!!!SPOILER WARNING!!! I can’t say what I want to about this book without giving away parts of the plot, so continue at your own risk!
The Death and Life of Superman, by Roger Stern (and, of course, based on a story arc from the comics) is one of those books that is a nostalgic classic for me, despite being… well, I can’t really say it’s bad, but it’s not exactly good, either.
As you might’ve guessed, this is a novelization of the story arc where Superman is killed by a monster named Doomsday. Now, I want to say upfront that I actually like the first part of this book, and this is one of the book’s strengths: Roger Stern wrote this with newcomers in mind. So unlike the comic version, which starts in medias res with some shit going down, the book starts off with a worker contemplating suicide… and then an accident nearly kills him. Superman’s timely intervention not only saves him physically, but emotionally as well, driving him to give his life purpose. Besides setting up a development later in the book, this is the kind of storytelling I like, hitting both the visceral thrill of the timely rescue as well as the emotional depth.
From there, the book slowly gets going, giving readers time to get caught up on the people who will be involved. We get short backstories on anything important going on in the DC Comics universe–by the time Doomsday is wrecking things, we’ll know who the members of the Justice League are, what the Cadmus Project is, what exactly is going on between Lois and Clark, a brief look at Superman’s childhood, and that Lex Luthor is dead but Lexcorp is now run by his son, who is really a clone. All this is delivered at a solid pace where the reader has enough time to digest it without feeling overwhelmed. It almost makes DC Comics feel like a rich mythology and not just a bunch of crap some underpaid old men were forced to crap out on a monthly basis.
Then, of course, Doomsday appears. While the whole “yeah, there was this monster buried underground and somehow nobody noticed” thing is a little sketchy, the monster itself is sold as a valid threat, utterly wrecking everything it comes across, seeming unstoppable. I never thought a superpower fight scene would work in written form, but this book proves it can.
So, the whole thing starts out really strong! …But then the middle portion is where the problems appear.
Of course, DC Comics’ writers were tasked with the question of “What would happen if Superman died?” And naturally, their answers verge on the cynical. Crime runs rampant. People lose hope. The world starts to go to hell. Everyone becomes full of fear and loathing.
There is one scene in this section that gets it right–a woman throws some puppies in a river, but then a bartender who admired Superman dives in to save them, and he manages to save one. This is the kind of thing I would’ve liked to see more of, a sort of “keeping hope alive in spite of being dealt the biggest blow of our lives” angle. Instead, the novel prefers a bleak outlook. In my experience, this is typical of comics, and its one reason the medium gets tiring.
But the middle portion isn’t too bad. It’s still pretty fun, and there’s a few bright spots here and there.
The ending is where I have my biggest issue.
As comic readers likely know, eventually four new superheroes–all modeled after Superman, although only two claim to actually be him–show up on the scene. At the same time, Superman’s body disappears, and the novel tells us right off that some failsafe device from the Fortress of Solitude reclaimed it and took Superman there to regenerate (he’s solar-powered, like Captain Planet, ya see). So we actually get to see Superman as he recovered, along with getting a nice, pseudo-scientific explanation of his recovery. Then, it turns out a new threat is approaching–an alien named Mongul, which… the book helpfully informs us is someone Superman has fought and beaten before.
Here is where I feel the writers clearly had no clue. This is just not a satisfying conclusion to the story. It just isn’t. A novel like this should end with a big, triumphant “Oh yeah, Superman is back baby!” feeling, but here, it feels like its just another day. And I can trace the entire problem to both the “scientific” recovery and the fact that Superman came back to life in time to beat up someone he’s beaten up before.
If I were writing this, here’s how I’d do it:
The world is starting to feel hope again. People, inspired by the four new Supermen, find their inner heroes–they help old ladies cross the street, they pay each others mortgages, they start to smile again–then, Doomsday comes back to life and goes on another rampage! It’s another time of terror, but the people feel confident that the four Supermen will protect them. The four fight the monster, and are slowly worn down, but they don’t give up. People on the street even pitch in by throwing rocks at Doomsday. Then, suddenly, just as things seem their blackest, a red-and-blue bullet shoots through the sky and begins pummeling Doomsday! It’s the REAL Superman, and he’s come back, not because of some silly pseudoscience but purely because the human race has proven, through their hope and courage, that they deserve a Superman! And this time, he destroys Doomsday! Completely. Entirely. Unambiguously. It is a glorious victory for the entire human race.
Tell me that doesn’t sound better.
But then, I’m thinking purely along lines of “what would be a good story?” I also have the benefit of not being burned out, not being someone who has to do this for a living, not having to listen to corporate mandates or please the merchandising department or any of that. So I’m giving the writers the benefit of the doubt: Maybe their hands were tied.
Bottom line is, this is one of the best comic-based stories I’ve ever read, but its also one that (in some ways) exemplifies the problems with the comic book medium. It comes recommended to those who have even a passing interest in comic book superheroes. Last time I checked, the book was not hard to find, having been reprinted in 2004. It should go for $10 or less online, probably even less.
I guess the obvious question now is “what’s better, this or the original comic?” I can’t really answer that question. I tried to read The Death of Superman graphic novel at a library once and it, just… I couldn’t get into it. It just felt so snore-inducing. I don’t know what it was that gave me that impression, but there it is. So all in all, I would recommend the novel over the comic.
And maybe in my next entry I’ll go back to talking about video games. I’m so close to beating both Thunder Force IV and Thunder Force V, I just need to learn how to beat the final bosses…