By the time the 1990s reared its grunge-covered head, the newly more realistic Superman was set firmly in the DC Comics Universe. No longer could he snuff out stars with his super breath or munch on Kryptonite and call it a “nice little snack”. Instead he was stuck the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reigned in super-life that included Lois Lane falling for Clark instead of Superman and Lex Luthor as less of a “Mad Scientist” and more of the richest businessman in the world.
As that spike in sales began to plateau, the Super team of writers and artists looked for a new way to boost sales. The answer was obvious… let’s have Lois marry Clark in the gridded pages of Superman’s then four titles and reel in every naysayer out there. The problem was that the TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman had the exact same idea, so the comics gang had to wait and align their event with the TV show’s (which was a while away). So in yet another big meeting under Editor Supreme Mike Carlin where everybody had to throw out ideas for what big story arc to do next, a lone voice (reportedly writer/ artist Jerry Ordway, who would later revitalize Captain Marvel in The Power of Shazam) spoke up and said “Let’s kill him.”
It wasn’t the first time this had been said, but somehow this one time the absurd idea had gained traction and before long plans were in the works to kill the indestructible man. Indeed, the time was right to revitalize the Man of Tomorrow’s sales, as after two poorly received films and languishing sales, many fans were taking Superman for granted. So DC decided to show everyone what the world would be like without a Superman. To the credit of the Superman writers, especially writer and artist Dan Jurgens, it wasn’t Kryptonite that brought about the death of the first Superhero. No, his doomsday was brought about by Doomsday, Jurgens’ own mysterious and terrifyingly adaptable alien monstrosity that cut a swath through Metropolis that ended at the Kryptonian who gave his life for Earth.
Obviously with Clark’s wedding to Lois already planned under Chez Carlin, Superman was actually only MOSTLY dead (much like Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan), however the fact that the Man of Steel can die at all is a major surprise and also paved the way for not one but four Super-replacements to fill in for the newly de-vitalized Kal-El (one replacement hero per Super-book).
After Superman’s Funeral each title took a three month hiatus (DC wasn’t kidding about a “World Without a Superman”). In Superman (Vol. 2) #78 (by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding) a “Man of Tomorrow” emerged with the exact powers as superman and even many of Clark’s own memories. So was Superman back? Only if he’d been resurrected by The Borg. This new “Cyborg Superman” was more machine now than man… twisted… and (possibly) evil. Sure he had every power of the real deal Superman, he also had a creepy knack for invading computer systems, including the one at the White House.
So could a half-metal Superman be the real “Man of Steel”? Not if you flipped over to the actual book Superman: The Man of Steel, the twenty-second issue of which (as written by Louise Simonson and drawn by John Bogdanove and Dennis Janke) introduced inventor John Henry Irons, who was inspired by Superman to fill the void in a bold, silver suit of armor that bore Superman’s S-Shield and simulated his powers.
Irons, or “Steel” as he would later become known, never claimed to actually be the Last Son of Krypton, but in the pages of Action Comics, starting with issue #687 (by Roger Stern, Jackson Guice and Denis Rodier) a new hero laid claim to that very title. This new Superman wore a visor and a bulletproof S-Shield on his chest (in a slightly modified Superman costume) but fought crime not with Superman’s usual powers but with lethal energy he expelled from his hands, killing criminals as often as taking them to jail. If that sounds nothing like the hero you know, it might be notable that the Last Son of Krypton did live in Superman’s own Fortress of Solitude.
So did that make him the reincarnation of Clark Kent, or perhaps Superman’s clone? No, that distinction went to Project Cadmus’ dirty little secret known, in theory, as “The Metropolis Kid”, but hated being called “Superboy”. Debuting in The Adventures of Superman #501 by Karl Kesel, Tom Grummett and Doug Hazelwood Superboy was the bonafide clone of Kal-El (with just a little bit of special sauce in the mix) and simulated most of the Kryptonian’s powers by way of a special ability known as “Tactile Telekinesis”... not quite what the original sported.
So which one proved to be the REAL Superman? Every single one had their own backing from someone important (from Lois Lane to Bill Clinton… not kidding) but the true answer is…. none of the above. The Cyborg proved to be Hank Henshaw, villainous former astronaut doomed by cosmic radiation (in a pastiche of the Fantastic Four’s origin) who now inhabited living metal and cloned flesh of Superman. The man in the Armor went on to become Steel, a hero in his own right, and gave up the “Superman” moniker as soon as the real Big Blue came back. The Visored dude was revealed to be the Eradicator, a creepy computer program that accompanied baby Kal-El to Earth made flesh and bone to torment, assist and finally succeed the real Superman. The kid eventually gave up his aversion to being called Superboy, embraced it and became a hero with his own monthly comic himself.
As for the real deal Man of Steel? Through the efforts of his daddy Jonathan Kent (in a near-death experience), Clark’s soul was blocked from entering the afterlife while his body was used by the Eradicator (then believing he was, in fact, Superman) as a solar collector to feed his own energy powers. When the twain met, a newly long-haired and black garbed Superman rose from the dead and fought Henshaw’s invited Alien Invasion not with the powers of Superman (as he hadn’t regained power one yet) but with flight boots and a couple of handguns (again, not kidding). Would the resurrected Superman have to change his name to “The Two Gun Kid” or would he finally become the Big Blue we know?
NEXT SUPER TIME in To Be Continued…...the Reign of the Supermen is now over, cosita bonita mia, but what is to become of the powerless, but still very much in love Clark Kent? How does he explain both his and Superman’s absence and how does he get his powers back? I’ll tell you next week, kids.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.