What The Death of Superman Still Means to the DC Universe

The Death of Superman casts a long shadow over Superman history, and one of the creators behind it explains why DC is revisiting it on the page, and talks about its screen interpretations.

The Death of Superman 30th Anniversary Special
Photo: DC Comics

The death of Superman continues to loom large over the DC Universe, just as the actual, legendary tale, “The Death of Superman,” looms large over popular culture. It shouldn’t be surprising that one of the most creatively abundant periods in Superman history yielded one story that continues to cast such a long shadow, and yet “The Death of Superman” has become, second only to the Man of Steel’s origin story, perhaps the best known tale in the character’s history.

It’s more than just the story itself. “The Death of Superman” was a media event at a time when comics weren’t necessarily getting mainstream attention. Radio, TV, and traditional print media seized on the opportunity, and casual fans unaware that nobody stays dead in the world of superheroes, genuinely thought DC was bringing the career of its longest-running hero to a close. Since then, the story has been adapted for animation, TV, and the big screen, and characters and concepts from it continue to pop up in new forms.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that DC has chosen to revisit the story for its 30th anniversary. The Death of Superman 30th Anniversary Special arrives on Nov. 8, just in time for the actual 30th anniversary of the release of Superman #75, the book where Superman fell (temporarily) at the spiky hands of Doomsday. And this isn’t just a retrospective, as it reunites the creative teams who told the original story, allowing them to revisit it from new perspectives within the DC Universe. Those stories and creative teams are (per a DC Comics press release):

  • “The Life of Superman” by Dan Jurgens (W & A), Brett Breeding (A), Brad Anderson (C), and John Workman (L) – A young Jon Kent finds out in school that his dad had died years earlier, as his parents never told him about that fateful day. In the midst of dealing with this emotional news, Jon and Clark need to team up to fight a new villain connected to Doomsday called DOOMBREAKER.
  • “Standing Guard” by Roger Stern (W), Butch Guice (A), Glenn Whitmore (C), and Rob Leigh (L) – The epic battle between Superman and Doomsday from the Guardians’ perspective.
  • “Time” by Louise Simonson (W), Jon Bogdanove (A), Glenn Whitmore (C), and Rob Leigh (L) – The story of how the death of Superman looked from John Henry Irons’s perspective.
  • “Above and Beyond” by Jerry Ordway (W), Tom Grummett (P), Doug Hazelwood (I), Glenn Whitmore (C), and Rob Leigh (L) – A powerful story of Ma and Pa Kent watching their son fight Doomsday live on television and going through Clark’s photo albums with the feeling that their son always prevails.

We spoke with Dan Jurgens about the legacy of his most famous Superman story, and what to expect from this tale. You can listen to the full interview here or read highlights below…

Ad – content continues below

I grew up reading your Superman stories, and I was exactly the right age when “Death of Superman” hit. What is it that you think makes this particular story the defining feature of the hundreds of Superman stories that you’ve written and illustrated in your time?

Because I think it really addresses the importance of Superman in terms of how he fits into the DC Universe. What did he mean to all the other characters in the DCU, be it Lois, Perry, or his own parents at that time. And because of the way it played out in the real world, where it got so much attention, whether it was late night talk show hosts, Saturday Night Live, the news, print media, everything else, we also saw, at the same time, exactly how much Superman meant to the world at large. I think it was one of these rare times when fiction and reality blended together, and there will never be anything like it again in comics. But that’s why it meant so much to Superman. It told us just how important this character was.

This is kind of like the defining feature of your run. But I’m always curious, is there another story that is your personal favorite in your time as a Superman creator?

You know, I have a lot of stories that are personal. I don’t know about a specific personal favorite, but I have many that were favorites, and they’re often the quieter issues. The one story type issues. We did one that dealt with drunk driving, for example, or my Christmas Metropolis mailbag stories. Even recently, as we did the Superman Rebirth stuff, when we brought Jon Kent into the world and gave Clark and Lois a son. Because through Jon, we add to the tapestry overall of what Superman’s life is, and I think that said something very specific about Clark and Lois.

