We all carry traumatic events with us from the media we consume, so much so there is a website that will tell you if a dog dies in the movie. Creative types work very hard to achieve the emotional payoff from such reactions. I can tell you from experience, I have sat in discussions where writers were actively talking about how they can twist a story to make you cry. It might be nefarious-sounding, but why do you come to media, to begin with? To artificially stimulate real-life responses in situations you aren’t in currently. You may read romance novels to feel what it’s like to be in love for the first time, you may watch action movies to feel the rush of kicking wholesale ass, or you may consume science fiction to quell the thirst for curious discovery. As writers, we are always trying to improve our ability to give that to you.
What is my traumatic media moment? The day Superman died. I wrote a blog about where I was when I’d found out Superman died — for this week’s blog, I wanted to share the literary examination of why that’s such an amazing story, and how the writers took my emotions and crinkled it like cheap tissue paper in the jaws of a puppy.
[WARNING]: Spoilers. It’s almost been thirty years, but hey.
Every year I read “The Death and Life of Superman” by Roger Stern. That book is the novelization of the death and return of Superman story arc that unfolded across Superman’s titles in 1993 and 1994. It’s to the point now where I can usually polish the book off in a day of solid reading. I want you to think about how big of a challenge that might be for someone with Attention Deficit Disorder — the Death of Superman story stimulates my dopamine for a lot of different reasons.
Before we can understand why the Death of Superman was such a powerful story, we need to understand why people like me gravitated towards Superman. See, I always identified as something of an outsider. Growing up, my father dying when I was young, I just couldn’t relate to most kids my age. It wasn’t because they were trying to keep me out, I just didn’t know the way in. Identifying as an outsider, you see Superman as an outsider. He was an orphan from his world, living on Planet Earth, fundamentally different than the people around him. An outsider can see an outsider from a distance. The idea of the world relying on an outsider as their savior is romantic. Superman was also invulnerable and the idea of an outsider being impervious to the hurt of the world is also romantic. Everyone belonged when they loved Superman.
The story of the Death of Superman begins with an unknown villain, aptly named Doomsday, begins running roughshod over rural America. Another day in the office for the Man of Steel, right? There comes a point where Superman realizes that Doomsday is taking him to the limit and he’s going to have to push himself harder than he had before. Eventually, Superman realizes that his own life is on the line. Think about that. An invulnerable hero, who could have forced the world population to worship him as a god, has to recognize his own mortality. This is where the storytelling knife gets twisted in your feelings. Superman recognizes his limits are being approached and he doesn’t stop fighting because there are people counting on him. Eventually, Superman and Doomsday bludgeon each other to death and Superman dies in the arms of the woman he loves.
Cue the tissues.
A lot will disagree, but I think this story is perfect. It takes everything you love about your character or mythos, presents it, and then emotionally destroys you for it. I remember reading the graphic novel for the first time and being stunned. How could Superman die? Say it wasn’t so! (SIDE NOTE: this isn’t the first time my little ADD brain had to suffer the loss of a beloved character, I also had to watch Optimus Prime kick the bucket in the 80’s.) The writers had successfully made me feel an actual sense of loss by the time I was done reading it. Bravo! Well done!
In the issues that followed, the world had to get along without Superman. I think that would have been an excellent epilogue. The world would remember the greatest hero of all time, but would ultimately have to examine and acknowledge their own mortality as Superman had when he battled Doomsday. Isn’t that the hallmark of a great tragedy? The loss is so profound you know you’ll never be the same again?
Comic books being comic books, Superman came back to life and pissed all over the organic payoff the writers worked so hard to engineer. The resurrection story was nowhere near the storytelling masterpiece that the Death of Superman was and when viewed as entire lore, kind of cheapens the experience from the first part of it. As a fan of comic books, I think that keeping Superman dead would have improved the storytelling of the other books. All of the heroes would carry Superman’s example with them. The ones that didn’t want to follow Superman would have to explore their moral dilemma of why.
It’ll be thirty years since Superman kicked the bucket in a few years and that story still holds up to the test of time. The resurrection part? Not so much.
Thank you for reading and I’ll see you on your next trip across the Millerverse.
One thought on “Funeral For a Friend: The Death of Superman”
Stories that make heroes vulnerable always leave the reader with something. It could be a feeling of irreparable loss, or hope crushed in the bud, or even the knowledge that if superheroes can fail, then what’s going to happen to the rest of us? Intimidation at it’s best. I love Superman too. Christopher Reeves played the part well. His life also quite tragic. Thanks for sharing this!
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