Death or Exile: Comparing Superman Titles without Superman

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You can’t have a Superman title without Superman in it, can you? Well, yes, apparently you can. DC has done it twice in their history. First, there was the famous “Death of Superman” story in 1993. Superman, the first and greatest superhero, was killed by Doomsday. Yet that wasn’t the end of the comic books bearing his name. They continued on for several months, first focusing on supporting characters and then introducing new ones before Superman’s eventual return. Now, DC is at it again. This time, Superman has voluntarily agreed to leave Earth in order to help the refugees from the Bottle City of Kandor establish a home planet on New Krypton. And while Superman stars in a special limited series, his regular titles continue on without him featuring the heroes left behind on Earth.

That answers the question, “Can you have a Superman title without Superman in it?” But it doesn’t answer the question, “Which was better?” Well, that’s what I’m here for.


1. Supporting Characters

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The success of a Superman title without Superman in it is largely dependent upon the supporting characters. The “Death of Superman” story went through two stages. First, the titles focused on the characters who were already a part of the cast as they adjusted to life without Superman. A couple of these characters were strong enough to carry their own storylines, such as Lois Laneand Supergirl. But most were not. I’m sorry, but Bibbo Bibowski is just not an interesting enough character to anchor an entire story. And the Guardian’s story was entangled with internal Cadmus politics which just became boring. The second stage was much better. That brought the introduction of new characters, all of whom claimed to be Superman but who eventually became known as Cyborg, Eradicator, Superboy and Steel. Three of those were very strong characters, two of
whom went on to star in their own titles when the real Superman returned. Altogether, it was a decent success rate but not an incredible one.

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The current Superman titles are doing a much better job with the featured characters. The one title is focusing on a big three of Guardian, Mon-El and Steel. Guardian, one of the least interesting characters the first time around, is in a much better situation this time as he deals with Metropolis’ Special Crimes Unit. Writer James Robinson is also doing a good job of sprinkling in other supporting characters like Black Lightning and Zatara while still keeping it clear who the current stars are so the title doesn’t become confusing. The other title is focusing on new heroes, Nightwing and Flamebird, and I’ve found them to be very interesting as well, especially in the Annual that told the stories of their origins. When it comes to supporting characters, “World without a Superman” is clearly ahead of “Death of Superman”/ "Reign of the Supermen.”


2.Villains

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A great superhero comic needs a great villain. The death and return stories of Superman introduced two great new villains at the beginning and the end. Doomsday was a brand new villain when he killed Superman (though he had an “incredible” resemblance to Marvel’s Hulk when he first appeared). Plus, one of the replacement supermen turned into a great villain: the Cyborg Superman. However, for most of the middle of the story, “The Reign of the Supermen” didn’t have much going on in the way of villains. There was the rejuvenated and red-headed Lex Luthor, but he wasn’t as clearly a villain at this point in his history as he was before or after. And there was Mongul, who teamed up with Cyborg Superman to destroy Coast City. That’s impressive. But a lot of the middle focused on squabbles between heroes as Superboy fought both Supergirl and Steel, rather than on actual hero vs. villain battles.

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Similarly, the “World Without” titles have two great villains. They’re not entirely new but they are receiving a rise to new prominence. General Zod has been a great foil for Superman in the “World of New Krypton” limited series and Urza has been a ruthless adversary for Nightwing and Flamebird. There’s also the brand new Superwoman, who was a very interesting villain for Supergirl in her own title. But the Superman title has been mostly devoid of villains as it focuses instead on the heroes’ personal journeys. General Lane and Atlas are just starting to step up their villainous plans, so this aspect may get better before the story is finished. But, for now, I’d call it a draw: a couple of great villains and plenty of gaps for each.


3. Plot Structure

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The first Superman absence had a very clear plot structure. First, there was the death. Then, there was the funeral. Third, there was the reign of the replacements. And finally, there was the return. The only downside is that it was maybe a little obvious. The current absence has gone with a very different approach. Rather than going with a sequential plot, the Superman titles are going with a concurrent structure. “World of New Krypton” focuses on Superman in voluntary exile. “Action Comics” focuses on the Kryptonians who stayed behind on Earth, predominantly Nightwing and Flamebird. While “Superman” focuses on the heroes who are guarding Metropolis. It’s a very effective division and each title has a clear role. I don’t know that you can say one approach is better than the other. I think I prefer the current structure, but I see the advantages of the other. I’ll call this a second tie.


