THE STRANGE STORY OF HOW THE MEDIA FOUND OUT ABOUT THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN

With all of the coverage that the Death of Superman received in both print media and on television it was easy at the to assume that everything was carefully orchestrated and that DC knew exactly what it was doing from the very beginning.  It is even easier to believe this today with the Internet making it relatively simple for comic companies to promote the latest and greatest book or event.  Factor in the advanced solicitations that are released every month and anyone that has access to a copy of Previews or a DSL/cable modem can get a pretty clear idea of what is coming down the pike from the major publishers.

In 1992 when the Death of Superman hit things were very different.  I wasn’t as deep into fandom as I would eventually become but even up to about 1999, when I did have my ear to the ground so to speak, the major announcements seemed to come from magazines like Wizard.  It had to be a big deal (like the death of Jason Todd or the engagement of Lois and Clark) to get any kind of ink or television coverage about a comic book story.  This is why people assumed that DC’s marketing department had everything worked out in advanced and that the media coverage was all part of a master plan to sell comics.

It wasn’t.

It may be hard to believe but it wasn’t.

In preparing for this series of posts about the Death and Return of Superman I scanned around 60 or so articles, covers and other bits of business that I thought people would be interested in seeing.  As I went through the magazines and the newspaper clippings and the posters I realized I had in my hands a basic history of how the story evolved in the real world.  One of those articles was from a copy of the Atlanta Journal dated September 4, 1992.  The Journal was the afternoon/evening paper in Atlanta, Georgia (with the Atlanta Constitution serving as the morning paper and the two joined forces on Sundays to become the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and there…on the front page…above the fold…was a story announcing the death of Superman.

Well, the article was all the way to the left and stretched both above and below the fold, but still.  Atlanta is a major urban area and the Journal was the preeminent newspaper, so the death of Superman being on the front page, even of the afternoon edition, meant that it was either a really big deal or nothing else of consequence was going on in the world that day.

The article was written by the late William S. McTernan and attributed to Newsday, a Long Island newspaper.  The article contained quotes from then Superman editor Mike Carlin, but they were all from an interview from Advance Comics, which was the ordering catalog for Capital City Distribution.  Think of it as another distributor’s version of Previews.  I thought that was kind of odd.  It seemed to me that if you were going to have quotes from the editor of the comic where Superman is going to die the writer of the article would go straight to the source.  Apparently McTernan tried to contact DC but was told that they weren’t ready to issue a release yet.

That struck me as odd.  Here’s an article that is being reprinted across the country about the death of one of the most recognizable characters in the world and DC wasn’t ready to issue a statement?

Then it hit me.

What if the media frenzy that came about because of the death of Superman began not as a carefully crafted marketing campaign but because a writer for a newspaper in Long Island liked comics, spotted this…

…at the comic shop and thought it would make a neat story?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what happened.

I was 95% sure I was right about this.  I recalled something being said in the wonderful Requiem and Rebirth: Superman Lives featurette from the Superman: Doomsday DVD about a reporter who liked comics writing about the upcoming death but I never really put the pieces together because..well…I didn’t have the pieces.  It is one thing to hear that an article a reporter wrote about the death of Superman triggering a sensation.  It is quite another to hold in your hands how all of that that went down.

I wanted to be sure though and to get confirmation I went to a reliable source.  I am friends with Mike Carlin on Facebook so I sent him a message and it turns out that I was right.   The reporter from Newsday saw the Advance Comics interview, thought it would make a good story and things snowballed from there.  DC wasn’t ready to issue a statement because they were afraid that people would go looking for a comic that wasn’t on the stands yet.  They asked Newsday to hold the article until later but that didn’t happen and the article was reprinted across the country.

And there you have it.  The story of how a reporter/comic book fan wrote a newspaper article that sparked national interest causing a media event to erupt.  One of the more interesting revelations Carlin made was that comic retailers knew about the death earlier that year but apparently kept the information to themselves.  That would not happen today.  At all.  It would be on the Internet via a Tweet or Facebook post seconds after the announcement was made.

So in the end DC did not set out to create a media event.  That’s important to note because there were and still are accusations that DC capitalized on the death from the start and that the coverage was crass commercialism.  That’s not how it went down.  In fact the only reason they killed Superman in the first place was because the creative folk couldn’t marry Lois and Clark thanks to Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and the creators had to come up with a new story to fill the hole in the schedule.  Did they go with the death because it might increase sales?  Absolutely and there is nothing wrong with that.  Comics are a business after all and the Superman books had stiff competition in the form of the X-Men titles and most of the comics that Image was putting out. What made the Death and Return of Superman so special and what separated it from the pack was that the real story wasn’t the death of Superman but how everyone in the world, including those closest to him, would react to that death.

I would like to thank Mike Carlin for taking the time to answer a quick question from a fan.  This is one of the many reasons Mike Carlin is awesome.

Next week: Scans of that Advance Comics interview and a few variations on the Newsday article.

More to follow…

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9 Responses to THE STRANGE STORY OF HOW THE MEDIA FOUND OUT ABOUT THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN

  1. BubbaShelby says:

    Very interesting. It makes being a fan during that moment in comic book history that much more ‘romantic’ to know the media hype was organic.

  2. Mike Poteet says:

    Nice post, Michael. DC could not have planned it better had they tried!

  3. Dan North says:

    As a Long Island-er I can confirm that Newsday is absolute shit. I don’t allow it in my house.

  4. Tom Panarese says:

    As a Long Island expatriate, I can confirm what Dan says. I read this and went, “Newsday? That Newsday?”

    Anyway, I will say that once that story ran, my LCS had a “prepay for your copies now” special offer, so you could pay up front for all of the books (newsstand and direct market versions) and wouldn’t miss out. I’m pretty sure that he made a ton on this. This is what would also lead to me eventually creating my first pull list.

    Oh, you’ll have to ask Andrew Leyland if this story was HOT! according to Entertainment This Month/American Comics.

  5. Oh I know these comics were HOT! according to the Entertainment This Month/American Comics ads. I have a scan of that as a matter of fact that I will be posting at some point.

    But yeah…big, ol’ media event all from that NEWSDAY article. It is amusing to know that the paper was not held in well regard.

  6. Travis Fowler says:

    Michael I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but it’s very cool.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?nomobile=1&v=tNJTdhLSIjo

    One of my first cons when I was 11. Great interviews from Stern, Shooter, and hilarity from Byrne

  7. Dan North says:

    “But yeah…big, ol’ media event all from that NEWSDAY article. It is amusing to know that the paper was not held in well regard.”

    It’s still around and relatively popular for some reason. My mother loves it.

  8. Michael Bailey says:

    Travis, I have seen that. Someone sent me a link and I plan on posting it here in a week or so. I have so much stuff I actually have to plan out how I am going to post it. So I went with chronological.

  9. Denis Rodier says:

    Yes, that’s the way I remember it. In fact, in reaction to this unexpected coverage, we quickly planned a meeting in NY to make sure the rest of the storyline was up to the media hubbub. 😉

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