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Love, Death, Superman

At least we have a hero who can shake off the chains of mortality.

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The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure. Here the whole sense of the life is epitomized. Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave. --Joseph Campbell

I first read about the death of Superman in a little barbershop outside Toronto. It had been a hot day, but it was cool and dim inside the shop, and I sank happily into an old leather couch to wait. Beside me was a pile of comic books, and I pulled out one randomly. Walking home later, I would wonder what cruel fate had guided that seemingly haphazard selection.

The comic's cover told the whole story: Superman supine on an operating table, his skin green from Kryptonite poisoning. Above him, triumphant, a malignant Lex Luthor. "At last I've killed Superman!" he crows. "Cry your hearts out, folks!" This last remark is directed toward Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Perry White, the Man of Steel's closest friends, whom the nefarious Luthor has imprisoned in a glass booth and forced to witness the horrible death throes of the last son of Krypton. Jimmy and Lois are wide-eyed, speechless. Only Perry can muster a response: "Great Caesar's ghost!" cries the crusty editor of the Daily Planet. "Luthor has finally done what no one else has ever been able to do! Choke. I can't believe Superman is really dead."

Choke. There was no punctuation around the word, only little rays emanating from its core. At a time when words like "gulp" and "sob" and "whew" were used to convey emotion within the comic-book confines of Metropolis, "choke" was the height of passion, particularly when it sprang from the mouth of Perry White and emanated wavy rays. Choke.

Clearly this was serious stuff, and I sat, stunned, staring at that cover until my barber summoned me to the high red chair. He draped the long white bib round my neck, and for a second I saw myself in the mirror opposite, wide-eyed and speechless behind my own glass wall. Then the barber spun the chair, picked up comb and scissors, and solemnly set about his tonsorial task. It was 1961, I was eight years old, and a door had just closed on the Age of Innocence.

Now, some 30 years later, I've read again about the death of Superman. Of course this time the shock was not as great--and not just because it was the second time around. This time, rather than abruptly confronting impressionable youths with a Superman stiff with rigor mortis, the folks at DC Comics forewarned their readers of the imminent demise of earth's first superhero. In fact, the news arrived late last summer a little like an invitation to a party: "You are cordially invited to witness the death of Superman. November 19, 1992. At fine comic-book shops everywhere." Naturally, readers had to plunk down $1.25 for the pivotal issue (Superman number 75) and the same amount for each of the six issues leading up to the event. In addition there was a special collector's edition in a plastic bag that included a black arm band, a Daily Planet obituary, and much, much more ($2.50).

Cynics have charged that DC Comics and its parent company, media giant Time Warner, were interested only in boosting the sagging sales of the once-mighty Superman magazines. But perhaps the editors at DC (who are, after all, the guardians of the Superman mythos) were only trying to fulfill the true destiny of the Man of Steel. Maybe their only wish was to see him confront death, perhaps even triumph over it, and so take his rightful place among the stars with the heroes that preceded him.

Or maybe they were just trying to sell more comics.

Gulp.

The springs of American civilization, unlike those of the elder world, lie revealed in the clear light of History. --Francis Parkman

The American hero has always had a tough time beating the death rap. Older cultures accepted as fact that the warrior Herakles ascended from funeral pyre to Mount Olympus, or that King Arthur, seemingly slain in battle, only languished in Avalon and would one day return. An ocean away the Aztecs revered Quetzalcoatl, who rose from his funeral pyre to become the morning star and whose promised second coming paved the way for the Old World legions led by Hernan Cortes.

To inspire such belief is of course no longer possible--at least if your hero was born in the Western Hemisphere in the last five centuries. By 1539, fewer than a score of years after Cortes crushed the Aztec empire, the first printing press had appeared in the Americas, in Mexico City. The clear light of history had been carried across the Atlantic, and no mere mortal could ever expect to rise above its pitiless glare.

Consider the case of Colonel David Crockett, the famous frontiersman and three-term congressman from the state of Tennessee. Turned out of office in November 1835, Colonel Crockett turned on his constituents. "You may all go to hell," he told them, "and I will go to Texas." Crockett celebrated the new year south of the Red River, and by February he had arrived at San Antonio and the decrepit little mission called the Alamo, where on March 6, 1836, he was among the 186 men slain in its defense. Nevertheless stories began circulating that Crockett still lived. This resurrected hero, Davy, roamed the countryside grinning the bark off trees and lighting his pipe from the midwinter sun, which he'd just kicked free of the frozen earth. These stories circulated by word of mouth from the Smoky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, and had they been given time enough to simmer they might have ascended to the level of myth. Instead of the Disney-inspired coonskin-cap craze of the 1950s, we might have had Crockett cults who each spring, through elaborate ritual, caused the dying sun to emerge from its dark winter cavern.

