NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for “Superman”, “Action Comics” & “Supergirl” #1
By now it’s safe to assume that most comic book fans are somewhat (or intimately) familiar with the slumping sales of “Superman” comics – and comics in general – of the 1990s… more specifically, the solution arrived at by DC Comics. With Superman happily married and seemingly unbeatable, the creative leads decided that a dramatic shakeup was the answer, beginning with what would become one of the most widely-known comics book arcs in modern memory (and most widely-divisive, when all was said and done): “The Death of Superman.”
The defeat and (apparent) demise of the Man of Steel was a shot heard ’round the world, cementing the villainous monster ‘Doomsday’ in history, and kicking off the emergence of not one, but several pretenders to the throne – a storyline dubbed the “Reign of the Supermen” – all setting the stage for Superman’s triumphant return. So with the DC Comics Rebirth looking to jumpstart sales just as quickly, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the world of “Superman: Rebirth” is bringing all those famous faces and moments back to life – with a twist.
The Death of Superman
As everyone following the “Rebirth” on even a casual level knows, the relaunch (not a reboot) began with the publisher’s ‘New 52’ era being brought to a close by… you guessed it: the death of Superman. But in this newer, younger timeline, the Man of Steel actually hung up his cape for good before Doomsday had arrived on the scene, instead succumbing to illness brought on by a few different causes over his early career. Radiation poisoning and an overcharged dose of Apokoliptian energy did most of the work, with Clark Kent’s final fight spent battling not an un-killable alien beast, but a brainwashed, superpowered convict believing himself to be the true Superman.
Even so, the “Final Days of Superman” was important to more than just the title hero, as the story also saw a familiar face return: the Superman from before the New 52 was born (the version who had occupied the previous DC Universe, having been killed by Doomsday before returning from the grave). And when the younger Superman fell protecting his own world from a threat, the older, wiser, Superman realized the time had come for him to step out of the shadows and become the new Superman this world needed.
The death of New 52 Superman was important, sending ripples throughout the DC Universe – but from the very first dose of “Rebirth,” writer Geoff Johns teased that the mysterious figure watching Superman during his final days had many more secrets to reveal. Unfortunately, the above panels are about as explicit as the ‘Mr. Oz’ in question has gotten. So those who felt that Superman dying in a burst of energy that left him a pile of dust paled in comparison to the other Superman’s death may be in for the real meaning behind the moment.
But just as the previous “Death of Superman” sent the world into a tailspin, with Superman nowhere to be found, “Superman: Rebirth” began to play out on a parallel, but different path. And while some might call it ‘taking the easy road’ in relaunching a Superman title to call upon his most famous enemies and counterparts, the results speak for themselves. Because it didn’t take long for those familiar faces to return in the wake of another Superman’s death – only this time, there was still a Man (and girl) of Steel around to fight them.
Doomsday Arrives (Late?)
Adding another story to the ‘we should have seen this coming’ pile, it was writer Dan Jurgens assigned to “Action Comics” in the New 52 fallout, returning Superman’s greatest enemy… after debuting him during his run on the hero in the 1990s. Not Lex Luthor (who’s taken a turn for the good), but Doomsday himself. It seems a special kind of cruelty to welcome Superman back to a world still years behind the one he and his wife (and son) left behind, only to reveal that he’s arrived just as this world’s Doomsday emerges. At best, it’s a terrible case of déjà vu – and at worst, a fight that will surely kill him all over again (and this time, there’s no ‘Kryptonian regeneration’ to bring him back to life).
It’s the New 52 Superman who made out the luckiest, but thankfully for his older counterpart, the years following his defeat at Doomsday’s fists were spent considering the battle, and how it could have been fought more effectively. Add in the fact that Superman now had an armored Lex Luthor to help him, and a Wonder Woman duty-bound to Clark’s deceased doppelganger, and scales are tipped in his favor. It’s a good thing, too, since he has a wife he already forced to watch him die once… and a son to look after on his journey to become Superboy.
The Man of Steel’s rematch with Doomsday in the New 52 Universe ends quite differently, with Superman having created a Phantom Zone Projector for just such a threat – banishing the beast, instead of killing him. The mystery surrounding the hero and his unknown ‘watcher’ continue, with Mr. Oz shown stealing Doomsday from the projector unbeknownst to Superman – after his own forces seemed to first release Doomsday into the fight, and later fail in capturing him all over again.
