As murders go, it was supposed to be a simple one.
When the braintrust of Superman creators hatched their plan for The Death of Superman in 1992, their outline was as fiendish and simple as one of Luthor’s best schemes.
Kill the Man of Steel in the pages of his own comic, and then replace him, over the course of the following year, with a slate of would-be substitute Supermans, each claiming the Big Man’s mantle but only representing a fraction of what made Kal-El great to begin with. Finally, when readers had realized the inevitable fact that Superman possessed a heroism and cool factor that no replacement could match, bring back the Man of Tomorrow alive and kicking, and shuffle off the pretenders into the superhero dustbin.
But as Luthor could have told them, cunning schemes rarely turn out as intended. And if DC had set out to show the world that Superman towered over his replacements, what the world actually discovered was that these newer, younger, and more diverse heroes had qualities as surprising and inspiring as the man they displaced.
A Black Superman. A young, horny, maybe even queer-coded Superboy. A Supergirl who was low-key… trans? Each caught the imagination and loyalty of readers in ways that the older, more established, and inevitably stodgier Superman never could — and each of them flamed out, first on the chopping block when the tides of comic book fortunes turned.
But before they went, they served as an uncanny preview of exactly where Superman comics are today.
Superman must… die!
The Death of Superman was a story born, famously, out of desperation. In 1992, the writers and artists behind the four monthly Superman titles — along with the line’s editor, Mike Carlin — had planned to build their yearly story arc around the long-awaited marriage of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. But when TV’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was greenlit, a lateral had to be called. Courtesy of Adventures of Superman writer Jerry Ordway, one option won out: the Man of Steel would die.
Still, no one undertakes a killing without ample motivation, and there were deeper forces at work. The world of superhero comics in 1992 was a very different place from the one Superman had been born into 54 years earlier. This was the height of the speculator-fueled comic book boom, a year in which the combined comic market in dollars and the number of comic shops both approached their all-time peak, before a swift and devastating plunge. Enticed by the foil-stamped, trading-card-polybagged siren song of Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, the kids wanted their content, and the content they wanted was 100% X-treme.
Thus was born the plan to murder Clark Kent, introduce his temporary replacements, and ultimately restore DC’s flagship character in better physical (and financial) shape than ever. But by the time 1993’s Reign of the Supermen storyline kicked off, a curious kind of mission creep had already set in. Even as DC set out to prove that no one could win the hearts of readers the way Superman could, they hoped, in an era of booming sales and cutthroat competition, for temporary replacements who just might have some staying power after all — and that meant reaching the new kids of the ’90s in a way that stodgy old Clark Kent never had.
So while two of the new pseudo-Supermans (the authoritarian Eradicator and the sociopathic Cyborg Superman) were eventually revealed to be straightforward villains, two other replacements turned out offer a young, diverse, and curious audience something very different indeed.
The color of steel
For an alien born light-years from Earth under a distant sun, Superman never seemed to have a problem fitting in. Despite his Kryptonian biology, the undeniable fact was that Clark Kent looked, acted, and was perceived as an average white American — by all appearances, the WASP-y Kansas farm boy of his fictional upbringing. So when it came time to create a new hero in the wake of Kal-El’s death, writer Louise Simonson and artist Jon Bogdanove wanted a Superman who could see America through different eyes.
Their creation was John Henry Irons, a brilliant inventor who faked his death and donned an armor-plated battlesuit to fight evil as the hero Steel, in honor of Superman’s heroic sacrifice. He was also not-incidentally Black — the first time, in fact, that DC introduced a mainline Black Superman into the comics themselves. To Steel’s co-creator, the character’s success owed itself to the way he captured something essential in the Superman legend.
“Weezie [Simonson] and I were always most interested in Superman’s heart and character,” Bogdanove told Polygon via email. “It’s not his powers and abilities that make him Superman, it’s his heart — his compassion and genuine altruism. What does it take to be a Superman? We wanted to create a substitute Superman without powers, someone who tries to fill Superman’s boots by dint of character traits alone. The real-life John Henry seemed a natural model for such a character. Here was a real man who genuinely performed a superhuman feat of strength and endurance, for the sake of working people and the dignity of the working class.”
