The Death and Return of Superman Buyer's Guide
Posted by Seb Patrick at 11:07 on 07 May 2014
We've tailored this buyer's guide towards the sale - which runs until 12th May - specifically, but you can also use it as a general-purpose guide to reading the Death and Return event, whether digitally or in printed trades/single issues.
You probably know most of the backstory: in the early 1990s, DC were looking to shake up the Superman books with a major storyline. That storyline? Well, the marriage of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, of course! Unfortunately, the presence of a certain TV show (you might know it either as Lois and Clark or The New Adventures of Superman, depending on where you live) threw a spanner in the works - the TV show wasn't yet ready to marry off its lead pairing, and execs fretted about having the comics do the storyline in advance of the series. As such, while kicking around various alternative ideas for a storyline to run while they waited, the Super-office eventually shrugged their shoulders and decided just to kill him off instead.
What followed was a year-long epic that pretty much defined "event" comics of the 1990s (it was successful enough that DC tried basically the same trick with Batman a year later, with varying results) - and while it had its critics, and inspired scepticism in those who believed the always-intended-to-be-temporary death was simply a shameless attempt to boost interest and sales (well... it worked), it stands up pretty well today. Most tellingly, given that Superman himself is absent for so much of the running time, it's a storyline that strengthens the character in his absence, much as events like The Death of Captain America or Superior Spider-Man have done more recently, so that his eventual return feels genuinely triumphant, even while it's utterly unsurprising.
Getting into reading it all is a pretty mammoth task, but this sale represents the perfect opportunity to give it a go. A word first, however, about how the Superman books were structured at the time, as the issue order is possibly somewhat confusing to newcomers, especially given how books are stored/displayed on Comixology. There were four monthly Superman titles at the time, each with its own writer/artist team, but storylines were spread out among them - so each successive chapter of the arc would essentially come out weekly. "The Death of Superman" starts in Superman: The Man of Steel (then the most-recent book to have launched), then it rotates consistently between issues of Superman, Adventures of Superman and Action Comics, in that order.
While this makes the story slightly annoying to follow physically, it does have its plus points. The fact that each book had its own distinct style was a particular bonus when it came to spotlighting each of the four "replacement Supermen" (to begin with, each of the four was essentially "owned" by one particular book); and the creative teams did actually remain consistent throughout the run. Superman was written and drawn by Dan Jurgens with Brett Breeding on inks; Action was written by Roger Stern and drawn by Jackson "Butch" Guice and Denis Rodier; Man of Steel was Louise Simonson writing with Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke on art; and Adventures was drawn by Tom Grummett and Doug Hazelwood throughout, with Jerry Ordway writing to begin with and Karl Kesel taking over with issue #501. All four main artist teams are absolutely terrific, and the writing is solid throughout (Stern is my favourite, followed by Simonson, but none of the others are especially bad, and all have their moments).
So, if all (or indeed any) of that makes sense, let's break the event down into its constituent parts and see what's worth picking up (spoilers: most of it).
The Death of Superman
The most famous part of the storyline is also, unfortunately, the least satisfying. The plot can basically be summed up as "Doomsday breaks free from his prison and rampages across the country, while Superman battles to stop him and they ultimately have a big fight in Metropolis". But if you're going to read the event as a whole, you really need to take it in - and watch out for the neat stylistic touch, where every successive chapter features one less panel per page, building a quite nice and subtly foreboding "countdown".
Buy: Moreso than any other part of the story, Death is one continuous narrative, so really needs to be read that way. It starts in Man of Steel #18, then takes in Justice League of America #69 (in which Superman barely appears, but it's still hugely significant) before Superman #74, Adventures #497, Action #684, Man of Steel #19 and finally Superman #75.
Skip: The first four issues included in Comixology's sale - Man of Steel #17, Superman #73, Adventures #496 and Action #683 - are largely unrelated to the storyline, and instead tie up previous plots. Each issue featured a near-identical single-page epilogue counting down to the arrival of Doomsday (which were printed in the TPB), but they're otherwise entirely inessential.
Standout Sampler: If you only buy one, it's got to be the death issue itself - Superman #75. Sealed polybag not included with the digital version, sadly.
Funeral For A Friend
After Superman was killed, the four books each got two months to explore the ramifications of his absence (and in some cases, er, fight over his body). Essentially a reflective break in the story, these are arguably the least important part - but also contain some of the best material.
Buy: Again, it's hard not to just recommend the lot. That's issues #498-499 of Adventures, #685-686 of Action, #20-21 of Man of Steel and #76-77 of Superman. Additionally, while issue #500 of Adventures is included in the "Reign" section of the sale (see below), it's very much a concluding part of "Funeral", so if you're not going on to the next bit, at least make sure you include that.
Skip: The Justice League America issue included in the sale deals more with how the Doomsday aftermath affects the JLA (including the near-death of Blue Beetle) so doesn't really need to fit in here.
Standout Samplers: The actual funeral is in Man of Steel #20, while the Supergirl-starring Action #685 is excellent. Superman #76 is also a nice little sequel to Dan Jurgens' earlier "Metropolis Mailbag", and stands alone reasonably well as it features the JLA attempting to carry on Superman's previous good deeds.
Reign of the Supermen
The concluding part of the trilogy, and by far the longest, is where it went into full, overblown, nineties-superhero-epic mode. And, you know what? It's pretty great. Four possible "new" Supermen emerge, each with a different claim to the mantle - and each representing both a different part of Superman's heritage and a different aspect of then-modern comics against which he was thought to be outdated.
It splits into roughly two halves - for the first part, each book and creative team spotlights a different character, but as before the narrative still runs through them all. The events and characters start to fully converge around Action Comics #689, while the big twist in Superman #80 points towards the endgame. The last issue featured in the Comixology sale is Adventures #505, which is an odd break point - as the following issue of Action, #692, has a final bit of tidying up to do (and is a great issue, as it goes), but unfortunately isn't even available on Comixology at the moment.
