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Silver Age September – The (First) Death of Superman!

After a month of spotlighting the strange (if endearingly strange) history of comic books (and especially the Silver Age), I think it is worthwhile to show the comic books of the Silver Age that are simply great stories period, without any “enjoyably goofy” aspect to them. Here is an archive of all the Silver Age comics features so far!

We begin with the first “Death of Superman,” from 1961’s Superman #149, by Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan
and Sheldon Moldoff (interesting match there).

Enjoy!

This imaginary story was told in three chapters.

In the initial chapter, Lex Luthor appears to have renounced his life of crime!!!

Superman even speaks on his behalf at a special parole hearing after Luthor cures cancer…

Some criminals then ask Luthor to help them kill Superman, he says no, that he is Superman’s friend now (naturally, Luthor figures Superman is keeping an eye on him, and he is correct). So Superman gives Luthor a signal watch like Jimmy Olsen’s. Superman later builds Luthor his own private space lab and one day, Luthor’s signal watch calls out to Superman…

Brutal, huh?

Superman’s funeral is well-attended, including Supergirl, who at this point in time was Superman’s “secret weapon.” So when Luthor is celebrating Superman’s death, he never took her into consideration…

His trial in Kandor was very well handled, ESPECIALLY this little insight into Luthor’s soul that we get her at the end, where he cannot believe that anyone would not be moved by their own self-interests like him…

There is then a bittersweet ending with Supergirl and Krypto carrying on in Superman’s name.

What a well-told story. And remarkably chilling for a comic book at the time. I can only imagine how a kid in 1961 would have handled this comic book.

46 Comments

Great choice to open up this new featur Brian! However, as much as I like this imaginary story (and I agree that it is a landmark of a Superman era that is a landmark as a whole) I find “The Last days of Superman”, published in Superman #156, just a few months after this one, a lot more affecting. I don’t know if you are planning to include it, but to me it is en elegy to the Weisinger era as a whole, and I love the simplicity and power of Superman’s message to man.

Looking forward to a month of silver age goodness!

You just have to love any sinister plan that starts off with “first, I’ll cure cancer…”. Now *that’s* dedication to his cause!

Right? That’s how bad ass Luthor is in this story.

And you have to love how Siegel uses the cancer bit from early in the issue later in the comic, as Luthor figures as long as he can do stuff like that, how can anyone NOT cut a deal with him? Brilliant stuff.

Great 1st choice for the month. Probably my favorite Silver Age Superman story. I remember one of the first comics I ever bought was a DC digest around 1980 that reprinted that story among others. Before the days of What If/Elseworlds, the imaginary Silver Age stories were great.

Great choice to open up this new featur Brian! However, as much as I like this imaginary story (and I agree that it is a landmark of a Superman era that is a landmark as a whole) I find “The Last days of Superman”, published in Superman #156, just a few months after this one, a lot more affecting. I don’t know if you are planning to include it, but to me it is en elegy to the Weisinger era as a whole, and I love the simplicity and power of Superman’s message to man.

Definitely one I am thinking of. It depends just on how much Superman I end up using. There are a couple of Superman stories I already have in the pipeline. Then again, five-six Superman stories in a month of stories is not that bad!

I was a kid in 1961 reading this story. (BTW, thanks for reprinting it here.) I remember being disturbed by having to consider the demise of Earth’s best friend and even Luthor’s banishment to the Phantom Zone somehow did not make up for the loss of Superman. I was thankful that this was a purely imaginary “what-if” story.

Gotta admit, when I first read this story in a 1966 reprint, that final panel of a ghostly Superman in the clouds, waving goodbye to Supergirl and Krypto, did bring a tear to my eye. (Though I never did understand why a Kandorian judge would make a reference to Adolf Eichmann.)

Kandorians were shown to have been monitoring Earth, right? So it makes sense to me that they’d be up to date on Earth history. But yeah, it does read a bit oddly.

“(Though I never did understand why a Kandorian judge would make a reference to Adolf Eichmann.)”

Perhaps he was trying to use a reference he knew Luthor would get?

I read that story in the first issue of DC Comics Digest in 1979 (100 pages for 95 cents! Available at your local grocery store!). I was 9 years old, and on a road trip with my family. I remember crying in the back seat of the car, and having to explain to my mom and dad that Superman died! It’s the last story in the book, so as far as I knew, he was gone!

Man, I loved those DC Digests…

Whoa. Twisted stuff from Luthor. Never been my favorite villain, but that’s pretty sick.

It’s amusing to think that not only is Luthor in the Phantom Zone, but he’s also Kandorian in size.

Yeah, I read this story as a kid too, probably in that same digest. (I would have been 8, unless it came out in December.) It totally blew my mind.

Captain Librarian

September 2, 2011 at 11:20 am

The fact that when Superman was killed in the DC Universe “Proper” it was by a completely new villain is an interesting one. There, we got to see Luthor deal with the sudden loss of his enemy. Here, Lex Luthor finally does it. That “I did it!” panel with his arms raised is brutal, but you can almost feel his elation, like the Washington Generals finally beating the Globetrotters. Even in the phantom zone, defeated and doomed for eternity, you just know he’s clinging to the small comfort that he actually beat Superman.

