What could be weirder than a world without Superman? A world with 4 Supermen, that’s what.
Please note: The previous article covers how Superman died, and can be found here.
They say that you can only hear a story for the first time once, unless you have problems with your memory. Actually I’m the one that said that, just now, but you get the idea.
And this story you’re about to hear? I hope it’s the first time for you. Because this is one of the best and most iconic storylines in comic history. Civil War and the Spider-Clone saga are more well-known than the Reign Of The Supermen, even though all three storylines cover similar topics: Identity, what it means to be a hero, the cost of free will – and so on.
If you’ve never heard this story before, I’m honestly incredibly jealous of you. This story features the introduction of some of my favourite comic characters and I’d have a go on one of those Men In Black memory-erasing doohickeys in a heartbeat if it meant getting to experience this for the first time all over again.
At the time, there were four monthly Superman titles. They each told the stories of one of the four Supermen.
Ladies and Gentleman and/or others – I give you:
The Reign Of The Supermen
Soon after his battle with Doomsday, Superman’s body was laid to rest in a public monument.
Not long after that, 4 new Superman appeared. These Supermen were all wildly different, but they were obviously imposters: The real Superman was dead, and his body was kept in the aforementioned memorial.
Except, wait – it wasn’t. It was gone.
Had he resurrected himself? Had someone taken his body?
Which one of the four new Supermen was the real Superman?
Adventures of Superman: Superboy
Whoever this young and cocky superhero was, it seemed unlikely that he was Superman. This young man – a teen, really – didn’t even have the same powers as Superman. Sure, he could replicate them but that was only because he could be creative with his power.
Yes, that’s right – power, singular.
He only had one power, which his makers called ‘tactile telekinesis’ presumably because ‘he can move anything he can touch’ didn’t sound sciencey enough. For example, when he wanted to fly, he would simply levitate himself (as opposed to levitating a table or whatever.) To Superboy, flight was literally a matter of ‘yeeting himself through the sky’, as my kids might say.
Why did I say ‘his makers’ before? Because he was a clone of Superman, and he knew it.
He hated it when people called him Superboy, but he also realised he was uncomfortable with taking the name Superman. He settled on the name Metropolis Kid because the ’90s were as hammy as they were cheesy. After Superman’s reveal, he told Superboy he was happy to have him in the Super-family, and gave him the Kryptonian name Con-El. This inspired Metropolis Kid to finally take the name Superboy, and he eventually created a secret identity: Connor Kent.
Oh wait, I’ve just given you a clue that Superboy wasn’t the real Superman. OH WELL.
One down, three to go.
Given his newness to the world (due to having recently escaped his cloning tube), Superboy represented Superman’s alienness and social naivete. He remains my favourite member of the superfamily, but only the Metropolis Kid version. He got all dark and angsty after that, because ‘comics’.
Superman The Man Of Steel: Steel
As Joker almost once said: What do you get if you cross Iron Man and Superman? You get Steel.
Steel was an engima wrapped in a metallic powersuit. Superman didn’t use weapons, but Steel used a huge 2-handed hammer. Superman didn’t need a powersuit – or did he?
Perhaps Superman had come back to life and was in a weakened state, and the suit was Kryptonian tech to help him fly and do all those other great Superman things? Who knows.
I’ll tell you who knew: John Henry Irons knew, because he was Steel. He had become Steel out of a sense of social obligation, after Superman had saved him once.
This is why he had an S-Shield (i.e. the Superman symbol) on the chestplate of his armour, but not on his cape: Because, to John, symbols-on-capes were for actual legit superheroes. It seems a strange place to draw a line in the sand, but nobody could doubt his good intentions.
While he was clearly a hero, he also wasn’t Superman.
Two down, two to go.
Steel represented Superman’s sense of duty and his desire to do good in the world. He remains one of my favourite superheroes ever, and his name and weapon are a reference to the American folk hero John Henry.
Superman: Cyborg Superman
Superman was many things: An illegal immigrant (DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND? No? Okay, forget I said anything then). A respected hero. A thoughtful son. A tireless fighter. A hopeless romantic.
But was he a cyborg now? Out of all of the Supermen we’ve seen so far, Cyborg Superman fit the bill the most. He acted heroically and he also shared a lot of Superman’s memories. He even told Lois Lane that he remembered that she was important to him.
Nobody on Earth – not even Superman – understands the full abilities of Kryptonian tech. Perhaps then, he was telling the truth when he said that his body had been mostly rebuilt by Kryptonian drones, and that’s why he was a cyborg.
He was the only one of the new Supermen who actually asked people to call him Superman, and he was officially recognised as such by the US Government.
So imagine my surprised pikachu face when I found out that Cyborg Superman was, in fact, a random human named Henry Henshaw who blamed Superman for the death of his wife. Hank (because apparently that’s short for Henry, somehow) wanted to destroy Superman but he couldn’t, so he settled for trying to destroy Superman’s public image instead.
