Episode 141: Corporate Authorship in the Death of Superman

This is an excerpt from part of a chapter draft I am working on explaining how authorship becomes a corporate entity when it comes to the big two of comic books. I’m focusing here on the Death of Superman storyline. Tomorrow I will keep going until the “Return. part.

The corporate model of authorship is even more complex once one considers just how high the ownership totem pole goes. DC owns the rights to all of its characters and can publish their stories within the print format of comic books and graphic novels. However, DC is still owned by Warner Bros. which is part of Time-Warner. This junction did not lead to cameos and crossovers between each company’s characters but it did mean that there more layers of influence that led to things outside of the narrative world altering serial tracks. The best example of this can be found in the events that led to the Death and Return of Superman story arc.

In 1992, the yearly summit of all Superman writers, artists, and editors took an unexpected turn. Together they had planned out the overall plots for the year’s storylines that would culminate in the event that everyone had waited for, the marriage of Clark Kent/Superman to Lois Lane. However, a call from DC executives came in that derailed those plans. A live action television program had been green lit for production, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The higher ups believed that the eventual marriage between the titular characters on television would be bolstered if the same event was happening in the comic book world. Having to start anew and with little time left, the summit considered different narrative trajectories until they finally decided to kill the iconic hero. Of course, he would be brought back to life by the end of the storyline but the contemporary trope of a revolving door afterlife in comic books started with this event so readers honestly believed that this was the end of their beloved Superman.

Since the Man of Steel’s death would have immense narrative ramifications to all DC properties, all other titles had to be informed and they too scrambled to adapt their storylines for the coming year. For several months’ worth of installments, almost every main DC character wore a black armband with a red S in remembrance to their fallen friend[1]. Other titles were used as a segue into Superman’s demise storyline thanks to the coterminous continuity in the serialization of DC characters. The Justice League of America would be the first to face off against the monstrous Doomsday, a mysterious mindless behemoth whose true origin story would not be revealed for years. The JLA was but finished even with Superman’s help coming a few installments later and even with heroes in Metropolis coming to help the cause, the Man of Steel would be broken. What made the countdown to the end more ominous was the fact that each installment leading up to it with a specific number of panels all the way until the last page of Superman #600 with one epic double page splash panel of the end of an era. The authorial performance of deciding between the different artists and writers to make a specific number of panels created a sense of foreboding foreshadowing that prepared readers for what was coming.

It is important to note that there was no sense of warning that Superman would die (if only temporarily). Characters like Wolverine and Deadpool, who are famous for their regenerating prowess, had press releases months in advance that their time would be coming to an end. On a cold November morning in 1992, newsstands and comic book shops lined their shelves with a special installment of Superman encased in a black bag with a bloodied S on the front. Millions of copies were sold that day as a tragedy had taken part in the world of comic books. What made this release even more interesting was that it was being reported by pretty much every major news channel. In a very rare instance, writers and editors of DC had to go on the air to explain themselves. This is one of the first moments when the authorial performance of having defend your narrative decisions made the national media spotlight. Up until this moment the only major character in comics to have died was Jason Todd, the second person to take up the Robin mantle. And that moment was one determined by the fans thanks to a phone poll that would determine whether Batman’s sidekick would survive or not a very deadly trap set by the Joker. There was a lot of backlash by the readers and critics but ultimately the writers were responding to what people had voted on, and ultimately it was their choice, not the authors’, to kill off the character. But in Superman’s case this was a deliberate decision, one that many interviewers considered to be a ploy to increase sales. Many writers actually answered this critique by saying that that was indeed the case. The purpose of telling a story serially is to sell enough copies of installments to keep it going. It was almost as if DC made Superman a hostage if people didn’t buy enough copies but this time the fans had no idea that their hero’s life was in their hands. Readers had apparently failed Superman but the writers, artists, and editors knew that this absence would be temporary, but they told reporters that this was indeed the end.

[1] A similar armband was packaged with the initial publication of the installment where Superman met his end at the hands of Doomsday.

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