Doomsday, the 90′s, and Comic Book Innocence

Superman dies in Lois’ arms in the denouement of “Superman” no. 75 (1992) by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding. Source:

The fall

For a brief moment in the autumn of 1992, the Doomsday monster had managed to do what no villain had done before; kill the Man of Steel.

The thrilling “Death of Superman” arc was the unintended crystallization of the grim and gritty era of comics that had been building since the one-two punch (and financial success) of “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns” elevated the medium to new heights six years prior – and ended with an appropriately slow and grueling death by the turn of the millennium.

Comics’ brightest light, hero to the world, had been extinguished, and it is no hyperbole to say that part of the industry’s innocence died that day, as well.

Screen capture of Alan Moore’s bio on the 2016 DC Comics website

“Innocence” being a relative term

Even in the post-Wertham world, whether it was groundbreaking underground comix, comic-format magazines such as “MAD” and “Heavy Metal,” or Will Eisner’s seminal graphic novels, the medium of comic book storytelling was no stranger to sophisticated, mature works, social commentary, or good old fashioned R-rated sex and violence.

In the early 1980′s, the editors at DC Comics made the fateful decision to recruit the United Kingdom’s best and brightest to rejuvenate in-continuity superhero books. They were so impressed by one Alan Moore’s prose description for “Swamp Thing” that they published it in the monthly editor’s column for all readers to see.

The work of Moore and his fellow storytellers on “Swamp Thing” exhibit the same high-level of literary merit as his later collaborations, but would not reach the same level of public interest those works attained.

Similarly, Marvel Comics B-lister Daredevil reached A-list heights under the pen of Frank Miller and his collaborators. Like George Lucas, Miller wore his influences on his sleeve, and his ninja-noir super hero tragedy was so searing that it remains the embodiment of the character to this day. Unlike the Silver Age Flash or Green Lantern, Miller and company had wholly reinvented the character in its own skin. Even a loving tribute to Miller’s “Daredevil” run, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, evolved into a phenomenon.

But Daredevil was no Batman.

Only a few short decades after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were inspired to create Superman, the Last Son of Krypton had achieved the status of myth. He is timeless, in the best sense. Comics’ second favorite son, the orphan in Wayne Manor, has proved much more malleable; that rare character that works in any situation. From the inky shadows of his pulp-homage roots, to the Pop Art fun of the 1960′s; “Batman” even starred in two Tim Burton films, and had an entire alternate reality imprint, Elseworlds, seemingly dedicated to him.

When Miller drafted “The Dark Knight Returns”, he was breathing the same air of nuclear menace and conservative government stranglehold that informed Moore’s “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” collaborations.

Once again, Miller reinvented a character in its own skin, and his version of a late in life Bruce Wayne went on to directly influence future incarnations such as “Kingdom Come” and “Batman Beyond,” while the attitude of that characterization – particularly his relationship with Superman – influenced just about everything else. Amid atomic fears and the Joker’s body count was the story of an old soldier writing his own epitaph.

A great story. But people cared because it was Batman. It mattered, because it was Batman.

This, as opposed to Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen.” Happy accident one: The original concept was intended for DC’s newly acquired catalog of Charlton Comics characters, such as the Steve Ditko creations Captain Atom (co-created with Joe Gill), the Question and the Ted Kord Blue Beetle. DC wanted more mileage out of their purchase, so the creators fashioned new characters on the familiar archetypes, which added another layer to the book’s central idea of exploring the real world toll of super lives. Free from specificity, the book could be created and read as its own endeavor.

Imagine the outcry and the backlash had the Charlton characters been put through the “Watchmen” throes. One does not have to imagine, only to examine the reactions to the grim and gritty stories of Hal Jordan turning to homicide (1994), or, when readers who had followed Peter Parker for decades were told he was a clone (1995).

Happy accident two: Moore had intended a six-issue run, but upon realizing he had twelve-issues to fill, wrote a novel’s worth of multi-format backstory that enriched the main narrative, and created a storytelling experience hitherto unseen in any monthly super hero comic. (It should be noted that Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta’s creator-owned science fiction saga “Starstruck,” which first saw publication in 1982, is considered a precursor to “Watchmen,” not only due to the large cast and rich, inventive structure, but for the world-building addendums, such as a glossary – a concept that debuted in the 1984 Marvel Graphic Novel edition.)

