The storyline's premise is as simple as its title: Superman engages in battle with a seemingly unstoppable killing machine named Doomsday in the streets of Metropolis. At the fight's conclusion, both combatants die from their wounds.
The crossover depicted the world's reaction to Superman's death in "Funeral for a Friend," the emergence of four individuals claiming to be the "new" Superman, and the eventual return of the original Superman in "Reign of the Supermen!"
The storyline, devised by editor Mike Carlin and the Superman writing team of Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, and Karl Kesel, met with enormous success: the Superman titles gained international exposure, reaching to the top of the comics sales charts and selling out overnight. The event was widely covered by national and international news media.
Warner Bros., the owner of DC Comics, had canceled the Superboy television series produced by Alexander Salkind. (Salkind produced the first three Superman films starring Christopher Reeve, as well as the Supergirl movie.) Warner Bros. created their own Superman television series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, premised upon a romantic relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman. One of the ideas that arose during production was the wedding of Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman. Warner Bros. learned that DC Comics was planning a similar plotline in the Superman comic books, and as a result DC, Warner Bros., and the Superman writing staff came together and reached an agreement: the Lois and Clark wedding arc in the comic book would be put on hold, to resume once the Lois & Clark TV show reached its wedding episode.
With the original storyline set aside in the comic, an original event was needed to replace it. According to a documentary on Superman: Doomsday, the Superman writing team members were miffed at having a year's worth of story planning put aside, and flustered for ideas. At the end of one meeting, Adventures of Superman writer Jerry Ordway suggested, jokingly, "Let's just kill 'im." The joke became a running gag in story meetings, but eventually gained traction with Superman group editor Mike Carlin. In the documentary film Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman Carlin states: "the world was taking Superman for granted, so we literally said 'let's show what the world would be like without Superman'."
On the last page of several comics prior to Superman: The Man of Steel #18, a gloved fist is shown punching a steel wall, accompanied by the caption: "Doomsday is coming!" In that issue, Superman fights the Underworlders while a hulking figure in a green suit rampages through a pastoral field. This marks the first of seven issues in the "Death of Superman" story proper, which would continue through all four of the Superman books at that time, and one issue of Justice League America, before culminating in Superman #75.
The Justice League (Guy Gardner, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Maxima, Fire, Ice, and Bloodwynd) responds to a call from a smashed big-rig outside of Bucyrus, Ohio, and follows the trail of destruction which leads them to a confrontation with the mysterious creature. It Blue Beetle's aircraft and then systematically takes the team apart, finishing by punching Booster Gold into the stratosphere. Booster Gold is caught in mid-air by Superman, and declares "It's like Doomsday is here," thus providing the monster with a name.
The Man of Steel arrives on the scene, having cut short a television interview with Cat Grant in Justice League America #69. He and the able-bodied League members follow the threat to the home of a single mother and her two children, where their battle with "Doomsday" destroys the house. The League attacks Doomsday with all their energy-projection powers; the only discernible effect is that much of his bodysuit is blasted or burned off. Doomsday again defeats the League, causes the house to explode into flames, and then leaps away. Superman follows, having to ignore the son's cries for help if he is to stop Doomsday.
Superman throws Doomsday into the bottom of a lake, slowing him down long enough so that the Man of Steel can return and save the mother and her infant daughter. After Doomsday escapes from the silty lake bed, he and Superman tear up a city street. Maxima then re-enters the fray. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are sent to cover the battle for television, while Lex Luthor II dissuades Supergirl from joining the fight. The fight continues at a gas station, where Maxima rips a light post from the ground; the sparks from the wiring ignite the leaking gasoline and the station is destroyed in a huge explosion. Guardian arrives after Doomsday leaves, finding Superman and Maxima, and offers his aid.
Superman then follows Doomsday's trail of destruction, waiting for an opportunity to attack. With the monster's rampage drawing closer, Lex Jr. convinces Supergirl that she's needed in Metropolis while Superman is fighting elsewhere. While demolishing an appliance store, Doomsday sees a TV commercial for a wrestling show being held in Metropolis, and after seeing a road sign for Metropolis, heads in that direction. Superman engages him and throws him in the opposite direction, where he lands on the mountain housing Project Cadmus. They brawl throughout Habitat, a living forest connected to Cadmus, bringing most of it down. When the superhero Guardian arrives, Doomsday knocks him down and leaps toward Metropolis.
