Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics [Blu-ray]
THE JOKER, LEX LUTHOR, CATWOMAN, DOOMSDAY, BANE. What makes them so thrillingly watchable? So terribly wonderful? So extremely vital to our super heroes and their worlds? This new feature-length documentary explores these questions across seven decades of DC Comics' hallowed Rogues' Gallery of infamous evildoers.
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It was a time when grim heroes with exotic weaponry and mysterious pasts walked the Earth and comics sold over a million copies.
Looking back it can easily be said that 1992 was a rather big year for comics. Image Comics made its debut with the release of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood in April and solidified its hold on fandom with Todd McFarlane's Spawn in May. Not to be outdone Marvel Comics began a new horror line based of the success of Ghost Rider with a storyline called Rise of the Midnight Sons. Marvel also placed its stake in the future with the world of Marvel 2099 and pumped up its mutant line with the two month X-Cutioner's Song crossover. Marvel also made its return to Saturday morning with the first two episodes of the X-Men animated series. It was the second year of the Bat as well with the release of Batman Returns, a new ongoing series titled Batman: Shadow of the Bat and an animated series of his own that changed the look of super-hero cartoons forever.
How does a year like this end?
You end it with the death of a legend.
You end it with the death of Superman.
The year began in grand style with an alien invasion epic called Panic in the Sky. What started out as someone's answer for a company wide crossover Panic turned into a self-contained (at least as far as the Superman titles were concerned) story of Superman leading an army of heroes in a pre-emptive attack against the invading forces of Brainiac and Maxima, who ruled the mobile planet of Warworld. In addition to guest starring just about the entire pantheon of DC's heroes it resolved the question of honor with Dragga from the Exile story arc and reestablished Supergirl, a.k.a. Matrix into the Superman books.
After that life returned to normal for a time, or as normal as it can be for Superman. Lucy Lane, Lois' sister, was shot while the police attempted to arrest Slade Wilson, also known as Deathstroke the Terminator. Jimmy Olsen regained his position at the Daily Planet after being laid off the previous year. Perry White also returned to the planet after his brief leave of absence and one of his first acts is to hire a new reporter named Ron Troupe. Metallo returned and tied into the resolution of the Cerberus storyline also begun the previous year in Superman: The Man of Steel.
Superman even found time to hook up with a few other heroes to continue a DC tradition, namely the Justice League. Dan Jurgens explained to Comics Scene Magazine in 1992 that, "Superman realizes there is a place for him working with these other heroes." In the Justice League Spectacular, Superman joined with the Hal Jordan Green Lantern to reform the Justice League. After an initial adventure Superman took leadership of the Justice League's American embassy and teamed with heroes Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, Guy Gardner and newcomer Bloodwynd.
The secret of Lex Luthor the Second was revealed as well. In late 1990 Lex Luthor the first had apparently committed suicide after contracting terminal cancer. This led to nearly a year's worth of subplots about whether he was actually dead or not. During the Blackout arc at the end of 1991 the son of Lex Luthor was revealed to the world (though not to readers, who had seen bits and pieces of him through most of late '91). Lex Luthor the Second appeared to be everything that his father wasn't and even managed to fool Clark Kent and Lois Lane for a time. The truth, however, was that Lex Luthor II was actually a clone of the original with Luthor's brain transplanted into the cloned body. The insane Dr. Donovan, Luthor's henchman Sydney Happersen and Dr. Teng helped Luthor create the clone and performed the transfer when Luthor's body began to succumb to the ravages of cancer caused by the Kryptonite ring he had worn to keep Superman at bay.
Other highlights included some political intrigue featuring Pete Ross and a new hero that first appeared a year earlier named Agent Liberty. Superman also became involved with that year's Annual crossover Eclipso: The Darkness Within. Superman even took on a vampire in a story that teamed Robin with the Man of Steel. Demonic villains Blaze and Satanus had it out in the Blaze/Satanus War. In contrast the subject of spousal abuse came into the titles with the Crisis At Hand two-parter that pitted Clark Kent and Lois Lane against an abusive neighbor of Clark's. The story also featured a play on an event from Action Comics #1 where Superman took on a wife beating husband and played it out to it's modern day conclusion.