Part of that whole era of Superman comics, and when you revisited the character during the Rebirth era, in some ways, really did feel like the first time in decades that the character was allowed to grow and there were new elements being added to the mythology. So it’s kind of a hallmark of what you’ve done with the character. And now here you are revisiting that classic story of 30 years ago. What is The Death of Superman 30th Anniversary Special going to bring to the character and that story in particular?

Well, I think in this one, what we really get to do is see it through young Jon Kent’s eyes. Jon is about nine years old in this story. I think what’s so important, what I told everybody as we started to create this book, is that this is for new readers who weren’t there 30 years ago, every bit as much it is for the readers who were there at the time. Basically, what is happening as the story opens up, it just happens to be the anniversary of Superman’s death in Metropolis. Jon Kent is in school one day and someone is in the classroom with a black armband on and the teacher introduces him and says, “We have someone here to talk about the most famous day in the history of Metropolis, and that’s the day that Superman died.” The problem is Lois and Clark had never explained it to Jon. He had no idea because how do you tell a nine-year-old your dad died and came back to life? So that gets us into this story. 

Ad – content continues below

As we get to see it through Jon’s eyes, that’s how we see what happened in the past. But it’s also seeing through Jon’s eyes as the story plays out in the present, because there is a new threat in Metropolis to get in his dad’s way. Jon even gets to name it. This is a character called Doombreaker, who has a bit of a relationship to Doomsday of sorts. By seeing it through Jon’s eyes, I think we can put a very different spin on how those days played out and how they play out this time.

One of my favorite things about that era of Superman comics is all of the different creative teams that gave each of those books a very specific flavor but still managed to tell this incredible, unified story. This new book reunites a lot of those creative teams, so can you tell us about some of that?

If that couldn’t have happened, we wouldn’t have done this book. It was essential that we got the creative teams back together who did the stories at that time. So back then, on Action Comics, we had Butch Guice and Roger Stern. They are back together to do a very special story here that involves the Guardian. 

On Man of Steel back then we had Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove, and it’s so good that they are back. They do this wonderful story with John Henry Irons, who later as part of the “Reign of Supermen” became Steel. Here we get to see part of what inspired him to become Steel. 

On Adventures of Superman, we had Tom Grummett and Jerry Ordway, and they’re back and they do this very touching, wonderful story about Clark’s parents who are seeing this all play out on TV, the death of their son, and looking through a photo album to take us through Clark’s life. That’s a very warm and very human story. 

Then on the main story, I’m writing and drawing it, Brett Breeding is inking, and it’s Brett and I doing our first DC work together in probably 25 years or so, and it’s just wonderful. We’ve been talking about getting in touch with these old feelings which we didn’t think was going to happen. But as we’re doing this stuff, it’s taking us back as creators as well, and it’s getting us in touch with stuff we had kind of forgotten about.

Ad – content continues below

Now that the “Death of Superman” has been told in different media – we’ve seen it in live-action movies, animation, we’ve seen it referenced in oblique ways in other stories, and now characters from this era are making their live action debut as well, including Jon Kent – do you keep up with all the Superman media that you and all these amazing creative teams have helped influence?

Oh, yeah, I try. And it has been so wonderful to see Doomsday, for example. The story gets referenced in so many different ways in different media…I mean, to see it continually come about again, has been a lot of fun. Because it really touches on just how important it was and what it meant to people at that time.

Do you have a favorite?

This is going to sound like an answer that was created to be diplomatic [but] each of these have their own strengths and it’s been fun to see each one and then compare the differences. With Batman v Superman, for example, it was seeing Doomsday on the big screen, but also seeing the individual scenes replicated from the books. In animation, where we got the second attempt, and even to go so far as to show us the return of Superman, that was fun. Even seeing Doomsday on Smallville, where they built the rubber suit look, was a lot of fun. And seeing Doomsday on Krypton recently was special. It’s been fun to see all of these things realized, because they have all had their own individual strengths.