Doomsday is driven below ground, where he ruptures gas and electrical mains, leveling Newtown, a large section of Metropolis. Supergirl goes to Superman's aid, but a single punch from Doomsday knocks her to the ground, her form destabilized. Professor Hamilton and Bibbo, Superman's allies fire a laser cannon at Doomsday, but it does not harm him. The local police open fire on Doomsday, but again, he is not harmed. Superman returns to the fight.
Superman and Doomsday lay into each other with everything they have. They strike each other so hard that the shockwaves from their punches shatter windows. At the struggle's culminating moment, each fighter lands a massive blow upon his opponent. The two titans collapse and moments later, in the arms of a frantic Lois Lane, Superman succumbs to his wounds and dies. Jimmy, Ice and Bloodwynd are also present at the end.
The climactic event happened in Superman #75 (vol. 2). The issue only contains 22 panels, and every page was a single panel, which was a structure building on the previous issues—Adventures of Superman #497 was done entirely with four-panel pages, Action Comics #684 with three, and Superman: The Man of Steel #19 with two. The entire story was immediately collected into a trade paperback and titled The Death of Superman.
The funeral that followed featured many of Superman's fellow heroes and friends, including most of the Justice League of America, and a mausoleum was built in Metropolis in honor of the Man of Steel. During this time, every hero in the DC Universe sported a black arm band featuring the S-Shield logo. Some time later, Project Cadmus stole Superman's body from his mausoleum. It was hypothesized that they were attempting to clone him. The body was recovered by Lois Lane and Supergirl.
The stories after the funeral often dealt with the emotions felt by the general public as well as specific characters entwined within Superman's world, including Lois Lane, Clark Kent's parents, and even a number of supervillains. Also, the (then) President of the United States, Bill Clinton and wife Hillary were included in a scene during the funeral. With Superman gone, crime rises up again and the costumed heroes of Metropolis rise to fill in as protectors. Supergirl, Gangbuster, Thorn, and even Team Luthor, a Lexcorp-sponsored team, all tried but were not sufficient. Meanwhile, Jonathan Kent took the death of his adoptive son the hardest and as a result suffered a heart attack. At this point, all Superman comic titles went on a three-month hiatus.
The story was also collected into trade paperback form. Rather than using the banner title Funeral for a Friend, the title used for the collection was World Without a Superman.
Following a three month hiatus on the Superman titles, all of them were relaunched. Four new heroes emerged in Superman's place, one in each title, each claiming in some way to be Superman. The story of Adventures of Superman #500 followed Jonathan Kent into the Afterlife. In a possible hallucination, he convinced Superman's soul to come back with him to the living. The only "evidence" that this was not a hallucination was the fact that shortly after Jonathan reawoke, four individuals arrived in Metropolis claiming to be Superman. This storyline was known as Reign of the Supermen!
Each of the Supermen were designed with ideas taken from some of the monikers that Superman is often associated with. The four new heroes were:
The first issue for each of the new heroes featured a cardstock cover and a poster of the new hero.
The first half of the Reign of the Supermen! story focuses on each of the Supermen “resuming” his duty as protector of Metropolis and gaining acceptance from the public. Of the four, the reader very quickly learns that neither the cloned Metropolis Kid nor the John Henry Irons Man of Steel are the real Superman. The Cyborg Man of Tomorrow and the Last Son of Krypton were easily bought in by the people as the possible real Superman, since Lois questioned both of them, and both recalled memories which Clark Kent had. Cyborg was even tested by Dr. Hamilton who stated that the Cyborg appeared to be the real Superman.
In actuality, the Last Son of Krypton stole Superman's body and put it in a regeneration matrix in the Fortress of Solitude, drawing on his recovering energies to power himself, as bright light blinded him. It is revealed that the Last Son is the Eradicator, an ancient Kryptonian weapon, and the Cyborg is the deranged consciousness of Hank Henshaw, which used Superman's birthing matrix to create a physical duplicate of his body.