Steel came at a time of expanding awareness of a readership of color for superhero comics — a greater willingness to acknowledge and reflect it on the page, if not an actual broadening of the readership’s demographics. Almost at the same moment when Simonson and Bogdanove were creating John Henry Irons, a corps of Black creators (spearheaded by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle) were founding Milestone Comics as an independent imprint within the DC Comics umbrella. Their characters, while using established superhero templates as accessible jumping-off points, were intended to reflect a more racially and socially diverse landscape than Marvel and DC had traditionally offered. As it happened, this included a hard-edged Black Iron Man pastiche of their own, in the form of McDuffie and Cowan’s Hardware (a coincidence unknown to either the creators of Hardware or Steel until some time after the fact).
Steel may have been a product of white creatives, but Simonson and Bogdanove made an earnest effort to break away from stereotypes. John Henry’s background as a working-class Tony Stark was not only a nod to his folkloric namesake, but also a deliberate rejection of Black cliches in superhero comics and elsewhere. But even their best efforts ran the risk of appearing pandering or, worse, inadvertently offensive — a risk that became more pronounced when Steel was eventually given a spinoff series, with a status quo now set in the gritty, gang-filled “urban” confines of Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, Steel struck a chord with a generation of young readers, many of whom did indeed hail from Black and other communities of color within comic fandom.
“The only negative pushback I’ve ever heard of about Steel is that he isn’t ‘urban’ or Black enough,” Bogdanove said. “I think it means different things depending on who is making the criticism. If what you mean is that the two white people who created him lack first-hand understanding of the Black experience, I’d say that’s valid. Louise and I grew up in the South, but our entire understanding of what it means to be Black comes from learning about it — and from having a little basic, human empathy and sympathy — but we are on the outside looking in when portraying Black people, just as we are when writing about anyone whose lives and circumstances are different from our own.”
Steel was pushing the Superman mythos in a direction that offered to bring in new demographics of readers who might not have latched onto a more whitewashed protagonist. At the same time, there was no question that it was a roll of the dice: Black lead characters had historically struggled to maintain readership in a still-conservative direct market, and John Henry’s fate as a new hero remained uncertain.
Another pseudo-Superman seemed to be a much safer bet. Conner Kent, the Metropolis Kid, was to be a Superboy for the Fox Kids generation (but don’t call him that to his face). Light-years away from the sweater-wearing Boy Scout from Smallville, Conner was a brazenly loud and thoroughly unapologetic product of ’90s youth culture. With his leather jacket, slick shades, smart-ass mouth, and endearingly inept attempts to hit on anything and everything with two legs and a heartbeat, Conner tapped into the zeitgeist at a level that skirted the edge of parody.
In one entirely typical sequence (from Adventures of Superman #501 by Karl Kesel and penciller Tom Grummet), he makes the acquaintance of Lois Lane by propping his feet up on her late husband’s desk, tipping back in a swivel chair, and insouciantly declaring, “Y’know, I would have gotten rid of Doomsday, too…! Was gettin’ around to it.” (Lois, equally typically, responds, “I don’t have time for this. The real Superman was at least old enough to shave.”) It all approaches a gleeful, self-aware silliness that resembles something like punk-rock camp.
As Kesel remembers, it happened without even trying: “I didn’t make any conscious effort to capture the youth culture of the time,” Kesel told Polygon. “Mostly I was going on the gut feeling that if you were a teenager saying you deserved to be Superman, you must have a pretty high opinion of yourself. The rest just fell into place.”
If that were all there were to it, it might have been enough, at least for a while. The ’90s are littered with the detritus of hip, young characters who momentarily caught the affections of a new and youthful readership, from Night Thrasher to Franklin Richards to Adam-X the X-treme. But there was more going on with Conner Kent than met the eyes of his creators — and on this topic, I can speak with some personal experience.
I was 7 years old when I got my first comic with Conner Kent (it was his first full appearance in Adventures of Superman #501, which my parents plucked off a supermarket spinner rack back when supermarkets still had spinner racks). This was some years before I and everyone else would openly recognize that my sexuality might not be quite as straight as initially imagined, yet l couldn’t help, even then, thinking that there was something about the Superboy I saw in that issue. Something about those skintight spandex pants, those endearingly boyish features… that single earring bedecking one ear.