Buy: I know this is an annoying thing to hear about a 22-part story, but - there's not really anything you're going to want to miss here, as once again the story follows through from issue to issue. So to summarise, that's issues #687-691 of Action, #500-505 of Adventures (as mentioned above, though, while #500 is listed in this section on Comixology, it's actually a part of the previous story - "Reign" kicks off officially in Action #687), #22-26 of Man of Steel, and #78-82 of Superman.
Skip: There's a Green Lantern issue chucked in there towards the end, which deals with Hal Jordan's reaction to events in Coast City. It is a part of the main story (to the extent that it was included in the trades), although it also happens concurrently with events in Superman #82, so it's technically skippable if you're trying to keep costs down.
Standout Samplers: If you want to try one issue focusing on each of the four new "Supermen", then I'd go for Action #688 (in which the Kryptonian squares up to Guy Gardner), Man of Steel #22 (the introduction to Steel), Adventures #502 (Superboy meets Supergirl/Matrix and gets involved in image rights disputes) and Superman #79 (an odd, prose-with-pictures issue that takes the form of Planet reporter Ron Troupe writing a story about the Cyborg).
Doomsday's creator Dan Jurgens couldn't leave the character alone afterwards, and decided to produce two follow-up series in 1994 and 1998. Comixology have included both in this sale, though it should be stressed that they stand alone from the Death and Return arc, and aside from the presence of Doomsday, have little to do with it.
Buy: Check out Hunter/Prey (issues #1-3) if you really have a yearning for more Doomsday (or for the Cyborg, who also returns, albeit with a terrible new design). It's "Round Two", essentially, and also fills in the character's backstory (for the five people who wondered) in issue #2. It also features Superman wearing the most catastrophically '90s costume of all time. I won't post an image here, so as not to ruin the surprise, but be prepared for leg belts, AND a Gambit-esque headpiece, AND a loincloth, AND a light-sword-type-thing.
Skip: The Doomsday Wars (issues #1-3) suffers from diminishing returns, and isn't really worth the bother. The fact that Jurgens had to resort to making Doomsday intelligent tells you everything about how played out the character was already becoming.
Reign of Doomsday
Something else that's a Comixology sale inclusion rather than anything particularly relevant to the wider arc. The final issues of Action Comics published before the New 52 reboot make up the second half of this storyline (which actually changed title from "Reign of Doomsday" to "Reign of the Doomsdays" partway through). The first half, also included in the sale, was spread across assorted other titles. Although it's written by Paul Cornell, it's far from his best work, and with a distinct sense of winding down with a whimper, it's a somewhat ignominious end to the first ever and longest-running superhero comic.
Buy: Action #900 is worth picking up for value reasons while it's in the sale - 99c/69p for a nearly-100-page landmark-hitting celebration issue isn't bad going, really. The main story in it wraps up Cornell's previous Luthor-starring arc (and actually features the last ever appearance of pre-Flashpoint Luthor), but assorted luminaries pop in to do bits and bobs of the backups. Most notably, it features a story by David Goyer in which Superman renounces American citizenship, which caused a minor media scuffle at the time (despite the fact that this version of the character was retconned out of existence five months later anyway).
Skip: Everything else, really.
Panel Beats Approved Checklist / Reading Order
Death of Superman:
Superman: The Man of Steel #18
Justice League America #69
Adventures of Superman #497
Action Comics #684
Superman: The Man of Steel #19
Funeral For A Friend:
Adventures of Superman #498
Action Comics #685
Superman: The Man of Steel #20
Adventures of Superman #499
Action Comics #686
Superman: The Man of Steel #21
Adventures of Superman #500
Reign of the Supermen:
Action Comics #687
Superman: The Man of Steel #22
Adventures of Superman #501
Action Comics #688
Superman: The Man of Steel #23
Adventures of Superman #502
Action Comics #689
Superman: The Man of Steel #24
Adventures of Superman #503
Action Comics #688
Superman: The Man of Steel #25
Adventures of Superman #504
Action Comics #691
Superman: The Man of Steel #26
Adventures of Superman #505
Reign of Doomsday:
Action Comics #900
Total Cost: $39.60 / £27.60
(Death/Funeral/Reign issues only: $35.64 / £24.84)
If you don't want to buy the issues digitally, then - as befits one of the bestselling superhero stories of all time - the entire Death and Return saga is readily available in collected editions.
The original three trades are still in print - The Death of Superman was reprinted in a newly-coloured edition last year (ISBN 978-1401241827), but you should also be able to find the original in various printings from 1993 to 2011 (try 978-1563890970). "Funeral For A Friend" was collected as World Without A Superman (978-1563891182), and contains some additional material not seen in the above issues, taken from the Legacy of Superman one-shot. And "Reign" became The Return of Superman (978-1563891496) in trade form - collecting everything from Action #697 up to Superman #82. It then takes only the "how do we explain Clark's return?" elements from both Adventures #500 and Action #692.
If you want to go for a big omnibus edition, then the important thing is to avoid the 2007 collection (978-1401215507) - not only is it printed on crappy paper, but it misses out significant chunks of the middle part of the story.
If you're actually willing to read a story in a single 1000-page hardcover, then last year's Death and Return of Superman Omnibus (978-1401238643) will see you right - it starts at Man of Steel #17 (although I'm not sure whether it's just the Doomsday pages from those first four issues that are included) and goes right the way up to Action #692 (which is included in full for the first time, as is The Legacy of Superman), with covers for each issue included to boot. It's slightly more expensive than buying the issues in the Comixology sale, but it looks damned fine on the shelf.