It would have been interesting if the “person who killed Superman” had been someone able to boast about it, rather than crazy beast. Imagine if it had been…I don’t know, the Ultra Humanite. I can see him throwing that in Luthor’s face, Lex all irritated.

Classic, classic story. Although I enjoyed the Doomsday movie, I doubt that the comic could hold a candle to this. This is easily one of the highlights of the Silver Age.

The Kandorians rejected the “Utimate Plea Bargain”. Too bad such things are ruining our justice system and rewarding the ‘alleged’ guilty.

The Doomsday “death of Superman” comic was one of the worst comics of 1992. So no, it doesn’t hold a candle to this comic.

I was given the “Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told” tpb for Christmas as a kid, and this story really freaked me out. It actually made me read the introduction (which I had of course skipped, being a kid) in hopes it would explain what I’d just read. And it did, I think, explain the “imaginary stories” concept.

“Though I never did understand why a Kandorian judge would make a reference to Adolf Eichmann.”

What I don’t understand is, as long as he was going there, why not just use Hitler? Was the judge showing off?

Great choice and I agree, Lex’s arrogance and the Kandorian sentencing are pitch perfect here.

“Eichmann’s a really obscure Nazi, you probably haven’t heard of him.”

Eichmann had been recently captured in Argentina by the Israeli Mossad. His capture, transfer to Israel and trial were headline news in the early 1960s when this story was published. He was later executed in 1962.

Probably my favorite Superman story. Great choice.

Yeah, I also read this when I was little and it was the first time I shed a tear over a comic book. Years later, I had to rebuy a copy of this issue.
Now I look at that cover and those pages with the pink walls and wonder if Hayden Fry ever saw this comic, leading to the pink walls in the visitors locker room at Kinnick Stadium.

The concept of Luthor using the concept of his own reform to get back at Superman was revisited in the late 70’s in a story by Cary Bates where Luthor went so far as to trick HIMSELF into thinking he had reformed. Problem was, Luthor had fallen in love while in his self-deluded state and brutally lost that love when he brought his evil self back to deliver his killing strike against Superman. It was a powerful ending when Luthor realized to his horror what his quest for vengeance had cost him.

Bates followed up on this point when Luthor goes to Lexor after getting beat by Superman one time too many. There he decides to set up shop and become a good person and truly be a hero to the Lexorians. But Lex goes back to his old bad ways even BEFORE Superman shows up. The price Luthor pays here is truly horrific. Naturally, he blames Superman.

As Cardiac Jack says, Eichmann would have been on trial around the time of this story.

Which leads me to wonder if THAT was the impetus for the story. Anyone know if Eichmann tried cutting deals with Israeli prosecutors, like “let me off with a lesser sentence and I’ll give up names and addresses of other Nazis”?

Which leads me to pondering the metaphorical implications of Kandorians as displaced European Jews, Kandor=Israel, Jews not giving up after the Holocaust and keep going, as exemplified by Supergirl…

What’s also great about Superman is that even if he knew that Luthor was lying, he’d STILL give him the benefit of the doubt, and believe that he could change. That’s why Grant Morrison gets giddy like a schoolgirl when talking about Superman.

I also like Luthor’s super XXX-Ray. Chick a chick bwow!

So Luthor can whip up a cure for cancer, but can’t cure baldness? ;-)

As some Star Trek:TNG producer said in the future no one will care about baldness. So maybe Luthor just doesn’t care about being bald. Also seeing Luthor wearing a hat in the 4th panel on the first page was really amusing to me.

Looks like a very cool story. Has it ever been collected in a TPB?

Its collected in the Superman in the Sixties TPB. This story is fantastic. It’s very strange when the story ends, and the readers are reminded Superman isn’t really dead! He’ll be back next month.

Thaks so much

An all time classic.

That comic would have gotten a 5 star review from me, it was well written and had a great ending truly awsome silver age greatness. But damn it Superman had dose red trunks and it just threw the whole thing off.

What a weird, dour story – I like!

Stumbled on a used copy of DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories in my local independent bookshop the other day; it’s got this one in it. Haven’t given it a read yet but I’m looking forward to it!

Bennett Silverstein

March 10, 2012 at 6:07 pm

I remember reading this episode when I was a little boy. Read it from cover to cover. Thought it was extremely well-written, though frightening and sad.

But, we know Superman isn’t real. The story teaches us that we’re all mortal, and cannot always depend on imaginary Superheroes or magic to get us out of trouble. The only real magic is what we can accomplish within our own humanness. Even Superman (if he were real) would agree with that.

I bought this comic in 1961, and I was scared to read it. I said, you kill the Man of Steel. No way. I trembled as i read it.

I love how Luthor exclaims how simple it was to outwit Superman, when he had to cure cancer, go before the notoriously fickle parole board with an incredibly unlikely tale, give up his secret lair, nearly get killed by his gangland compadres and, finally, make his Kryptonite Ray Machine* from scratch in a faraway space lab.

