Update: And now Max Landis has responded to Jeff's critical dissection in the comments below.
Even though Superman was the most popular and marketable comic book property for over 40 years, many today feel that he is difficult to relate to today because he’s too powerful or too good. Superman still retains a fan-base, but it has shrunk considerably since he was on top. In 1992, the comic book creative teams had planned to marry Superman, or rather his secret identity Clark Kent, to his long-time love interest Lois Lane. Nearly a year’s worth of stories had been mapped out, but Warner Brothers decided to hold off because a new TV series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, was prepared for release in the fall of 1993. If successful, DC would prolong the comic book engagement until the characters were married on the show.
So they killed him instead.
Nobody thought that Superman could die. People who had never read a comic book lined up around the block in cities when it was released. DC Had to run through several printings just to satisfy the demand. Some of the creators even received death threats for killing such an important character. But of course their plan was to bring him back to life and to the forefront of the ongoing story some time after the grieving process, although they weren’t yet sure how to go about it.
“The Death of Superman” is the best-selling graphic novel in history and this story has spawned two novelizations, a BBC radio series, a direct to DVD movie, a video game and even a popular podcast commentating on the era issue-by-issue.
Fast forward 18 years. Max Landis (writer of the found footage superpowers movie Chronicle) recently rounded up several celebrity actors to produce a parody piece explaining the events of the story. Although it has some amusing moments, it’s clear to anyone who has read the story that he’s working off a memory of the plot that he doesn’t appear to have looked at again since it was published when he was seven years old.
Let it be known that I love this story and that I’m a huge Superman fan, but I stopped being bothered by people who dislike or make fun of the character when I was a teenager. It’s just not worth it. This is different.
Parody is fine, but what a number of fans are bothered by is that although some of his claims are spot-on, he also makes fun of things he completely fabricated himself. With plenty of real story elements to parody, why didn’t he at least read it again and get the information correct, especially in post-production elements.
Here’s the video itself and a commentary that points out the moments that are correct or incorrect, as well as some additional background information (Language Warning).
0:00 Immediately, Max has lost me as an audience member with this introduction. His claim is that even though I think I care about Superman, I don’t. What I assume from that statement is that this video is not intended for me, but for people who wouldn’t know any better anyway. It’s the “I’m so above all this” attitude that frankly makes me dislike the character he’s playing to try and make me laugh.
0:45 The part about the DC executives planning out the story to line their pockets is clearly meant to be humor and it’s actually funnier than the real story. But he faults them as a business for wanting to put out a story that will make money and I don’t quite understand that. Of course DC and Warner Brothers want to make money, but it’s been well-established that the creative teams were simply trying to write a good story and the press made a far bigger deal out of it than anyone expected. It’s actually a very interesting story. If you’d like to find out more, check out the coverage at Fortress of Baileytude.
1:20 This origin of Doomsday is more or less correct, although Max seems to have forgotten that this all happened on Krypton in its ancient past. That’s forgivable but it’s our first hint at a lack of research. Doomsday also didn’t blow up Krypton before leaving. That happened just before Superman was sent to Earth.
2:40 This is forgivable too, but Power Girl was not part of the mid-1990’s Justice League America and was not present for the battle.
4:00 In the video, Superman put Doomsday in a lake and said, “I guess that’s taken care of.” The moment he’s talking about is in Superman #74 where he temporarily put Doomsday in a lake because he had attacked a family in their home and Superman had to save them from burning alive in what was left of their house. There are plenty of moments from the story that can be parodied in amusing ways, but Max made this one up.
4:15 He’s right on the money here. In the comics, Doomsday was attacking a department store, ended up in a television display area, saw a commercial for a wrestling event in Metropolis, which is supposedly why he headed there. It’s hilarious.
4:30 Again with a total lack of research. Max mentions a newer character named Titania when he’s really talking about Maxima, who was also a member of the Justice League America. He also mentions a newer character named Guardian, who has actually been around since the early 1940’s.
5:00 Guardian didn’t disappear. Doomsday jumped away and Superman flew after him, leaving Guardian to follow at his own speed. So Max is still making pot shots at moments that didn’t even happen.
5:30 This is actually some very funny speculation and some fans have even voiced similar opinions. Since Doomsday was so strong and so ferocious, why did Superman, with all his abilities, let it come down to a brute force contest? Batman is always prepared and has the right tool in his belt to get the job done.
6:30 Again, this is pretty hilarious with the Five for Fighting song.
7:00 “DC shipped roughly 3 million issues of Action Comics Volume 2 #75, The Death of Superman.” Once again, the tiniest amount of research would show that it was SUPERMAN #75. If he had said it off the cuff during the filming, it wouldn’t have been as big a mistake. I do a podcast and sometimes get a piece of information wrong, but this was done in post-production and took at least a modicum of forethought. If you’re going to parody something … anything … at least do enough research to get some of the basic information right so you can make fun of it.
