Prior to the Winter of ’92, comics in print were largely relegated to darkly lit comics shops or the poorly-maintained spinner rack in a local grocery store…and then came THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN. A comic book story – not a movie or television adaptation – was the topic of discussion on the 6 o’clock news, and I had never seen that before.
Growing up as a comics fan, the characters and their stories were something you discussed among, well, other fans. Sure, you could say “Everyone knows who Superman is” from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE or the deluge of t-shirts, toys and assorted knick-knacks that float around the market at any given moment, but this moment in Winter of ’92 shifted awareness away from the character of Superman to a specific story arc. For once, the story of his actions and deeds became as noteworthy to the general population as the symbol himself.
You can read a fairly good historical account on Wikipedia of how DC Comics came up with the concept to kill Superman. Mike Carlin, the legendary Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, and Karl Kesel were discussing story ideas, and Ordway jokingly suggested killing Superman (temporarily, of course). The idea was to emphasize Superman’s importance to the world within the comics in a new way. The joke turned into reality, and it was a great success, selling over 6 million copies at release. By comparison, comic monthly sales figures for Batman or other top-tier characters at that time was a little over 100,000 copies.
What Ordway and the other writers hadn’t guessed was how important Superman was to the world outside of the comics. The Death story tapped into something that comics fans like myself already knew: these characters and their stories are our modern mythology. They shape our vision of what a world of magic and wonder could be like. Comics show us how heroes save and villains destroy. We cheer when the battle is won, and we hold hands when a friend is lost in battle – fighting for what’s right.
There I was. Winter of ’92. Back from my weekly trip to the comics store with my little brother. Sometimes we hung out at the mall, and we discussed the latest issues of Batman or Green Lantern. Then that news story came on talking about THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN with their man-on-the-street reaction clips. The reaction from everyday folks was sorrowful. Some even showed a touch of grief. It never occurred to me that anyone cared about Superman outside of those darkly lit comics shops. Yet, here was the real world talking about…a comic book story. Everyday people, living their everyday lives expressing shock and sadness as if they had lost a friend.
That’s when I knew comics mattered more than just floppies. New Comic Book Day wasn’t something that only hardcore nerds looked forward to every week. They mattered more than just to my little brother or me or to my (very small) circle of friends. Superman and his adventures mattered to the world.