Friday, March 11, 2016

The Day I Watched Superman Die

In 1992, Superman was “killed” in a meaningless slugfest that was ridiculously over-reported by journalists who were apparently unaware that fictional characters cannot, in fact, die.
In fact, this was not the first or even the best death of the legendary Man of Steel. In 1961, in Superman Comics 149, Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel and artist Curt Swan gave us an “imaginary tale” of the death of Superman that was more poignant and morally sophisticated than the 1992 brawl.
In fact, the story anticipated the musings on the ethical implications and limitations of the superhero that Alan Moore would explore in his Watchmen a quarter-century later. Here, Siegel dared to suggest that it was Superman’s very virtues that would be his undoing.
Criminal scientist Lex Luthor feigns reform by providing the world a cure for cancer, prompting Superman to seek his parole. And when the freed Luthor refuses to aid other criminals in their scheme to kill him, Superman’s final suspicions are put to rest.
But his archenemy has been playing the long game, knowing that Superman’s optimistic faith in the possibility of human redemption — his very love for mankind — is a means by which he can be destroyed.
Luthor betrays, traps and murders Superman with a kryptonite ray, gloating over his slow death agonies. Lois Lane, the Justice League and the Legion of Super Heroes view his green-skinned body lying in state. But while Luthor is celebrating with the underworld, Superman bursts through the wall! This is the kind of “hoax” story we kids had come to expect from DC, but this time Siegel faked us out. “Superman” tears off a disguise to reveal herself as the Man of Steel’s cousin Supergirl, Superman’s until-now secret weapon.
Superman is in fact dead. The Man of Tomorrow is the Man of Yesterday. Children across the country puddled up, this story resonating darkly with the real headlines of two years before that had proclaimed “Superman Kills Self” (George Reeves, the star of the 1950s TV series).
Supergirl hauls Luthor to the bottled city of Kandor to stand trial for the murder of a Kryptonian. And as just as Superman’s virtues betrayed him, Luthor’s own sociopathic vices prove to be his blind spot. Luthor offers to enlarge Kandor back to normal size if his captors free him, smugly certain that no one will sacrifice their self-interest for mere justice. He is shocked when, refusing him flatly, the Kandorians project him into the Phantom Zone for all time.
The last scene shows a somber Supergirl and Krypto taking up Superman’s patrol as Superman’s spirit waves to them invisibly from the clouds. As the Silver Age comics would put it: “(Choke!)” 
Siegel’s ingenious plot spring-boarded straight from the well-established personality traits of these famous characters. And some have suggested that the story struck even closer to home for Siegel. A naïve, trusting man betrayed by a scheming “friend?” Or maybe a couple of naïve, trusting teenagers who sold a billion-dollar character to their “friends” at a comic book company for $130?

1 comment:

  1. My eloquent friend Paul Zuckerman remarked: I was nine when the Death of Superman came out. It was my birthday, and my sister took me to see the Parent Trap and I got that comic. It was easily the most heart-breaking comic that I ever read, even though it was an imaginary story, and it still breaks me up. Especially when I read it to my son. It was hard to read without a crack in my voice.

    I wonder if, as Dan alludes to, the story was a reaction to George Reeve's death. That had been two years before, and I knew of it (I still recall the headline of the New York Post--Syperman Kills Self!--but it probably did not resonant for me at age nine. It was just the story.

    And, of course, I was not familiar with Siegel's tribulations. This was truly a story that must have reflected his own conflicted feelings to the character and it also showcased a more mature writing style then his earlier work. It was a shame that he did not sustain it, and ended up writing some pretty poor campish stories. There was one shining glory period for him in the early 60s, and then there was no longer a place for him in comics. Sad.

    it is interesting that you point out that Superman's trust in others was his undoing. He was always willing to give Luthor another chance. In this story, we don't see the conflicted, ambiguous Luthor that was to emerge in the mid 60s for a while. This is just an evil Luthor who finally gets his wish to kill Superman. Today, Superman would go out with a fight. Here, he was betrayed. Much like another beloved character in a recent movie, who wants to believe the best in his son. In the end, isn't that a more satisfying end for the character then to think that our hero can be defeated in battle?

    To me, the real chiller of the story was the end trial in Kandor. Luthor is kept in a plexi-glass cage, to keep him safe partially, but it also serves to isolate him. That cage had dual meaning in the world of 1961, because Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann had recently been captured by the Israelis and put on trial, kept in a similar cage. That visual was very much on everyone's mind and identifying Luthor with Eichmann elevated the horror and evilness of his act. (The point was hammered home when the judge compares Luthor to Eichmann.) There was no execution allowed then in comics, but the scene of Luthor being projected into the Phantom Zone to spend a lifetime as an incorporeal entity showed a far worse punishment.

    And, how can one conclude, without mentioning Swan's artwork. In Swan's hands, Superman was a real person. His death becomes all the more poignant because of that. Swan could depict emotion in a way that many other comic artists couldn't. There was nothing that he couldn't draw and draw it well. Nothing flashy, and always in the service of the story, but also, something more, which is why we are all still admiring is work so many years later.