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Thrill as the last drops of Kryptonian blood are drained from The Death of Superman – Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey

February 8, 2013

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The Death of Superman and its follow-up arcs (Funeral for a Friend, Reign of the Supermen, The Return of Superman) was nothing if not an event. Big sales, big interest. The 20/20 hindsight on the story, though, is that it kind of stunk. It was a simple sales-driven editorial decision to “kill” Superman with a character no one had ever heard of, but once the mainstream media got hold of it the thing just caught fire. A friend of mine who owned a comic store back then remembers the day the bagged copy of #75 came out, how when he came in through the back door he was startled to see people milling around the front window and pressed up against it like in that episode of Star Trek where the planet was overpopulated (The Mark of Gideon). When he opened, one guy picked up the whole stack and tried to buy out every copy, thinking that this was going to one day pay off and land him an island in the Caribbean. No, one copy per person, sir. And I’m doing you a favor.

I’ve read interviews with then-Super-Editor Mike Carlin and primary writer-artist Dan Jurgens where they talk about how the Death storyline just got too big, and how the attention that it drew made it into something that it was never meant to be: a once in a lifetime event that was supposed to be passed down from elders to generations of knee-sitting children. There are two sides to this: Yes, the mainstream media — I remember learning of Superman’s impending death from Dan Rather, of all people — should have taken this with a few more grains of salt, as comic book deaths have about as much chance of taking as do pro wrestling retirements. Superman had as much chance of going away for good as Ric Flair. But come on — the Superman brain trust didn’t realize that offing the Man of Steel and ceasing publication on his books for a few months wouldn’t be news? It’s a toss-up on who was more gullible. (As always, though, lean towards the media on that count.)

Anyway, Superman died, was buried, was impersonated (I admit, teen me was rooting for Cyborg Superman to be the real one — I liked Terminator 2, what can I say?) and then came back in the Coast City-annihilating cataclysm that, ironically, set the stage for Hal Jordan’s fall and death (one that had more legs). I ate it all up when it came out, but as they years passed, as those bagged, bloody books failed to fund real estate buys in paradise, it all became one big shrug of the shoulders. There was a remarkable lack of resonance to the fall of the first and greatest.

Then there was one day a few years later when I was going through a bookstore and saw today’s subject on the rack. Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey. Or, as it should be: Superman/Doomsday: We’re Back/For More Cash. Because really, that’s what it is. Which is fine. DC is just as much in the business of selling comics as making them. And guess what? I BOUGHT IT. And still have it, for that matter. So if there’s a joke, it’s on me.

Hunter/Prey, published as a three-issue mini, fulfills (ironically) a three-fold function, in that it brings Doomsday back (he had been lashed to a rock and cast into space by the Cyborg Superman during Reign) while at the same time offering up his senses-shattering origin and delving (weakly) into Superman’s lingering psychological trauma. That it was a previously unknown force of nature that offed Kal-El was one of the big Death complaints, and this book spackles over that void by filling in Doomsday’s origin gaps. And, under the standard Dan Jurgens/Brett Breeding byline from that era, the book has Superman coming to grips with the nightmares leftover after his death and rebirth. (Let’s be frank: this would linger with anyone.) Of course, to conquer his fear he has to confront its source, and that source is the very beast that killed him. But first, Doomsday has to break his asteroid shackles, which he does with the help of a passing freighter:

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Really, you didn’t see a whole ton of people getting sliced in half in Superman comics back then. Or, for that matter, disembodied heads leaving a bloody comet trail as they rocket past, as they do when the freighter makes its scheduled stop on Apokolips:

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FORE.

The book isn’t just about the return of one villain. The Cyborg is back as well, and tries to use Doomsday as muscle to take over Apokolips. There’s more than Parademons and Furies standing in his way, though. Yes, within these pages we get the Doomsday vs. Darkseid showdown that we never knew we wanted. (And shouldn’t it have been someone like Darkseid to deliver the original Super-killshot?) How does it go? NOT EVEN DARKSEID’S THIGH-HIGH FASHION BOOTS CAN SAVE HIM FROM DOOMSDAY’S BONY ONSLAUGHT:

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Point of order: The Omega Beams lose strength over distance? Shouldn’t Omega Beams always be at full blast? Isn’t that the point of the “Omega”? Otherwise — Psi Beams? (Overthinking this, I know. And maybe they do lose strength like that. Whatever, Darkseid is still A1 villainy.)