*Not to be confused with Goldfinger’s Bisecting Laser.

Actually, the first death of Superman was in Action Comics #222. Superman is split into two individuals: Superman-T (who has telescopic vision but doesn’t have x-ray vision) and Superman-X (who has x-ray vision but doesn’t have telescopic vision). Superman-T dies at the end of the story and Superman-X regains his missing power. The remaining Superman mentions that the world will never know that Superman has died.

I read this story in an 80 page giant published in 1966. It had 5 stories from the then 28 year history of Supemran comics wtih an anacronym SUPER. This was the first one, the most shocking story. The next was the most unusual and I don’t remember the rest. I had read some mention of the story in the “mailbag” discussions. I was totally absorbed by the story, after having read Superman comics a few years at that point. I remember retelling the story years later during comic book discussions with friends.

I was thinking about this recently and the idea occurred that Luthor should have appealed to Earth people to spare him in order that he might find cures for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases now that he has cured cancer. In the darker mode of some comics today, people might not want Superman’s death avenged if his killer can cure many deadly ailments.

BTW, there was another very good story in that giant collection. It was another 3 parter about a duplicate rocket and baby created when Kal-El’s rocket passed by some spaceship with a duplicator ray. At the same time the original rocket landed on the Kent Farm, the duplicate landed on the estate of a mobster and his wife. The duplicate, raised in the evil of his adoptive parents, stays secret for some time after Superman debuts, but when his father finally consents, this “Super Menace” goes after Superman, who discovers that his adversary is not human, just some sort of energy field. Super Menace then finds out that his adopted parents only pretended to love him and were using him so that when he killed Superman they would be on top of the Underworld. Rather than killing Superman, he confronts the couple, explodes into pure energy and destroys them in the process.

Was this Jerry Siegel’s final Superman story? I can imagine his expression when Dan Jurgens and staff planned to do the 1992 version. The only flaw with this imaginary story was Clark Kent. Clark Kent would be dead too. Surely, everyone would have to know the secret. Either Jerome forgot to write this or did not have enough space.

M-Drake, it was almost certainly a space issue and the presumption that people would figure out that Clark Kent was Superman but with his death, that would not be an issue. Supergirl’s secret identity of orphan Linda Lee, later adopted to become Linda Danvers, would not have been endangered. If I remember the story line of that era correctly, only Batman and Supergirl knew that secret.

This story had a profound fact on me whe I was a child. I would have been aged 7 when I read it. I was a precocius reader. It actually cause me a lot of pain tmthnk that Superman had ‘really’ died (I didn’t understand the concept of an imaginary story at time). Good to see the pages again. Thanks!

Got sent to bed without dinner after I tried to sneak past Mom with this issue under my shirt. She didn’t like comic books… I was 9… Favorite issue of all time. Lost it many years ago, but thanks to ebay, I replaced it. As an adult, the story is hokey, can’t believe my hero would be that naive. But to a nine year old Superman freak, it was brilliant. Though I’m 60 now, I’ll treasure this issue ’til I die… (btw, Superman was my incentive to learn to read. When George Reeves died, my dad said “Superman’s dead.” Said he jumped out the window. (I think that sounded better to him than the real story..) Of course, I knew this was impossible. Superman would just fly away! I remember seeing Reeves’ picture, and decided I was gonna learn to read so my dad couldn’t pull the wool over my eyes again.. Anyway, …..

fly on the wall

March 10, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I always loved this story, it’s not just the exciting events but the wonderful way it is told and drawn.

I liked the little touches like Superman’s cape pulled over his lifeless head. That really brought home that there was Superman lying dead.

I read this story first when I was a little boy and it chilled me. It brought back rumors that I’d heard that Superman was dead, which were based on George Reeve’s suicide.

As far the Adolph Eichmann comment, this was the one flaw in the comic, which tied it to it’s time rather than letting the tale be timeless. Eichmann might have been a sensation then, but he’s kind of forgotten now. The Eichmann comment is like when they almost had Dorothy and Cowardly Lion do the Jitterbug in the Wizard of Oz movie.

It’s sad how the Superman staff of the 1990’s took two great Silver Age Stories, Superman’s death and Superman Red & Blue, and made them suck.

I started reading DC at 9 years old about 3 months after this story was originally published. At my Doctors office a few months later, there it was and I read it and was speechless afterwards. I wanted my own copy and I waited to November 1966 when it was republished in an 80 page giant.

What impressed me the most was “Lex Luthor, you killed a Kryptonian and so you will be tried by Kryptonians”. Those words said it all. I remember the readers reaction to this story in letter pages when I first started reading Superman. In the 1960’s DC had some amazing both imaginary and “real” stories. The next incredible story was “Crisis on Earth One” and “Crisis on Earth Two” in the August & September 1963 issues of the Justice League. I wish DC would reprint all those super-stories but with a few new panels added to close some “gaps”.

Gary Harris

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