But the incontrovertible fact is that 156 years ago David Crockett crossed the Red River into Texas and met his death at the Alamo, though historians still argue about the circumstances of his demise. And so the stories surrounding his name are not called myths but tall tales, which means we admire their artistry while recognizing them as bald-faced lies. Davy couldn't beat the death rap, nor can any hero, man or woman, born into this civilization called America--and so all our heroes must be tragic, and all our stories, carried to their true end, unhappy.

Of course you would expect a comic-book hero, particularly a Man of Steel, to be impervious to the ravages of history and time. Thus my shock in 1961 when I learned Superman had died. It did not help that this particular Superman tale was only "imaginary," a frequent story-telling device used by the writers at DC 30 years ago to distinguish between real events in the life of their hero and stories meant to be read as fictions. "The Death of Superman" fell into this second category. It began with a vague caveat, letting the reader know that this was an "imaginary" story, one that "may actually never happen, but then again may!" It went on to relate how the evil genius Luthor, while doing time in prison, discovers a cure for cancer. He donates the cure to mankind, insisting on no other reward than a chance to atone for his sins. To allow Luthor to continue his research unmolested by his former criminal cronies, Superman builds a giant space-based laboratory. Here he is lured by Luthor and exposed to a Kryptonite ray. Superman collapses, unable to believe the turn of events. Luthor only laughs wickedly--"Ha, ha, ha!"--and turns up the juice. "I was a fool . . . Gasp! . . . to trust you," mutters the Man of Steel. And then, groaning horribly--"Owww! Ohh-hhhh!"--he's gone.

At Superman's funeral the citizens of Metropolis join costumed crime fighters and interplanetary ambassadors in paying tribute to their fallen hero. Lois Lane weeps copious tears for what wasn't to be. "Oh, darling," she laments over Superman's glass-cased coffin. "I--I had so much love to give you. Just how much even you never dreamed! Sob!" Luthor is apprehended and, as "the greatest villain since Adolph Eichmann," sentenced for eternity to the Phantom Zone. The story concludes with a note of consolation from the editors at DC: "Let's not feel too badly! After all, this was only an imaginary story, and the chances are a million to one it will never happen!" Yet these ambiguous words appeared beneath a picture of a ghostly Superman fading into the clouds. It seemed that even the great Kryptonian must go the way of all flesh. Another American hero had bitten the dust.

Of course Big Blue was back in action a month later (in what I suppose might be called one of his unimaginary tales), but I never returned to his adventures with the same enthusiasm. He got along fine without me. Until two weeks ago, when it was again time to face off with hoary death. Only this time it was for real. The villain was neither Luthor nor green Kryptonite but Doomsday, a killing machine from the earth's core who died along with Superman in a fight for Metropolis. Once again the world mourned.

And will mourn. And mourn. For the folks at DC seem to be hedging their bets. None of the four Superman titles has been discontinued; they will carry on with a nine-part series entitled "Funeral for a Friend." And Superman editor Mike Carlin told Advance Comics even he wasn't sure what the future held. "We don't really know what death means for a Kryptonian," he said. This all suggests that Superman will return, lending credence to the notion that this current plot is driven not by the never-ending battle for truth and justice but by the demands of the marketplace, which is, after all, the American way.

Of course, that could just be the cynics talking. Let's admit the possibility that Carlin and his ilk are more interested in Superman's heroic proportions than in his contribution to their bottom line. And instead of allying the Man of Steel with the likes of Crockett or Herakles, they have their eye on bigger game. The great cults of the ancient world centered on "heroes" who were slain and then miraculously reborn. In Babylon they revered Tammuz, "the son who rises." In Egypt they honored Osiris, in Phrygia Attis, in Greece Adonis. All of these deities were associated with spring's arrival and the renewal of life--what Joseph Campbell called the "continuous miracle of vivification which wells within all things"--and when the early Christians were organizing a religion around the Nazarene messiah (another son who rose), they wisely appropriated much of the symbolic ritual of those earlier "pagan" cults for Lent and Easter, their own annual spring observance of death and resurrection.

Asked about the permanence of Superman's death, DC spokesman Martha Thomases told reporters she didn't "know the schedule through all eternity. But I know it through March, and there's no Superman." There may be a clue here as to when the Man of Steel might roll back the stone and step from the grave. Easter falls on April 11 next year, which should about coincide with The Adventures of Superman number 500, the first issue to appear after the conclusion of the "Funeral for a Friend" story line. I think you can see where I'm going with this. Granted, Superman as risen savior could be just another clever (if sacrilegious) marketing ploy. But it might also mean that at long last the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, might finally have a hero who has shaken off the chains of mortality.

