Superman’s death was a landmark event in DC’s history that changed the character forever, and the lasting impact makes the circumstances very unique.
It’s hardly unusual for comic book characters to die and come back to life; some might even consider it a staple of the genre. However, few comic book resurrections were as impactful as that of Superman, who famously perished fighting Doomsday. Although Kal-El, like many others, eventually returned from the grave, the way death changed his character makes his resurrection a truly unique circumstance.
The Other History of the DC Universe is a new series that explores iconic events throughout DC’s history from the perspective of minority superheroes. In issue #3, writer John Ridley has Katana serve as the narrator and recount her experience as a female Japanese hero. One of the events Katana touches on is the death of Superman. While Tatsu admits she and many other disenfranchised heroes “were jealous, or envious, or disheartened, or aggravated by the way society so readily accepted [Superman] when many of us were so readily rejected…there was not a single one of us who did not admire his fearlessness, his self-sacrifice, and the example he set for anyone who would dare call themselves a hero.”
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The rippling effect of Superman’s death on the larger DC universe made his death much more significant than your average hero’s demise, and Tatsu explains why. “There was no one who previously thought Superman could actually die,” she says. “He was heroic. Iconic. He meant too much to too many people to ever just cease to exist. All true. Until it wasn’t.” Indeed, Superman was as much a symbol of strength and hope to the readers as he was within the actual world of DC. Widely considered to be the first real comic book superhero, Superman had gone virtually undefeated since his debut in 1938. The character was essentially made to be indestructible, and therefore unbeatable. Even kryptonite, Superman’s greatest weakness, wasn’t introduced until 1943, but regardless of how many green rocks his opponent had, Clark still always found a way to win. So when The Death of Superman dropped in 1992, the rules of the game were changed forever.
Impactful as it was, Superman’s death was ultimately impermanent, and there are debates to this day about whether or not he actually died fighting Doomsday or was merely sent into some kind of coma. Regardless of the exact nature of his demise, Superman was, for all intents and purposes, dead, and as much as it shocked the world, it came as an equal surprise to Superman himself. After his resurrection, Tatsu says that Superman “returned a deeper man, more reflective and richer in character. It’s to be expected…in that nether space where one must reconcile their own mortality, a change must occur.” Superman had never thought of himself as a god, but even he didn’t truly know the limits of his abilities until his fight against Doomsday. Going forward, the possibility of death was much more real for the Man of Steel, but rather than instill him with fear, understanding his own mortality actually brought Superman more down to Earth. He was no longer a symbol of indestructibility; he was a man – a super man, but still a man, and that made him infinitely more relatable.
The frequency with which comic book characters die, only to be brought back later on can dull the significance of a hero’s passing. However, seeing as the death of Superman had a lasting impact on the DC universe and ultimately enriched the character, this should be considered a special case among the plethora of resurrections that have occurred in comics, and one that won’t soon be forgotten.
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