From the Bookshelf
by Nicolas Juzda
The Death Of Superman
It's difficult for me to believe that it has been just under a decade since DC first published this story. Of all the "events" the comics industry has staged, this one stands virtually unrivalled as the biggest, and even after all this time I can vividly remember the sense of history-in-the-making that a brilliant marketing campaign managed to impart onto it.
Of course, Superman did get better, as I and every other comic book fan knew he would. Does that eliminate that historical importance? It certainly changes it, probably diminishes it, but it remains a story that for an instant caught the world's attention, and anyone with a serious interest in the history of the super-hero comic book should have some familiarity with it.
But your hard-earned dollars shouldn't go to a story just because of historical interest, let alone due to my nostalgic ramblings. So I'll put aside the context - which did bear mentioning - and examine the book itself.
Seven comics were collected in this volume, with no text features and only thumbnail reproductions of the original issue covers on the back of the book. I'd give it a low grade as a package, but the price on mine indicates it was being sold in Canada for less than a buck per issue reproduced, and in the U.S. for just over fifty cents per issue reproduced. The cost may have gone up in later printings, but you gotta love that value.
It doesn't matter how cheap a comic is, though, if the content is worth even less. So let's take a look at what's between the covers.
The Death Of Superman is the longest fight scene I have ever seen in a comic book. Not "contains"; is. Once Doomsday comes onto center-stage at the beginning of part two, it's nothing but fight scene right up until the end. For over a hundred pages, Doomsday is locked in one continuous battle with the Justice League and/or Superman.
I don't mean that it's literally nothing but characters pounding one another in every single panel. Heroes duck away from the melee to save victims; combatants get knocked from the fight and have to catch up; people left in the brawl's wake are shown trying to deal with the damage that has been wrought; bystanders get introduced shortly before the melee rolls over their lives. But everything centers around that one fight, caught in its orbit. Not a single page rolls by that isn't directly concerned with it.
I'm not saying The Death Of Superman has no plot. If anything, the reverse is true. It's nothing but the plot. It's just that the plot is extremely simple; Doomsday fights the JLA and Superman, the JLA members get defeated, then Superman and Doomsday kill each other. That pretty much sums it up.
There is something to be said for that approach. The Superman books of that era were just starting down the road to the endless sub-plots and ongoing storylines that would characterize most of the rest of the decade for those titles (to a degree that at times seemed to come close to that of Marvel's X-titles), and the more streamlined storytelling on display here probably helped The Death Of Superman achieve its popularity with readers outside of hardcore Superman readers and even non-comic book fans.
Additionally, no knowledge of Superman continuity is needed to read the story. Oddly, understanding The Death Of Superman fully seems more to depend upon knowledge of JLA continuity than that of the actual protagonist, with the team left largely unexplained and a few of the subplots of that title effecting their actions during the battle.
At any rate, as fight scenes go, this one is quite well-done. As I just mentioned, the ramifications of the fight are well-explored. The action moves through a wide range of locales (from the mundane to the exotic and back again) and features participation by some guest stars and supporting characters to provide added variety. The defeat of the JLA is handled admirably, making it clear that Doomsday is out of their league (no pun intended) without showing disrespect for them. The characters' dialogue and thoughts are written at a reasonable level of quality; it's not Shakespeare, but it's more than just the WWF-style machismo that accompanies all too many comic book slugfests. The art is generally quite good at conveying the action in interesting and dynamic ways, and the various artistic teams mesh surprisingly well. The one big disappointment is that Superman never uses his powers in an innovative manner. He uses flight a bit to limit Doomsday's maneuverability, but other than that it's nothing but trading punches. The various writers really should have had more imagination.
Where things really fall apart, though, is the chapter that should have been the strongest: the final one. It's presented in nothing but splash pages, which was intended to give it a larger-than-life feel. Though this works to a degree, particularly when the story switches from splashes with a white border to full-bleed splashes and then again when it goes to double-splashes, it's equally true that the reader quickly gets used to the scale, and the effect is largely lost. Also, while the splashes are nice, they look too posed and are largely disconnected, the impression becoming that of a slide show rather than motion. For example, the overhead shot of Superman blasting Doomsday with his heat vision is memorable, but is completely unrelated to the action on the preceding page (Superman punching Doomsday in the back) and has no visible consequences on the following one (wherein Doomsday hits Superman in the jaw). Good fight scenes require sequential art to convey continuous action, not pin-up after pin-up that don't fit together.
The writing also fails to really convey why Superman dies. He and Doomsday just suddenly both do. Unlike in Knightfall where Batman's increasing exhaustion is quite clear to the reader, the death here comes out of left field.
That said, the narration on the last few pages is quite touching, and the final pair of double-splashes achieve a truly monumental feel.
One of the odder aspects of this collection is the ending. There's no denouement. Superman dies on the last page, and that's it. The events that follow are detailed in another trade, World Without A Superman. While I admit the impracticality of including the nine issues of that TPB in the same volume as this one and also see the logic in where they drew the line, it seems likely to give readers of The Death Of Superman a sense that the book is somehow incomplete. Although perhaps there is a certain appropriateness to the result. The story was so full of that one titanic battle that once it was done there was nothing left to propel it, and the narrative was left as exhausted of life as Superman himself. I started on the follow-up volume immediately after I finished this one, and it really did feel like I was reading a separate story and not the natural continuation of the first. The more reflective tone of World Without A Superman clashed too much with the action-packed romp that I had just finished.
Finally, the treatment of Doomsday in this story is interesting. Though I feel the logic that has been employed in recent years that Superman's foes should rival him physically is questionable, Doomsday transcended the role of mere villain and was presented as nothing short of a force of nature. Subsequent appearances of the character couldn't help but dilute this primal appeal, as the elaborate explanation for his creation made him somehow more mundane. Also, of course, since Superman was later able to defeat Doomsday without sacrificing his own life by doing something - anything - more elaborate and clever than just trading punches, this first battle begins to look rather overblown in hindsight as Doomsday has become merely another of Superman's Rogues Gallery. But at the time, Doomsday actually was impressive, and in re-reading this story I could still see why.
If you aren't filled with revulsion at the very idea of a 150+ page long fight sequence, I recommend The Death Of Superman. It's dirt cheap, historically important, largely self-contained, the fight scene to end all fight scenes, occasionally touching, and generally entertaining.
Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda
is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in
his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in
the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Nicolas Juzda
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