Gimmick or Good? - Superman #75

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence "Gimmick or Good?" Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with 1992's black polybagged Superman #75...

Superman #75 (published November 1992) – script by Dan Jurgens, art by Jurgens and Brett Breeding

One of the most controversial and culturally significant comic books of the 1990s, Superman #75 is more popularly known as the “Death of Superman.” The release of this comic book garnered so much mainstream media attention, its shocking ending was reported by a number of broadcast news channels and national newspapers. Adding to the issue’s buzz was its packaging – special “collector’s” editions were wrapped in a black polybag sporting the iconic Superman “S” dripping in red “blood.” In addition to the comic, the bag contained a trading card, a Daily Planet obituary, a black armband, and other assorted paraphernalia. Of course, if you were lucky enough to score a first printing polybag, you would have been considered crazy to crack it open since everybody was convinced that this comic would one day be worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in its pristine, undisturbed form.

In the 20 years since its release, Superman #75 has become a lighting rod for angry comic book enthusiasts who essentially blame its mainstream popularity for sinking the industry and scores of local retailers in the late 1990s. Many people really only bought a copy as a dot com-esque investment, and when they were unable to get a serious chunk of change for it, they abandoned the comic book industry altogether.

But what about inside the polybag and inside the comic?

What makes analyzing the contents of Superman #75 a tricky endeavor is the power of 20-20 hindsight. In retrospect, of course, the death of character as iconic as Superman wasn’t going to be permanent and if people really purchased 20 copies of the book because they thought it was going to be as valuable as Action Comics #1 one day, they probably deserved to get swindled. With that said, the issue is such a cultural landmark for comic book fans because it’s exemplary of the excesses of the 1990s. Despite the speculator-fueled hysteria, 20 years later I still think everyone should get their hands on a copy and read it at least once. It will only take you about 10 minutes to do, which speaks volumes about the comic’s depth.

Superman #75 isn’t really so much a story as it is a series of great-looking splash pages of one brutally bloody brawl between the Man of Steel and Doomsday. There’s certainly an audience for something like this – why else would Michael Bay movies make millions of dollars if there wasn’t a significant portion of the population that wanted to pay to see stuff blow up? If you think of Superman #75 as the Michael Bay movie of 1990s comic books, I think you’ll have a good time reading it.

Of course, looking at it more critically, there are holes aplenty. The script is incredibly shallow. There are predictable and clichéd scenes galore like Superman and Lois Lane sharing a customary last kiss before he meets his impending demise...

and, of course, Superman dying in Lois’ arms. The last block of text of the issue (which is inside a gatefold final page) is “that a Superman died” which I’m sure is designed to be a chilling finale to the character’s story, but the most cynical part of me just wants to roll my eyes after reading it.

Other sappy visuals include a despondent JLA at the scene of the battle and Clark Kent’s parents embracing as they witness Superman’s death on the television. The whole time, Jurgens is selling the hero’s sacrifice and his relentless will to do right by everyone.

What always bothers me about this issue is the fact that Jurgens and Breeding never actually demonstrate what is so special about Doomsday that he should be the character to actually succeed in killing Superman. Sure, it’s established that he’s a mindless killing machine with immense strength, but outside of heavy-handedly telegraphing on every single page that Superman is going to die by the end of the issue, I never truly get the impression that there is something that much more epic or grand about this battle. Considering this comic was sold so hard to casual readers, you would think DC would have made fewer assumptions about what people checking out a copy already knew about Doomsday and his capacity to destroy Superman.

Meanwhile, there’s an old adage in writing that says “show me, don’t tell me” and Superman #75 is certainly an example of the creative team telling readers, over and over again, that something is critically dire, without ever actually showing us in a way that provides much clarity or depth.

So, while I may advise people to give this comic book a read because of its historic nature, I certainly can’t call it a “good” comic in terms of how it was written and crafted. It’s not Grant Morrison’s infinitely more insightful examination of Superman’s final days in All-Star Superman, but it’s hard to go the rest of your life as a comic book fan without giving the “death of Superman” a read at least once.

Verdict: Gimmick

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