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?