Unshelved: The Return Of Superman

Like a lot of comic fans, I have a ton of books safely ensconced in the collection I’ve been acquiring for over 30 years now. In my early days, I felt like I was playing catch-up, trying to acquire all the parts of Death and Return of Superman or the Batman epic Knightfall/Knightquest/whathaveyou. Then I started adding all the new books coming out monthly and the collection just kept growing. For the most part, they stayed in those bags and boards, though they would move from copy paper boxes into longboxes and finally only the shelves my dad and I built in our garage several years back.

With my comics far more accessible, I realized that it’s time for me to revisit these old friends. And who better to start with than Superman, the character who got me into comics and changed my life? A few years back, I jumped on the #readofthesupermen bandwagon started by Ben Morse and Arune Singh as they read through the Death and Return of Superman issues. That was such an interesting journey because I dug out my old comics and re-experienced them. It was a wild ride filled with nostalgia and the realization that, at that time, the Superman writers were crafting an enormously complex tapestry over four titles that still holds up today.

I wound up not finishing the Return of Superman storyline when the others did, though by then I had already pulled out and organized the Superman comics that followed for the next few years. Then, just a few months ago while sorting out my comic shelves, I realized that I never re-filed that stack of Superman books (see left) and decided to get back on the re-read horse. However, being the kind of person I am, that wasn’t enough. I also got it in my head to read all of the spinoff books like Superboy, Steel and Supergirl…and JLA…and Young Justice. And then I thought, “Well, these characters also make a lot of guest appearances and cameos, maybe I should check those out too.”

So, now I find myself with an enormous reading project on my hands, a detailed spreadsheet and I’m loving it. In fact, I’m having so much fun that it inspired my to dust off this old blog and share my long-winded thoughts on the subject. I hope you’ll read along and enjoy the process like I am as I go through all of these comics either by pulling them off my shelf, reading them digitally on DC Universe Infinite and buying hardcopies when necessary. I’m even going to share my spreadsheets when I get them properly organized. Because I like parameters, I’m focusing specifically on the era from late 1993 through 1999 up to the point where there was a total creator shift on the Superman books. In other words, this project could not be more ’90s and, as the kids say, I’m here for it.

Before starting on the stack, though, I had to go back and finish the Return of Superman. Instead of pulling the single issues out, though, I grabbed the trade (hey, it still counts as “unshelved” right?). So, if you’re unfamiliar with the larger story, Superman was killed fighting a monster named Doomsday and four different individuals appeared claiming to be his replacement: Superboy (don’t call him Superboy), Cyborg Superman, Steel and the Man of Tomorrow. Each of those characters have gone on to have unique lives of their own, but at the time, the Superman writers — Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, Louise Simonson and Roger Stern — did an incredible job of making us think that each one just might be the real steel deal.

Over the course of five months, Action Comics, Adventures Of Superman, Superman and Superman: The Man Of Steel each focused on a different Super dude, while also showing how the people in Superman’s life dealt with these newcomers including Lois Lane, Martha and Jonathan Kent. Eventually, it became clear that the Man of Tomorrow was the pre-existing Eradicator and that Cyborg was actually a known villain — Hank Henshaw — working with Mongul to destroy Coast City and ruin his nemesis’ name. One of the great things about going back to these stories is that I now have more context for many of these characters because I’ve read their earlier appearances (just click their names to see what I’m talking about)! This allows me to appreciate the puzzle they were putting together in a way I just couldn’t back then.

While Cyborg’s schemes come to light, we also see a fifth Superman making his way to Metropolis by way of a giant mechanical battle suit previously seen in the World Of Krypton miniseries. His body was removed form its original crypt and taken to the Fortress of Solitude where it began the rejuvenation process that was carried out further in the suit. By the time he got back home, Superman had some of his powers, but was far from full strength. He also struggled to convince the others that he was the real deal, especially Lois who had been through the emotional wringer with all of these replacements. However, Steel and Superboy had seen Cyborg’s evil first hand and agreed to help the newcomer which lead to an epic battle against the villains resulting in Superman getting re-powered by Eradicator’s apparent sacrifice (an event that will have repercussions in about a year or so, but you’ll have to wait to see how).

If I was a better writer, I could fully explain how enjoyable those last several issues were for me. Yes, the nostalgia was strong and it was great to actually read all of these pieces in the correct order for the first time with all of this added context. But this is also a GOOD story. You get the huge action set-pieces you’d expect from the biggest blockbusters, some nice surprises and reveals and excellent emotional moments that allow Steeel, Superboy and even Eradicator to show how they’ve internalized what it means to be Superman by filling in for him all that time. There are even some scary bits! Better than all that, this is a perfect showcase for exactly why I love Superman so much as a character. Even without the full extent of his powers, he goes off to stop these awful people from causing even more destruction. Just like when he fought Doomsday, Superman knew that he might not come back from the battle, but went in knowing that innocent lives depended on his success. And succeed he did with helpf from friends old and new (Supergirl and Hal Jordan also pitched in).

I realize I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink so far without talking about the artists which is crazy because Jurgens, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice and Jon Bogdanove are some of my all-time favorites. When I think of Superman, I think of him as drawn by Jurgens. Grummett crushed on these books and Superboy, but also went on to wow me on Robin and various Titans books. He’s a perfect superhero artist in my book and one of the few who excelled at rendering teen heroes. I’m not as familiar with Guice’s work outside of Superman comics, but he’s another paragon of the form. And then you have the wild card: Bog. He’s so totally different from the others, but his angular style opened my mind up as a kid, showing me that comic art didn’t have to be just one thing. Together, they present the action and drama in an iconic way that will always hold a special place in my heart.

So, there you have it. Superman regained his rightful place in all four of his titles by October, 1994 (going by cover dates, not true on-sales). As I go forward, I’ll be reading them in order of what’s known as the Triangle Number. Given how many Super titles there were at this point, DC labeled them with these numerals so readers knew the correct reading order. While they’re mostly on the main four books, they also appear on important one-shots and the eventual fifth Superman title as we continue. When it comes to the spinoff titles and other appearances, I’m keeping things organized by cover date as you can see in the above image. It’s wild that there are only 16 Superman related appearances in the last few months of 1993 because there will be WAY more moving forward.

If you’re feeling curious here are a few Amazon Associate links to the books I talked about in this post. It’d be great if you followed them and picked up a copy! This series covers everything from Doomsday’s arrival through to Superman’s return: Superman: The Death Of Superman, Superman: Funeral For A Friend, Superman: Reign Of The Supermen and Superman: The Return Of Superman. You could also check out The Death of Superman 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition or the fancy Death And Return Of Superman Omnibus.

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