The regeneration matrix broke open, and the original Superman emerged, greatly depowered, but alive. Meanwhile, the Cyborg helped Mongul destroy Coast City, believing he killed the Last Son in the explosion, and captured Superboy, holding him in Engine City, a towering construct erected where Coast City once stood. Superboy escaped and flew back to Metropolis to get the Man of Steel to help him fight the Cyborg. Before he could tell the whole story, however, an overbearing Kryptonian Battlesuit rose out of the harbor, and the two heroes attacked it. After suffering heavy damage, the suit opened, revealing a still-weak Superman, who had used it to walk all the way back from the Fortress of Solitude. Despite his weakened state, he quickly joined the other Supermen in defending Coast City. Upon his revelation, he acknowledged himself as the real Superman (the fifth person at this point to claim that title). When asked by Lois Lane what made him any different from the other Supermen, he responded with "How about....To Kill A Mockingbird?" (Clark Kent's favorite movie, and something he shared with only those closest to him). Though she remained hesitant, Lois mentally acknowledged that this was something only the real Clark Kent would know. During the battle of Coast City, the Cyborg launched a devastating missile at Metropolis, with the intent of destroying it and putting a second Engine City in its place. Superboy managed to grab onto the missile as it launched, riding it all the way to Metropolis, which he narrowly saved from destruction.
Green Lantern Hal Jordan had returned from space to find his hometown destroyed. He immediately attacked Engine City and fought Mongul, shattering the Man of Steel's hammer across his face. Meanwhile, the Last Son/Eradicator joined the fight after recovering in the Fortress, and blocked the Cyborg from dousing Superman with lethal Kryptonite gas. The gas interacted with the Eradicator as it passed through and into Superman, returning his powers rather than killing him. The Eradicator's body degenerated into a lifeless husk, and the Cyborg looked for Superman's body in the debris and Kryptonite mist. Superman blindsided him with an attack using his super-strength, and he punched a hole right through the Cyborg. He destroyed his body, but his consciousness survived. Supergirl used the remnants of the black Kryptonian suit to re-create Superman's traditional costume, and the group returned to Metropolis.
Again, like the previous two storylines, the collected edition of Reign of the Supermen did not use its original title, DC Comics instead chose to use The Return of Superman.
Up until the Death of Superman event, DC Comics writers lived on a fixed set of rules when it came to how the post-Crisis Superman's powers were portrayed. This was changed upon his return. The change could be traced to when the Eradicator transformed Kryptonite energy into something that would re-empower the revived Superman. In a battle with Lobo, he discovered he could survive the vacuum of space indefinitely, something the post-Crisis Superman could not do. He also noticed his strength has increased. Although this was part of a subplot involving Superman's powers growing out of control as he absorbed too much solar energy, the depiction of his power was not as consistent as before.
As a Kryptonian, Superman's alien genetic material enables him to absorb sunlight and perform superhuman feats. Superman survived his death by entering into a hibernation-like state, and the Eradicator's use of him as a 'conduit' by which he could absorb solar energy 'restarted' Superman's body.
A later encounter with a villainous sentient sun from the future known as "Solaris" would reveal a future where Superman is still alive approximately 83,000 years in the future, leading him to speculate that death may never come for him.
Johnatan Kent himself, during his near death experience, explained to Clark's soul how being a Kryptonian he could never die, or die after much grievous injuries than a "simple" beating: he merely accepted his death because his human upbringing instilled him a strong sense of human mortality, and conformed to it accepting his fate. Once he accepted and embraced his alien makeup, he was able to refuse death and lead his father back in the land of the livings.
In the days before the anniversary of Superman's death, Ty Duffy, The Daily Planet's staff reporter, retraces Superman's cross-country battle with Doomsday; Duffy resents the assignment. During the investigation, a mysterious figure also follows Doomsday's cross-country path, and commits a series of murders along the way. Duffy discovers that many of Superman's rogues have claimed to have created Doomsday, and many survivors of Doomsday's rampage and Coast City's destruction he interviewed with expresses hatred to The Last Son of Krypton. He ultimately comes face-to-face with the Man of Steel himself and reveals to Superman that his father committed suicide because of losses suffered connected with the battle with Doomsday. Duffy reproaches Superman, telling him that thousands have died due to his battle with Doomsday. Although Superman disagrees, he carries considerable guilt over the deaths.
On his way home, Duffy is kidnapped by Remnant, who wishes to show the world that Superman is evil. He intends to stage terrorist acts at the locations where Doomsday rampaged, including The Daily Planet, by planting a bomb within a van parked on the exact spot where the battle ended. Superman rescues Duffy, along with Perry White, who was also captured by the villain, and the building. Despite the victory, flyers announce that Superman is not a messiah but rather the devil incarnate; the villain disappears. Superman approaches Duffy, and challenges him to not back off from the tough questions. The Man of Steel tells Duffy he will be waiting for the conclusion of his article, and also asks him another one; if Superman wasn't around, would there be fewer Doomsdays (monsters seeking to confront Superman) or more Coast Citys (a disaster that only happened because Superman wasn't there)? Within the shadows, Remnant stalks The Man of Steel.
