Superman: The Triangle Years, Part 3: Death, Reign, and Rebirth

More from the Triangle Years:
Part One: Embrace Continuity
Part Two: Out of the Closet

Legend has it that the first major story line for the Superman titles during the Triangle Years was to be the wedding of Lois and Clark.  The only problem is that “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” had recently debuted on TV and was doing quite well as a sort of superhero “Moonlighting.”  So in the interests of synergy, DC didn’t want comic book Lois and Clark walking down the aisle (although apparently being engaged was fine).

So to fill the void where the wedding was to be, Superman group editor Mike Carlin decided to kill him off.

There are two important elements regarding the Death of Superman that I think get forgotten, mostly because they’re dependent upon context.

The first is the fact that, while replacement superheroes would become a dime a dozen in the 90s, the Superman books started the trend (at least as far as the 90s were concerned, as such stories had been done for years but had never taken off the way they would in that decade). This wasn’t the Superman books trying to cash in on a fad, but legitimately telling a story they thought would be good.  It is also easily the most contained replacement hero story, spanning only 6 months.

The other thing to consider is just how crazy the mainstream media went for this story.  We live in a time where seemingly minor spoilers are revealed by USA Today on a regular basis, because comic books can get that kind of mainstream attention now.  That wasn’t the case twenty years ago.

It should be added that while the 1989 Batman movie is often referenced as the cause for the speculator boom of the 90s, the Death of Superman no doubt turned that fire into an inferno.

It was a crazy time to be a comic book reader, let alone one who was already reading Superman.

The Death of Superman

Here’s the thing about the Death of Superman: It was really well done.

The creative team did a nice job of building up the seriousness of the situation over the course of the arc.  Nothing could stop Doomsday, not even Superman, not until the very end.  Even then, Superman paid with his life (sort of), but Doomsday survived.

Part of why this worked is that they decided that each issue should be told with one fewer panel per page.  Superman #75, the issue in which he dies, is made up entirely of single page spreads.  The issue before was made up of two panels per page.  The issue before that three panels per page.  It’s such an obvious idea, but it worked so well to increase the magnitude of the story.  The fact that Dan Jurgens drew the finale helped a great deal, since he’s always drawn large figures that fill the panel.

For what it’s worth, the creators of the Superman books were never ambiguous about whether or not he would return.  It was clear almost from the second he died that the door was open to his miraculous resurrection.  In fact, the “Funeral For a Friend” storyline shows Superman heading off into the great white light and turning around at the behest of Pa Kent, who was near death himself.

The other major change to the Superman books that came from this big event was the departure of long time Superman artist/writer Jerry Ordway from Adventure Comics.  Up until this point, penciler Bob McLeod was the only departure from the teams that had started the Triangle Years, replaced by Jackson “Butch” Guice on Action Comics.  The timing worked out well, though, particularly considering the direction Adventure Comics would soon be headed.  Ordway was replaced by Karl Kesel.

Reign of the Supermen

And the brand building begins!

The four replacement Supermen are surprisingly well done.  Each is supposed to represent a different aspect of Superman: The Last Kryptonian (the Eradicator), The Man of Tomorrow (Cyborg Superman), The Man of Steel (Steel), and the Metropolis Kid (Superboy), although I’ll be honest that I had never, ever heard Superman called the Metropolis Kid before.  Still, it was a good way to reintroduce Superboy into the Superman mythology.

Aside from Steel, each character had roots that extended back to the early days of the Superman reboot.  It would have nice to see Supergirl included in the replacement Supermen, to be honest, and she would have worked thematically, as she was the last survivor of a dead world.  You could make the argument that part of the story of these four characters is that any of them could have been a resurrected Kal-El, but Steel never made that claim.

Superman was only “dead” for six months, less than, actually.  Compare that to the later “replacement hero” story lines like Knightfall or the Clone Saga and it’s surprisingly short.

The bulk of 1993 is taken up by this event, which includes a big battle after Superman returns (that goes on too long, to be honest).  But let’s take a look at our replacement Supermen, since so much of the year is focused on them.

The Eradicator — Is ostensibly a device in human form, created to preserve Kryptonian culture by eradicating any outside influences.  He’s initially portrayed as the most extreme of the four Supermen, willing to kill criminals at the slightest provocation.  He later becomes a typical 90s anti-hero after nearly sacrificing himself to save a powerless Clark Kent and ultimately joining the Outsiders.

Cyborg Superman — Hank Henshaw was an astronaut that, ala the Fantastic Four, gained superhuman abilities when his space shuttle was destroyed.  He ultimately blames Superman for this and becomes the main villain in Superman’s return, helping Mongul to destroy Coast City.  Like The Eradicator, Henshaw had been introduced to the Superman books years earlier.

