Thursday, November 19, 2009

Episode #101: The Death Of Superman!

This episode does not explore the plot of the Death Of Superman story itself. For that, listen to episodes 86 and 89 of this podcast. Instead, the focus is on the creation and the ultimate publicity frenzy that erupted after its publication.

1992 was a big year in comic book history. That was the year that the top five artists at Marvel left to form their own comic book publishing company, Image Comics.

Over at DC, in the Panic In The Sky crossover, Superman led a team of DC super heroes against Warworld, led by Brainiac and Maxima, which threatened Earth. Other Superman plot threads of that year included Lucy Lane being hit by stray gun fire as police attempted to arrest Deathstroke. Jimmy Olsen rejoined the staff of the Daily Planet after being laid off the previous year. Superman rejoined and helped reform the Justice League. Lex Luthor II's secret of being a clone of the original Luthor was revealed to the Metropolis public. Senator Pete Ross was involved in some political intrigue with the right wing hero Agent Liberty. Superman was involved in the Eclipso crossover Annual event (not my favorite). Superman teamed with Robin against a vampire villain (which would be a perfect story today with the vampire craze. Who knew the Superman comics would be ahead of their time in that regard?) The Blaze/Satanus war occurred. Clark and Lois became involved with an abusive situation of one of their neighbors, and one story reprised a scene from Action Comics #1 where Superman stopped an abusive husband. That story was given a modern conclusion.

The Superman titles had begun including a "triangle number" on the cover to help readers follow the story through each Superman title in order, because at this point the story progressed very tightly from one title through the next every month. To keep the crative teams of the various Superman titles coordinated through the year, they began gathering at DC's New York offices every year to plan out that year's worth of stories. They had developed Clark and Lois' relationship to the point where they fell in love and Clark revealed his secret identity. Originally, they planned for them to marry in Superman #75. But the new ABC TV show Lois & Clark: The Adventures Of Superman wanted to marry them on the show first.

Left without their original plot, the Superman creative team had to regroup. Writer and artist Jerry Ordway used to joke every year that they should kill Superman for the major plot. This time they decided ot take it seriously. Through this story they wanted to show how important Superman was and why readers should care about him. The ultimate media frenzy caught him by surprise.

As the release date approached, interest built to the point that comic book retailers kept increasing their orders for Superman #75. Some stores had customers lined up around the block the day the issue was published. Some stores sold 10,000 copies just on the first day. The issue was reprinted for several months, eventually selling over 3 million copies. The death of Superman seemed to be the only news item happening that week. There was at least one report of a mock funeral for Superman, complete with a closed casket.

Members of the creative team were in heavy demand for public appearances and autograph sessions. Jerry Ordway remembered one appearance where he stayed four hours past his scheduled time, until the mall closed, because of the public demand. Dan Jurgens has said over the years that at various appearances he has had at least one person tell him that the death of Superman got them back into comics.

Not everyone was thrilled over the story. There were some critics who felt the story was just a publicity stunt just to boost sales. Others felt betrayed when Superman's death was only temporary.

Chuck Rozakis of Mile High Comics posted an essay on the store's web site expressing his opinion that the death of Superman story helped usher in the bust of the comic book boom of the early 1990's. The industry was filled with undercapitalized and ill informed retailers who ultimately did not survive the bust. Readers who hoped to sell their copies of Superman #75 for a profit found that only the first printing had any real value. He also noted that the comic book industry of today is only about 20% of what it was in 1992.

It seems naive to me for people to think that a character that was such an American icon as Superman would be killed permanently. While I believe the creative team when they say they weren't just planning a publicity stunt, but wanted to tell a good story (which it was), I also believe the marketing departments of DC and Marvel took advantage of the market to sell more comics, which any good business should do. but like any other industry, sometimes long term planning takes a back seat to short term gain.

While the comic book industry seems steady, the flux of comic book based movies has not increased readership, and digital technology has the industry at another crossroads. But that's a topic for the year in review episode.

Next week: Happy Birthday, Noel Neill!

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Thanks for listening to the Superman Fan Podcast and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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