The Death of Superman

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"The Death of Superman"
Superman75.jpg
Cover of Superman vol. 2, #75 (Jan 1993).
Art by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding.
Publisher DC Comics
Publication date
Genre
Main character(s)
Creative team
Writer(s)
Penciller(s)
Inker(s)
Editor(s) Mike Carlin
The Death of Superman ISBN 1-56389-097-6
World Without a Superman ISBN 1563891182
The Return of Superman ISBN 1563891492
The Death and Return of Superman Omnibus ISBN 1401215505

"The Death of Superman" is an American comic book crossover event published by DC Comics in its Superman-related comics. The crossover was devised by editor Mike Carlin and the Superman writing team of Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway and Karl Kesel. "The Death of Superman" began in December 1992 and lasted until October 1993. It was published in Superman, Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, Superman: The Man of Steel, Justice League America, and Green Lantern.

The crossover was conceived after Warner Bros. ordered the Superman writing team to halt production on a story in which Clark Kent (Superman) and Lois Lane would be married until the television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman reached its wedding episode. While brainstorming for new ideas, Ordway jokingly suggested they should kill Superman; Carlin, reflecting on poor sales of the Superman books, decided it was the best option. "The Death of Superman" was written to surprise readers and show Superman is not invincible.

"The Death of Superman" is divided into three parts. The first, "Doomsday!", chronicles Superman's deadly fight with the bloodthirsty monster Doomsday and concludes with his apparent death. The second, "A Funeral for a Friend", depicts Superman's fellow superheroes and the rest of the world mourning to his death and Jonathan Kent's eventual heart attack. The final part, "Reign of the Supermen!", sees the emergence of four individuals claiming to be Superman and the original Superman's return.

When news broke that DC planned to kill off Superman, a beloved American pop icon, "The Death of Superman" gained unprecedented coverage from the mainstream media and caused a sensation. The majority of the story's installments were bestsellers; issue #75, which features Superman's death, sold over six million copies and was the top selling comic book issue of 1992. Retrospective reviewers found the story powerful, with some calling it one of the best Superman stories. However, it has also received criticism, with some commentators dismissing it as little more than a publicity stunt. Many readers believed DC had permanently killed Superman and felt deceived when he was revived.

The story has been repeatedly adapted into various forms of media, including the novelization Superman: Doomsday & Beyond (1993) and the video game The Death and Return of Superman (1994). An loose animated adaptation of the film, Superman: Doomsday, was released in 2007 and launched the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. A second animated adaptation will be released as a two-part film in 2018 and 2019 and will be more faithful to the original story.

Publication history[edit]

Background[edit]

Superman is a superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. He was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933 as a villain, but the duo retooled him as a hero, feeling he would be more marketable.[1] Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1 on April 18, 1938,[2] to immediate success.[3] In 1939, Superman became the first superhero to headline his own comic book, Superman.[4] Superman's comics take place within a shared universe called the DC Universe, which also includes Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash, among others. This allows plot elements, characters, and settings to cross over with each other.[5]

In 1985, DC launched Crisis on Infinite Earths, a crossover event that resulted in the DC Universe being rebooted. Superman was re-envisioned in the 1986 limited series The Man of Steel by writer and artist John Byrne. The following year, Byrne relaunched Superman with a new first issue and the original Superman series was renamed The Adventures of Superman.[6] The relaunch was a major success for DC[7] and The Man of Steel #1 was the bestselling comic book issue of 1986.[8] Byrne spent two years on the Superman comics before leaving, becoming dissatisfied with DC's lack of "conscious support" for him and that the version of Superman which DC licensed for merchandising was contrary to Byrne's representation in the comic books.[9]

After Byrne's departure, the Superman comics experienced a decline in sales.[10] By 1992, they were only selling roughly 150,000 copies an issue,[11] despite the fact there were four Superman-focused comics being sold: Action Comics, Superman, The Adventures of Superman, and Superman: The Man of Steel. Therefore, a new Superman comic book issue debuted every week.[6] The Superman writing team attempted to make the comics more appealing by increasing the romance between Clark Kent (Superman's civilian identity) and Lois Lane. Eventually, the writers had Kent proposed to Lane and reveal he was Superman, and began to plan a storyline about their marriage.[10] Because of the close connection between each series, each's writing team regularly attended a "Superman Summit", where they would plan stories to occupy the comics.[12]

Conception and development[edit]

A middle-aged man with graying brown hair, a beard, glasses, and a Three Stooges shirt sitting at a table.
Jerry Ordway (pictured in 2012) jokingly suggested that DC should kill Superman

