“Let’s Just Kill Him:” The Untold Story Behind The Death of Superman

And how it changed comic books forever.

“Let’s Just Kill Him:” The Untold Story Behind The Death of Superman

And how it changed comic books forever.

They’ve been the biggest names in comics for more than 50 years. DC Comics, the company behind Superman, Wonder Woman and other iconic heroes, was once the unrivaled blue chip of the industry. But after upstart Marvel unleashed a wave of new heroes in the early 1960s—including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Hulk—DC began to lose ground.

A decade later, Marvel snatched the lead from its bitter rival and never looked back. Since then, the two companies have continued to compete fiercely over market share, talent, and media coverage. This exclusive excerpt from the new book Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker picks up in the early 1990s at the beginning of a what would become the industry’s biggest sales boom. DC, desperate for a win, turns to a desperate idea, setting off a series of unintended consequences.

“Let’s just kill him,” longtime Superman writer-artist Jerry Ordway suggested of the Man of Steel at a planning session. With that pronouncement was born The Death of Superman, a multipart epic spread out over seven issues of different DC titles. The storyline was, ironically, an attempt to do something that the movie that partially adapted from it, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, was criticized for not doing—to show the horrible ramifications of a battle between two super-powered beings.

“The death actually came out of the desire to do a big Marvel-style punch fest, where there were consequences rather than just fights where cities are destroyed,” Ordway says. The climax, in which the hero is felled at the hands of a powerful villain called Doomsday, arrived in Superman #75 (January 1993). The death issue was of course released in multiple formats, including a special edition that came wrapped in a black bag, bearing Superman’s “S” logo dripping blood, and packaged with a poster and a black armband.

“We were pretty much kicking DC’s butt all the way through that period, and I always felt like DC was looking at the success that Marvel was having,” says Marvel’s then-president Terry Stewart. “We were doing a lot of things that DC was not aggressively doing. DC was pretty much doing what it always did. There was not a lot of new direction going on there. I always felt The Death of Superman was something they pretty much had to come up with—something that would bring their brand back to another level of sales success. And it was successful.”

Superman’s demise became a major news story and was covered on TV and in magazines and newspapers. It brought DC a much-needed dose of attention—as well as customers. The death issue put up Marvel-like numbers, selling more than 4 million units—second behind only 1991’s X-Men #1. It also helped DC capture the market share lead the month of its release, doubling DC’s percentage from the previous month to 31 percent. In the process it also kneecapped Marvel, whose share plummeted 17 points.

At some stores, customers were literally lined up by the hundreds to purchase this supposedly historic issue. The sales and media madness shocked anyone familiar with the soap-opera nature of comic books, where death was often as permanent as a pimple.

“We had no reason at the time to suspect that the world would give a sh*t,” DC’s former president Paul Levitz says. “We’d killed him before.” Superman would return, of course. He was resurrected nearly a year later (sporting a sweet mullet, no less) at the conclusion of a carefully padded saga spread over multiple titles. The success of The Death of Superman may have surprised many within the industry, but it reinforced the lesson that events equaled sales. If previous event titles, Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths had been the companies learning to crawl, The Death of Superman was a full sprint. Both companies doubled down on the strategy.

“I remember an editorial meeting where the sentiment was simply, ‘We killed Superman and sold 4 million copies. Marvel is doing this or that, and they’re selling a million copies,’” says former DC editor Brian Augustyn. “The underlying message was, ‘We’re not sure what it is, but these epic events are selling out and driving the market.’ There was almost like a dictate that if your book is considered a comer or a mainstay, then you’ve got to shake it up.”

Big, important stories promising massive changes for these familiar characters became the order of the day. Soon Batman had his back broken by a villain named Bane and was replaced by an apprentice. The multipart story was called Knightfall, and it snaked through dozens of issues and lasted some two years.

In 1994 Hal Jordan, who’d served as Earth’s Green Lantern for thirty-five years, was replaced by a new one. “The feeling was, there was value in events if people got excited about them,” says Chris Duffy,
a DC associate editor from 1993 to 1996. “The word on the street was that [editor] Kevin Dooley had gone in for his yearly review on Green Lantern, where you talked about what was in the works for the book. All the group editors were there and Paul [Levitz]. The success of The Death of Superman and Knightfall turned that meeting into, ‘How can we do this for Green Lantern?’ So Kevin had to throw out all his plans for Green Lantern because they weren’t big enough, and that’s when they concocted [the replacement storyline].”

The success of The Death of Superman led to similar mandates at Marvel. “At an editorial meeting in 1993 or 1994 with various executives, they were noting that The Death of Superman had just been mentioned on the Today show,” says former Marvel editor Bob Budiansky. “This was like DC had just dropped a nuclear bomb on us. ‘They’re on The Today Show, and we’re not!’ Back then, to get onto a mainstream TV show was such a big deal.”

Marvel began to formulate a response to DC’s big event, one that might pull similarly heavyweight coverage in the process. The idea they landed on was that Peter Parker and his wife would have a Spider-baby. “The audience of The Today Show was considered to be a lot of women, and they’ll want to grab onto something like this,” Budiansky says. “This will be friendly to those kinds of shows.”

The story was set in motion as part of an ongoing Spider-Man epic that reintroduced a mostly forgotten Peter Parker clone from 1975. The new story revealed that the Peter Parker, whose adventures the readers had been following since the 1970s, was not, in fact, the real Peter Parker, but rather Parker’s old clone, who believed himself to be the actual Parker. As one might imagine, this did not sit well with devoted readers. It was like being told you’ve been secretly married to your wife’s twin sister for two decades. As for the baby, the powers-that-be soon got buyer’s remorse, worrying that having Peter Parker become a father would distance him from Marvel’s large fan base of male, teenage readers. Mary Jane is shown miscarrying in Amazing Spider-Man #418 (December 1996).

The Clone Saga eventually dragged on for more than two years through some one hundred issues, in the process becoming one of the most torturous, muddled, and controversial, stories Marvel had ever published. Even when Marvel poached Dan Jurgens, the main artist on The Death of Superman, to contribute, it couldn’t save the storyline. Many now view it with disdain, and mentioning it in the presence of a hardcore Spidey fan might be enough to earn a swift slap.

“Here was a case where the competition between the two companies adversely affected something Marvel was doing,” Budiansky says. “By trying to be a media story, Marvel came up with a story that didn’t support the character in a positive way.”

Excerpted from Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-year Battle between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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