4. Storylines

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Now, we’re getting into the heart of the matter. What kind of stories do you tell in a Superman title that doesn’t have Superman in it? In both cases, the predominant stories are of less experienced heroes being thrust into more prominent roles. Whether they’d been operating in Superman’s shadow or they’re new to the superhero scene, they now have to fill the boots of the biggest hero of all time and the void he left behind. The first time around, we watched Supergirl, Superboy and Steel make that hero’s journey. That was both a strength and a weakness for the titles at the time. Those were some of most interesting storylines. However, they were also very similar journeys and therefore they felt a little redundant. Thankfully, Cyborg
Superman’s villain journey provided a nice counterpoint. Unfortunately, there were also the uninteresting digressions into the life of Bibbo Bibowski and the inner workings of Cadmus.





The current Superman titles are telling the same basic story: new or inexperienced hero being called to fill in for Superman. However, this time, the stories are not as redundant. Mon-El is the official replacement, and coping with that responsibility. Meanwhile, Nightwing and Flamebird are renegade heroes, and coping with very different issues. Plus, Steel and Guardian are present as experienced, mentor heroes to provide more of a balance. Then, there’s the wonderful story of Superman vs. Zod going on in the limited series. Overall, the stories are much better this time around so after two ties, “World without a Superman” draws its second win.


5. Art

The Superman titles of 1993 had good, strong, professional, competent art. But they didn’t have outstanding, breathtaking, incredibly gorgeous art. Dan Jurgens was probably the best of the bunch at the time. Tom Grummett was already pretty good, but I think he got even better on Robin and Superboy. Jackson Guice has already been around for awhile, but again I didn’t think he reached his best until later work on Birds of Prey and Nightwing. Jon Bogdanove has never been a favorite, although his work isn’t as off-putting as I remember.

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In contrast, the Superman titles of today have great art. Pete Woods has been doing great work on the “World of New Krypton” series. Eddy Barrows has been a revelation on “Action Comics” after previously working as one of the contingent of artists on 52. And Renato Guedes is one of the best Superman artists I’ve ever seen, though his reputation hasn’t quite caught up to his talent yet. The one problem area, however, is that the main titles have started to rely more and more on fill-in artists. Pat Perez is no Renato Guedes, while Diego Olmos is a step down from Eddy Barrows. For now, the current titles have had better art- giving them a third win- but that victory could be turned into a defeat if the top artists don’t come back for enough issues in the second half of the year-long event.

That about covers it. So far, the “World without a Superman” titles are doing a better job dealing with Superman’s absence than the “Death of Superman” stories. And I say this as a fan of the original “Death of Superman.” However, I should note that the earlier era got better as it moved along, introducing new characters a couple of months in and developing a major villain near the end. In comparison, the current stories started out strong but are in danger of falling off a cliff if the regular artists can’t get back to a regular schedule. That means that the current absence has a lead, but the victory is by no means secured.

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Comment by Luke Blanchard on September 19, 2009 at 7:18am
Was Luthor Jr. always intended as the returned Luthor Sr., or was that a twist introduced along the way?

Superman was also briefly absent from his titles when Mr. Majestic guested around the start of 2004.
Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on September 20, 2009 at 4:12pm
As I remember it, we readers knew from Day One that Lex, Jr. was Lex, Sr. in a cloned body. I don't know if it was ever revealed to the public of the DCU that Lex Jr. was a cloned body. That bit just seemed to go away eventually. Not having read the S-titles solidly through those years, I can't speak in authority.
Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on September 21, 2009 at 4:04pm
I can't say much about Superman comics today, but I am enjoying the heck out of Supergirl, which appears to be related to all this stuff. She too is weighing on whether she should hide out on Earth or stay on New Krypton. All the while her mother is brow-beating her, she's struggling with the accidental death of a close acquaintance of her cousin an, best of all, she's finally wearing age-appropriate clothing. Scratch that -- let's put it this way -- she's wearing clothes that a woman could actually wear without looking like a tramp.
Comment by Chris Fluit on September 28, 2009 at 5:01pm
Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm sorry I didn't reply sooner myself but my work computer is apparently rejecting cookies from blog posts (but not discussion threads) so that I can't respond.

Superman was also briefly absent from his titles when Mr. Majestic guested around the start of 2004.

Yes, he was. And I really liked the Majestic series by Abnett and Lanning that came out of that. However, even if I had remembered it (I admit it had slipped my mind), I wouldn't have included it as it was a one-month story rather than a year-or-more-long event.

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