By 1992, while the Superman comics struggled, Warner Bros. (DC's owner) began developing Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, a television series for ABC which was premised upon a romantic relationship between Lane and Kent. One of the ideas that arose during production was the wedding of Lane and Kent. Warner Bros. learned that DC was planning the wedding in the Superman comic books, and as a result, DC, Warner Bros., and the Superman writing staff came together and reached an agreement: the wedding arc in the comic book would be put on hold, to resume once Lois & Clark reached its wedding episode. This did not happen until 1997. With the original storyline set aside in the comic, a new event was needed to replace it.[10][12]

The writing team was enraged they had to put aside a year's worth of story planning and flustered for ideas;[13] according to Louise Simonson, the team essentially had to come up with something at the last minute.[12] At the end of one meeting, Adventures of Superman writer Jerry Ordway jokingly suggested that they should just kill Superman.[10][13] The joke became a running gag in story meetings, but eventually gained traction with Superman group editor Mike Carlin.[13] In the documentary film Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, Carlin recalled, "the world was taking Superman for granted, so we literally said 'let's show what the world would be like without Superman'."[14] Dan Jurgens was the one who officially pitched the idea.[15] Ordway said he was shocked that DC allowed the project to proceed.[16] Jon Bogdanove recalled the story "almost began to write itself, from the end backwards. It felt like a story that could make the readers care again, the way we had always cared about Superman."[16]

Dan Jurgens in 2018

Jurgens created the concept of a monster tearing apart Metropolis and an issue that was a single fight separately from "The Death of Superman"; the team eventually decided to combine the ideas with "The Death of Superman".[16][12][15] Carlin had rejected the fight idea whenever Jurgens brought it up, feeling it would not be effective without a good story.[16] The writers felt that Superman's foes relied too much on technology and intellect, and desired a villain who could take him on physically. The name "Doomsday" was chosen after the phrase "doomsday for Superman" was written on the whiteboard used for planning. Doomsday's design—a massive, muscular humanoid with bones ripping through his skin—was also from Jurgens; the team wanted the character to have a distinctive look, so they gave all artists a few minutes to create designs and voted for the one they thought was best. The team did not feel giving Doomsday an origin was important.[12] Ordway recalled the most exciting part for him was exploring what the DC Universe would be like without Superman and had fun writing about peoples' reactions to his death.[16]

"The Death of Superman" was written to surprise readers: the writing team wanted to show readers that Superman was not invincible and could be killed by something other than Kryptonite. The eventual resurrection of Superman afterwards was also always planned and kept a secret. Simonson stated, "we had to sign nondisclosure agreements saying we couldn’t talk about it. We couldn’t reassure people that he was coming back.”[12] The issues showing Superman's fight with Doomsday featured a "countdown" of panels: the first had four panels per page, while the second had three, the third had two, and the last simply comprised splash pages.[17]

Publication[edit]

DC began to "aggressively" promote the story towards the end of 1992.[12] The first reference to the story within the comics was placed in Simonson's Superman: The Man of Steel #17 (November 1992); after the issue's story, Doomsday's fist is shown repeatedly punching a wall.[6] The crossover officially began the following issue, in which Doomsday is unleashed and begins to carve a brutal path of destruction across America.[12] Superman #75 (January 1993) contained Superman's fight to the death with Doomsday,[12] and was sold in a polybag with a black armband.[6] In May 1993, DC published a special issue, Newstime: The Life and Death of The Man of Steel, compiling fictional news stories about Superman's death and funeral.[18] Following the funeral, all the Superman comics went on hiatus for three to four months, ending with the release of The Adventures of Superman #500 (June 1993).[19] "The Death of Superman" concluded in October 1993 with The Adventures of Superman #505, in which Superman returns to Metropolis.[20]

Synopsis[edit]

"Doomsday!" (December 1992—January 1993)[edit]

Superman dies in Lois Lane's arms, panel from Superman #75 (January 1993). Art by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding.

The Justice League International (Guy Gardner, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Maxima, Fire, Ice, and Bloodwynd) responds to a call from a smashed big-rig outside of Bucyrus, Ohio and encounter a bloodthirsty monster in a green bodysuit that systematically takes the team apart, starting by throwing a tree trunk through their aircraft and finishing by punching Booster Gold into the stratosphere. Booster Gold is caught in midair by Superman and compares the monster's rampage to end times, thus providing it with the name Doomsday.