To cut a long story very short, he’d built his body himself using a mixture of Kryptonian genetic knowledge and Kryptonian tech back when he was a being made of pure information. And yes that was the short version. Believe me, I’ve missed out a whole bunch of stuff about his past, but here’s a Fun Fact: He was loosely based on Marvel’s Mr Fanastic.
Okay, so that’s someone else who wasn’t the real Superman. That just leaves…
Cyborg Superman doesn’t represent any Superman traits as much as showing us what Superman might act like if he was a villain. In this though, he unintentionally reminds us of Superman’s choice to be a hero. Another Fun Fact: Superman originally WAS a villain, and the name ‘Reign of the Supermen’ is a reference to the story he first appeared in.
Superman in Action Comics: The Eradicator
This is the one. This is the Superman my money was on at the time. He was genetically Kryptontian. He knew a lot about Kal-El’s past, stuff that Cyborg Superman didn’t. He worked tirelessly, and was seemingly everywhere. He was shown sleeping in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
There were a few minor quibbles with that theory though. Firstly, The Eradictor had the ability to blast energy from his hands. Secondly, while he knew who Lois Lane was, he didn’t care about her at all. Thirdly – and by far most importantly – The Eradicator was so violent that he made The Punisher look like Rainbow Brite.
Was this, perhaps, a Pet Sematary situation? Was the price of Superman’s return his humanity? One of the few things we know about Kryptonian culture is that it was similar to Star Trek‘s Vulcans: They considered emotion to be a personal flaw. So it would make sense that Kryptontian resurrection wouldn’t include information such as ‘be kind to others’ or ‘don’t randomly kill people’.
Was a Superman without humanity a villain? And if so, who would stop him? Who COULD stop him? Certainly not Superboy or Steel. Cyborg Superman, maybe – but it served his purpose to allow The Eradictor to continue on.
One thing I found interesting about The Eradicator was that he called himself the Last Son of Krypton. Surely that’s a name that would fit Superman?
It could also fit a clone of Superman if it was made with Kryptonian genetech. And in fact, it did.
That’s right. NONE of the four Supermen were actually Superman.
It should have felt cheap, but it didn’t – because the clues were there all along.
Similar to Cyborg Superman, The Eradicator highlights Superman’s traits by their absence: Non-violence, mercy, and above all – humanity.
The Return Of Superman
I frickin’ hate this part so I’m going to gloss over it. It was all very lovely and poetic and deep but I just can’t take it seriously.
Superman is floating around in limbo with his dead human ghost dad (i.e. Johnathon Kent) and Papa John is all like ‘Are ya winning, son?’ and Supes is all like ‘Obviously not, I’m pretty dead and also I’m tired af of this superhero crap when is my time to rest I just want to rest’ and Papa John is just like ‘Hey that’s cool and all and you do you but also have you considered that if you can get back to life then maybe you should because you’re basically a god and there’s only one of you’ (even though there were 4 of him kind of but whatever) and then Superman is all like ‘Yeah, good point old man, thanks for the pep talk bro’ and then Superman yeets himself back to life.
This brings Superman back to life (WAKE ME UP INSIDE), and he’s wearing a black suit with a silver S-shield and I’m loving every minute of it. He also has long hair – a style he kept until New52 came along and ruined everything. Oh sorry, I meant ‘updated the DC universe’, sorry.
Remember when I said that we saw The Eradicator in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude? That’s because he was watching over Superman and making sure nobody interrupted his resurrection, which is why he was created in the first place: To protect Superman.
See, Superman had respawned without powers, so he’s just some random dude now – but he’s a random dude with access to Krpytonian tech because comic heroes never have to share their resources with anyone (LOOKING AT YOU, BRUCE WAYNE).
Our now-long-haired hero joins some other superheroes in battle when some random bad guy tries to poison Superman with Kryptonite gas, but The Eradicator jumps in the way. The Kryptonite gas kills The Eradicator (Fs in the chat) but somehow this gives Superman his powers back, possibly because comics are weird.
And that’s it.
That’s the Death and Return of Superman.
The Superman comics I collected at the time have never really gained any financial value, but the emotional value they still have to me far outweighs that.
Cultural Impact and Legacy of the Death and Return of Superman
I could honestly write another whole article about this (PLEASE DON’T – The Editor) but basically, for how big it was at the time, it didn’t really affect anything much.
It did give us some great characters, many of whom are still around today. Superboy, Steel, Doomsday, and a bunch of supporting characters as well. I loved seeing Superman with long hair, like some kind of flying Tarzan.
Shaquille O’Neal starred in a movie about Steel. It was trashed by critics but it was good fun and a fairly faithful adaption to boot.
Some people in the comic industry said that the death of Superman marked the death of the comic industry, but for what it’s worth: Superman is still the most recognisable superhero on the plant, even if his New52 suit makes him look like a toddler.
Batman might be more popular, and Spiderman might be the most relatable superhero – but Superman remains the yardstick for what a superhero should be.
His death couldn’t kill the idea of him – both in the storylines and in real life.
WELL – WHAT AN EPIC TALE THAT WAS! Let me know what you thought in the comments, or not, whatever – I’m not your dead human ghost dad.