Which leads, I think, to the inevitable question: Was Christ a Kryptonian?

Ch' io non averei creduto che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta. --Dante

Surveying the DC universe of late, I feel a little like Dante at the gate of hell, for I too would never have believed that death had undone so many. It seems that in the last decade whenever stories--or sales--stalled at DC, the deus stepping from the machina has been, as often as not, the grim reaper. The most notorious instance was four years ago, when DC killed off Batman's longtime sidekick, Robin. For those who have lost touch with Gotham City, this particular casualty was not the original Boy Wonder, Dick Grayson (who had been transformed into Nightwing, leader of the Teen Titans), but his replacement, Jason Todd, a streetwise urchin whose glib patter had alienated some readers.

Reacting to this criticism, DC allowed fans to determine Jason's fate. More than 10,000 people responded and by the slim margin of 72 votes decided that Robin should die. Which shortly thereafter he did, at the hands of the Joker. Some angry fans characterized the act as gratuitous and capricious, but Batman editor Dennis O'Neil declared again and again that the burden of guilt was not DC's to shoulder. "I was hoping the readers would have pity on him," he told Time magazine, an excuse worthy of Pilate washing his hands before the multitudes.

Of greater import was the 1985 "Crisis on Infinite Earths," a 12-part series littered with corpses. (Cartoonist John Byrne, who was to revamp Superman a year later, characterized this series as "nothing less than a calculated massacre.") In an attempt to uncoil the "hopelessly convoluted" story lines of their 50-year-old comic empire, DC crafted an epic tale in which a maniacal monster called the Anti-Monitor attempts to destroy not only the earth, its solar system, and the universe, but also all the other earths, solar systems, and universes--the "multiverse"--vibrating in silent orbits parallel to our own. In the ensuing battle entire universes are obliterated, until finally, back at the beginning of time, the remaining earths implode, creating one reborn earth (our own) and a consistent history for its triumphant superheroes.

The two chief casualties in this wholesale slaughter were Supergirl and police scientist Barry Allen, better known as the Flash. After Superman and Batman, the Flash had the soundest pedigree of any American superhero; even the epithets commonly associated with his name--Scarlet Speedster, Crimson Comet, the Fastest Man Alive--suggest his greatness. The Flash who died (while destroying the Anti-Monitor's antimatter cannon) was the character's second incarnation; the first, Jay Garrick, had appeared during the 1940s. In fact, it was the meeting of Allen and Garrick (in the classic Gardner Fox tale "Flash of Two Worlds") two decades ago that eventually necessitated a "Crisis" to remedy DC's jumbled history.

Supergirl first appeared in 1959, when she was introduced as Superman's cousin Kara. Her home, Astro City, had somehow survived the explosion of Krypton; only later, when radiation began destroying the city's inhabitants, did Kara's father send her rocketing toward earth. When the Man of Steel finally meets his cousin, he clasps her in a superembrace. It is, we are told, the happiest moment in his lonely life. "We may be orphans, but we have each other now," he says. "I'll take care of you like a big brother, cousin Kara!" Supergirl's response? "Choke!"

Twenty-six years later this poignant family reunion was tragically reflected on the seventh cover of the "Crisis" series, where a weeping Superman was shown clutching the lifeless body of his Kryptonian cousin. Inside we learn how Kara selflessly gave her life that Superman might live. "Sometimes I forget how mortal we really are," says the Man of Steel as he carries Supergirl to her grave. "I don't believe I'll ever forget that again." It's an ominous statement, one echoed in the final line of the series: "These days you just never know who's going to die . . . and who's going to live."

A year after the "Crisis" series concluded, DC completely overhauled Superman, a job they turned over to John Byrne, who had made a name for himself at rival Marvel Comics. Byrne streamlined events in Superman's life, eliminating, among other things, Clark Kent's early career as Superboy. In 1987, to account for 40 years of memorable adventures starring the now-nonexistent Boy of Steel, Byrne and others concocted a four-part series called "The Greatest Hero of Them All," in which another larger-than-life villain, the Time Trapper, lures the 30th-century legion of superheroes into a small "pocket universe" that exists within a forgotten space of time. It is within this universe, on an alternate earth, that Superboy has lived, and it is here that he sacrifices himself to save his adopted planet from destruction. Though its time-twisting logic might have baffled Einstein, it's a stirring story with dazzling artwork, including a dramatic fight between the Superboy who never existed and the new, revamped Superman. The two antagonists part as friends, though as Superboy slips back into the time stream he remarks, "I've got a feeling we'll never meet again."