In the books with the cover date of November 1992 (published in October), things seemed routine. In Superman: The Man of Steel Warworlders, aliens left behind from Panic in the Sky, battled with the Underworlders, the homeless of Metropolis who made their home in the sewers. In Superman the Linear Men, a group who maintain the balance of the time stream, sought Superman's help in finding Waverider, who eventually becomes a member of the team. Adventures of Superman featured a Mr. Mxyzptlk tale and Action Comics introduced a feral vigilante named Jackal.
The final page of each comic proved more interesting than the stories themselves. Beginning in Superman: TMOS a green-gloved fist began pounding away at a metal wall deep beneath the Earth. As the month progressed the wall became more and more damaged and the glove began to tear, revealing a gray fist and bony protrusions.
Doomsday was coming.
1992 was also the second year of the new triangle numbering system, a small box marked with a year and number to tell the reader how it fit into the overall Superman continuity. The system provided a nearly seamless storytelling style that fit well considering between the four titles there was a new Superman comic nearly every week. As Roger Stern explained in the introduction of the Panic In The Sky trade paperback, "If Jimmy Olsen should happen to break his arm in, say, The Adventures of Superman, then the next week we may see him getting his arm set in Action Comics. If he should appear the following week in Superman: The Man of Steel, you can bet he'll be sporting a cast on that arm This cross-fertilization of storylines goes far beyond maintaining running sub-plots, of course. Two or three times a year, we will produce a multipart story that continues across some or all of the four titles."
With four teams of creators and four titles that had such a tight continuity it was necessary for the creative forces and the editor to meet and discuss upcoming story ideas and map the future of Superman. At these "Super Summits" Carlin and crew produced the "Superman Charts," which were a general plan for the next year that would be revised and updated as the stories were actually produced. In an e-mail interview conducted for this article Dan Jurgens described how the story meetings would work. "There were anywhere from seven to twenty people gathered all in those meetings, each with their own ideas, who somehow had to conjure a coherent story from a boiling cauldron of conflicting ideas," he wrote. "It was very difficult, at times, for the writers to let go of some of their ideas and notions in order to make everything fit together for the overall good of the united stories. In retrospect, it's a wonder it worked as well as it did."
Dan was quick to point out the person responsible for the success of the format. "Mike Carlin, one of the best editors this field has ever seen, deserves a tremendous round of applause for focusing us. The creative teams were like a band, a collection of diverse experiences and notions, and he was the producer who put it all together for 'the sound.'"
One of these summits was held to discuss not the death of Superman but the wedding of Lois and Clark. Clark had proposed at the beginning of Superman #50 and by the time the issue ended Lois had accepted. A few months later in the pages of Action Comics #662 Clark even told Lois the truth about his double life. It was an event in real life as well when the press picked up on the story and Superman got some ink in newspapers and mentions of telecasts across the country. Even the most skeptical reader was beginning to wonder if DC was actually going to go through with it and indeed they would have if it wasn't for a medium seemingly more powerful than comics; television.
DC president Jenette Kahn had been working for several years to sell the concept of a Superman television series. The series would be different, though, and at one point had the title Lois Lane's Daily Planet. In 1991 Les Moonves, head of Lorimar Television and writer/producer Deborah Joy Levine helped sell the series to ABC television with a new title, Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman. Despite the fact that the show would not air until the fall of 1993 the mere fact that the show was being developed had an effect on the comics.
