This article is a part of the Arts b-side on Icons. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
In the fall of 1992, D.C. comics aggressively promoted the death of their star superhero Superman. “The Death of Superman” was a three-arc crossover series that spanned all the then-running Superman comics. Laid low by the villain Doomsday, a bloody Superman dies in the arms of his lady lover, Lois Lane.
Fans, believing their superhero dead, bought over six million copies of the issue featuring Superman’s death. This issue became the top-selling comic of 1992 and the buzzy news bled out into the American mainstream. Major American news outlets picked up the story and reported on the Man of Steel's demise.
Americans were shocked. Superman had successfully become a “present,” knowable figure for the masses. He was a recognizable distillation of American values, forged in America’s World War II heyday. To see him put to rest was humbling. Fans and casual readers read the dedicated seven issue crossover “Funeral for a Friend” to mourn the caped crusader. They joined his fictional comrades in appreciating good times and memories past, reflecting on Superman's legacy. Resoundingly, Superman, the great American icon, was dead.
But D.C. comics never intended to keep Superman down. His death (and subsequent miraculous revival) was just another storyline pitched at the annual meeting of Superman creative teams. Within the same arc, D.C. miraculously resurrected Metropolis’s most intrepid reporter. Duped fans recoiled, confronted with the ways fictional narratives diverge from real life.
Death for humans is when we return to the earth as dust and bones.
If our life is defined by our choices, our death is marked by no longer being able to choose what happens to us. For more sentimental folks, our death is only final when our memory dies, when the last person that remembers us is gone. By that logic, Marilyn Monroe, despite dying in 1962, is still clinging to life, having been credited on IMDb as recently as 2020. But I would argue that Monroe is still dead, as her agency and ability to make decisions is gone.
Using that framework, depending on your perspective, fictional characters are either always dead or incapable of genuine death. Death for fictional characters exists beyond the pale. As characters, their fictional facticity robs them of agency. They are forever at the whim of their almighty writer-creator. But within their own fictional universes, the lack of definitive chronology makes death a plot point, not a final chapter. Fictional characters’ dependence on human gods creates an infinite revisionist margin. Because a writer can easily revisit Superman’s past, Superman’s demise is just as temporal and amendable.
In retrospect, comic book enthusiasts regard the three-arc story — “the Death of Superman” — with mixed emotions. D.C. messed with the finality of death and inadvertently, according to many commentators, punctured the concept of fictional death.
Superman, for better or worse, has endured where people like David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe have not; their image and essence diminished and transmuted by time. There are teens in 2020 who have never listened to “Ziggy Stardust” or seen Monroe's iconic flying skirt. In contrast, Superman quite literally cannot die and corporate interests will not let him rest. The 82-year-old has tried, again and again, but death has yet to stick.
Capitalist interests will not allow a figure with Clark Kent’s name recognition to sit on the money-making sidelines. Unlike living icons, Superman and his signature “S” brand have spent the greater part of the last 80 years burrowing deep into the fabric of American pop culture. His continued prominence is owed to his fictional facticity and the corporate mandate. Corporate’s ability to revise and re-invent Superman’s story drives his relevance.
Superman’s 1992 death was just one example. Throughout the past century, Superman has been revamped, reimagined, killed and replaced. In the current D.C. Comics continuity, Superman is killed (for real) but soon gets replaced by himself from a different universe. Effectively, Superman lives and will always live. Until the American corporate machine fails, Superman is never going anywhere.
Daily Arts Columnist Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at email@example.com.
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