What I was detecting, even if I didn’t have the words for it, was an early inkling of a surprising but increasingly common fan refrain over the coming years: the perception of Conner Kent as an implicitly, if never textually, bisexual character. The earliest, oblique fan speculation about a queer Superboy can be found on the now-defunct Usenet comic message boards as early as 1996 — the year Conner was first teamed up with Robin Tim Drake, in a close friendship that would becoming a defining aspect of his character during the next decade. By 2003, the impression had become widespread enough that an otherwise innocuous scene from Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day, showing Conner and Tim in a closet together, inspired a cascade of fan speculation on Twitter, such that writer Judd Winick felt obliged to winkingly respond more than a decade later:
After that, the closet doors, as it were, were wide open. Writer Geoff Johns’ stint on the Teen Titans series was filled with knowing glances and meaningful shared moments between Conner and Tim. Just this past year, Meghan Fitzmartin included the two of them holding hands in very close friendship in the debut issue of her Tim Drake solo book. The Conner/Tim romance section of the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own currently includes 4,288 tagged stories (heaven knows how many it would contain if the site had existed during the heyday of the Timcon ship).
This raises an obvious question: How much of this was Conner, and how much was us? Winick, writer of the aforementioned Conner/Tim closet sequence, cautions that Conner’s sexuality is largely a product of reader hindsight:
“For context, you really need to understand the climate of the time,” Winick told Polygon via email. “As of 2003, I had written, if memory serves, one gay character in superhero comics. That was Terry Berg who was Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern’s assistant for his day job. So Terry wasn’t even a superhero. After that I was given a reputation of being the writer who ‘made all his characters gay.’ This was absolutely a climate of homophobia, and a fair amount of straight up bigotry. It was a much more conservative time.”
But whether or not a queer Superboy was the intent of his authors, that doesn’t make the perception any less real — and Kesel was quick to agree. “I have no problem with it. Although — if it was up to me — I’d have him bisexual, since I think his sexual appetite would be quite large and far-ranging,” Kesel said. “Which I don’t think is that much of a stretch, considering that sort of passionate, joyful celebration of sexuality is what Knockout had (as Gail Simone showed while working with that character, which I completely agreed with), and Conner was clearly infatuated and influenced by Knockout.”
Superboy and Steel were capturing new elements of what could make a Superman super. And they weren’t alone.
Gender identities and secret identities
Alongside the official replacement Supermans, DC also took advantage of the absence of their lead character to give a far more prominent presence to their recently debuted and totally revamped Supergirl. This, however, was a far different character from Superman’s horse-loving cousin who had been a staple of the DC Universe in years past. Originally created by writer/artist John Byrne, this Supergirl was a shapeshifting mass of protoplasmic clay: the product of an alternate dimension, molded by that reality’s Lex Luthor into a form resembling a female Superman (Lex in any dimension is a Freudian psychoanalyst’s dream).
Fascinatingly, at a time when gender fluidity and nonbinary identities were largely absent from mass media, Supergirl’s first writers and artists made a deliberate point of exploring the complicated relationship to sexuality that emerged from this origin. In one early story (by Roger Stern, George Pérez, and Brett Breeding), the character known initially as Matrix (or Mae for short) became so enamored of Superman as to assume his body, gender, and identity for a time. Indeed, Mae’s struggle to define her own body, name, and purpose against the demands of those around her became the vital core of the character’s heroic arc.
It was a fact that both perplexed and intrigued readers at the time: In one 1989 letter column from Action Comics, a slate of unanimously positive fan mail managed to use three different pronouns to refer to the same character — in one case, over the course of a single letter. So even after Mae’s look and gender were largely set in stone, she nevertheless remained an early touchstone for a trans and gender-fluid readership just beginning to make themselves known.
It all must have been more than DC could have hoped for from a bunch of placeholders in capes. In 1994, following the conclusion of the Death of Superman storyline, both Steel and Superboy were spun off into ongoing series of their own even as Clark Kent returned to his own books for the long haul (Supergirl received a miniseries that year, and an ongoing two years later). And just as importantly, they were given the stamp of approval as significant additions to the DC Universe as a whole. Conner became a cast member of the popular Young Justice series, while John Henry was added to the iconic lineup of Grant Morrison’s JLA and given the immortal gift of a feature film starring Shaquille O’Neal himself. For a brief, optimistic moment, it seemed like the future of Superman — and Superman readers — was now.
But it was not to be.
Supermans of tomorrow
By the year 2000, the exuberant mood of comics’ boom years were a distant memory. With sales at historic lows across the industry, DC could no longer sustain the plethora of increasingly niche titles that filled its monthly lineup. Not surprisingly, the ax fell hardest on those characters with less-established followings, and less easily licensed names and faces. It was a grim quirk of fate that those characters were necessarily more modern, and also happened to be among the most diverse in the DC pantheon.
The result was, in effect, a retrenchment of the entire DC line, with characters like Conner, John Henry, and poor old Matrix pushed into the limbo of indefinite hiatus. Steel was the first to go in 1998, despite a game effort by Christopher Priest and Denys Cowan (an all-Black creative team, still a rarity in Big Two comics) to keep the title afloat in its final issues. By 2002, Superboy, too, was consigned to cancellation. Supergirl managed to hold on the longest, but her fate may have been the cruelest of all. In 2003, a newer Supergirl — herself a reboot of the original, not-shapeshifting lass deleted from canon in the 1980s — was introduced, and Matrix was effectively banished to the oblivion of lost continuity from whence her unambiguously cis replacement had been rescued. So much for men and women of tomorrow. The Superman line looked a whole lot more like yesterday.
But you can’t put off the future forever. And even if the characters and solo series that followed The Death of Superman have never quite managed to regain their mid-’90s prominence, the readership and concepts they represented have only grown bigger with time. Steel may have been the first Black Superman, but he certainly wasn’t the last: From Calvin Ellis, the alternate-universe Superman introduced in 2009’s Final Crisis series, to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s turn as Doctor Manhattan to the Hollywood screenplay recently commissioned for writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the notion has proven itself to be not only enduring, but increasingly inevitable — a counterbalance against the classic blue-eyed Superman that feels even more necessary now than ever.
“As a light-skinned Kryptonian in the United States, Clark enjoys all the perks of white privilege,” Bogdanove reflected. “Aside from his strangely blue-black hair and anomalously steel blue eyes, Clark can pretty much pass for a big, handsome, healthy white guy, and as such, he is the gold standard in our culture. As a big, handsome, healthy Black Guy, John Henry Irons has had to contend with all the shit that entails in the U.S. Besides the ever-present physical danger from the police and others, he’s had to struggle for every achievement more than if he were white. […] Yet, despite all the many aspects of racism and assumptions he’s endured, John Henry Irons remains just as kind, forbearing, compassionate and protective of others as Superman himself.”
As for Conner, his role as a formative icon of gay and bisexual superheroing has since become something of a hot trend among legacy characters of his vintage, with Tim Drake, Green Arrow Connor Hawke, and others now cemented as canonically queer. Indeed, while Conner has since been largely displaced by yet another Teen of Steel in the form of Clark and Lois’ son Jon Kent, Jon is both officially and openly bisexual and just finished a stint as a temporary Superman in the original’s absence. And while we are only seeing the leading edge of trans and gender-fluid DC heroes, the ’90s Supergirl remains an early and memorable shot at inclusion for an identity still too often relegated to subtext.
“The fact that Conner has lasted this long is because — like any good concept — there are layers and facets to him that can be highlighted at different times in different ways to better reflect the world around us,” said Kesel. “To me, Conner is an archetype of the Arrogance of Youth — and all the energy and excitement and joy and missteps that are part of that — and I don’t see that changing. Not for Conner, not for any of us.”
The Death of Superman was intended to prove the Man of Steel’s value to the world; maybe DC’s only mistake was failing to recognize just what that value was. A broader, more inclusive, and unapologetic definition of who can be a hero? We might as well call that truth, justice, and a better tomorrow. The Death of Superman might have tried to give us back the Superman we had. But 30 years later, its alternative, radical swerves may have given us the Supermans (and women) we deserve.