Mike Carlin discussed the Super Summits that would deal with the wedding with comic historian Les Daniels in his book Superman: The Complete History. "There was one [Summit] where we literally came into hoping to talk about the wedding with the TV people, but the show got put on hold for a while and they weren't there. We were stuck. And I do think that there was some resentment from the talent that they weren't able to do what they had planned." The reason for this was simple. As Carlin put it, "DC's decision was that it would be a good idea to hold off the wedding and do it at the same time as the TV show, if it got that far."
So the creative team was left with a story vacuum. Despite the fact that the wedding was on hold the teams still needed to produce stories to fill the comics to put on out to the stands. The solution came from something that had become a running gag at the Super Summits. Mike Carlin told Comics Scene Magazine in 1993, "This isn't the first Superman meeting where somebody said, 'Let's kill him off'; this is not the first meeting or plotting session I've gone to on any character where they said, 'Let's kill him.' I mean that happens in life and that happens in comics. At the meeting we had planned to do another story, but due to extenuating circumstances we had to push that back a little bit and then we had to fill the gap. So somebody said, "Let's kill Superman.'"
It took roughly one year from planning to production to publication. The mood of the teams was positive according to Dan Jurgens. "I can't speak for all of the creative teams, but I do believe we were generally excited by what we had planned. More than the 'Death of' story, we were excited by the 'Funeral for a Friend' issues. I think everyone was interested in exploring the world's reaction to Superman's death. I mean, how sad is it that Ma and Pa Kent couldn't acknowledge Superman as their son or attend his funeral." When asked if there were any second thoughts Dan wrote, "No. Again we were thrilled by the possibilities the story presented us."
The question then became whom would the creators choose to do the deed? Which of Superman's many rogues would the creative teams enlist to play hit man for the Man of Steel? As it happens Dan Jurgens had just the villain in mind.
"Doomsday came about from us because as we considered Superman's rogue's gallery, Superman has not had a lot of good villains," Jurgens explained in a 1993 interview published in Wizard: The Guide to Comics. "I went to a meeting with all of the other Superman creators once and I didn't have a name for Doomsday yet. I just had a character concept and the character's mindset. I kept calling him a force of nature and all this kind of stuff. I had a sheet of notes with a couple of ideas, one of which was that I was absolutely convinced that we had to do a villain who was going to give Superman a run for his money. We had done so many business-suit villains, so many lame old boring guys. We had to have something that could pound the crap out of Superman -that raised the stakes."
Jurgens continued by saying, "We talked about it and I kept saying, 'What I want more than anything is to be able to have a double-page spread in the book, and we just see a trail of rubble all the way through Metropolis, and at the end there's Superman and Doomsday fighting.' So that is how Doomsday began. He is primal rage incarnate."
The stage had been set. The players selected and the creative teams went about producing the stories. The only other factor that the people involved had not counted on was how the real world was going to react when word spread that Superman was going to die.
Then something weird happened. The real world started to catch wind of the story. "The real newspapers started getting hold of the story and actually believing it," Carlin told Les Daniels. "We were stunned. I can't believe that people went for it as hard as they did."
The news came as a shock to fans and non-readers alike and even made international news appearing in papers as far away as Broken Hill, Australia. This wasn't the first comic story to make its way to the mainstream press in 1992. Earlier in the year when the Marvel Comics character Northstar revealed to the world that he was homosexual there was a brief hoopla, but it died down quickly because the general public had little or no idea who Northstar was, much less anything about Alpha Flight, the name of the team he belonged to and the title he appeared in. Superman was a little different though. He is one of the most recognized figures in popular culture and every generation has had some for of live action version to form an attachment to.
Most comic fans treated the news with skepticism, especially long time readers. Comic characters have died in the past, even a recognizable one like Robin, who was killed in what became a media event himself. There was an air of, "Yeah right. Kill Superman. I'll believe it when I see it."
Non-comic readers, however, were taken aback. Most people weren't even sure that there was a Superman comic still being published. For many DC was killing an American institution.