Though these many deaths may have shocked readers, they had a certain legitimacy from a storyteller's point of view. People die, even superpeople, and besides, as Joseph Campbell remarked, a hero who's afraid to face the grave is no hero. But DC diminished the shock by quickly finding replacements for its vanquished heroes. Wally West (Kid Flash) took over for the Flash, trading his yellow uniform for a red one. Tim Drake, a precocious lad who had deduced that Batman and Bruce Wayne were one and the same, became Robin. A piece of interplanetary protoplasm named Matrix assumed the shape of Supergirl, and even Superboy resurfaced in his own comic, which DC insisted had nothing to do with the current Superman chronology and was only meant as a companion to the short-lived Superboy TV series--a series rumored to conclude with an unscreened episode depicting his death.

So those whom death has undone DC has seen fit to again make whole. With this in mind, it seems more appropriate to ask not if Superman will return but when. It's an important question to all champions of goodness and light, though its answer will affect no one more than the woman the Man of Steel left standing at the altar, the long-suffering Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane.

Yes, they are carnal, both of them, love and death, and there lie their terror and their great magic! --Thomas Mann

Thirty-five years ago, in the innocent days before parallel universes and alternate realities, DC storytellers had only the "imaginary" story with which to embellish the deeds of their hero. The earliest of these stories involved the most preposterous scenario imaginable: Superman getting married. It seemed impossible that Cupid's arrow would have any more effect on the Man of Steel than a slug from a .38. We young readers realized that, and so did the storytellers at DC.

It wasn't that the most beautiful women in Metropolis didn't adore Superman, though they were likely to run over mild-mannered Clark Kent. The lovely Miss Lane was an intrepid journalist, but her knees turned to butter whenever her Kryptonian Romeo was around. "I'd like to be in your arms always Superman!--As your wife--Sigh!" she whispers to her red-caped rescuer in the 1958 story "The Girl of Steel." Superman brushes off the proposal, saying only a supergirl could endure his "constant round of super-action and danger."

Fortunately--and keep in mind this tale did not fall into the "imaginary" category--Jimmy Olsen is granted three wishes. The cub reporter wishes first for a supergirl to be a "companion" for his superpal. She materializes, looking remarkably like Superman's cousin Kara, who would not appear on earth for another year. Jimmy thinks she's a "peach"; after a midair flirtation, a stammering Superman calls her "impetuous." Lois is devastated--"Choke!"--but makes a private vow to allow the two to marry, since a supergirl will obviously "make Superman happy. Sob!"

But this supergirl is overzealous and inept at using her powers; worse, she inadvertently reveals to Lois that Clark Kent and Superman are the same. She redeems herself by carrying away a chunk of Kryptonite that's poisoning Superman. Because Jimmy wished for a female duplicate of Superman, the Kryptonite kills her, and she disappears back into "the mysterious limbo from which she came." Clark proposes to Lois, prompting Lois to conclude he can't be Superman or he'd never have popped the question. "It's sweet of you, Clark," she says. "But I could only marry you if you were really Superman." "Whew!" thinks Clark.

Most of Superman's erotic encounters ended unhappily. In the first imaginary story, "Mr. and Mrs. Clark (Superman) Kent," the Metropolis elite snub Lois because her husband is only a lowly newspaperman. "I've got the world's sweetest, smartest, strongest man," sobs Lois, "but the trouble is, nobody knows it." Clark soothes his wife with a superkiss, but by story's end Lois has become a shrew.

Shortly thereafter, in the imaginary story "The Wife of Superman," the vivacious Lana Lang gives Superman a kiss that curls his cape. "Her lips," he moans. "They're thrilling! Great Scott! I love the girl. Despite all my mighty powers of mind and body, I--I never knew it till now!!" After Superman concocts a potion to give Lana superpowers they marry, but he's humiliated when the world hails his wife as its greatest champion because she's impervious to Kryptonite. "How can I be her hero when she's mightier than I am? Choke!" Unable to bear her husband's chagrin, Lana packs her bags and flies off to another galaxy, though promising Superman she'll "never, never stop loving him. Sob!"

