Publicity Stunt Or Not, The Death of Superman Changed Everything
The sheer volume of comic book deaths could fuel a conversation for weeks. From Marvel to DC, neither publisher has shied away from killing off some of their most well-know characters in the name of great storytelling.
Gwen Stacy was famously killed after the Green Goblin threw her from a bridge. Jason Todd was beaten to death at the hands of the Joker. Jean Grey became the casualty of an alien being. Both the Flash and Supergirl succumbed to the Anti-Monitor. And Bucky Barnes was riding an airplane before it exploded.
Yes, death and comic books go hand in hand, so much to the point that when it happens, we the readers shrug it off. We don’t do this because the event isn’t traumatic or noteworthy. No, we do it because we know that eventually they will return. This numbness wasn’t always the case. There was a time when we felt saddened by the death of our favorite characters because, at one point, they didn’t come back. Or at least we didn’t think they did.
There is no character whom emblemized this more than Superman.
Superman is the quintessential hero. He embodies all that it means to be good and doesn’t waver…ever. Well, maybe not ever, but pretty close to it. Superman is the average person’s hero and the kind of character that children look up to. Superman is universal. Since 1939, he has been there to watch over not just the United States, but the world.
In fact, when my brother and I were giving comic books to children in Africa as a part of our sister company, Comics For Cause, the one hero that each child knew was Superman.
Outside of the movies, there are two notable things that spark comic book sales. First, the announcement of life, or new characters. Second, and no different than our own world, the announcement of death. That’s why, when the world caught wind that DC was planning to kill him off, it was set into frenzy.
At 6,000,000 copies sold, Superman #75 became the number one selling comic book of 1992. Upon its release, fans littered the streets looking to get a piece of history. The madness was so high that comic books stores began implementing a “one per customer” policy. To put it into perspective, the month that Superman #75 was released, DC’s market share doubled.
The early 1990’s was an interesting time for comics. Fresh off the very successful 1980’s, collectors were looking for a way to make some money. By this time, the most sought after Gold and Silver Age books were selling for thousands of dollars…and collectors were aware of it. They started to gather up everything they could that would stand a chance to make them rich beyond imagination. This, of course, included Superman #75.
This book might very well signify the downfall of the comic book industry in the early 90’s. Some critics have called the book well written, thought-provoking and extremely powerful. Others, like myself, have called it a well-timed publicity stunt. This is especially so because at it’s release, DC didn’t make it known that he was going to be revived at the conclusion of the story. And they shouldn’t have.
Don’t get me wrong. The Death of Superman is a good read and both comic fans and non-comic fans should take the time to read it. However, the book churned up business like very few things before it.
News outlets around the United States gravitated to the story. Newsweek, People, and many more published stories nearly as quick as the news was “released”. DC, for all it was trying to achieve remained silent when asked by the media about the event.
The Death of Superman did more than churn up sales for the industry. For the first time in a long time, a premier character was not seen as invincible. I don’t want to take anything away from all the characters that died before him however, none of them were Superman.
This was Superman. The Man of Steel. The one character that the world felt couldn’t be defeated. Beaten down, yes, but not defeated. He was, up to this point, invincible.
How do you kill a character that can’t be killed?
To do it, DC needed a new character, or as I mentioned earlier, new life. After all, how could any of the characters in DC kill Superman? They had already spent years failing so it was impossible for any of them to be able to. The new character came in the form of quite possibly the most ridiculous villain of all-time, Doomsday.
And Doomsday, once killed, comes back to life with immunity to whatever killed him. Ridiculous? Yes. Does it work? Yes.
Doomsday and Superman spent the better part of their early existence together trading punches. They two exploded buildings, dug up concrete, and made waste of everything in their path. When the dust settled and the final punches were thrown, Superman laid dead on the ground.
What DC didn’t expect was the immediate backlash from its fans. The conversation quickly shifted from the Death of Superman to the deceit of his fans. Following the release of the book and more so after the return of Superman, sales dramatically declined.
To this day, DC insists that the book was not merely a publicity stunt and that the media blew it out of proportion. But the damage was done. The non-comic fans who purchased the book as a means of becoming rich, threw their copies out, recycled them, placed them in garage sales, and went back to their daily lives. The fans, the ones who lived and breathed comics, weren’t so quick to forgive.
Its been said that the hardest thing to regain in from someone is their trust. DC lost the trust of those whom they write for. While the issue made DC a lot of money, it did so with huge drawback. After its release fans became wise to character deaths as nothing more than a publicity stunt. After his death, very few character deaths would garner the media attention that Superman did.
The Death of Superman, no matter which way it’s looked at, was an enormous success. It made DC a ton of money, all-the-while setting the world’s eyes firmly upon it. There are very few comic book events that can claim this.
The Death of Superman will firmly go down as a turning point in comics. Hell, 25 years later and we are still talking about it. Until he dies again, I will go ahead and put my copy back in the plastic sheet I took it from.