Despite all protestations to the contrary many felt, like the DC Message Board member NotSuper, that, "it was more like a publicity stunt." In some ways you couldn't blame them. It might seem like a sweeping generalization but characters do die in comics all the time. It had become something of a cliché. Many fans and critics accused DC of staging the story as an event, but as Mike Carlin told Les Daniels, "There is no way that anybody could plan what happened. All we could do was try to keep up with it, and that's what we did." In the e-mail interview for this article Dan Jurgens concurred with his former editor. "One other thing I'll try to make clear is the misguided notion that they story was done as some kind of publicity stunt. When we conjured up the story, I believe every single person in the room was excited by the creative challenge it represented. There was no way any of us could have expected the tidal wave of publicity that came later, thus there was no intent to cater to it."
According to Jurgens there was one goal in mind. "We wanted to tell an entertaining story. That was our only motivation."
In October of 1992 that story began to unfold. In the pages of Superman: The Man of Steel #18 Doomsday managed to free himself from his underground prison and began his rampage. The destruction continued in Justice League America #69 where Doomsday took on the Justice League. The battle between the League and Doomsday continued in Superman #74 where the League was finally put out of action. Adventures of Superman #497 and Action Comics #684 show the battle between the two cross state lines. In Superman: The Man of Steel #19 the battle came home as Superman and Doomsday finally came to Metropolis and started a battle that decimated the city. At the end of the issue hero and villain were locked in combat and the story was to be continued in the next issue of Superman.
So how was the comic itself?
Pretty big actually. The book came encased in a sealed black bag with a bleeding red S on the front. It was eye catching and for many buyers all they got to see as the prevailing wisdom at the time was that the book would be worth more if it was never opened.
If the buyer actually wanted to "take the chance" and open the bag they were confronted with a cover made up to look like a tombstone. Inside were thirty-two splash pages showing Superman and Doomsday going at it. The battle was violent and no holds barred. Finally the two came at each other for one final onslaught. The last pages featured a gatefold showing Superman dying in Lois' arms.
So what was the reaction to the comic?
To the creators, a little overwhelming. According to Dan Jurgens, "I was stunned by the reaction and sweeping nature of the publicity. We [the Superman creative teams] were constantly talking on the phone with each other, saying, 'Can you believe this?' It was a real freak show."
As for the reaction of the readers some enjoyed the story. DC Message Board member Lethal posted recently, "I say that the death of Superman is probably my favorite story of all time." Another member who goes by the name Mr. Mxyztplk agreed. "To me, the Death/Funeral/Return trilogy remains on of the best stories ever written. For sheer suspense and emotion nothing has equaled it and only Emperor Joker has come even close."
Other readers had a different reaction. DC Message Board member Damion Anthony summed up the feelings of those who disliked the book by posting, "I for one hate it I thought if they were going to go to the length that they did to kill Superman I personally think they could've done a better job."
The quality of the story seemed to be a major sticking point. While many readers were satisfied with the comic others felt that it didn't live up to the hype. Some fans felt that Superman didn't die in the manner befitting a hero of his stature. These people believed that Superman dying in a mindless brawl with a nearly mute monster was a let down and that it seemed like the thing the guys over at Image Comics would do. Will Jacob and Gerard Jones wrote in their 1996 book Comic Book Heroes, "Image hit in the meantime, so Carlin and staff decided that Superman's 'death' should occur in a big, brainless fight with a big, ugly monster called Doomsday. Dan Jurgens wrote and drew the story in a cynical, pseudo-Image style, with a full issue of overblown splash pages "
This was an unfair assessment when the whole picture is considered. Many readers didn't bother picking up the entire story arc and based their opinions on Superman #75, which was the final issue in the arc. There was more to the story than a mindless fight and there were more characters involved than the casual reader would have known about. As in any story it's important to look at the whole picture instead of one portion. While some may complain that Superman #75 was nothing but splash pages it's important to note that the standard multi-panel per page method may not have given the story the scale it was meant to have. This was the death of Superman, after all, and the were six other comics that told the story that led up to that moment.