On one remarkable occasion love steered a straighter course, but it required splitting Superman. In "The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue," an imaginary tale from 1963, a "brain-evolution machine" powered by all varieties of Kryptonite creates two Men of Steel from one. After ridding the world of crime and disease Superman-Red marries Lois and travels to New Krypton, while Superman-Blue retires on earth with Lana. But this tale was an aberration. In the 1964 "The Death of Lois Lane" ("the greatest imaginary tale of them all") Superman marries Lois, they have superkids, and Lois dies. Love for Superman generally involved loss.

There's no better example of this than "The Girl From Superman's Past," a famous 1959 story that, despite its curious content, was not considered apocrypha but an accepted part of the DC canon. While still a young man, Clark falls hard for a fellow student at Metropolis University, a wheelchair-bound beauty named Lori Lemaris. Clark resolves to propose, realizing that to protect his wife he must forsake his career as Superman. But Lori turns out to be a telepathic mermaid who, despite her love for Clark, must return to the sunken kingdom of Atlantis. After a passionate underwater kiss--"and there never was, or ever will be, such a strange kiss again"--Superman stood alone on the shore, waving farewell to the woman he loved. (Years later, Lori was another victim of the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" series.)

There were several other nonimaginary tales in which Superman appeared to marry, but they reeked of fraud from the opening panels. You could always count on things not being what they seemed. In "Superman's Greatest Sacrifice," the Man of Steel gives up his powers so he and Lois can marry; but "Superman" turns out to be just some bum in a mask conning a wealthy woman who happens to be a Lois Lane look-alike. In "The Super-Family of Steel" Superman and Lois marry and live on Venus--except that Lois is another look-alike (heiress Sylvia Dewitt), while the guy in the blue tights is really Van-Zee from the shrunken, bottled city of Kandor, which Superman keeps in his arctic Fortress of Solitude. Eventually the Van-Zees return to Kandor, but for a short while Sylvia is married to a superman, causing a moony Lois to sigh, "Will that glorious day ever come for me???"

Thirty years later it did. DC's new, improved Superman is somewhat less powerful and considerably more human than the artifact from the Eisenhower era, and he longs for a woman in his life. He longs especially for Lois Lane. It's important to remember that since 1986 the Superman comics have really been about Clark Kent, the dauntless Daily Planet reporter who occasionally masquerades as Superman to fight whatever disaster, crime, or alien menace threatens his adopted planet. So it was Kent who proposed to Lois in 1990, and it was Kent that Lois happily agreed to marry, not realizing there was more to her fiance than met the eye.

In January 1991 the ten members of DC's Superman team met in Orlando, Florida, where, editor Mike Carlin said, they were "mapping out all the steps toward the actual wedding." It seemed nothing could stand in love's way, and everyone expected Clark and Lois to tie the knot in Superman number 500, then about two years away. But instead of a wedding Lois got a funeral. Perhaps DC decided that if Clark was going to immerse himself in things carnal, death was a more seemly indulgence than love. Or maybe they were worried that any story that led Superman to the altar would turn into a dead end. That's what happened to the writers of the daily newspaper strip when they married off Superman and Lois in 1949. Within a year they'd run out of ideas and were forced to reveal that the wedding had only been another of lovesick Lois's dreams.

A similar scenario occurred in the Superman TV show of the 1950s, The Adventures of Superman. Lois collapses beneath the combined burden of answering the Planet's letters to the lovelorn and her own unrequited love. Superman rescues her in the only possible way, by proposing. Of course the proposal is a dream from which Lois awakens, buried beneath unanswered love letters. I remember being deeply disturbed as a boy by the depth of Lois's sadness, just as I was troubled by an episode that left Superman powerless following a collision with an earth-bound asteroid. Dazed and weakened, he wandered through the city, and this hint of death, like Lois's dream with its hint of love, was an unsettling intrusion on the status quo of television's Metropolis. I tuned in to the show to watch a man outrace bullets, leap tall buildings, bend steel in his bare hands. I didn't expect to see broken hearts or beckoning coffins.

Then driven by the fierce scrutiny

Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,

They sough the rumour of mortality.

--Allen Tate

Back in 1959 Chicago had several afternoon papers, and they were the first to publish the shattering news, on page one, above the fold. "TV Superman Kills Self in Home," cried the June 16 Daily News (still just seven cents), and below that the puzzling subhead: "Fiancee Saw It Coming." Actor George Reeves, who portrayed the Man of Steel on television, had early that morning shot himself in the bedroom of his Los Angeles home. Though there were several troubling aspects to the case--including the assertion of Reeves's alleged fiancee that she "had a premonition that he was going to shoot himself"--the coroner ruled the death a suicide.