Then “Almost every store sold out within the first day of release.” Yes, that was a first printing. Since the book was so popular, DC printed more to meet the demand … 4 times. So Max’s claim is that meeting consumer demand is bad.
7:45 The real story behind Superman’s return is that the creative team at DC ALWAYS intended to bring him back to life. It wasn’t a decision made after his death sold so well. Max made this part up too.
8:00 He also claims that the “Reign of the Supermen” began one issue after the death. So he’s saying that the entire “Funeral for a Friend” story never happened and that the six month period between Superman #75 and Action Comics #687 was only one week. If you had a birthday, an anniversary, lost a loved one or have any memories between November 1992 and April 1993, Max Landis doesn’t believe that it happened. Max’s hipster attitude is clearly starting to rub off on me at this point.
8:20 Superboy did not have heat vision, or any vision powers. He was supposedly Superman’s clone, but we found out later that he wasn’t related to Superman at all, even though that was retconned a decade later. I get the joke, but Max was seven years old when the story came out and he clearly hasn’t looked at it since then anyway. He still took the time in post-production to add the heat vision beams.
8:30 Max does get the information on the Last Son of Krypton more or less correct and this is actually amusing with the right basic information.
9:00 The part about Steel, whose real name is John Henry Irons, is also correct and quite funny.
9:40 Here’s where Max actually did a little bit of research and got a lot of his information correct. I can tell exactly what he did though.
10:15 Max went to wikipedia and looked up “Cyborg Superman.” Of all the things that he got wrong so far, he recognized that when Dan Jurgens created the character in 1990, he was telling a story that mirrored Fantastic Four #1 from 1961, except that instead of getting amazing powers that turned these astronauts into superheroes, it messed with their bodies and caused two of them to die painful deaths. It was actually an excellent story and Max seems to have a problem with it for reasons he decided not to explain. The reason I KNOW he just wiki’ed it is that with what little he seems to know about the actual Death and Return story, he still recognizes that Adventures of Superman #466 was a riff on The Fantastic Four. So he did a little research, but never looked back at the main story he’s parodying.
11:10 Again, Max is right about the birthing Matrix, the fight with the Eradicator and how Mongul (who isn’t mentioned) blew up Coast City at the behest of the Cyborg Superman.
12:30 This part is added in from Green Lantern (vol 3) #48-50, called “Emerald Twilight.” Max’s take is more or less correct, but it was after “Reign of the Supermen” and was not part of that story.
13:30 Max made up this part about Lois still wondering if the Cyborg was really Superman. It’s a funny little added moment and as part of the parody, I don’t mind its inaccuracy.
13:55 This real explanation of how Superman came back to life is incredibly complicated, but he most certainly did die. His “spirit” or “soul” left his body, but since it was still under a yellow Sun, the source of his powers, his body partially healed itself. It still needed the Kryptonian regeneration matrix that the Eradicator put him in and his spirit still needed to consciously decide to return from the ether. Max’s oversimplification that Kryptonian’s merely go into comas when they get beaten badly enough doesn’t really fit the events when he was both biologically and spiritually dead. If he’d taken an extra 10 seconds to simplify what actually happened, I would have found it just as hilarious as he had intended. A small amount of accuracy here could have been a lot funnier. I was cracking up when I was trying to write about it.
14:15 “Superman’s resurrection was met with widespread outrage from the fans who felt betrayed and lied to.” This is partly true and some people were upset, but it was far from a majority. DC Comics got far more hate mail for killing Superman than they did for bringing him back.
14:20 “Sales of Action Comics plummeted over the next two years, and never recovered.” This is also partly true. “The Death of Superman” not only brought new readers to the character, it brought new readers to comics and even brought previous readers back. His presumption that people left because the creators brought him back to life is laughable. The fact is that no story would ever again live up to the hype created by this event. Even I stopped collecting comics at that time, and wouldn’t start again until 2002. “Reign of the Supermen” and the subsequent year or so continued to bring new readers, so if people were that upset, why didn’t they stop collecting in the middle of the story when Superman came back to life? It was a 20-part story and the real Superman came back to life in part 9.
14:25 It’s ok that the final battle between the Superman and the Cyborg was simplified.
14:40 This conversation didn’t happen this way, but like the final battle, it was funny.
15:10 Here’s where Max tries to put it all together for a serious note about how Superman’s death and return forever broke death in comics. Suddenly characters could just die and come back with no consequences. Then he lists the characters who have died and come back since then, most of whom were killed and returned in the last decade, well after Superman. Therefore the sacred suspension of disbelief concerning death was destroyed.