Superman, having cut short a television interview with Cat Grant, and the remaining League members follow the threat to the home of a single mother and her two children. They engage Doomsday, destroying the house in the process. The League attacks Doomsday with all their energy-projection powers; the only discernible effect is that much of his bodysuit is burned off, revealing Doomsday's rough skin with bones ripping through. Doomsday again defeats the League, causes the house to explode into flames, and then leaps away. Superman follows, after saving the family.

Superman throws Doomsday into a lake. After escaping from the lake bed, Doomsday and Superman tear up a city street. Maxima then reenters the fray. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are sent to cover the battle for television, while Superman's archenemy Lex Luthor (masquerading as his non-existent son "Lex Luthor II") dissuades Supergirl from joining the fight. The fight continues at a gas station, where Maxima rips a light post from the ground; the sparks from the wiring ignite the leaking gasoline and the station is destroyed in a huge explosion. Guardian arrives after Doomsday leaves, finding Superman and Maxima, and offers his aid.

Superman follows Doomsday's trail of destruction, waiting for an opportunity to attack. With the monster's rampage drawing closer, Luthor convinces Supergirl that she is needed in Metropolis while Superman is fighting elsewhere. While demolishing an appliance store, Doomsday sees a commercial for a wrestling show being held in Metropolis and heads for the city. Superman engages him and throws him in the opposite direction, where he lands on the mountain housing Project Cadmus. They brawl throughout Habitat, a living forest connected to Cadmus, bringing most of it down.

When Guardian arrives, Doomsday knocks him down and leaps toward Metropolis. Doomsday is driven below ground, where he ruptures gas and electrical mains, leveling Newtown, a large section of Metropolis. Supergirl goes to Superman's aid, but a single punch from Doomsday knocks her to the ground. Professor Emil Hamilton and Bibbo Bibbowski, Superman's allies, fire a laser cannon at Doomsday, but it does not harm him. The local police open fire on Doomsday, but again, he is not harmed. Superman returns to the fight and eventually it leads to the heart of the city.

Doomsday and an exhausted Superman fight each other with everything they have. They strike each other with so much force that the shockwaves from their punches shatter windows. At the struggle's culminating moment in front of the Daily Planet building, both lay a massive blow upon each other, killing Doomsday and mortally wounding Superman. In the arms of a frantic Lane, Superman succumbs to his wounds and dies. Jimmy, Ice, Bloodwynd, and Guardian are also present at the end, with Jimmy bitterly photographing the images of Superman's fall.

"A Funeral for a Friend" (January—April 1993)[edit]

  • Issues: Action Comics #685—686; The Adventures of Superman #498—500; Justice League America #70; Superman #76—77, #83; Superman: The Man of Steel #20—21
  • Writers: Dan Jurgens; Louise Simonson; Roger Stern; Jerry Ordway; Karl Kesel; William Messner-Loebs
  • Pencillers: Jon Bogdanove; Tom Grummett; Jackson Guice; Dan Jurgens; Dennis Janke; Denis Rodier; Walt Simonson; Curt Swan
  • Inkers: Brett Breeding; Doug Hazelwood; Dennis Janke; Denis Rodier; Rick Burchett; Mike Machlan; Ande Parks; Josef Rubinstein; Trevor Scott; Walter Simonson

The world is stunned and traumatized by Superman's death. A mausoleum is built in Metropolis in his honor, provided by Luthor, who says that if he could not kill Superman, then the least he wants is to bury him. His funeral is attended by nearly every single superhero, as well as some supervillains and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Every hero, even those who did not get along with him, wear a black arm band featuring Superman's S-shield logo. After the funeral, Project Cadmus steals Superman's body from his mausoleum, allegedly to clone him. The body is recovered by Lane and Supergirl.

With Superman gone, the crime rate rises and the costumed heroes of Metropolis rise to fill in as protectors. Supergirl, Gangbuster, Thorn, and a team funded by Luthor all try but are insufficient. Jonathan Kent, Superman's adoptive father, takes his death the hardest, and begins to lose himself in memories. One night, while reading a newspaper story written by Lane in honor of Superman, Jonathan begins to feel responsible for his son's death and has a heart attack in his wife Martha's arms.

