A Eulogy for Superman

250px-Superman75In 1992, DC Comics “killed” Superman.

You may remember it, if you’re old enough. It was a significant media event that came during a boom in comics’ sales fueled, as it turned out (and as most booms are) by speculators who would, a few years later, cash out or drop out of the market, causing a crash more damaging to the industry than the boom had been beneficial. But in 1992, the boom times were just getting started, and so . . .

As someone working in the industry at the time, I was asked by a local comic book shop to  deliver a eulogy for The Man of Steel as part of a promotional event. They lined up a flag-draped coffin and a few suitably sober floral arrangements, invited me and the local film critic (who had once been an editor for Marvel) to speak and then, as I recall, held a Super Sales Event that began immediately following the “funeral” — the capitalist equivalent of a wake, I suppose, with the sound of ringing cash registers substituting for the clink of whiskey glasses.

A couple of months later, with the encouragement of the film critic, I submitted the piece to the local paper as an editorial and, despite the editor’s feeling that it would have been better if I’d sent it in when the event was still “hot,” it was accepted.

In looking back on it, it certainly evokes another time and place, both in my life and in the life of the country.

Bill Clinton had just beaten George H.W. Bush the previous month, concluding the latest edition of what was then only a quadrenniel orgy of hype, misinformation, malfeasance, and invective. (The Clinton years would cement us into our current pattern, an ongoing orgy of hype, misinformation, etc.)

The political editorials appearing below my contribution in that day’s paper included Cal Thomas’s thoughts about the president-elect’s left-leaning social agenda and a piece by Chris Matthews speculating that Clinton might be the next FDR. (A left-leaning socialist if there ever was one, at least in the minds of the Cal Thomas’s of this world). The fourth editorial on the page was from a Cox News Services guy talking about how it “just makes sense” for Mid-East peace talks to continue. It now reads as a little dollop of virulent naivete congealed in prose form, rather than any kind of sober analysis.

As Linda Ellerbee used to say, “And so it goes.” (She was a moderately prominent media figure back then, in case you’re wondering — and she was quoting Kurt Vonnegut).

Arthur Ashe was Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsman of the Year. He had just announced, the previous April, that he had AIDS. He was considered very brave for having done so, because of the damage such revelations could still have on a public figure’s prospects for endorsements and favorable media attention.

Optimism reigned about the first president Bush’s deployment of troops to Somalia. Danny DeVito’s Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson, had just opened in New York, and cries for certain Serbian politicians to be tried for war crimes were starting, even as hostilities in the region escalated.

It was a complicated world, contending with many of the same issues and divisions we face today: the optimism of new beginnings contending with the harsh reality that the world is what it is and will be what it will be, regardless of how we feel about it. Which makes us no less obliged to try and make a difference. At least that’s how I felt then. Still do.

The Sentinel‘s headline for the euglogy, “We need him more than ever, but we want him less,” touches on an aspect of what I was saying, but missed, I think, the eulogy’s essential point.

A Eulogy for Superman

Published 12/17/1992 in the Orlando Sentinel.

When I heard the news, I was more than shocked. It took me weeks to get up the courage to dial a familiar number in Metropolis. When Jimmy answered, I sensed his continued pain in the sound of his voice.

I’ve known Jimmy Olsen since I was a kid. He helped teach me to read and entertained me for hours on end with his amazing adventures. He was Superman’s pal. What kid wouldn’t envy that?


Jimmy Olsen in better days, as a photographer for the Daily Planet.
Contrary to popular myth, Jimmy has not been a “cub reporter” for several decades.

Jimmy choked back tears. Even a few weeks after Superman’s death, it was difficult.

Jimmy and I talked late into the night. As we talked over old times and the more recent trials and tribulations of the world, some things became very clear. The world needs Superman more than ever nowadays, and wants him less.

What’s one more superhero, more or less? Next time there’s an invasion from Dimension X or a bunch of molemen come boiling out of the center of the Earth, I’ve no doubt the Justice League will be there to handle the problem. Batman has Gotham City covered and Wonder Woman has always been a pretty tough cookie when it comes to stopping crime. And now we’ve got Deathstroke and the Punisher and the X-Men and Cyberforce and Spawn and heaven knows what else.

And I can’t help thinking that all the times Superman saved us from the likes of Lex Luthor and Brainiac aren’t nearly so important as all the times he inspired us to be better. To be, in fact, the best that we could be.

Superman wasn’t even from this arm of the galaxy, but he was better at being human than most of us and he made a difference, not because of his incredible powers, but because he used them only in the cause of the greater good.

But today, our heroes are dark and grim and “realistic.” They’re practical men, who think that you have to bend the rules to get the bad guys. They think that the rules aren’t as important as the result. That’s a mistake Superman never made, not once in fifty years, and I think we resented him for that.

Superman is dead, but a lot of people aren’t taking it too seriously. In the world of superhumans, coming back from the dead isn’t all that uncommon. But that’s really missing the point. Even if Superman comes back to life tomorrow, he’s still dead today. We’ve all experienced it, however briefly. A world without Superman. The Man of Tomorrow ran out of tomorrows – just for a little while

The dream died once and that was the end of innocence. Childhood is officially over – for Jimmy, for all of us. Because if it happened once, it could happen twice – so we’ll never really trust that dream again.

Jimmy knows it, and it scares him. It scares me too, because now it’s our responsibility.

Whatever happens to Superman in the months to come – whether he stays dead, comes back as a grimmer, more “realistic” superhero, or is just resurrected into his old, familiar yet inspiring routine – it will never be the same. But if Superman taught us one thing in the last fifty-plus years, it’s that things can always be better.

And now it’s up to us to make it that way.