The Death and Return of Superman

Like weary boxers who have gone the distance, the combatants collide in one last, explosive effort. In the years to come a few witnesses will tell of the power of these final punches, that they could literally feel the shockwaves. Others will remember the enormous crater that resulted from the sheer force of the blows. But most will remember this sad day as the day the proudest, most noble man they ever knew finally fell.

The Death and Return of Superman, the omnibus edition, is a colossal masterpiece from the collective minds of Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, and Gerard Jones. In 746 detailed pages, it deals directly with what it would take to kill a hero, what the world would be like without that hero, and what it would take to bring a hero back to life.

There has been a sharp increase in death and return stories throughout the comic industry, but this is one of the first and by far the best. There are some key rules to a good death and return story that have been ignored lately. First, your hero must either fall to his physical equal (Superman vs. Doomsday), a villain specifically designed to destroy him (Spider-Man vs. Morlun), or be taken by surprise in a standard assassination (Captain America vs. a sniper). Second, you must show that the loss of the hero was significant to the world he left behind. Third, bringing the hero back from the dead must be struggle. Death is permanent. Even if death can be escaped in the world of comics, it should not be easy.

The tale begins with Doomsday, a seemingly unstoppable killing machine, plowing his way through various cities. He defeats various heroes until his rampage is halted in Metropolis by Superman. After a long and destructive battle, the two each land one final blow. Doomsday dies instantly, and Superman gives in to his injuries after receiving assurance of Doomsday’s defeat.

The world mourns the loss, various gangs and villains make grabs for power, the existing heroes struggle to keep order, and four new individuals rise to claim the mantle of Superman. The Man of Steel, or Steel for short, is the first to appear. A construction worker who owes his life to Superman, Steel builds a suit of armor and sets out to establish order in the name of Superman. The Last Son of Krypton is the second to appear. Bearing a striking resemblance to Superman and claiming to have his memories as well, this Superman subscribes a far more lethal form of justice and is later revealed to be the Eradicator, a sentient Kryptonian weapon. The Metropolis Kid is the next to appear. Dubbed “Superboy” by the media, he is the result of an attempt to clone Superman, but escaped before he had reached maturity. The last to appear is The Man of Tomorrow. The most convincing of the four, this Cyborg Superman is proven to be a DNA match to Superman with Kryptonian technology to replace most of his damaged body.

After months of winning the world’s favor, the Cyborg Superman eventually proves to be the villain of the latter half of the story. He was Hank Henshaw, an astronaut who’s exposure to cosmic rays eventually resulted in the death of the entire crew and his consciousness forever being locked in a computer system. Over the years, he developed a paranoid ideal that Superman was responsible for the tragedy. Adapting and evolving, Henshaw eventually constructed a body from Kryptonian technology and DNA stolen from Superman himself. He seeks to turn the entire planet into a mechanized war world and begins with Coast City, leveling it and turning it into a massive engine. Though he blames the Eradicator for this destruction, the supermen and most of the former Superman’s allies direct their attention towards the Cyborg Superman.

Meanwhile, Superman’s resurrection has been playing out like a brilliantly crafted symphony behind the scenes. Initially, the Eradicator had stolen Superman’s body and placed it in a Kryptonian regeneration chamber for use as a conduit to the Sun’s energy. Later, after suffering a fatal heart attack, Jonathan Kent managed to rescue Superman’s soul from the afterlife. Now complete with a soul, Superman’s body lay in the regeneration chamber, waiting and recovering. Superman, powerless but armed with a few very big guns, joined the rest of the heroes in the final battle. After the Eradicator apparently sacrificed his life to save Krypton’s true last son, Superman’s powers returned, and he defeated the Cyborg Superman.

Though I managed to summarize this tale in only a few paragraphs, it truly is a massive undertaking. No other story has managed to capture the death and return of a hero as well as The Death and Return of Superman.

I am very glad that DC decided to carry forward most of the elements established in this story, rather than discard them as most similar stories have done. Steel carried his own series for four years and is now prone to regular appearances in various Superman titles. The Eradicator enjoyed a brief stint as a hero with the Outsiders and has since been flipping between the hero and villain roles, though it is unknown if each incarnation is the original Eradicator or another sentient Kryptonian weapon. Superboy, aka Kon-El aka Conner Kent, is now an official member of the Kent family and a major character in both the Teen Titans and various Superman titles. The Cyborg Superman, now simply the Cyborg, is one of DC’s most recognizable recurring villains. The destruction of Coast City eventually led to Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s mental breakdown and destructive rampage as the host of the entity Parallax. This particular storyline and its effects lasted for years and was eventually resolved in Green Lantern: Rebirth.

The Death and Return of Superman is a massive tale, filling 746 pages. It was written across 1992 and 1993, though its effects are still felt today throughout the entire DC universe. This is how you do a death and return story. You don’t take shortcuts. You make the hero’s death believable, you spend time showing the impact of his loss, and you make his return as much of a struggle as his death.

The omnibus edition of The Death and Return of Superman is a must-have for any fan of the DC universe. The complexity and detail of the story will be an engaging read for days, if not weeks, depending on your reading habits. To date, The Death and Return of Superman remains the gold-standard for all death and return stories.

This review was previously published on Splash Panel on April 3, 2010.

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