Superboy — Eventually we’d learn that Superboy is a clone made up of genetic material from both Superman and Lex Luthor, as Cadmus could only clone Superman with the addition of human DNA.  But initially we’re to believe he’s the real Superman reborn in a cloned body that happens to still be a teenager.  Of all the replacement Supermen, Superboy is the most dated, clearly a product of the 90s.  He would go on to have the most exposure of any of them, though, including multiple solo series and a lead role in the Teen Titans.

Steel — John Henry Irons is easily the most interesting of the Supermen, due in no small part to the fact that he’s a regular guy with a fully realized back story who never claims to be a resurrected Superman; he’s simply trying to do the right thing by getting the weapons he created off the streets.  While some would point to the fact that Steel diversifies the Superman brand, his biggest contribution is something that’s been missing from the various Super characters: intellect.  Irons is an engineering genius.

The addition of Steel also raises an interesting theme that has developed over the course of the Triangle Years: diversity.  Early on, the books introduce Ron Troupe, a reporter trying to get a job at the Daily Planet.  Ron becomes the main civilian POV character, going so far as to write Superman’s obituary.  Because of their close relationship with Superman, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen no longer fit that role.  Ron’s an interesting character who evolves nicely over time.

Then there’s Keith, a young boy at an orphanage who continually finds himself in trouble only to be saved by Superman.  I mentioned Keith earlier as being another POV character, albeit of a different nature than Ron.  Keith is ultimately adopted by Perry and Alice White, which introduces new issues of race to deal with.

The focus on race is done well enough, but it’s mostly at the surface level, perhaps because, at the time, all of the writers of the Superman books were white.  Still, the fact that the creative teams knew Superman’s cast needed shaken up was a good thing.

The Return

Superman came back (as if anyone doubted) and now he had a mullet!

Superman’s hair in the 90s is a running joke, although it’s not always drawn as a mullet.  Down the line it’s longer all over, but initially it’s basically business in the front and a party in the back.  But aside from a few issues where a powerless Kal-El is running around in a black suit with large guns, this is about as extreme as Superman gets in the 90s.

With the real deal Superman back, Superboy moves to Hawaii and his own series, which I think might be the first superhero comic based in Hawaii.  The Eradicator is near death after having jumped in front of a blast meant for Superman, but he gets better and joins the Outsiders.  Cyborg Superman is defeated, but would return in the future.  And Steel eventually graduates to a title of his own, too.

The Superman brand was expanding.

More change came when Tom Grummet left Adventures of Superman at the end of 1993.  Barry Kitson took over as penciler, which was a pleasant surprise for me, as I’ve always been a fan of his work.  He offered a more polished style than what we were seeing on the other titles, so Adventure really stood out.

As ’93 ended and the hubbub from the Death of Superman died down, the question became: what do the Superman titles do now?

Lex Luthor

The obvious answer was to deal with a story line that had been simmering under the surface of the Superman books for years now: the return of Lex Luthor in a younger, cloned body, that he uses to convince everyone he’s actually his own son.  This is Lex Luthor we’re talking about, so that clearly can’t last.

Luthor’s first problem is that his cloned body is dying.  Cloning is an imperfect science (sometimes) in the DCU and Luthor’s time is running out.  First, he starts losing his glorious red hair, then his body begins to get weaker.  It’s not long before he’s in worse shape than he was before he faked his death.

On the other hand, Lois Lane is looking into him and that’s never good for any villain.  It’s a nice turn, to have Lois as the driving force behind Luthor’s downfall this time.  In fact, given that cancer is what drove Luthor to fake his own death to begin with, and Lois’ reporting is what’s taking him down this time, Superman has had very little to do with Lex’s eventual fate.

But Lex Luthor doesn’t go down without a fight, and in Action Comics #700 he basically destroys Metropolis before falling into a vegetative state.

Dakota

This anniversary issue also marks the end of Roger Stern’s run as writer on Action.  He’s replaced by longtime Spider-man writer David Michelinie, who jumped ship before the Clone Saga took off.

The post-apocalyptic Metropolis is the backdrop for one of the more interesting crossovers in Superman’s history: The Superman books and the Milestone books.

Now, I love the Milestone line of comics.  Love them.  Nothing has gotten me excited for comics the way the announcement of their return has.  People point to how these books embraced diversity, but it was more than that.  It was more than just having characters who weren’t all white.  The Milestone books addressed people from different social and economic classes, too.  They featured characters that had a wide range of backgrounds and, not surprisingly, were all the more complex because of it.  Milestone characters were more fully realized in just a few issues than the majority of characters from Marvel or DC are in ten years.

It was hard not to see the Milestone/Superman crossover as hip hop mixing with big band.  And, to be honest, that’s kind of how it read.

Still, any exposure the Milestone books got to more readers was a good thing.

Eventually, Metropolis is miraculously resurrected (just like Superman!) without anyone ever really asking why, at least not right away.  When the story behind the city’s return is told, it turns out that the devil did it.  Seriously, Satanus helped Zatana rebuild the whole stinking city from Perry White’s memories.  The City of the Future, built by the devil.

Next: Will they just get married already?

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