In November of 1992, Superman #75 made national headlines. It was in the newspaper and on the TV news that DC Comics was killing off Superman. I was shocked at the thought of the most invulnerable superhero of all somehow dying, but what was even more strange and powerful to me was that everyone was talking about a comic book. Reading comics had always been a very solitary hobby for me, and, other than the letters pages in the back of each issue where fans would write in with their comments, it was easy to feel like no one else was reading those stories but me. Now, suddenly, the whole world was interested in something that was happening in a comic. It was very exciting.
However, I figured I would never even see a copy of it. The news showed footage of people lined up around the block trying to get a copy from their local comic book store like it was a big screen TV on Black Friday. People were talking about this comic – which came in a sealed black bag – as if it would put their kids through college someday. (Today you can probably get a copy for about $10 without too much effort.)
Imagine my shock when Mema (my grandma on my dad’s side) actually managed to get a copy when it came out! She was one of those people that waited in the ridiculous comic book store lines! Apparently she tried to ask for three copies, intending to keep one, give one to me, and give one to my dad. The comic book shop owner laughed and told her it was one per customer. She bought one copy, and gave it to my dad (I’m pretty sure she was part of the “this will put the kids through college one day” camp). My dad gave it to me and told me it should go with my collection. He said it was for safe-keeping, but, I think he just knew how much it meant for me to have it. I was in disbelief to possess a copy of this holy grail of comics… but tortured by the fact that I knew that it must remain forever sealed in its immortal polybag! It was like having the golden ticket but knowing you could never open the Wonka Bar.
I would not get to actually read the story and learn how Superman met his fate until DC published a trade paperback edition that collected the whole “Death of Superman” storyline, including Superman #75 and the issues that had led up to it.
The premise, for those unfamiliar, is that a raging monster called Doomsday is tearing across the country – heading towards Metropolis, naturally – killing and destroying everything and everyone in its path. Superman tries to stop him, but Doomsday is more powerful than any foe he has ever faced. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not going to be kryptonite that kills the man of steel, as one might have expected. He has just actually, finally, met his match.
The final chapter is told all in splash pages. (A splash page is where the whole page is just one image, rather than being divided up into different panels. The title page of a comic is usually a splash page.) In the last moments, Superman and Doomsday collide one last time and both fall to the ground, dead. The issue ends with a double-page spread of Lois Lane in tears beside Superman’s body, with his torn and tattered cape flying like a memorial flag in the background. I was 10 years old, and this sight moved me to tears. It was the first time a comic book ever made me cry. (It wouldn’t be the last… Maybe when we get to the end of this blog series I’ll reveal what the other times were.)
I had assumed that this meant the Superman series was over. But, of course, it wasn’t. The death storyline was followed by “Funeral for a Friend,” which focused on Superman’s grieving supporting cast. And then, “Reign of the Supermen,” in which four new pseudo-Supermen appeared on the scene in Metropolis. Was one of them somehow the real one, back from the grave?
This was the first time that I felt the need to keep up with what was happening in an ongoing comic book series in “real time.” And this didn’t mean waiting for a new installment every month; there was a new chapter every week. You see, Superman didn’t have just one comic book series about him, he had four. “Superman,” “Superman in Action Comics,” “Superman: The Man of Steel,” and “The Adventures of Superman” were four separate ongoing series, and one of them came out each Wednesday on a rotating basis. “Reign of the Supermen” was a sprawling saga that played out across all the titles.
I couldn’t keep up with it even if I tried. I was 10. I didn’t have a means of transportation to get to the local comic book store. I could get my dad to take me once in a while, but not on a weekly basis, and even if I could, I didn’t have the money to buy every single issue. I picked up what I could at any opportunity. Sometimes I ended up reading some of the issues out of order, or missed a chapter or two and had to try to figure out what had happened in between. Something about that fact, though, made the whole thing seem even bigger and more epic.