With “The Dark Knight Returns” adding dimension to the Batman legend, and “Watchmen” delivering superhero thrills amidst a tale of human connection in a mad world, comics lost the naiveté component of innocence.

Unfortunately, the industry took all the wrong cues from those outstanding works, amping up the lust and dystopia but lacking the reason or context. This was emblematic of the decade. The 90′s existed to shock. Sex and fury, signifying nothing.

Outside of those four-color panels, the innocence of the actual industry had been on life support for years. Unfortunately, since its inception as an off-shoot of pulp novels and skin mags, the tales of greed, back-stabbing and screw jobs are too many to name, while the millennium has brought to light numerous allegations of sexual harassment in workplaces and comic cons.

Moore’s contractual issue concerning “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” offers one case in point regarding unsavory business practices: Allegedly, DC claimed the rights to “Watchmen” would return to Moore and Gibbons, and “V for Vendetta” would return to Moore and David Lloyd when the books went out of print. DC has never taken the books out of print.

Part of the vanguard of young talent who vocalized support for the rights of Golden and Silver Age comic creators such as Jack Kirby, Moore found himself in the kind of situation he was protesting against.

Speaking to the New York Times on the subject in 2006, Moore stated, “I said, ‘Fair enough… You have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.’”

True to his word, the Northampton native also refuses to have his name attached when his DC-held properties are adapted to other media.

“Watchmen” is frequently called the greatest comic, and one of the greatest novels, of all time. It is the only work of comic art to win the prestigious Hugo Award, yet its co-creator would rather disavow his association with it, then in any way be party to a scheme.

Jack Kirby once said, “Comics will break your heart.”

Recognizing cruelty in the world; another facet of innocence lost.

The infamous “fridging” incident from “Green Lantern” no. 54 (1994, art by Darryl Banks and Romeo Tanghal) that prompted writer Gail Simone to create a dialogue about women’s roles in popular culture.)

The killing joke

As recounted in the wonderful documentary, “Requiem and Rebirth: Superman Lives!” (a special feature on the 2007 “Superman: Doomsday” home video release), the creative teams behind the Superman books would inevitably joke, at their annual meeting, that “Superman dies” would be that year’s story arc.

For once, they took it seriously.

The 1992 multi-book story was fairly straightforward, especially to well-heeled comic book readers: Hero faces a villain he cannot defeat. His sacrifice is mourned throughout that imaginary world. Others try to fill his shoes while he struggles back to life and a full return.

DC had success with “event” books before, notably the intense “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” a creative solution to justify streamlining years of convoluted continuity. The death of Superman was going to be an event, regardless, but the event structure seemed to be a result of the story, versus the intentional staging of “event books” that have saturated the comic marketplace since.

What neither the creative team, nor comic readers, could have anticipated was just how personally the public would take the hero’s death.

Ironically, whereas today’s event books are heavily promoted with hooks to generate mainstream press, the Superman team was creating a story for their base that ended up being the biggest comics-related story since 1966′s Batmania craze.

Comic shops held memorial services. Newspapers ran obituaries. I still recall Chicago’s Daily Herald running a top page, top row article, the headline proclaiming, “Great Caesar’s Ghost! Superman is Dead.”

The aforementioned documentary even echoed the somewhat cynical view that the amount of press devoted to this fictional character’s death was the result of a “slow news day.”

Having lived through it, I can assure you – it was the news.

The 90′s were a vulgar decade, and the death of the Big Blue Boy Scout was just one event that set the sacred cow killing tone. In mainstream comics, murdered girlfriends were stuffed into refrigerators. The super heroes of professional wrestling traded flag-waving theatrics for black-clad antihero antics. Grunge, the early 90′s back-to-basics reaction to 1980′s glam rock, was just a speed bump to an even more slickly produced manufacturing of pop stars and status-obsessed rappers. Parents fraught with worry over Bart Simpson being their children’s role model could not have anticipated the foul-mouthed fourth graders of “South Park.” Quentin Tarantino’s films about cool guy violence were imitated ad nauseam.

