"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gawking at 'The Death of Superman'

The Death of SupermanThe Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It may be grossly unfair, on a literary level, to grade The Death of Superman as a graphic novel. More than any previous compilation-turned graphic novel, the serial nature of this publication seems explicit. That being said, DC Comics ultimately packaged and sold this multi-part story as a single work, which is how I encountered it this weekend. Special thanks to the group of local public libraries that diligently engage in inter-library loan, making it possible for me to read this work at no charge in one of its delightfully color-saturated 1993 editions.

The title of The Death of Superman is also a good summation of the plot. From the first chilling ram of super villain Doomsday’s fist against his subterranean prison wall, this entire story is all setup and execution (pun intended) of Superman’s demise. I am not cynical about this, sincerely. Comic books are forever reinventing and re-adapting their icons. Superman the icon was never in jeopardy, just this particular incarnation of him in the comic book realm. And I think periodically killing off our superheroes is a perfectly worthwhile narrative experiment.

There are a handful of highly suspenseful moments, in the context of a story whose title is a wanton spoiler. At one point, Superman has to choose between rescuing a victim trapped in a fire or completing the more tactically important task of keeping Doomsday busy. Another gripping moment, late in the story, involves Lois Lane trying to convince Superman not to kill Doomsday--because killing is not what Superman does. What a shame the authors wait until the final pages to hastily address what could have been the paramount moral question of the novel.

The creators of The Death of Superman do not spend significant time, or emphasis, on character study. If this had been a graphic novel in genesis, perhaps they would have. But this is actually a high action, multi-part story originally told in monthly comic book form. With token exceptions like those mentioned above, it is a single relentless action sequence. In this respect, I found it grandly successful. Yet, it hits with all of the intellectual nuance of the last 30 minutes of any given superhero flick. Exciting? Yes. Thought-provoking? Not especially.

The creators can’t even be bothered to supply an aftermath. Superman dies. The end. They may have supplied a proper aftermath in the monthly single magazine format, but not in the graphic novel form in which this story now exists.

Like I indicated earlier, The Death of Superman is all setup and execution of a single story beat. And the setup is lots and lots of fighting and chasing. There is a TV interview sequence spliced into the battle. It plays as overt exposition, with all of the charm of a just-the-facts inverted pyramid style. Nothing subtle or gray here.

Still I am glad I read this work. I was entertained. Superman has always been a messiah story, rightfully so. Messiahs usually die. Their mission seemingly demands it. Yet there is a risk for authors of getting lost in the spectacle of the hero’s demise. When this happens, something that could have been thoughtful winds up feeling merely sensational. In the context of a proper sendoff, that seems a missed opportunity to say the least

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