entire event. Gave it a very personal feeling.
We see Batman protecting a city who has lost it’s champion; Lex Luthor bemoaning the loss of his one true arch-nemesis (and that he was not the only to strike the fatal blow); the various DCU heroes banding together to remember a colleague (and wear somewhat cheesy armbands). There was a lot going on during the preparations for the funeral for the Man of Steel. Even Lobo shed a tear – and by a tear I mean anger.
One of the capping moments for The Death and Return of Superman was the publication of the somewhat surreal in-universe “Newstime” Magazine. It did a great job providing an in-world assessment of the situation as a whole. Following the very basic trappings of journalism it’s a nice little accouterment that adds a different dimension to the saga. It adds in various interviews, quotes, editorials, from all around the DC Universe – and as a whole works as a pretty basic guidebook for the story. It didn’t hurt that it also included different sorts of adverts and magazine minutiae. In itself it’s a neat item and piece of DC Universe history, even if not for the event it was produced for – but how it was produced. A keepsake of a real world perspective of a fictional world.
4. The Eradicator vs. Cyborg Superman
Now to step away from the sob fest that this list seems to be mainly focusing on it’s time to add in one of the better fight sequences that the saga had to offer.
Again, not because it had a particularly intense round of fighting, but because of the emotions evoked during it. Think what you will but the writing staff on the Superman line of books during this event was rather good at their jobs. Just as with the 7th item on our list it is the bombastic and perfectly grandiose sell the entire thing. Pitting two Replacement Supermen against each other – the two who were most like and most unlike Superman, and the ones who were most inhuman to start. Now the vengeful one is on the side of good, and the one most aligned with good – on the side of evil. The segment also goes into some of the more “symbolic” connotations of the fight. It’s a fine moment and one that gives a cap to the development of The Eradicator that had been boiling over throughout the entire saga.
3. Jimmy Olsen’s Chat
As one can guess there’s a running theme throughout this list and that is the reflections over Superman’s death that characters had were pretty the cherry on top of the entire thing, and that there’ll be some more before this list is done.
Now this one in particular is a very satisfying one since it not only brings back previous, and impactful, plot threads since it follows the journey of Mitch – previously a one-bit character from the “Doomsday” arc who had the fortune to be saved by Superman during Doomsday’s initial rampage – now having made the trek to Metropolis to pay his respects to the Man of Steel and to find someone who actually knew the big blue boy scout, but only finding frauds and profiteers. Disillusioned he makes his way to quite possibly the perfect person at that moment – Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Along with Bibbo Bibbowski (more on him soon enough) the two weave a tale to Rudy of a Superman who was of the people, of a man who gave it all for the common man, and a tale that speaks right to the heart of Superman as a concept in itself. It’s a very solitary moment between characters that really settles matters and really the only time we see how the true average joes of the DC Universe take in the matter of the death of a supposed god-like figure.
2. Bibbo Bibbowski – The Forgotten Replacement Superman
As stated here’s more on Bibbo Bibbowski, who has very much earned the number two spot on this list of the 10 best things about “The Death and Return of Superman” – which is quite a distinction for a character who did not feature in over 4 issues of the saga. Now it is hard to pin down exactly one defining moment, as the character as a whole pretty much sums up the emotional crux that the reader has to undergo, but here is an effort to do so.
Now we know that the other “Replacement Supermen” have gone down in myth and all, but while all of that was going on there was an un-praised, hardly noticed at all, 5th Replacement Superman on the rise in the form of Bibbo Bibbowski. The thing that set Bibbo apart from the others was that he was the only truly normal man to try to fill Superman’s shoes – he wasn’t a cyborg, or a super-powered clone, a kryptonian war machine, and even Steel was an engineering genius – no, Bibbo couldn’t do much at all really, but he believed in enough in what Superman stood for to go out in try any way. That’s the whole essence of what works like Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman are trying to distill about what Superman means – that we can all be Superman, if we only tried. It’s perhaps the second cleanest, most pure, message in the entire event – and for that it deserves this spot.
1. Pa Kent Fights For His Life
And now for what I consider to be the best moment from The Death and Return of Superman – and it wasn’t a big “shocking” fight, some dramatic twist, or even the introduction of new character reinventions – not any of that at all. The best scene from the entire 25+ issue story (strewn across four titles) was that between a father and a son.
At the very beginning of “The Reign of the Supermen” arc of the saga the reader is treated to an oddly symbolic and metaphysical story, one that would only really get fully explained at the very end of the whole ordeal, and perhaps the emotional peak of the event as a whole. It featured Pa Kent fighting his way through the afterlife, represented as the war torn fields on World War II, in the quest to save both his own life and that of his son. The audience is given depth and insight into Pa Kent’s war experiences and how those have made him who he is and why he believes that he should, and can, save his son… to bring Clark back home. You always try to bring your soldiers back home, and to pa, family is no different. What he ends up finding is a Superman that has lost touch with his humanity and who is being led to the final afterlife by hooded figures and how bids his adoptive father goodbye.
What follows is a very standard “I know you’re in there” fight for Clark’s humanity, but given what the Kents have gone through, and having witnessed Pa’s morbid memories of battle, it’s still enough to send feeling to one’s heart – especially when Pa Kent succeeds. And so he and Clark make it back to the pathway back to life, which is stood in for by a deep black chasm leading to nowhere, but with only slight hesitation do they decide to jump in anyway – because they have each other. Other than Bibbo’s small little character arc this sequence of events is the most emotional and heartfelt aspect of The Death and Return of Superman. The Kents always were – since every time they were commented upon the ultimate tragedy would be brought up – how they coped with the loss of one’s child. It is this part wherein that ultimate wish fulfillment is brought about – how far would one go to bring their child back? And for the strength of feeling behind it I say that this is the best thing to come out of the event.