It is with great regret that I must inform you that Superman has died.
Over a dozen times, in fact, and DC is as certain to kill him again as a dog that's soiled the carpet that many times is to repeat the crime unless, well, it dies.
I remember reading JLA #145 in 1977. I was at an elder aunt's house, reading the comic off by myself somewhere enthralled by Steve Englehart's story of how Superman and the Phantom Stranger battled forces on "the other side" until, 29 pages later, he had cheated death and returned to life. Four JLAers made the round trip in that story. They didn't even need to wear a band-aid afterwards. No harm, no foul.
Later, I read the earlier 1961 story of Superman's death in some collection or other. As an adult, I heard on the news that Superman had died, and I wasn't sure why it was news. I found the trade while traveling a few months later and read it in the mall where I bought it. It was also after the fact when I sat in a coffee shop and read Joe Kelly's excellent "Obsidian Age" story, in which Superman and the other JLAers die in battle while visiting the past. By that time I'd already read Joe Kelly's "This Is Your Life" story which shows, among other big events, Superman dying. When I read Mark Waid's The Kingdom, which showed Superman dying many times, it just seemed tacky. But the story had a confession to make, introducing Hypertime, which said that basically every story happened somewhere or other. A similar idea appeared in Jeph Loeb's "Absolute Power" story in which Superman dies -- many times, in different timelines. Evan Dorkin's "World's Funnest" brilliantly manages the absurdity of it when Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite kill Superman and every other DC character over and over like it's a pie-eating contest.
So perhaps we should get some solace when, with no great originality, Infinite Crisis #7 has Geoff Johns tell us, from Superman's own lips, "It's never going to end... for us." Superman tells us that when he happens, incidentally, to die.
For Superman, dying is sort of a hobby. Other characters like Hawkman and the Joker are pros at it. The Joker could stand at the collision of two black holes then appear in another story without readers even expecting an explanation. The Joker almost invented coming back from death -- he died (in grand fashion, laughing) at the end of his second appearance in Batman#1 but the creators had tacked on one more panel depicting his shocking survival so that we could get 70 more years of Joker stories. However, an even earlier Batman foe had already returned from the dead in Detective #30. That character's name was Doctor Death. He has appeared as recently as 2006.
You have to get at least a little sense that death is being misused, at least overused, as a way to stir up drama, having less impact each time it is used, until "death" in the comics is really something more like having a cold. It ceases to have meaning -- at least the meaning it has otherwise. Consider that elder aunt at whose house I read JLA #145 -- she's long since become dead in the usual way. The kind that happens to real people and tends to last. Now if a comic book character died like that, it would really be death. Like, apparently, Don Hall, the Dove, has died. Because in Blackest Night #2, when the dead are rising like it's going out of style, he doesn't. Frankly, the odds are, if enough time goes by, some writer will even bring Don Hall back to life, but for now, he's staying put, and the contrast between Superman and the Dove makes us consider, as Geoff Johns is asking us to do: What is death in the comics? Because, after all, I only used Superman as an example -- every member of the original JLA has died at least once, as have numerous other characters.
Anatomy of a Death
There are countless ways to die in the real world and in comics. But in the real world, there is pretty much only one way to be dead, which is to stay dead. In borderline cases, people can be resuscitated after brief heart stoppages, but as the minutes go by, it promptly becomes permanent. But in the comics, there are countless ways to come back from death.
1) Magic or Cosmic Reset. There are beings who seem to be able to reverse death without trying very hard. Sometimes they are bound by rules that keep them from doing it too often. Example: The Spectre bringing back Green Arrow.
2) Surprise Reveal. This one can happen in the real world, too, but tends to be rare. It can turn out that the person you thought was dead was actually alive all the time. Example: Spoiler. The special case of this is when the death is uncertain in the first place, which is how a huge number of Joker stories have ended.
3) Retcon. Sometimes a minor character is announced to be dead but he or she later just reappears without explanation.
4) Reboot. When a major portion of the universe is told anew, and this is admitted to be an act of the editors, not given some device within the story, characters who'd died before get to live again. John Byrne's reboot of Superman brought Jonathan and Martha Kent back to life (Jonathan has since died).
5) Super powers. Superman and Doomsday both died at the conclusion of their big battle in Metropolis, but it turned out that both of them had enough "super" in their bodies to get back up after being dead for a long while.
6) Time travel. A character who dies has still had a finite life with a large number of hours of down time that were never on camera. Time travel can bring the character from his or her life back to our present, their future. Or other characters can visit the deceased in the past.