However some fans felt about the quality and validity of the comic they couldn't argue with the sales. The initial printing of the comic was somewhere around three million copies. DC went back to press with the book putting out a version with a new cover featuring a torn piece of Superman's cape flapping in the wind that was sold to newsstands. Still more printing were distributed and when all was said and done the book sold some six million copies.
Those numbers were nothing to sneeze at, especially when compared to other books that were published and deemed popular in the eyes of fandom at the time. Rob Liefeld's Youngblood #1 after an initial soliciting snafu sold over a million copies. Todd McFarlane's Spawn #1 sold 1.7 million copies in its own right, though the argument could be made that since those books didn't go into additional printings the true number of books that could have been sold will never be determined. (Of course another argument could be made that not going into additional printings left only a certain number of books in the marketplace leading to high values on back issues.) The only comic book that was published around the time that beat Superman #75 in terms of sales was X-Men #1 in 1991, which topped out at eight million copies. What separated Superman #75 and that comic was the fact that X-Men #1was published with five variant covers, which helped it's sales since some fans either wanted to or felt obliged to collect all five covers.
One reason is that in terms of both the comics themselves and the real world the story had a size and magnitude that transcended a simple comic book story. As far as the real world is concerned it is very rare that something that happens in a comic book makes its way to the mainstream press. Every once in a while a story will leak out. The 1-900 phone-in campaign for the death of Robin in 1988 made its way into newspapers and radio stations across the country. Clark Kent's engagement to Lois Lane was another event that was covered by the press. Whenever a major comic book movie is released there is usually an article or two in newspapers and magazines letting the general public know that, yes, comics are still being published. Most of these articles have a condescending tone to them, but snotty press is better than no press.
The death of Superman went beyond a simple news story stuck on page three. In many cities it made the front page. People were interested in this and that is understandable since Superman is one of the few characters that have an instant recognition factor for all generations. When we were told that Superman died, whether you were a comic collector or not it meant something on a cultural level. Despite being a fictitious character Superman is very real in ways most adults and even some children aren't willing to talk about.
As far as the impact Doomsday made on the world of comics in general, well that's a little harder to nail down. When the timing of the story's publication is considered there are actually two ways to look at it. On one hand it can be viewed as a crass commercial book published in a time when many thought crass and commercial was the norm. The late '80s and early '90s were a boom period for comic books. Sales were higher than they ever had been, with print runs climbing into the millions. Creators, artists especially, were becoming superstars within there own fields where only two decades before comics were viewed as the bottom of the artistic barrel. Now the likes of Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were not only making really good page rates but had royalty bonuses and sales of original art on top of that. Certain comics were declared hot and the prices in the secondary market went insane, especially if the character was dark, brooding and had a mysterious past.
There's nothing wrong with artists making a lot of money or retailers doing very well by selling comics that sometimes defied the rule of supply and demand. The smell of money, however, tends to attract an undesirable crowd. Speculators thinking that they could make a killing investing in comics started showing up in the shops and at conventions along with new and established fans thinking they could pay their college tuition or mortgage with a well rounded comic collection. Publishers saw a demand and met it with variant covers, gimmick covers and new number one issues. Some longtime fans cried out in outrage at what they perceived as the death of the industry they loved and the Death of Superman with it's sealed black bag and bleeding red S and containing a special edition splash page filled comic, poster, promo card for a card series based on the comic and black armband was just another example of how the entire industry was going to hell in a hand basket.
That's one way to look at it.
Another way to look at it is that the Death of Superman was the last hurrah of the boom part of the boom/bust cycle. While the taste of putting a black armband in a comic can be debated all night long one can't deny the interest Superman's death generated for comic books. People were actually buying Superman. Sales hadn't been terrible, especially with the "Never Ending Battle" format cultivating a loyal fan base, but Superman was still viewed as a boy scout in a world of full of no-nonsense, "grim and gritty" heroes. Now people wanted to read Superman, even if it was to see him die.