There was even one issue that I had to, reluctantly, deliberately, skip. I was at a newsstand with my dad, and of course I had to check out the comics rack to see if there was a new installment of “Reign of the Supermen.” And there was. Superman #80 sported a cover image of the Cyborg Superman blowing a freaking hole right through the chest of the Last Son of Krypton Superman. It was the most graphically violent image I had ever seen depicted on a comic book cover. I thought back to my parents condemning those old Hulk comics for being too violent when I was a little kid, leading to me eventually throwing them out. Even though that was a lifetime ago, I just couldn’t do it. I knew there was no way my dad would let me have that comic, so I didn’t even ask. I walked away and left it on the rack. (I would buy it years later from a back-issue bin; it is part of my collection today.)
Around this time I discovered the (now defunct) mail-order company Entertainment This Month. They advertised in each issue as a way to order upcoming comics in advance and have them mailed to you. They also offered cool free incentives, like posters, trading cards, or special comics depending on when you ordered. I sent in a request for one of their free catalogs. It opened up a whole new world to me. The catalogs had a short description of what was going to happen in each issue and even pictures of some of the covers. For the first time I had a sense of what was going to be coming out when, and which issues were the absolute “must have” essential parts of the storyline. And, instead of getting a ride to the comic store or newsstand and trying to play “catch up” on the parts of the story I’d missed, I could send away for the ones I really wanted and wait for them to show up at my door.
This was also the first time I started to pay attention to the writer and artist on each issue. Even though the stories intertwined, each of the four different series had a different writer/artist pair and thus had its own style. My favorite artist, by far, was Tom Grummett on “Adventures of Superman.” He had a very clean, fluid style that looked like it belonged in an animated series. I looked forward to the “Adventures” issues more than the rest.
There came a point where I had to have everything that had to do with this event. I had a poster of the four new Supermen on my bedroom wall. I had the “Death and Return of Superman” Super Nintendo game. I had “The Return of Superman” trading cards. I had the novelization and junior novelization. I had the “Superman Lives!” audio cassette. I was obsessed.
There were a couple of kids in my class who were interested in it too. They weren’t nearly as hardcore as I was, but, they each had a few of the issues and I could at least talk to them about it. One day I brought in a stack of my comics to get them caught up and we passed them around during D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) time. I also brought in my Entertainment This Month catalogs, feeling super cool to be able to show off that I knew what was coming up next. It was nice to have a couple friends who were into the comics too, but, on a scale of 1 to 10 I think their interest was like a 4 and mine was an 11. And, beyond those couple of guys, no one else really cared about it.
In the fall of 1993, the TV show “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” premiered. I couldn’t believe they were making a show about Superman. I loved it from the very first episode. The first season especially had a real sense of wonder. The focus on Clark Kent as a “real person” (rather than just a put-on bumbling disguise) was something the comics had been trying to develop since the 80s, but it was the first time it had been done on television. And, with Teri Hatcher portraying Lois, it was the first time I ever really understood what Superman would see in Lois Lane.
The same couple of kids in my class who had a fleeting interest in the Superman comics also watched “Lois & Clark,” but, again, they weren’t as into it as I was. And the rest of the world that had bought into the Superman hype long enough to buy that one black-bagged death issue had long since moved on.
I have a very distinct memory of being in the school cafeteria on a Monday and listening to my friends talking about the football game that had been on the day before. I didn’t follow football. But pretty much all the other guys in my class did. And I remember thinking to myself, why is it so common for everyone to watch football that you could just kind of safely assume that if you struck up a conversation about it, odds were pretty good that the guy you were talking to watched the game. But if you randomly started talking about “Lois & Clark” or about the comic book you just read, odds were pretty good they would have no idea what you were talking about.
This was 1993, and “Lois & Clark” was the only superhero show on TV. There had been a “Flash” TV show a couple years before, but it didn’t last long. As for superhero movies, you’d get one maybe every few years if you were lucky, and the quality was inconsistent at best. (Batman Returns was in 1992, and then we’d wait three more years for the very tonally different Batman Forever in 1995.) Superhero culture was just not mainstream, and I remember sitting in that elementary school cafeteria wishing that it was.
If you could go back in time and tell my kid self that in 2017 there would literally be so many superhero TV shows that he would not have the time to watch all of them, or that there would be multiple superhero movies every year and they would cross over with each other the way the actual comics did, it would have completely blown his mind.
Other than those couple of kids in my class who had a casual interest in the Superman comics, I still didn’t know anyone else who read them, and certainly not anyone who cared about them as much as I did.
At least, not yet.