The plan is as confusing as it sounds, and will likely be made clear in future issues and twists. For now, it may confirm what the overall story actually proves: this reenactment of the “Death of Superman” has been engineered by more than just DC’s editors. Is it a “test” to see how far this new Superman has come? How he’ll handle the same threats differently than he did the first time around? Or how the other members of the Superman Family will help or hinder him? Only time will tell. There’s little time to consider those answers, since Superman’s other comic series pits him against yet another familiar face from the “Reign of the Supermen”…
We now arrive at the most ‘punk rock’ member of the “Reign of Supermen” – the supporting character who probably has the most half-ironic/half-completely serious fan following of the bunch: The Eradicator. For those who missed out on his role in the story, we should probably begin by explaining his original origin, since the “Rebirth” version has made significant changes. In the original version of “Reign of the Supermen,” Eradicator resurfaced after debuting years earlier as an ancient alien program corrupted by an evil Kryptonian to seek out anything that wasn’t Kryptonian and… well, eradicate it.
He was originally a drone of sorts, but by channeling solar energy from the wounded Superman, Eradicator (briefly known as ‘Krypton Man’) took on the form of Clark Kent, and exhibited some astounding powers. He meant well, and all it took was a few reminders to remember that lethal force was bad, and eventually went on to find a future in the pages of DC’s “Outsiders.” In “Rebirth,” Eradicator makes his first appearance in keeping with the source material, arriving on Earth in search of Kryptonians – but finding evidence of Jonathan Kent, not his father.
Having caught a trail, Eradicator heads to the nearby stash of Kryptonian relics (also known as the Fortress of Solitude) and, just as before, discovers evidence of the man called Kent, absorbing his glasses, his appearance, and even the symbol of his family. Again, his motivations are hard to pin down morally. This time around, he’s one of many ‘Eradicators’ put into service by General Zod back on Krypton, tasked with seeking out “criminals” (in Zod’s eyes, anyway) and absorbing their life essence into a form of Phantom Zone (located within him). His search for Kryptonians brought him to Earth, but he’s not out for evil. He just wants to ensure the survival of Krypton on Earth… by “purifying” Jonathan Kent (as in absorbing him, then removing the human part, we suppose).
Krypto the Superdog puts a stop to that plan, and while Eradicator succeeds in absorbing Superman, he eventually succeeds in releasing them from their mobile prison. No happy ending for the Eradicator this time around. Although we suppose that’s what happens when you spend too much time with General Zod.
The Birth of Superboy
It wouldn’t be the “Reign of the Supermen” without a new Superboy, and “Rebirth” doesn’t disappoint there, either. Although the similarities end with the name and leather jacket, since this version of Superboy is a far cry from the Superman clone that originally appeared as the brand new Superbo– actually, we promised never to call him that. Instead, this version is Jonathan Samuel Kent, the biological son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane… the version of them that existed prior to the New 52.
We’ve given a detailed breakdown of Jonathan’s rise from baby to superpowered Kryptonian/Human hybrid, but in this story, his presence means a new age for Superman the father – although their relationship is a lot more straightforward than the typical Superman/Superboy dynamic. And while his mother may prove to be a heavyweight against Eradicator, it’s the loss of Krypto that calcifies Jonathan, donning his fallen dog’s cape as his own before proving he belongs at his father’s side.
Cyborg Superman – With a Twist
With current DC readers of the Superman Family already feeling more than a little nostalgic – Supes fighting Doomsday, Eradicator learning the hard way who Superman really is, and the birth of a new Superboy – it falls upon “Supergirl” #1 to deliver the final piece of the puzzle, showing just how far modern writers have taken these classic villains. Because if the world of Superman has taught us anything since his “Death and Return,” it’s that no pretender to the ‘S’ has proven as lasting as the Cyborg Superman. And in the final page of the “Supergirl” relaunch, he shows his half-robotic face.
Now, much like the characters mentioned above, this isn’t a literal reimagining of the Cyborg Superman Hank Henshaw, who unintentionally fused with… well, it’s a complicated story no matter how you tell it. But for those who’ve missed out on reading past “Supergirl” stories in the New 52, allows us to fill you in on a bombshell: Cyborg Superman isn’t a human at all, but Supergirl’s own father, Zor-El. And he has already made his mark on the girl of steel, meaning the purpose of his return in the first “Rebirth” issue is a bit of a mystery.
Zor-El’s origin in the New 52 is still similar to the best-known versions: brilliant scientist and brother to Superman’s father, Jor-El, he succeeded in preserving Argo City from Krypton’s destruction (but sent his teenage daughter on to Earth before the planet exploded). Reappearing as the Cyborg Superman and defeating Supergirl, then using her to reclaim his physical body, it was revealed that the entire plot had been orchestrated by Krypton’s most iconic manipulator: Brainiac. In his defense, he wasn’t actually aware that he was Zor-El when trying to kill his daughter.
We wouldn’t tell Superman fans to hold their breath that these “Reign of the Supermen” stars will be butting heads, since he is squarely in the “Supergirl” villain camp at this point. Still, it only seems fair that as Doomsday, Eradicator, and Superboy get an updated, mysterious “Rebirth” the third member of the Superman imitators gets to make an appearance in the DC Universe. Now the only question becomes… in which story will Steel be reborn?
Superman #6 and Supergirl #1 are available now.