The problem with all of this is that on a narrative level, death is chosen precisely because of the major impact it delivers. Undoing it, even once, robs it of its punch whenever any character dies. On an editorial level, there are the following kinds of death:
a) Temporary by Design. When Superman died in JLA v1 #145, it was obviously part of the plan for him to be alive again by the end.
b) Story-driving, but Temporary. When Superman died fighting Doomsday, it was again part of the plan for Kal-El to once again be Superman, just as it is now part of the plan for Bruce Wayne to return, eventually, as Batman.
c) Permanent. Sort of. When Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, there was clearly no awareness that Geoff Johns would eventually bring him back to life. They meant to kill him. Bringing him back to life happened after many changes of staff at DC, and was a different decision and a different event. But even then, Marv Wolfman wrote a loophole into Barry's time-traveling death so that he could reappear. And it was used to show him alive on a number of limited occasions over the years. Ultimately, any dead character can eventually be revived. If they hang around dead long enough, it seems like it has to happen unless it was never that interesting of a character in the first place.
The Power To Decide Who Lives and Who Dies
Among recent DC creators, Geoff Johns has been empowered to make a lot of influential decisions, and it might seem to be leading up to Blackest Night. Against the backdrop of comic-book death (versus real death), we have Blackest Night in which the dead come back angry and evil (or at least, full of animosity). It is sure to be a comment on death in the comics, but what does Johns, who has directed the rebirth of two heroes have to say about it? Given the way death has worked, how would he like it to work? Presumably, there's something about the status quo that doesn't sit well with him, and I've offered (without any originality) some perspectives regarding the status quo that are worthy of being against. But how will the man behind two (and counting?) Rebirth series weigh in? Will he say that it's just fine for death to be a revolving door in comics? That death has to be done better than it has? That deaths should stop occurring? Or that only now that he's brought his favorites back, should death be permanent and not reversible? His comments outside of the story don't yet indicate that the story is necessarily taking a stand:
"It's not a commentary on just comic books. It's a commentary on self-discovery. It's a commentary on cracking open your heart, literally. It's a commentary on pain and death. It's a commentary on a lot of things."
The way that Johns has depicted rebirth -- in three series now -- provides more detail on how he can use superhero comics as an allegory for how we real people are affected by the deaths of others. With assiduous similarity, Green Lantern Rebirth and Flash Rebirth showed the characters most similar to the one who was being reborn going through difficult times on the occasion of the rebirth. GLR began with Kyle Rayner injured and in need of help. Guy Gardner went through near fatal rejection of his non-Green Lantern powers. John Stewart went berserk. Alan Scott, feverish, struggled with a physical illness. These effects were not precisely explained, but had something to do with the cosmic disturbance of Hal's imminent reappearance. It was all reprised in Flash Rebirth, with almost naked similarity to the case with Green Lantern. Every living speedster felt some sort of feedback surging through the Speed Force after Barry's return, striking all of them down and killing the evil speedsters who happened to make physical contact with Barry. This has not been explained, as the series is still in progress, but a science fiction explanation is not as interesting as the consistent allegory for how the dead in reality affect those closest to them.
But whereas the two Rebirth series only showed a single life each, as two pillars of the DCU returned from death, Blackest Night shows so many resurrections that we have to see the "commentary on pain and death" very clearly, as the repeated examples make us understand the twisted way that the dead and living relate throughout this series.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
You can tell that Blackest Night is a good action story, because the blatant exposition of the fine points is somehow going over many fans' heads, leading to discussion threads where someone asks, "Is it possible that...?" when characters in the story have asserted precisely the same thing in direct statements.
The dead want peace. They want to find the living, excite emotion in them, take that emotion, and leave death behind, feeding the emotion to the death spirit behind the story (which happens, we now know, to be Nekron).
That is why Scar rejects the Guardians, who have no emotion, as targets for the harvesting of hearts. That is why Black Lantern J'onn J'onzz instills fear in Barry Allen. Why Black Lantern Ralph Dibny says hateful lies that enrage Hawkman. Why Black Lantern Aquaman tries to instill sexual jealousy in Mera. Getting the living to feel emotion: Is that really what they want? Black Lantern Aquagirl makes it exceedingly clear when the "black vision" shows the word HOPE: "Yes, Garth. Hope for me. Hope for Atlantis. That's just what I've been waiting for." And then she pulls his heart out. It is clearer than the rules of cricket how the Black Lanterns are operating. Scar lays it all out in GL #44: "The Black Lanterns are collecting hearts full of the splintered light -- and soon it will be [Nekron's] turn to rise." And the goal? "...the only way to eliminate chaos, to half the continued growth of the emotional spectrum, is the annihilation of sentient life."
