Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!
Welcome to a new month of Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections. While Marvel Comics’ star-spangled Avenger took the spotlight in May, now that it’s June we’re turning our eyes over to their distinguished competition and their sometimes proclaimed boy scout hero as well as his superfamily and allies.
As usual for this column: Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife. Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections!
In most of the ongoing comic book universes, death and resurrections are so darn common, that it’s really like the character taking a vacation. The second they die the clock starts ticking, because at this point the audience well knows that it’s not “if they’ll be back” but a matter of “when they’ll be back” for any character that is well established and part of the premier publishing schedule.
Some characters have taken this dirt nap vacation numerous times. Generally, it often is done to shake up sales or bring attention to something or maybe replace them for a bit with a legacy character or just to create drama in a story that will be fixed when they return later in that story.
Superman has taken that trip into the realm of death or at least opened the car window long enough to graze it with his fingers, a couple of times. While that famous time in the ’90s stretched out the time between his death and return into a few arcs, a more recent time killed the man of steel and returned him right away.
As chronicled in a previous column, back in 2011 the minds at DC Comics decided to scrap plans that they had for their universe as it was running and move swiftly to throw together a semi-reboot of their entire line. This was the era called the New 52. Sales and reception wise this was hit and miss because things like Batman and Green Lantern kept their continuity from the old universe (just all smushed into a five-year span) while other characters were a mixed bag of reboots and half reboots.
As sales yo-yoed, the decision was made to alter the universe once more to create a version that essentially kept the New 52 structure but suddenly shoved in characters and relationships and backstories that had been erased previously. Launching in 2016 this new era was titled DC Rebirth and following the ending of all the New 52 titles, with many of their 52nd issues, titles were started over or returned to their long-time numbering for books like Detective Comics and Action Comics.
Batman and others were already in ‘good’ spots and just sort of rolled into Rebirth mostly intact just with characters and relationships ported back from the old universe (such as Spoiler/Stephanie Brown back in the Bat-family as her old self instead of the rebooted version that had come a few years earlier).
Superman was a whole other story. After having sort of depowered the younger New 52 Superman and having his secret identity shown to the world by the universe’s version of Lois Lane, the character was up against a bit of a wall and not as easy to shove into the new meets old scope of Rebirth. To fix this the choice was made to just off the character, but replace him…well with himself.
The Nitty Gritty:
A bit more setup first is needed. Back in 2015 DC Comics decided to make a big move that took their offices from New York City to Los Angeles, where all the folks staying on board at the company would be making this move. It’s hard to produce regular monthly comics if everyone is moving. So they ran an event called Convergence in April and May 2015 that saw a main mini-series and then a bunch of two-shot books where Brainiac collected cities and inhabitants from ended timelines and trapped them in a bubble. These timelines included tons of alternate realities that fans would be familiar with, a lot of Elseworlds and other miniseries-style books of the past, as well as the post-crisis version of DC that was wiped out by New 52.
Long story short these various bubbled-off realms are exposed to one another, some fight, and tons of crazy stuff goes down. In one of the bubble, realms were the post-crisis Superman and Lois Lane, and during their time trapped in the dome they had a son named Jonathan. Eventually, by the end of Convergence, they ended up back in time on the new main Earth and were witness to the birth of the New 52 Justice League, and they had their own mini-series from October 2015 to May 2016 that detailed what they had been up to over the years living on this new Earth.
Okay, now to the death.
So the New 52 Superman, we’ll call him Nu-Superman, realized that following the events of The Darkseid War where he was imbued with the fires of Apokolips that briefly turned him into a god and the Kryptonite poisoning he got during a fight with Vandal Savage, he was dying. His cells were beyond repair so in the aptly named The Final Days of Superman he decides to make some visits and put things into place before his death. He told his childhood friend Lana Lang first and then told Lois Lane and was the one that told her to tell the world the story of Superman and Clark Kent. Visits were also made to Batman (who declared he would try to find a cure) and Wonder Woman who he had been in a romantic relationship with for much of the New 52 era.
Eventually, his time is interrupted by news that some imposter seems to have the solar flare power he had gained during this new era. This imposter kidnaps Lois and takes her to the home of the hidden Post-crisis Superman and Lois, and thanks to this Nu-Superman along with Batman and Supergirl and Wonder Woman become aware that this Classic Superman and Lois exist. Not awkward at all.
Superman imposter Denny Swan starts to go unstable and is a threat to everything since he’s giving off this explosive solar flare power. Nu-Superman grabs him and flies him into space towards the sun so he can burn off safely. Classic Superman follows and proves that he is there to help, and Nu-Superman thanks him and then promptly punches him back down to Earth because he knows what will happen.
While Nu-Superman survives and falls back to Earth, he’s burned himself out and he succumbs to the Kryptonite poisoning as he is able to give his final goodbyes and dies in the arms of Wonder Woman. So while Superman died, all the stuff that led to classic Post Crisis Superman’s return gave them their have their cake and eat it too moment. Now they had a Superman that would perfectly fit what they thought Rebirth should be for characters. In Superman: Rebirth #1 the classic Superman assumes the new one can come back like he did but the tech that returned him isn’t on this Earth, so he steps up and becomes this Earth’s Superman.
For a while in the Superman and Action Comics books, there was a whole thing of the world knowing Superman was dead and seeing this classic Supes as an imposter and there were two versions of Lois and Lex Luthor took on the Superman logo on his armor. It was a whole thing.
Eventually, it was fixed as the 2017 Superman Reborn event stated that the two Supermen (and the two versions of Lois, as the Nu-Lois died recently as well) were basically the like the red and blue energy incarnations of Superman from the 90s, two parts of a whole. By the end they were all shoved back together, the classic and the new versions, and all of their history was melded together and the world forgot that there were ever two versions of Superman and Lois. Really handy when that stuff happens.
Overall it was a really sloppy way to try and make the changes that they felt were needed to get to where they wanted to be in the era of Rebirth. A lot of folks worked hard on these books for sure, but that whole time at DC was full of a lot of thrown-together constant retcons upon retcons to keep screwing with the continuity/timeline.
Having a classic Superman back with Lois and their relationship and a kid was cool, but it took a whole lot of okay-to-meh stories to get it. Not to mention the fact that less than a year later they had a whole other event that retconned things more and effectively erased/altered all the stories they had been telling up to that point is just another bizarre cherry on top of it all.
In the long run, it’s a very bizarre and poorly planned, and easily forgettable death and return for the Man of Steel.
Next Week: Peeling back the mystery of the X-Men’s lone wolf with the precision of retcons