30 years ago, DC Comics did the unthinkable: it set in motion a story arc that ultimately resulted in Superman’s death. This wasn’t some kind of fake-out, either. “Doomsday” was set in continuity, and it really did end with the Man of Steel giving his life to stop the rampaging monster that lends the arc its title. As such, “Doomsday” – written and drawn by a host of creators, including Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Jon Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, and Jackson Guice – was big news when it hit shelves. It was also a massive sales success for DC, as were the other entries in the Death of Superman trilogy, “Funeral for a Friend” and “Reign of the Supermen”.
Yet in the quarter of a century since the release of “Doomsday”, its reputation has taken a bit of a battering. Among the criticisms leveled against the arc is that it places too much emphasis on its sensational premise at the expense of the storytelling itself – Doomsday arrives out of nowhere and kills the Last Son of Krypton; there’s no real build-up. This is a valid complaint, however, on reflection I’ve come to realize that this abruptness isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It’s a reminder that anyone can die suddenly and without warning – even Superman.
Indeed, this heads-up hits home even harder because of Superman’s famous invulnerability. In the decades before “Doomsday” saw print, the Man of Tomorrow had built up a reputation for being virtually indestructible (occasional run-ins with Kryptonite and magic notwithstanding). Not even John Byrne’s 1986 reboot Man of Steel, which (among other changes to continuity) significantly depowered Superman, managed to fully shift the perception that DC’s flagship superhero could ever be hurt, much less killed. In real life and in the DC Universe itself, Superman’s death was unthinkable… until it happened.
That’s why readers and fictional bystanders alike were so shocked when Superman didn’t make it out of “Doomsday” alive: because it directly contradicted years’ worth of conditioning. The Man of Steel was supposed to emerge from his battle with Doomsday unscathed and triumphant, the same as always. We knew this in our bones, the same way we know our childhood role models will never leave us until, one by one, they ultimately do. That The Death of Superman manages to capture the mingled sensation of shock and grief that comes at a time like this – when a larger-than-life, vital person is gone in an instant – is its greatest accomplishment.
Sure, it would be easy to point to Jurgens’ heartfelt scripting of “Doomsday” finale Superman #75 or his and Brett Breeding’s bombastic, splash page-only artwork on that issue as the highpoint. However, the titanic brawl between Superman and Doomsday that unfolds in Superman #75 is essentially standard superpowered fisticuffs elevated by an air of cultural significance. It doesn’t have anything important to impart to us other than that courage and self-sacrifice are ideals worth living and dying for – something umpteen superhero comics have already told us, before and since.
No, it’s not until the second arc in the trilogy, “Funeral for a Friend”, that The Death of Superman finally hits stride. Having the aftermath of Superman’s unexpected demise play out over 10 whole issues – virtually unthinkable for superhero comics at the time – didn’t just give the Last Son of Krypton’s friends, family, admirers, and enemies adequate time to process his death, it did the same for us, too. And in this way, it gave us a fictional channel through which to interrogate our own real-life feelings about those we have lost and those we fear we soon will.
It’s a great example of genre fiction doing what it does best: using an OTT story of capes, tights and fights to help us make sense of the grounded, human stuff that really matters. Escapist stories like The Death of Superman don’t just bring us comfort; they grant us understanding, even healing.
Taken on these terms, “Doomsday” (and the rest of The Death of Superman along with it) deserves its prominent place in the annals of comic book history. Heck, even knowing that the trilogy ends with Man of Steel’s miraculous resurrection isn’t enough to diminish its power. The fact is, we lost Superman for a minute there – and the suddenness of that loss still stings even now, more than a quarter of a century on.