THE DEATH OF A SUPPERHERO Superman's perfection leaves him too dull to live; investment value remains

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When word first leaked out that D.C. Comics was planning to kill off Superman, several generations of comics fans were understandably incredulous.

Some of that stemmed from the shock of waking up one morning to find that everything you knew was wrong. Superman dead? Inconceivable. Indestructibility was his middle name. If he could survive Lex Luthor, kryptonite and Christopher Reeve, he ought to be able to overcome almost anything.

Or so it seemed. But in a six-issue series starting this week, Superman meets his match in the form of an otherworldly killing machine named Doomsday. In the final installment (Superman #75), our hero saves Metropolis from destruction, but does so at the cost of his life.

Unsettling as the story line may seem, it isn't the issue of Superman's mortality that bothers old-time comics fans. Rather, it's that D.C. could even think of sending the Man of Steel to the scrap heap. Superman, after all, is America's pre-eminent superhero -- not simply the first among equals, but the first, period. Before Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel dreamed him up in 1938, there was no such thing as a superhero; every one to have come along since, be it Batman, Spiderman or Spawn, owes at least a little to his lead.

Sentiment doesn't sell comic books, though, and despite hilongevity and lineage, Superman hasn't exactly been setting sales records recently. Not only has he fallen behind Batman within the D.C. stable, but market-wide, his popularity lags well behind that of characters like Spiderman, Wolverine, the Punisher, and the X-Men.

In that light, death may be the best that could have happened tSuperman. These days, the comics market is mad for collectibles, to such an extent that one trade paper, Wizard, rates new titles not for readability but "investment value." As such, the contemporary comics buyer -- excuse me, comics collector -- is likely to see the death of Superman less as a plot development than as an investment opportunity.

No wonder D.C. is offering the final, "death" issue in two versions: The standard newsstand edition (for $1.25), and a deluxe "collector's edition" (for $2.50). Advance orders are already brisk.

Understanding the commercial advantages to killing off Superman provides only part of the picture; the rest has to do with how poorly the Man of Steel has weathered the changing times.

When Siegel and Shuster first developed Superman, he was, as Siegel later put it, "like all the heroes I had ever read about, only more so." It wasn't just his power -- incredible strength, X-ray vision, the ability to fly, etc. -- that made him seem the ultimate hero, it was his character. Superman was supremely good, possessed of moral strength, forthright character and an innate vTC sense of justice. Although he was never a law officer as such, there was never even a hint of vigilantism to his actions. Superman's understanding of right and wrong was unwavering and absolute, making him the perfect guy to play the world's policeman.

Being both all-good and all-powerful made Superman mostly boring, though. Granted, that hardly hindered the writers at D.C., who generally cobbled together some sort of plot device that would seem to lend a moment's advantage to the likes of Lex Luthor, Brainiac or Mr. Mxyzptlk. Still, there's a difference between manufacturing suspense and generating character interest, and as an ultra-good guy, Superman is sorely lacking in the latter.

Don't blame Siegel/Shuster or D.C. for that. After all, the argument that a flawless hero is inherently dull dates back at least as far as Percy Shelley's complaint that, in "Paradise Lost," Milton made the Devil more interesting than the Lord. Perfection is a tough nut to crack for any writer.

Average-guy failings

Who says a superhero has to be perfect, though? Part of the reason Stan Lee's Spiderman turned the comics world on its head was that Spidey had both superhuman strength and average-guy failings. From the outside, Spiderman seemed like any other superhero: He had strength, he had a gimmick (such spider-like attributes as wall-climbing and web-spinning), and he had a calling (crime-fighting, of course). Strip away the spider-suit, though, and you're left with Peter Parker, typical teen-ager. And that was what made Spidey special -- that beneath it all, he was as human as his fans.

And Superman? Sorry. Unfortunately for him, the Man of Steel invariably seems inflexible and unmelting. Even Clark Kent, his alter-ego, seems a bit of a stiff. Then again, it's worth noting that while Spiderman is the persona Peter Parker adopts when he wants to use his superpowers, Clark Kent is the disguise Superman assumes while pretending to be a normal person.

No wonder there's something vaguely inhuman about the guy.

Even if you accept his Boy Scout-ish character, though, it would be hard for Superman to hold the same relevance today as he did for comics fans a generation or two ago. Because, quite frankly, the world Superman was created to protect no longer exists.

How so? Because in many ways, Superman was conceived as the American ethos incarnate, a sort of one-man New Deal program working to carry out this country's manifest destiny. What he represented was the belief that American government and social principles were inherently good, and most Superman comics carried the implicit suggestion that the world would be a much better place if only there were some God-like being around to keep our enemies in check and our values on top.

It was an ideal that held great attraction for the comics readers of the '40s and '50s. But in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Rambo culture of today, that approach seems as quaintly outdated as a "Dragnet" rerun. Modern comic heroes aren't good-natured and God-like -- for the most part, they're disaffected misfits and angry young mutants.

A dupe of the system

There's no room for a Superman in this world -- except, perhaps, as a dupe of the system. That's how he's drawn in Frank Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," the 1986 graphic novel that not only redefined Batman but revitalized the whole superhero genre. As Miller sees him, Superman is merely an errand-boy for the establishment, obediently doing the government's bidding in service of some greater good.

Batman realizes that his disdain for due process has made him "a political liability," but Superman? "You're a joke," spits the Dark Knight, as the two duke it out in the book's final fight.

Of course, Batman was a joke once, too, back before Miller remade him. And it's entirely possible -- indeed, fairly likely -- that Superman will eventually be revised, resurrected, and given a dark side of his own. How that Superman will shape up remains to be seen; he could end up as an evil clone, a capitalist tool, a benign and bewildered mutant, or even all of the above.

But it's almost guaranteed that he'll never be perfect again.

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