"Reign of the Supermen!" (June—November 1993)[edit]

Promotional images for "Reign of the Supermen!"
  • Issues: Action Comics #687—691; The Adventures of Superman #501—505; Green Lantern #46; Superman #78—82; Superman: The Man of Steel #22—26
  • Writers: Dan Jurgens; Louise Simonson; Roger Stern; Karl Kesel; Gerard Jones
  • Pencillers: Jon Bogdanove; Tom Grummett; Jackson Guice; Dan Jurgens; M. D. Bright
  • Brett Breeding; Doug Hazelwood; Dennis Janke; Denis Rodier; Romeo Tanghal

While in a coma, Jonathan meets Superman in the afterlife and convinces him to come back to life, before reawakening. Coinciding with this is the arrival of four men—Steel, the Cyborg Superman, Superboy, and Eradicator—who claim to be Superman and Lane's discovery that his grave is empty. Steel and Superboy are quickly disproven, but the Cyborg and Eradicator both seem to recall memories Superman had. Hamilton tests the Cyborg and states he is the real Superman. In actuality, Eradicator stole Superman's body and placed it in a regeneration matrix in the Fortress of Solitude, drawing on his recovering energies to power himself.

The matrix breaks open and Superman emerges, although he has been weakened. The Cyborg helps Mongul destroy Coast City in an effort to kill Superboy and begins to build Engine City in its ruins. Superboy escapes and asks Steel to help him fight the Cyborg. A giant armored suit rises from the harbor and Superboy and Steel attack it. Damaged, the suit falls apart, revealing Superman. Superman, Steel, Superboy, and Supergirl travel to Engine City and attack. During the fight, the Cyborg launches a missile at Metropolis with the intent of destroying it and putting a second Engine City in its place. Superboy manages to stop the missile before it strikes Metropolis.

Hal Jordan returns to find Coast City, his hometown, destroyed. Devastated, Jordan immediately attacks Engine City and fights Mongul, shattering Steel's hammer across Mongul's face. Meanwhile, Eradicator joins the fight and shields Superman from Kryptonite gas. The gas interacts with Eradicator before passing into Superman, allowing Superman to regain his powers but causing Eradicator to die. Superman then attacks the Cyborg and destroys his body. Supergirl uses her powers to reconstruct Superman's original costume, and they return to Metropolis.

Reception[edit]

At release[edit]

As DC did not make the fact that Superman would be revived at the end public, many fans believed "The Death of Superman" had permanently killed Superman, a beloved American pop icon.[12] Thus, the story attracted unprecedented coverage from the mainstream media; NPR reviewer Glen Weldon stated "news outlets like Newsweek, People, and New York's Newsday pounced upon the 'story.'"[4] Jurgens later stated he did not anticipate the media coverage and also recalled that the first news story about it he saw was on NBC Nightly News.[15] Mark Potts (The Washington Post) speculated the event was simply a publicity stunt, but nonetheless was interested what a world without Superman would be like.[11]

Saturday Night Live parodied "The Death of Superman" in the eighth episode of its 18th season. The sketch depicts Superman's funeral being attended by the cast of DC, as well as several characters from Marvel Comics. Black Lightning (Sinbad) tries to enter the funeral, but no one knows him even though he claims to have taught Superman how to fly.[21] Jerry Siegel, who in 1961 had predicted Superman would eventually be killed, met with Carlin to tell him that he was very impressed by "The Death of Superman".[16]

The attention the story got caused "The Death of Superman" to become an unforeseen success. Comic book retailers ordered five million copies of Superman #75 in advance, and many people who had never read comics bought the issue in hopes of it becoming an expensive collector's item.[4] DC shipped between 2.5 and three million copies of the issue when it was released on November 17, 1992 and it sold out across America. Issue #75 brought in a total of US$30 million during its first day on sale[22] and ultimately sold more than six million copies.[4] The first installments of "Reign of the Supermen!" were the top five best-selling comic books for the month.[23] Superman #75 was the bestselling comic book issue of 1992[24] and the four bestselling issues of 1993 were Superman-related.[25]

In later years[edit]

In the years since its release, some commentators have dismissed "The Death of Superman" as little more than a publicity stunt to give the Superman comics a brief surge in sales and have contended it caused a decline in the comic book industry.[4][16][19] Indeed, each series' sales immediately declined following Superman's resurrection[4] and many fans felt they had been deceived when he was revived.[12] This frustration was mocked in "Worst Episode Ever", the eleventh episode of The Simpsons' twelfth season, in which Nelson Muntz holds the comic The Death Of Sad Sack and declares "this better not be another fake-out", in reference to the angry reaction to the revival.[26]