For young fans of the show the most troubling aspect was that Superman had killed himself. That's how closely we identified Reeves with the role he played. Ultimately kids concluded the actor had fallen prey to the same delusion, had begun to imagine he really was a man of steel, and so put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, expecting his skin to repel the bullet. This of course was only a school-yard rumor, for as it turned out George Reeves may have been the only person to understand fully that he never was and never would be Superman.

Reeves had arrived in Hollywood in 1929, a midwestern boy bit by the acting bug. His career--he made his film debut as one of the Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind--was derailed by his service in World War II, and when he returned to Tinseltown he had trouble getting it back on track. Later he would remark that he took the role of Superman "because I was hungry." Though the syndicated series made Reeves a wealthy, well-known star, friends said it never gave him any fulfillment as an actor.

Reeves filmed 104 episodes of The Adventures of Superman between 1951 and 1957, but in the spring of 1959, when he was 45, he had been unemployed for 16 months. The show still had a huge following, as did Reeves, but only as Superman. That April he suffered a head injury in a car accident near his home. Friends said it left him "lethargic," and he became even more despondent over his inability to persuade casting directors he could be something less than a superhero. He talked about embarking on a wrestling career and scheduled an exhibition boxing match with world light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore for late June. There may also have been woman trouble. Reeves's alleged fiancee, Lenore Lemmon, spoke of a "woman who wanted him, who never left him alone. For the last four months, she had been calling him 20 times a day starting at seven in the morning. I don't say that's the reason [Reeves killed himself], but it was one of the motivating factors. I think everything just kind of swooped down on a very sensitive man."

Lemmon was 35, a familiar figure in New York City's cafe society. The daughter of a Broadway ticket broker, she had married and divorced one of the heirs to the Vanderbilt fortune. Lemmon later claimed she and Reeves had planned to get married in Mexico a few days before the fight with Moore, an assertion denied by Reeves's manager. Either way, Lemmon was a few rooms away when Reeves died. Just like his comic-book counterpart, Reeves was pursued to the end by a woman with marriage on her mind. The greater coincidence was that her initials also happened to be LL.

Reeves had gone to bed early on the night of June 15, as had his two houseguests, Lemmon and writer Robert Condon. At 2:30 AM two of Reeves's friends dropped by and awakened the household. Reeves was furious, but then he abruptly apologized. "I'm tired," he said. "I'm going to bed." He went upstairs, leaving his houseguests and the two callers behind. "He's going to shoot himself," said Lemmon. The others thought she was joking, but she persisted. "He's opening a drawer to get the gun," she said. A shot was heard. "See there," she exclaimed. "I told you!"

Reeves was found naked on his bed, a bullet from a Luger in his right temple. There was no note. Everyone, police included, saw it as a sad suicide. Everyone but Reeves's mother back in Galesburg, Illinois, who hired the Nick Harris Detective Agency to check things out. The agency's report differed from the official version: it said there were no fingerprints on the gun, no powder burns on Reeves, and that the angle of the wound did not suggest suicide. Police refused to reopen the case, but the suspicion that George Reeves may have been murdered persists to this day.

For many, Reeves remains the definitive Superman. Reruns have given him a sort of celluloid immortality, though this close pairing of actor and role is an illusion in which Reeves ultimately refused to participate. In the series's final episode (which Reeves also directed), Jimmy Olsen dreams that he acquires superpowers. Though brief, the dream leaves a vivid impression on the cub reporter. "Golly, Mr. Kent," he gushes, "you'll never know how wonderful it is to be like Superman." To which Kent grimly replies, "No, Jimmy, I guess I never will." These are George Reeves's final words on film. Pushing 50, he clearly realized he had little share in whatever immortality might cling to a Man of Steel.

Anyone having trouble putting Superman and human frailty in the same frame would have done well to talk to Joseph Shuster, who died last July. Fifty-eight summers earlier Shuster teamed up with his high school classmate Jerry Siegel to create, as Siegel put it, "a character like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I ever heard tell of rolled into one. Only more so." The teens christened their new hero "Superman"; they called his timid alter ego Clark Kent.

While Superman was modeled on Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Clark Gable (who provided Mr. Kent with a first name), the inspiration for the pusillanimous Kent may have been Shuster himself. "I was mild mannered, wore glasses, was very shy with women," Shuster remembered years later. In other words Shuster, like his pal Siegel, was a bit of a nerd. But Superman gave both boys a chance to revel vicariously in the unqualified adoration of beautiful women. Siegel even took an odd delight in the Man of Steel's indifference to the fairer sex. "I enjoyed the fact that he wasn't that affected by all their admiration," he said. After all, Superman "would be so advanced that he would be invulnerable in other ways than physical."