Requiescat in Pace
But not every dead person in the DCU is coming back as a Black Lantern. Only those who are close to a living superhero (or villain? "Those who shine brightest") and, we can induce from the salient example of Don Hall, the Dove, one more thing. The voice of the Black Lanterns calls Don Hall, but is cut off mid-word, because those who are at peace will not return.
Hal and Barry talk about J'onn's state of mind before he died, and they conclude that he was distanced, alienated. Black Lantern J'onn, if he is speaking his own mind, lists the affronts that the world brought him and his family. He concludes that justice is dead. "The man who orchestrated my murder still walks the streets." He is definitely not a soul at peace.
In Tales of the Corp #3's "Director's Cut" of Blackest Night #0, Geoff Johns tells us that the fact that Aquaman is buried on land will come up again. In Blackest Night #2, Black Lantern Aquaman tells the Atlanteans that he is glad he is buried "in mud" because of the mistreatment he'd suffered in Atlantis. But this may be a ruse to instill rage or some other emotion in his would-be victims. "Mud" is not the most favorable term for land. Possibly his burial site is a source of postmortem torment, keeping his soul from being at peace.
If there's one thing about Latin that's easy, it's that "Rest in Peace" has the same initials in Latin as in English. That makes sense -- it's a dead language. We see those initials, "R.I.P.", on Don Hall's grave, and probably not just for style points.
Which brings us to Batman. It's hard to look at that tombstone and not be reminded of 2008's blockbuster story with death in the title -- "Batman, R.I.P.". It's unlikely that Morrison began plotting his Batman run three and a half years ago with a crossover collaboration with Geoff Johns already in the forefront of his mind. But if the reason why Bruce Wayne does not rise (aside from being used as a power battery and being Omega Sanctioned into some weird niche in time) is because he is at peace, it would be a strange fulfillment of a comment in a DC Nation column written by Mike Marts:
"Is "R.I.P." an acronym for its tradiational usage -- "Rest in Peace"? ... We here at DC know its real meaning... but you, gentle readers, will have to wait until the culmination of the story to discover the chilling truth."
Morrison said long ago that there was a need to help Batman out of the tense and traumatized state that he was in. Maybe the smile and "Gotcha" as he faces the Omega Sanction is a way to let us know that Bruce didn't just die following his battles with Doctor Hurt and Darkseid, he also got to Rest in Peace.
Life after Death?
So is a permanent change coming after Blackest Night in the way that death works in the DC Universe? Can comics have that sort of willpower, to stop utilizing the rhetorical (and sales) punch of death and rebirth? If that is the suggested direction, it seems unlikely to last. Comics and death are like a habitual drinker and booze. "I'm quitting. And this time, I mean it." In each era to come, creators will try to have the best for themselves: To have huge events happen during their tenure, and hoping to restrict other creators from using the same tricks too often. Superman's rebirth following the huge "Death of Superman" event ended with some mumbo-jumbo about how the trick used to restore him to life would never work again. How convenient.
If there's a term that seems to flow quickly from Geoff John's pen nowadays it's "Justice League". Of course, Blackest Night #2 ends with a splash page featuring the Black Lantern Justice League, and Blackest Night #0 opens with flashbacks (to a Batman / Green Lantern feud we'd never seen when the Silver Age stories were new) to Justice League stories and Hal's ironic comment that the Justice League was untouchable. While the story shows heroes from all around the DCU, there are many lines singling out the Justice League, such as Black Lantern J'onn J'onzz saying "Half the league you knew is gone." And Geoff Johns' commentary, again, in Tales of the Corps #3 makes this clear: "We focus in on the JLA as even though this is a Green Lantern story, it's bigger than that and will matter to the entire Justice League for years to come." Justice League... more so than the rest of the DCU? Does this have anything to do with the solicit for JLA #38 that promises: "in the coming months ... a fresh line-up for DC's flagship team." Will we see JLA Rebirth, in deed if not name, with Superman, Batman, Hal, and Barry? All signs point to this. A DC Nation column by Dan Didio recently discussed his preferences for a Justice League with the majors, in contrast, we can see, to the current lineup. Some of those zombie Leaguers are possibly going to make the lineup -- maybe all of them? In a recent interview, Johns says "Aquaman and Martian Manhunter should never go away. They're too important."
Sometimes the answer is in thinly-veiled code: Jim and Barbara Gordon tell us what Geoff Johns view on death in comics really is when the Commissioner says that he's afraid to turn the Bat-Signal off and Barbara says, "Then don't, Dad. Leave it on." There's no better way to save yourself the trouble of a Rebirth series than to leave the character alive in the first place.