ComicsAlliance writer Chris Sims believed that most people bought Superman #75 just to see Superman's death,[17] while Weldon speculated its sales were propelled by hopes it would become valuable.[6] Sims recalled that when he worked in a comic book store in 2009, some customers were shocked that DC was still publishing Superman comics, as they did not read the story's conclusion.[17] Stern denied "The Death of Superman" was a publicity stunt, believing the sensation was caused only because it was a good story: "The word got out on a slow news day, and the media storm that followed was greater than anything we could have hoped for. But it was all thanks to the story's power."[16]

Aside from this, "The Death of Superman" has been generally seen favorably. Sims called the event DC's greatest success of the 1990s and one of the definitive Superman stories, noting while killing off an important comics character was not an original idea, "The Death of Superman" seemed more ambitious and had a greater legacy.[17] Steve Morris (Comics Beat) also thought it had a major impact, saying it had "strong storytelling and a simple, if well-done, central narrative."[27] Morris said the story was well planned, especially considering the fact it could have easily misfired.[27] Brian Salvatore (Multiversity Comics) thought the story was effective and "present[ed] some pretty compelling arguments for why Superman is the greatest superhero of all time, without ever really coming out and saying that." He also praised the characterization for forcing Superman not to predict the movements of Doomsday, and rather rely on pure instinct.[28]

Not all reviewers have been as positive. Chad Nevett (Comic Book Resources) called the story boring and jumbled (comparing issue #75 to "more of trading cards that intend to tell a story than an actual comic story") and viewed it as just another typical event crossover.[29] Morris did criticize its subplots (calling them nonsensical) and felt Doomsday was terribly designed, disagreeing with Sims that it was a definitive Superman story.[27] Salvatore felt it had missed opportunities and criticized the Justice League's role in the story, comparing them to punching bags. Both Salvatore and Nevett thought Doomsday came out of nowhere,[28][29] and Nevett joked he was a "walking plot device" rather than a true villain.[29]

Legacy in comics[edit]

"The Death of Superman" had an immediate effect on DC's comics. After its success, DC began a series of events that resulted in its most iconic heroes being killed or disabled.[4] Batman followed shortly afterward, with the "Knightfall" crossover, followed by Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and the Flash.[6] Green Lantern's event, "Emerald Twilight", in which he turned into the villain Parallax, was directly caused by events that occurred during "The Death of Superman".[10] "With the industry in freefall," wrote Weldon, "it didn't matter much to DC that death/disabling stunts offered only brief sales spikes."[4]

The characters established during "The Death of Superman"—Doomsday, Steel, Superboy, and the Cyborg Superman—would all become recurring characters in DC's comics. Superboy and Steel both received their own ongoing series after the story's conclusion[6] and Steel went on to star in his own movie, in which he was portrayed by Superman fan Shaquille O'Neal.[30] Superboy remained a fixture of the DC Universe until he was killed in Infinite Crisis (2005—2006).[6] The Cyborg Superman became a recurring nemesis of Superman and Green Lantern.[6] Doomsday's origin story was explored in Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey (1995)[12] and the character returned in later storylines, most notably in "Reign of Doomsday" (2011), which heavily references "The Death of Superman" and features Doomsday hunting down Steel, Superboy, Eradicator, and the Cyborg Superman.[31]

In 2011, DC relaunched its entire comics line in an initiative called the New 52, which revamped the DC Universe and erased certain events. Superman was altered considerably, being shorter-tempered and was no longer in love with Lois Lane.[32] However, "The Death of Superman" remained intact in the new DC Universe.[33]

In other media[edit]

  • In the wake of "The Death of Superman", Warner Bros. acquired the rights to produce Superman films. It hired Jon Peters to write a script for a sequel to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The film, called Superman Reborn, would have heavily borrowed from "The Death of Superman", including the fight-to-the-death between Superman and Doomsday. However, Warner Bros. disliked the script due to its similar themes to Batman Forever (1995). Later script rewrites altered the story considerably and the film ultimately never came to fruition.[36]
  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) draws narrative elements from "The Death of Superman". In the film's climax, Lex Luthor uses forbidden Kryptonian genetic engineering projects to combine General Zod's corpse with his own DNA, causing Doomsday's creation. Using a Kryptonite spear, Superman stabs Doomsday, but Doomsday stabs Superman in return with a bone spur emerging from his right wrist after Wonder Woman cut off the monster's hand, resulting in both combatants dying in the battle.[40]
  • In 2017, DC announced a two-part animated adaptation, The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen, to be released as part of the DC Universe Original Animated Movies line in late 2018 and early 2019.[41] The new adaptation will be more faithful to the original story; according to DC's Tim Beedle, the film is "much less condensed and will include many of the fan-favorite moments from the story that were left out of Doomsday."[38]

References[edit]

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