Batman, with the aid of Superman, devised a measure made after The Man of Steel recovered from his first battle with Doomsday, that, when the Justice League or any other superhero groups encounter a Doomsday Level Threat, a group of heroes, authority, and military forces would contain it within a proximity after clearing all civilians within it. If Superman and the rest falls, the Doomsday Protocol, which is a dimensional projecting bomb, will commence by sending the threat to the Phantom Zone after detonating it.
Certain prints of Superman v2, #75 contained a black armband with the familiar "S" symbol adorning it.
The Death of Superman took place months before the breaking of Batman's back in the "Knightfall" storyline. Some critics praised DC for boldly and innovatively drawing in more readers. However, others were critical, citing the two concurrent storylines as publicity stunts, since it was unlikely that DC would ever eliminate its most popular characters. Some years later, Chuck Rozanksi, owner of retailer Mile High Comics, would pen a controversial essay in the Comics Buyer's Guide which blamed the Death of Superman promotion for playing a significant role in the collapse of the comic book industry in the late 1990s.
Initially, the Death of Superman storyline was a huge success - comic-book fans that had never previously read a Superman title snatched up the issue en masse. When Superman was subsequently revived, however, the backlash was equally strong - diehard Superman fans had bought the Death issue on the expectation that that the book itself would become a prized collectible, and felt 'cheated' when he was suddenly revived (which made the book nearly worthless as a collectible).
Also in 1993, Dirk Maggs produced an audio dramatization of the story for BBC Radio 5, entitled Superman: Doomsday & Beyond! (retitled Superman Lives! in the US), featuring Stuart Milligan as Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El & the Eradicator, William Hootkins as Lex Luthor, Lorelei King as Lois Lane, Vincent Marzello as Jimmy Olsen, Garrick Hagon as Jonathan Kent, Kerry Shale as Connor Kent/Kon-El/Superboy & Hank Henshaw/Cyborg Superman, Eric Meyers as Guy Gardner, Denica Fairman as Maggie Sawyer, Liza Ross as Supergirl, Burt Kwouk as Doctor Teng, and Leon Herbert as Dr. John Henry Irons/Steel. Original Music by Mark Russell.
Coincidentally, The Death of Superman was also the title of the last episode of The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, although its story was completely different.
Superman Reborn, re-titled Superman Lives, was slated for release on July 4, 1998, directed by Tim Burton and with Nicolas Cage to portray Superman. However, following the box office disappointment of Batman & Robin, the project was scrapped.
In the episode "Hereafter" (written by Dwayne McDuffie and directed by Butch Lukic), Superman is sent into the future by a device of Toyman's, only to wake up to a red-sunned Earth populated by giant bugs, mutant wolves, and Vandal Savage. This was, in all intents, an adaptation of the comic story "Under the Red Sun" (one of Timm's favorites). However, since Toyman's device looks like it disintegrates Superman into nothingness, the first half of the two-part episode deals with Superman's funeral, and it takes some direct elements from the Death of Superman storyline, such as the memorial statue and Batman watching Superman's funeral procession from the rooftops.
During an interview with Newsarama.com, Timm explained that the story would cover the entire trilogy of The Death of Superman, World Without a Superman, & Reign of the Supermen. However, it was necessarily simplified since the film runs only 75 minutes.
A trailer released in June 2007 showed a slightly altered animation style from that of the regular DC animated universe. Lois and Superman have a relationship, but The Man of Steel hasn't revealed his identity to Lois until the end of the film, even though she already knows. Lex Luthor II and Supergirl are not in the film; present is a similar Lex Luthor to that of the DCAU — the corrupt tycoon of LexCorp; the fight between Superman and Doomsday occurs at night (instead of during the day, as it did in the comics); there are fewer Supermen; among other changes and differences.
The film was screened twice at the San Diego Comic-Con '07 as a special sneak preview on Thursday, July 26th. Both reactions and reviews were positive.
The DTV film was released on September 18th, 2007. It made its US broadcast premier on the Cartoon Network Saturday July 12 2008 at 9:00 pm EST.