In stateside politics, an overzealous and emboldened Republican party, when it was not shutting down the government, tried to impeach the president over a semen-stained dress – wherein historians rejoiced at having a second White House scandal referencing fellatio.

The biggest story of the decade was that the Cold War ended with a merciful whimper, not the promised mushroom cloud; the result of an internal labor movement that destabilized the Iron Curtain. The workers, which Communism has purported to serve, finally had enough. The world rejoiced when the Berlin Wall crumbled, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. All of those years of fear, of anxiety – all of that indoctrination; in America, we came out of the fog of a mind fuck, and the disillusionment that started in Vietnam, and continued on through to Watergate, once again reared its ugly visage.

Besides – sure, our kind of Communism was dead, but that pesky Asian strain of it still thrived in much of the populated world, where a great deal of manufacturing also happens to take place. In 1989, a lone student, yearning for democracy, stood in front of a line of tanks. But we don’t talk about Tiananmen Square. It’s bad for business.

The Superman team tapped the vein of these end of the century blues. Losing President Kennedy to an assassin’s bullet in 1963 was heartbreaking. Losing our super hero was sobering. Intentional or not, the work of art reflected a waking need to strip away the artifice in pursuit of a new national identity.

Plodding uphill, already nearly a generation into the millennium, will the United States live up to the ideals promised in her founding, or become that which it was rebelling against? As evidenced by the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, America is still in the tumult of that ego deconstruction.

Confronting your disillusionment, the final facet of losing one’s innocence.

DC Comics house ad (1992, artist uncredited) touting the coming of Doomsday and teasing Superman’s demise. Source:


Superman would meet his end not by an egotistical genius or an intergalactic despot, but by an unfeeling force of nature that lived solely to rampage. For all of Superman’s compassion, he could not reason with this beast. For all of his ingenuity, he could not outsmart this gray behemoth. Winds change and tornadoes destroy. Plates shift and the earth quakes. Doomsday runs free and great heroes die.

His craggy appearance notwithstanding, there was élan to this idea. It is difficult to say if the public response would have been so strong had the fatal blow been delivered by a recurring villain. To most outsiders, it probably would have seemed like comic book business as usual. But the fact that this “devil ex machina” was created for the singular purpose of killing Superman again invoked the sense that this character, above all others in the medium, was on par with the myths of old – with the Greek pantheon whose threads were cut by the sisters Fate; the damned Norsemen facing Ragnarok.

In popular terms, for this brief moment, Doomsday was Superman’s greatest villain.

And there he shall remain, frozen in time next to his fallen foe in stunning Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding art. The Greatest Doomsday Story Ever Told.

Jurgens and others have revisited the character with success, but most attempts reduce him (as well as that other great 1990′s DC villain, Bane) to Hulk rip-offs. The character’s big screen debut in 2016′s “Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice” reinforced Doomsday’s purpose as Superman’s Golgotha.

Like the ancient gods of spring, Superman’s story is one of resurrection and rebirth. Coincidentally, “rebirth” was also the name of the most recent (2016) DC event series, the advertising of which showed Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman returning to their classic form.

What is a rebirth, after all, but a return to innocence?

…The above line was the intended ending to this editorial when I started writing it several months back, until it was made known that Moore and Gibbons’ contested “Watchmen” characters look to figure heavily into DC’s proposed two-year story arc.

Looking at the ridiculous whole of that situation, it is tempting to quote seventeenth century poet John Milton, “Hast thou betrayed my credulous innocence With vizor’d falsehood and base forgery?”

I prefer this quote by Jewel, a poet who came of age in 1990’s. Something Superman might even say: “Being part of the natural world reminds me that innocence isn’t ever lost completely; we just need to maintain our goodness to regain it.”

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Stephen Sonneveld is the recipient of the Kennedy Center Outstanding Playwright Award, among other writing and acting honors. He freelanced for publications as diverse as MAD and Bleacher Report, wrote and illustrated the acclaimed comics Greye of Scotland Yard and Superman Versus Cancer, and has a blast writing and performing on The Don't Call Me Sweetheart! Show (a multi-format radio program he co-created with the talented Andrew Gregory Krzak). Sonneveld's Tumblr features free-to-read original comics and stories.

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1 Comment

  1. Horaz SC says:

    Very well-written; your punchlines are great.

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