All those readers coming into comic shops was great for retailers, but the good times were nearly over. In 1993 the bottom fell out of the comic market as the supply seriously outweighed the demand and what some has called as "The Color Glut" damaged the marketplace in such a way that it has still not completely recovered. The Death of Superman and it's follow-up stories was one of the last times for years that so much interest was put into comics and so much money poured into shops.
The effect Doomsday had on the Superman comics themselves is slightly harder to nail down. Doomsday and it's follow up stories, Funeral for a Friend and Reign of the Supermen shot the sales on the Superman titles into the millions and attracted a whole new group of Superman readers. It also established the precedent of what some fans called event driven stories that came as an extension of the "Never Ending Battle" format leading some fans to doubt the validity of the set-up According to Dan Jurgens, "I was often asked, 'How can you stand to write in an environment where you lose the handle on your own feel for the character because you have to cooperate with so many other?' The answer is an easy one. We could stand it because the possibilities offered by the connected nature of the books trumped that which we could have achieved on own. 'The sum of the parts' and all that." But even Dan agreed that sometimes the structure faltered. "Later, when the pressure to do connected 'event' stories pushed us to do it a couple of times a year, the system began to erode. But when it worked, it worked great and I think it was great fun for the readers."
To a large extent the Superman titles are very different today than they were ten years ago. While there are occasional linked stories the individual titles usually keep to their own stories. The triangle system is gone and so are the creators that worked on the Death of Superman trilogy. Lois and Clark finally married, Superman had new powers and a new costume for a time and Superman played an important role in the reformed Justice League.
The effects of the story are still felt, though. Doomsday has remained an imposing foe for the Man of Steel. Two of the characters that first appeared during Reign of the Supermen, Steel and Superboy, are still pivotal characters and lead to a new Superman family of sorts. The two even had their own titles for a time with Superboy going to issue one hundred before it was cancelled. The recently published Day of Doom mini-series, which deals with the reactions of the heroes and citizens affected by Superman's death, also proves how important the story was.
At any rate The Death of Superman remains a seminal moment in the history of comics and the character. There have been few times since that the Superman titles created as much excitement and interest. Dan Jurgens summed up the effect that really matters when asked if he felt there was anything he regretted or would have done different. "Not really," he wrote. "Given the time pressure we were under and that fact that it was such a group effort that required tremendous coordination, I'm amazed we did as well as we did. From the first page to the last, I think the entire 'Death and Return of Superman' story truly entertained out readers, and that's what it's all about, isn't it? There's so much more cynicism out there now that it's sometimes remember what fun comics were."
It's odd to think of it that way considering that the story had the death of the first comic book super-hero, but in a way that's what it was. A fun time. Comics are best when they inspire a need to get the next issue so you can find out what happens next. It's one of the few times where death can be considered fun, but as long as the story entertained the readers there was little left to complain about. The real legacy of the Death of Superman, though, can be felt in comics like Day of Doom. Few other comic book stories inspired other comics dealing with the aftermath. The fact that people still talk about Doomsday says something about its place in comic book history.
In the end Doomsday was just a story that was created to fill a void left by a lack of a wedding. The fact that it took off in both the comic book world and the real world was a fluke that both confused and excited readers. Even today in comic shops and on message boards people still discuss the pros and cons the story and its ramifications in the world of Superman. Just about every fan has a story when asked, "Where were you when Superman died?"
(Michael Bailey, a Mild Mannered Reviewer on the Superman Homepage and life long Superman fan, lives in Fayetteville, GA with his girlfriend Rachel and Boo the Poodle of Doom. Michael would like to thank Dan Jurgens for being gracious enough to take the time to answer some questions for this, his first article. Michael would also like to thank his girlfriend for putting up with him while he did the research and wrote this article.)