The Death of Superman is seen today as a publicity stunt, an attempt to rejuvenate sales and get people who wouldn’t normally read or write about comics interested, if only for a moment. It worked. The death of the Man of Steel was covered by major media outlets across the country, and Superman (vol. 2) #75, the book in which the death takes place, sold out almost instantly. Some comics enthusiasts cried foul that it was happening at all, going beyond the publicity angle to suggest that a sacred character like the Man of Tomorrow couldn’t be allowed to die. But DC did it anyway, because we all knew that Superman wouldn’t stay dead.
What no one ever really seems to talk about in all of this is the work itself. For all its public pomp and DC publicity polish, Superman #75 is the kind of knock down, drag out brawl story that many of us got into comics to read. It’s hero versus villain, good versus evil, protection versus obliteration against the backdrop of Metropolis. It breaks Superman down to the most base instinct he has – to never give up – and even in its corniest moments, it evokes the best of superhero storytelling.
Dan Jurgens, who both wrote and drew the issue, had been working on Superman for about a year when he got handed the biggest assignment since Siegel and Shuster gave birth to the character in the 1930s. To tear down the Man of Tomorrow, he created a being of pure aggression – Doomsday – and set about wreaking havoc on the DC Universe, setting his beast on a brutal path straight to Metropolis.
There’s nothing nuanced about what Doomsday is (not here, anyway). He’s a creature built to destroy, to ravage, to kill. He could be likened to the unstoppable force that consumed the planet Krypton when the infant Kal-El was placed in a lifeboat and sent to the stars by his parents. He’s an all-consuming presence, and the only way to stop him, it seems, is to get in his way and let him consume you.
This is what Superman opts for. After several failed attempts to put Doomsday down, he meets him in the streets of Metropolis, at the doorstep of The Daily Planet, and makes a last stand as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and a host of others look on. Issue #75 is devoted entirely to this clash, to throwing punches and hurling each other into the pavement until the earth literally starts to move. It’s a fitting way to tell the tale, because even though it’s just a publicity stunt to sell more Superman books, Jurgens knows that to destroy Superman you have to very nearly destroy the world.
To add to the story’s epic scale, Jurgens draws the issue as a series of full page panels. Each of the 22 pages in the issue is a complex tableau of violence and sorrow, including a spectacular image of Superman and Doomsday each drawing back to deliver punches under the immortal Daily Planet logo. As if to drive the point home, the final two pages are a single spread image of Superman’s body lying in a pile of rubble as Lois Lane weeps and Jimmy Olsen lifts his camera to document the moment. On a pole nearby, the tattered red cap waves in the wind.
Yes, it’s corny and a little implausibly perfect-looking, but these are comic books we’re talking about. Sometimes it pays to cast off realism and just let these characters be big, bold and, well….superhuman. For all its prefab epic feel, Superman #75 is still a landmark of comics, if only for the sheer scale of the moment.