Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Very First Death of Superman

Comic book confessional: Although I consider myself reasonably well read and diversified in regard to classic superhero comics, my bright memories of youth tend to favor DC Comics, and most notably Superman.  In my tween years especially, I was a Superman aficionado, haunting yard sales and flea markets for old comic books that featured the Man of Steel.  Among the most coveted of prizes found on those expeditions were DC's specially branded Imaginary Stories, and Superman tended to be the star of the lion's share of those particular tales.

One of the very best Imaginary Stories, and a classic Superman story in and of itself, is The Death of Superman, originally published in Superman #149 from November 1961.  The story, written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Curt Swan was an emotionally charged and rather serious affair, and not the usual kiddie fare that then Superman editor Mort Weisinger typically had his talent produce.

In the tale, a seemingly reformed Lex Luthor discovers a cure for cancer and a very forgiving and all too trusting Superman lets his guard down with ultimately fatal results.  The villainous Luthor betrays the Man of Steel and slowly poisons him to death with kryptonite radiation, and takes sadistic pleasure in forcing Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White to view the execution firsthand.  Supergirl quickly emerges from hiding (she was Superman's secret weapon for a short time before being presented to the public) and brings Luthor to justice before a Kyrptonian court in the bottled city of Kandor.  Luthor is exiled forever to the Phantom Zone and Supergirl assumes her late cousin's mantle as earth's protector.

Although filled with the usual simplistic dialog and exaggerated melodrama that characterized the Superman comics of that era, The Death of Superman had moments of atypical intensity that could prove disturbing to both children and adults alike.  Superman's death scene is stretched over twelve panels, his agony prolonged through tortured kryptonite exposure while a gleefully sadistic Lex Luthor chews scenery with his boastful taunting and gloating.  A subsequent panel that shows a shocked Lois Lane kneeling over Superman's now cape-enshrouded head and torso is unsettling to say the least.

Unlike most comic book canon where the death of a central character is almost always a laughably transparent plot device that simply leads to resurrection, Imaginary Stories, and the degree of permanence they could impart, allowed for some weightier and more serious storytelling.  The Death of Superman is perhaps the best early example of such a dynamic and it certainly laid the groundwork for such future concepts as Marvel's What If? series and DC's own Elseworlds line.


John G said...

I love these Silver Age Superman stories . . . Superman was really the best (pre-1986, at least).

I like how you opened with the comic cover, the Comics Code stamp prominently displayed. This story certainly flirted with the Comics Code with the death of a hero at the hands of a villan.