It’s that last claim that confuses me the most. This is supposed to be the ultimate message of the piece. There is a small ring of truth to it. It’s like blaming Star Wars for ruining Hollywood. People lined up around the block to see Star Wars, so Hollywood said “Hey, we can make movies with special effects and make a lot of money instead of making films with good stories.” It’s a huge oversimplification that doesn’t hold much water. In the end, marketing and sales are what prove the viability of a product. Movie studios are businesses and their goals are to get as many people into the seats as possible. It’s the same with comics. If a comic sells well, the companies will produce more similar stories. It’s the same reason Superman had eight ongoing titles in the 1950’s. He sold well, so DC made more books with him in them.
There are only two ways that comic book characters can die and resurrect in a comic book story.
1. The character is killed WITH the direct intention of resurrection or explanation that the death wasn’t real to begin with. (Captain America, Batman, Human Torch)
2. The character is killed with no intention of bringing him or her back to life and much later, (usually) another creative team decides they want to work with that character again and finds a way to bring him/her back to life in a way that may defy real world logic, but hopefully entertains anyway. (See Iron Fist, Barry Allen-Flash, Jason Todd-Robin)
Superman was killed for reason #1.
Mythology and Storytelling
Joseph Campbell studied mythology from all over the world throughout history and wrote several books about the similarities and differences of cross cultural storytelling. He then put it all together to create a structure for what is called, “The Heroes Journey.” Part of that journey is described as a “resurrection.” Often the resurrection is not literal and the character doesn’t actually die and come back to life, but occasionally they do. The only real difference is that the resurrection is meant to take place in the third act of a story and the ongoing nature of major comic book characters belie a true “third act” unless the story really is coming to an end.
We see actual deaths and resurrections from stories all over the world: Osiris, Horus, Jesus, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, Mithras, the concept of the Phoenix, all of Hinduism. Let me be clear that I’m not discrediting any religions here. These are common themes of folklore and storytelling. Why blame “The Death of Superman” for common themes in other stories? He wasn’t even the first.
Lightning Lad from The Legion of Superheroes (1963)
Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth died in (1964-1966).
Elektra from Daredevil (1982).
The Flash’s wife, Iris West Allen (1979-1985).
Jean Grey (1980-1986). Although with name like “Phoenix,” what do you expect?
Korvac, an Avengers villain (1978-1991).
Lex Luthor appeared to die and came back as a clone (1990-1991).
Iron Fist died of cancer but it turned out it wasn’t actually him (1986-1992).
Because the superhumans in comic books are like ancient mythological characters that are often set in a modern universe, their exploits are just as epic as those myths and for characters like Superman, they continue to draw on past creation and reinvention. Fan favorite DC Comics writer Geoff Johns once said “Death in superhero comics is cyclical in its nature, and that’s for a lot of reasons, whether they are story reasons, copyright reasons or fan reasons. But death doesn’t exist the same way it does in our world.”
This wasn’t a new concept when Superman died. In fact, it wasn’t even his first death if you count Superman (vol 1) #149 from November, 1961. But of course that was an “Imaginary Tale,” so there was no resurrection. He simply came back alive and well in the next issue.
I have a lot of Facebook friends who are Superman fans, and I can assure you that few if any were actually bothered by the concept of parodying this story. Some decided not to watch it after that first 30 seconds. Some were not specifically bothered by it, despite the obvious inaccuracies. But many were annoyed that Max made up elements to make fun of and did a little research for fringe elements, but didn’t bother to look at the story. There are plenty of real moments that are ripe for parody and humor, and he even used some of them. This project clearly took some time and thought and had some major guest appearances. If he was going to put that much effort into it, why not get some of the basic elements right?
Several of the original writers and artists were happy that the story was still receiving attention almost 20 years later. Jerry Ordway, who was writing Adventures of Superman during the time said,
“I just watched it, and thought it was hilarious. Is it inaccurate? Sure, but it was well done in boiling the storyline down to fit his opinions. It was like a movie version of some of the letters to the editor DC got all the time. Obviously, those of us in the Superman story conference have had to fight the opinion that DC constructed the whole thing as a marketing ploy. It evolved naturally, out of story elements thrown around that room, and then had to get approved by higher-ups, with the provision that we of course would have to bring Superman back to life at the end. As for marketing, that whole thing happened out of DC's hands, because their policy was to not promote anything until it was ready to ship. The mainstream media fanned the flames. Later, DC did grab the comet by the tail, and did an effective job on the return, as well as keeping books in print to keep up with demand. If they had just left it at the original print runs, a lot of folks would have never seen or read the storyline.”
So maybe I’m off-base, but I simply disagree with Max’s logic. I’ve seen a lot of people reposting the video on Facebook as well as various blogs and websites. Only few of these people are Superman fans at all, but most of them seem to think that the video is entirely accurate, and it’s not. Perhaps I’m being just as whiny about the video as Max was about “The Death and Return of Superman,” and I’m willing to own that. I just wish he had read it again and made fun of the actual story. Even as a Superman fan, I would have enjoyed that.
For a much better parody of the death of Superman, watch this: