The Original Death of Superman
The death of Superman is an iconic moment in comics that brought a new level of introspection and insight to comics. It should rightfully be regarded as a true classic.
No, not that one. I’m talking about the original death of Superman, which was an “imaginary story” (basically DC’s version of Marvel’s “What-If” comics) that occurred in Superman #149.
This is the culmination of Lex Luthor’s most dastardly plot, in which he finally kills Superman. How does Luthor begin his sinister plan? Why, by curing cancer, of course.
This is not a hoax – the Silver Age Lex Luthor was a mad genius whose madness and genius both get put on fine display in this comic. This is a guy who figures out how to permanently cure terminal cancers from a prison cell.
Throughout the Silver Age, Superman pushed Luthor to turn over a new leaf, pointing to the good his genius could do for humanity. Always one to put his money where his mouth is, Supes goes before the parole board and convinces them to give Luthor an early release from prison. And, just like that, Superman and Lex Luthor become friends for the first time since they were buddies back in Smallville.
And with his old enemy now his closest ally, Lex uses this newfound lease on life to…lure the Man of Steel into a Kryptonite death trap and murder him in front of his dearest friends.
You would think him leaving Superman’s body behind is a crucial mistake, but you’d be wrong. Superman is well and truly dead. And instead of showing any sort of introspection or sadness over the murder of a man who called him friend, Lex responds with manic glee.
But Luthor didn’t count of the appearance of another Kyrptonian – Supergirl, who had been doing good deeds in secret so she wouldn’t get targeted by any plot clever enough to kill Superman. Those Kryptonians are very clever like that.
Luthor is brought to the bottled city of Kandor, where the remaining Kryptonians exist. There he is put to trial for Superman’s murder and quickly found guilty. It turns out that making sure your murder room has a window for witnesses to watch in horror isn’t such a great idea after all.
Nonetheless, Luthor isn’t worried about his sentence, because he figures he can use his genius to get out of this situation:
Surprisingly to him, the Kryptonians aren’t keen on dealing with one of history’s greatest monsters and imprison him in the Phantom Zone forever:
And thus our story ends with Supergirl flying through clear blue skies and reflecting on how much she’ll miss her cousin. What a downer.
Personally, I think this is one of the best Superman stories ever. It just nails Lex Luthor so amazingly well. This is a guy who cures cancer – and not just early stage stuff, but terminal cancer of all types. And instead of accepting his Nobel Prize and being hailed as one of the greatest heroes in history, he sets up this medical miracle as Part One of his newest plan to kill Superman.
To add to this deranged line of thinking, he doesn’t even care when he gets caught. He deliberately kills Superman in front of witnesses, tosses his body to the ground like so much refuse, and then goes off to gloat about it in a room full of criminals.
And then, when he’s finally caught, he doesn’t even defend himself in court! Instead, he figures that everybody has a price and that he’s smart enough to buy them. It never occurs to him that men of principle actually exist.
So few stories manage to portray a mad genius as truly mad and dangerous. This one goes the extra mile of also showing how naïve but caring Superman can be. He so desperately wants Luthor to reform that he winds up ignoring the very real danger involved. And it’s not surprising that he does so – after all would you want to believe that the man who cured cancer is a murderer?
There are a lot of terrible Silver Age Superman stories, but there are some real gems, too. As it turns out, the death of Superman was handled better and in a more interesting way in 1961 than it was in 1992.