The friends sent their ten-page Superman story to numerous publishers and news syndicates, all of whom rejected the tale as preposterous. Finally in 1938 publisher Harry Donenfeld bought the story for $10 a page. He also made Siegel and Shuster relinquish the rights to their creation. "We were young kids," said Shuster. "What did we know?" Superman was first featured in the inaugural edition of Action Comics in June 1938 and was an immediate success. Donenfeld signed writer Siegel and artist Shuster to a ten-year contract. He also let them produce a daily Superman strip for the McClure Syndicate, though because he owned the rights to the Man of Steel, Donenfeld insisted on a share of the profits.

By 1947 comics, radio, movies, and merchandising had made Superman a multimillion-dollar industry. Feeling they were being deprived of a rightful share of the profits, Siegel and Shuster filed suit seeking to regain control of their creation as well as five million dollars in lost income. While the court awarded them $100,000 as compensation for the newly created Superboy character, it ruled that Superman belonged to National Periodical Publications, the parent company of Action Comics. (Shortly thereafter, the company changed its name to DC, after its legendary Detective Comics, birthplace of Batman.) In 1948, when their contract with Donenfeld expired, Siegel and Shuster were fired.

The next 25 years were desperate times for the pair. They created other cartoon characters (like Funnyman), but none caught on. In the early 60s DC hired Siegel to script anonymously some Superman stories--it was he who wrote the 1961 "Death of Superman." Shuster was also put on retainer, for about $7,500 annually, though he was almost legally blind. After another unsuccessful lawsuit in 1963 the two left DC. Siegel found work as a mailroom clerk; Shuster, destitute, was taken in by his brother.

Then in 1975 word began to circulate about a $20-million Superman movie then in the making. Siegel bombarded newsrooms with a nine-page press release listing his and Shuster's grievances and calling for a boycott of the film. Anticipating a wave of negative publicity, Warners, DC's new parent company and the film's distributor, agreed to give both men an annual pension of $20,000, plus a $15,000 bonus after the film grossed $275 million. The pension, which also included medical benefits, was raised to $30,000 in 1981. During the preceding decade alone, Superman sales exceeded one billion dollars.

While the deal with Warner may not have been the most equitable settlement, it did rescue Siegel and Shuster from poverty. More important, DC agreed to restore the creators' credits, which now appear at the beginning of each new Superman adventure. Siegel and Shuster retired to west Los Angeles, and it was there that Shuster died of congestive heart failure on July 30. "The comic-book field has lost a great artist and a true pioneer," said Siegel. "I've lost a lifelong friend and partner. He'll be sorely missed."

So mourn Joe Shuster, the prototypical Clark Kent, but save your pity for Jerry Siegel, who lost two lifelong friends within four months, one of whom he must have thought would live forever.

The treasure that the hero fetches from the dark cavern is life: it is himself, reborn. --Carl Jung

I wonder if Christopher Reeve lies awake some nights thinking about George Reeves. Reeve portrayed Superman in four lavish feature films between 1978 and 1987. After a good start, the series went steadily downhill, and Reeve now seems reduced to doing made-for-TV movies and ads for one of the lesser airlines. Having just celebrated his 40th birthday, he might be looking for a way to shake the Superman label and get on with his life. Have I got a story for him.

Actually DC has the story, and I'm not referring to its recent Doomsday saga. If Superman is restored to life, DC should definitely sell a lot of comics. And once Ol' Blue is back, we and Lois can look forward to the wedding. Obviously this story line doesn't do Reeve any good. Sick of his hero, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, then was forced to revive him. Reeve needs a Superman who will stay dead.

Maybe we all do. Perhaps the Man of Steel's virtue, like his power, is just too exalted for our age. Even his ally Batman now scornfully refers to Superman as "the Boy Scout." Capitalizing on the current popularity of Gotham City's brooding Dark Knight, DC recently issued imaginary stories with versions of Batman battling crime everywhere from Lincoln's America to Conan Doyle's London. DC should do the same for Superman. Leave him dead, let America mourn another fallen hero, and then occasionally issue special editions with new adventures set 40 or 50 years ago, a time when Superman's powers still inspired awe and his virtue aspiration.

As for Christopher Reeve: if he wants to make one final Superman picture (and the word is he does), he should give serious consideration to a story DC published six years ago, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Billed as the "historic last issue" of Superman, it was a wistful eulogy for the Man of Steel before he was turned over to John Byrne for modernizing. "This is an imaginary story," it begins. "Aren't they all?"