It’s the dire situation on Apokolips that draws Superman in as an unlikely savior, and it’s there where he confronts both the Cyborg and Doomsday in a settling of two scores. Along the way learns the origin of Doomsday from Waverider, the exposition-spouting deus ex machina of the DC Universe. No spoilers about the origin, but suffice it to say he was decades in the making (decades that saw babies repeatedly killed — CHEERY) and he shares a certain connection to Superman, one that explains (lamely) why he was drawn to Metropolis — and Superman — in Death. (Note: The head alien on the Doomsday-making team reminded me, oddly enough, of the lead actress in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s the cheekbones. Look them up. Oh, and the name of her character? Lois. Oooooo…) The one aspect of this origin story with relevance to the events at hand is Doomsday’s nature as a perfect organism (xenomorph?), one that can’t be stopped the same way twice. This of course is bad news for Superman, since mano-a-mano fisticuffs ending in a Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed II simultaneous knockdown won’t cut it. But this is Apokolips, and guess what Superman has on his side — MOTHER BOX. And she’s been reading her Rob Liefeld X-Force/Youngblood comics!:

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No, Superman didn’t say “Mother Box, outfit me like RuPaul dressed as a medieval knight.” But that’s what he got. And no, we never get to see what’s stored in those pouches. But the sonic gun and the sword get used in the final struggle with Doomsday, and surely that’s enough to beat the guy, right? WRONG:

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Derp.

The story ends with Superman’s fears confronted and Doomsday (temporarily) defeated, thanks to help from Waverider and his time-travel deus abilities.

If you think this all sounds like a rather hollow, unsatisfying story, you’re right.

This isn’t meant as a knock on Jurgens and Breeding, two gentlemen who together put out A LOT of Superman comics over the years, some that were damn good by any superhero plot metric. (And Jurgens will always have Booster Gold on the plus side of the ledger.) I read and enjoyed much of their output. It’s just that this isn’t the good stuff. Doomsday, despite the epochal event he instigated, was never a great villain, nor will he ever be. You know who/what Doomsday is? He’s like some pop singer who was part of a music phenomenon, one that faded and left people ashamed afterwards that they had ever liked this fad in the first place. I’m thinking any non-Wahlberg member of New Kids on the Block. Someone like that. Someone who might get trotted out every now and then on some dopey VH-1 retrospective, someone with limited public success — if any — after soaring fame, someone who will always have a lingering cachet having more to do with infamy than prowess.

It’s hard to picture Doomsday as a boy band member, but what the hell, why not?

Hunter/Prey feels forced. No, it’s not far-fetched to think that Superman would have lingering fears and doubts about the creature that pureed his face, one whose body is missing and floating around in space. Nor is it forced to bring Doomsday back into the fold, as in comics — yes, like in wrestling — no exile is forever. But throwing Darkseid into the mix feels like seeding keywords into a web page. The outlandish Super-Knight costume looks like an overly complicated design for an action figure that never materialized. Waverider does his maddening “solve all problems and wrap things up and paint our way out of corners” thing. And the thread that we learn connects Superman with the monster that bashed in his face? Maybe it’s okay. Maybe it’s crap. But it, too, feels forced, like after the fact justification, a device that says “Look, he wasn’t really out of thin air! He has just as much to do with Superman as that red-haired Lex Luthor who was really the old Lex in a new body! See, Death was actually good!”

The Death of Superman wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t great. It was somewhere in the middle. So is Doomsday’s return. It’s part of the seven stages of storytelling grief (denial?) — part of a creative brain trust coming to terms with the fact that the character they made the centerpiece of an epic event just wasn’t up to snuff. That the Doomsday juice ain’t worth the squeezing, no matter how hard you try.

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