“Tell me, Superman. What shall we engrave upon your tombstone?”
Solar-Superman. Doomsday. These were hardly the only villains to successfully kill a Superman. Among the other adversaries was Mandrakk, slayer of the Thought Robot Superman, who immediately before doing so delivered the taunt quoted above. That Superman stopped the cosmic vampire-god, because of course he did, but it cost him too his own life. Dying beside the tombstone already prepared for him, his final act was to etch his own epitaph. “Mandrakk asked what words I’d have inscribed on my tombstone. Only these….” The final splash page of the issue (Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #2) reveals to the reader what was written: “To be continued.
Such was the confidence that Superman had in a rebirth, a belief that his so called “never-ending battle” was truly that. The Thought Robot Superman shared the same consciousness as the post-Crisis, pre-New 52 Superman. It is that Superman who spends this issue reacting to the death of the New 52 Superman of Earth Prime, approaching such with the same certainty as he had at the hour of his own deaths. He hovers over the tomb of his doppelgänger, more assured in his heart of a coming resurrection than Christ’s own apostles that first Easter morning. He is wrong.
As has become fashionable in the age of Abed Nadir, there is a metatextual message at work in all this. True, this Superman has seen himself, all his allies, and various villains walk through the revolving door of death so many times that comic book logic has become common sense. Like we the readers, the denizens of those worlds do not always accept death as the inevitable end because so often it is not. Even mere mortals like Jason Todd and Damien Wayne die and rise again. Thus, Superman’s conviction is the mirror to the comic reader’s own cynicism at character deaths. Though novel and somewhat shocking when Jean Grey and Superman first respectively returned, deaths have become blasé, rebirths assumed. By systematically laying out a program to revivificate the New 52 Superman and spending a large portion of this issue deconstructing that plan, Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, and DC Comics are making an implicit promise to the readers that this is not a cheap, clichéd comic book death to temporarily boost circulation that will be redacted when another sales spike is needed, but rather a real closing chapter with lasting consequences.
Of course, a secondary reason for drawing so deliberately on the original Death of Superman storyline is the midst of ‘90s nostalgia in which we now find ourselves. Though the actual issues hardly hold up (as I can attest to, having reread Death of Superman, Funeral for a Friend, and Reign of the Supermen in full not too long ago), many of us who remember reading it at the time of release still hold fond feelings despite the flaws. This issue was an opportunity to re-experience that event as we remember it without revisiting the issues themselves which have aged rather poorly. Moreover, it was closely keeping with the theme of rebirth. Whereas the other releases from DC this week strained to incorporate the concept (e.g. Calendar Man molting in Batman: Rebirth), often merely telling tales of new beginnings (e.g. Green Lanterns and Green Arrow), Superman: Rebirth actually recounts a time when the character was quite literally reborn, cleverly tying such to the new direction which the series is taking.
Perhaps what is most surprising is just how much of an improvement Doug Mahnke’s reinterpretations of these seminal scenes are over the originals. Surely I’ve said it before somewhere, but it bears repeating: Superman, as iconic a character as any, despite or perhaps because of such, remains one of the hardest for most pencillers to draw. Many superstars of the industry such as Jim Lee and Ivan Reis, have applied their own signature style to Superman, but only four artists have truly captured the core of the character: Curt Swan, John Byrne, Alex Ross, and Jason Fabok. This isn’t Mahnke’s first attempt at illustrating Superman. He was the artist responsible for the aforementioned issues from Final Crisis featuring the Thought Robot Superman. His interpretation at the time had been somewhat serviceable, at best. A great deal more time and effort was poured into the first half of this issue, evidently, as there are several panels which truly rival the work of Byrne and Fabok. Now that it’s clear he’s capable of work of this caliber, my hope is that he can continue to deliver such quality consistently going forward.
(As an aside: the character is called “Superman.” The beard is both super and manly. DC, let him keep the beard. It’s the right look for the character. Oh, and ring back the red trunks too. Not that they’re either super or manly, but Superman without the shorts is like me without my cowboy hat. How do folks even recognize him with the iconic getup?)
As with the end of the post-Crisis era, Superman is again in need of a rebirth. After the Byrne era and the Death and Return storyline, he’d have the occasional arc of enduring quality, such as For Tomorrow or Geoff Johns’ Brainiac, but most of his most memorable appearances were propped up by other characters, whether in Crises (e.g. Identity, Infinite, Final Crisis), crossovers (e.g. Superman/Batman, Legion of Three Worlds), or elseworlds (e.g. All-Star, Kingdom Come, Red Son, Earth One). The New 52, by hitting the reset button, was supposed to change all that, specifically for Superman. And yet after Morrison’s departure from Action Comics, the best Superman stories have been in the pages of Justice League and American Alien instead of any of his own titles. Perhaps Rebirth will finally fix that. This issue makes the promise that the mistakes of the last few years are dead and buried. Time will tell if something super rises to replace them, if the best days of the character are truly once again “To be continued…”