The principal artist on the project was Curt Swan, who had been drawing Superman for DC since 1955. Swan left an imprint on the Man of Steel as indelible as Joe Shuster's; conjure up a vision of the cartoon Superman in your mind and the image you'll see is probably Swan's. One of his signatures was a lighthearted closing panel in which Clark shared a knowing wink with his readers, usually at the expense of Lois Lane. One reason the 1961 "Death of Superman" had such an impact was that it clearly flowed from Swan's pen yet lacked his usual happy resolution.

"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is an elaborate swan song that brings out many familiar Superman characters for a final curtain call. (Even Supergirl is brought back for a brief bow.) Actually, what happens at the heart of the story is less important than the episodes that frame it. In August 1997, ten years after the death of Superman, a reporter from the Daily Planet interviews Lois Elliot (nee Lane) about her last days with the Man of Steel. Afraid he might be resurrecting a rival's ghost, the reporter apologizes to Lois's husband. "I can live with it," says Jordan Elliot, a mustachioed auto mechanic whose brown hair is going gray. "[Superman] weren't nothing special. Us ordinary workin' slobs, son . . . we're the real heroes."

Lois then tells the reporter about the death of Superman. Ten years earlier Metropolis is under seige. An army of Metallos demolish the Daily Planet, and the Prankster and Toyman expose Kent as Superman, killing one of Clark's closest friends (Pete Ross) in the process. Even Bizarro, generally a benign oddity, goes on a murderous rampage before finally committing suicide with Blue Kryptonite. The mastermind behind these simultaneous assaults appears to be Luthor and Brainiac, fused together into one monstrous entity. They carry the battle to the north pole and the Fortress of Solitude, where Superman has stashed his friends for protection. The superdog Krypto dies killing the Kryptonite Man, and Jimmy and Lana (the two redheads) perish while fighting the Legion of Super-Villains from the 30th century.

Superman is ticked. His eyes flare as he unleashes his heat vision. "His mind . . . he isn't bluffing . . . he's prepared to kill!" screams one supervillain, who flees back to the future with her sinister cohorts. The Brainiac-Luthor hybrid collapses and dies, a victim of its own horrible excess. Only one of Superman's old enemies has made no appearance--until now. There's a puff of smoke and Mr. Mxyzptlk materializes, the mischievous imp from the fifth dimension who orchestrated these terrible events. After perpetrating magical pranks for two millennia, Mxyzptlk has decided to devote himself to evil, starting with Superman's death. The Man of Steel turns the "single cyclops eye" of the Phantom Zone projector on his foe, and Mxyzptlk, attempting to escape to his own space and time, is torn in half between two dimensions.

Superman has intentionally broken his vow never to kill. Lois insists he had no choice, but the Boy Scout sees it otherwise. "Nobody has the right to kill," he says. "Not Mxyzptlk, not you, not Superman . . . especially not Superman!" He walks toward a lead-lined storage chamber that contains Gold Kryptonite, the one substance that can strip him permanently of his powers. "As he walked into the blinding golden light he turned and looked back over his shoulder," recalls Lois. "He smiled at me. I never saw Superman again."

Back (ahead?) in 1997, the Planet reporter has one last question for Lois: "What do you think of the rumors that Superman is still alive?" Lois understands why people want to believe their great hero still lives, but she reiterates that he slipped out of the fortress into the polar wastes and froze to death. His body was never recovered. "As far as I'm concerned," she says, "Superman died in the arctic."

Satisfied, the reporter leaves Lois alone with her husband and their baby, Jonathan. Like his mother--and like Superman--the baby has raven hair, and one unruly blue-black ringlet dangles defiantly on his forehead. While his parents talk, Jonathan plucks a briquette from the fireplace, and soon his shirt and face are blackened, though where once there was a lump of coal now a diamond sparkles.

In the modern era, wrote Joseph Campbell, "the happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved." But as we blunder through the tragedy of our lives, Campbell would have us also remember "the fairy tale of happiness . . . [from] the never-never land of childhood." This is the other side of tragedy, "the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible." And so Jor-El, the great Kryptonian scientist who was destroyed along with his planet, continues to live through his son, Kal-El (Superman) and through his son's son, Jonathan (the first name of Pa Kent). For Superman had finally faced the grave, and the great miracle that emerged was, thanks to Lois, life.

Their baby in bed, Lois and her husband are alone. They plan a pizza dinner, a bottle of wine, and bed. "And after that," says Lois, "I figure we just live happily ever after. Sound good to you?" "Lois, my love," replies Clark (for surely it is he), "what do you think?" And he turns to close the bedroom door. And he smiles at us. And he winks.

Choke!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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