Posted inEditor's Pick

A Dead Superhero Is a Marvelous Corpse

Ramzi Fawaz | NYU Press | January 1, 2016 | 6,662 words
Posted inNonfiction, Story

A Dead Superhero Is a Marvelous Corpse

A theory of superhero suffering and death.

Ramzi Fawaz | The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics | New York University Press| January 2016 | 25 minutes (6,662 words)

The excerpt below is adapted from The New Mutants, by Ramzi Fawaz, which examines “the relationship between comic book fantasy and radical politics in the modern United States.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

We’ve changed! All of us! We’re more than just human!

—THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (November 1961)

We might try to claim that we must first know the fundamentals of the human in order to preserve and promote human life as we know it. But… have we ever yet known the human?

—JUDITH BUTLER, Undoing Gender (2004)


Who might legitimately represent the human race?

In November 1992 Superman died. The Man of Steel would fall at the hands of the alien villain Doomsday, a thorny-skinned colossus who single-mindedly destroys life throughout the cosmos. Arriving on Earth seeking his next conquest, Doomsday meets his match in the planet’s longtime guardian, known to few in his civilian garb as the meek journalist Clark Kent but beloved by all as the caped hero Superman. After an agonizing battle in the streets of Metropolis, Superman’s urban home, Superman and Doomsday each land a final fatal blow, their last moments of life caught on camera and broadcast to devastated viewers around the world. The fictional media firestorm surrounding Superman’s death mirrored real-world responses to DC Comics’ announcement of their decision to end the life of America’s first superhero earlier that year. Months before the story was even scripted, national print and television media hailed Superman’s death as an event of extraordinary cultural significance, propelling what initially appeared as an isolated creative decision into the realm of public debate.

Public opinion ranged widely, from those who interpreted Superman’s downfall as a righteous critique of America’s moral bankruptcy to those who recognized it as a marketing stunt to boost comic book sales. In an editorial for the Comics Buyer’s Guide years later, leading comic book retailer Chuck Rozanski claimed that upon hearing about the decision, he had called DC Comics editor Paul Levitz, pleading with him that “since Superman was such a recognized icon within America’s overall popular culture . . . DC had no more right to ‘kill’ him than Disney had the right to ‘kill’ Mickey Mouse.” According to Rozanski, by choosing to kill Superman for sensational purposes, DC would be breaking an implicit promise to the American people to preserve the hero’s legacy as a “trustee of a sacred national image.”

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