We've been threatening to run this interview for ages and ages, but have been sitting on it pending some supplemental sidebar material. But with the opening of Superman Returns in the theaters on 6/28/06, to time is ripe to get this thing out there. That's not to say we won't do an update later, but until then, thanks to Karl Kesel.
The year was 1992. Paul Simon was touring South Africa. Microsoft was shipping Windows 3.1. George H. W. Bush was blarking on the Japanese Prime Minister's shoes. The World's Fair was opening in Genoa, Italy.
And oh yes, November 18: Superman had just been killed by the company that published him since 1938. You remember reading about it; It was quite a media event. Chances are you have a copy of the comic in which the Man of Steel made his last stand tucked away in the house somewhere.
Writer/inker Karl Kesel was part of the creative team that devised the epic storyline which put Superman into his grave and pulled him out again. We thought it was time for a look back on what remains a fascinating milestone in the history of DC Comics.
Story & Photo: Craig Boldman. Superman art © DC Comics
Craig Boldman: Why did you kill Superman?!
Karl Kesel: (laughs) I didn't, I didn't!
Actually, they hired me to bring him back. I wasn't involved with the death at all.
CB: You weren't? Not even as an inker?
KK: No. I inked John Byrne's stuff. But then I'd gone off and done other projects. And then (editor) Mike Carlin gave me a call one day. I'd done some Newsboy Legion back-up stories, and that put me back on Mike Carlin's radar, because they were back-ups in the Adventures of Superman book -- Jerry Ordway did the lead story. It was three issues' worth of back-ups. And shortly after that, Mike gave me a call to see if I was interested in writing Adventures when Jerry stepped down. So, Jerry did step down -- and they killed the guy. (laughs)
CB: Well, you were in the middle of it, you must have gotten some idea of how this all came about. Was it a publicity stunt from the word go, or did somebody just come up with a storyline that grew to mammoth proportions?
KK: I actually was not involved at that point, but I can tell you what I've heard from Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway, that whenever they'd have one of these Superman summits, in which they got all the creators together, figure out what they were going to do with Superman for the next year, one of the joke storylines that they always threw around was "-- and then we kill Superman." And at one point they decided, "Why not?"
I can't tell you if it was designed as a stunt or not, but I know they knew they'd figured out a good angle.
CB: It's not the first time Superman had been "killed" in the comic books.
KK: I know.
CB: He'd been killed --
KK: Lots of times!
CB: And he always got better by the end of the story. What was different about this time?
KK: Probably just the scale was different, wasn't it? I mean, they made it into a big event as opposed to death issues back-to-back, you know what I mean?
CB: Was it a matter of trying to bluff the readership? Really convince everybody that he was gone for good now?
KK: I certainly didn't believe he was gone for good. But I know my dad did. My dad wondered why I was hired to work on a character that was just killed off.
CB: (laughs) Maybe that was the crux of it. Comic book readers pretty much knew that things usually got reset, But this got out into the general public.
KK: And I don't think DC expected that, quite honestly. In fact I know they didn't expect that.
CB: They weren't prepared for --
KK: No. No. Because when I was hired to take over the writing of Adventures of Superman, I called up Jerry and was asking basic questions like, "How much of a royalty do you guys get?" And he goes, "We sell around 100,000 copies a month, so you can expect, you know, $300 - $400 a month royalties. And I thought, "Well, that sounds pretty good." Royalties were a lot bigger after Superman died! (laughs) I mean, magnitudes of ten and more. No one saw that coming.
CB: Were they equipped to handle all the attention and the publicity and whatnot?
KK: I guess they had to be.
CB: I remember, at some point along the line, reading a quote from Mike Carlin in the press saying that the public had started taking Superman for granted, and this was why they made this move.
KK: It could be that was in peoples' minds, or even said out loud. I wasn't at that meeting.
CB: So at what point did you jump in?
KK: I did a little 4-page thing in Adventures #500. Adventures of Superman #501 was my first full issue, and that's where I introduced Superboy.
CB: At that point, Superman was dead and gone.
KK: He was gone.
CB: What did they tell you when you came aboard? Did they have the whole plot outlined?
KK: No, we had a summit.
CB: Talk a little more about these summits.
KK: DC flies in -- well, at the time, they flew in the pencillers, and the writers, and even inkers, and at one point even the colorist came in for one of the summits -- now that the budgets are a little tighter, I think only the writers are flown in, about once a year -- to discuss what they're going to do with the character over the next year. And little charts got made. When I was on it, the four books were very closely connected. You read from one book to the other to get the whole story. There were four Superman titles, and basically, one would come out every week. The story would go from Superman to Adventures of Superman to Action Comics to Superman the Man of Steel, back to Superman. So you had to have a chart on the wall to intricately plot points and sub-plots were being developed at what point. You could probably sumarize each issue in a quick paragraph, and that's what the charts were. After the meeting was over the charts would be typed up and sent out to everyone. We knew what our workload was for the next year at that point. And then every week we would get a package from DC with copies of what everyone was doing. The dialogue, the plot, the pencils -- just so pencillers could be sure they drew Lois in the same dress every time, and stuff like that. And when it was your turn up, you basically had a week to turn around your script or plot. Because we had to produce a book every week.
CB: Are they still being done that way?
KK: As I understand it, no. I think the continuity between the books has been disolved. There is no real tight continuity between the books except for special storylines.
CB: The plotting seemed very tight during that period. It made you look forward to picking up each week's installment to see what was going on. But that seems to me like a very cumbersome way to work, to write every fourth segment of a story. Was that problematical?
KK: Well, it was problematical in the big picture. At the time, and I think this is why The Reign of the Supermen worked so well -- we each had our own little corner. I had Superboy... There was the Cyborg --
CB: Okay, we're ahead of ourselves. Just to bring us up to that point -- The gist of the plot was, Superman got killed -- how?
KK: Fighting a character called Doomsday. Doomsday killed Superman. Superman killed him too, by the way. Superman died to save us.
CB: Now I found this sort of unusual, because Superman was so powerful that customarily, his enemies were scientists; people with alien devices; magic; opponents who tried to outsmart him -- because physcally, he was so unstoppable. But Doomsday was just all muscle. A big brute. He didn't even have any motivation that we could discern.
KK: Yeah. He was just bad.
CB: He came from where?
KK: They gave him an origin later, I don't know.
CB: But at that point, what did we know about him?
KK: Nothing! He just kind of dug his way out of the ground. He'd been wrapped up in chains and buried. There was -- and I think this is why it worked -- there was kind on a mythic feel to the character. A demon who had been buried by an ancient race or something. There seemed to be something pretty mythic about it, he seemed pretty self-explanatory.
I remember one time I was writing a story that had a demon in it and an editor asked me what the demon's motivation was. And I said, "He's a demon! That's his motivation." (laughs) And I think the same could be said about Doomsday. At least at that point.
CB: So from Superman's point of view, it brought things down to a very basic level that characteristically he wasn't used to operating at.
KK: That's true. That sort of confrontation obviously struck a chord in a lot of readers. No holds barred, everything at stake, all or nothing brawl. Fight 'til the last man's standing.
CB: So the battle turned into a big media event. But was the public given notice that Superman was going to die at the end of this story? Or did they find out after the fact?
KK: That's a good question. I remember the ads saying "Doomsday is Coming for Superman!" Or something like that. And the name of the character implied that something bad was going to happen.
CB: But was the story from Entertainment Tonight, "Superman is going to die," or, "Superman died last week?"
KK: You know, I don't remember. I think word must have gotten out earlier, to maximize the sales.
CB: The storyline had been going on for a couple of months.
KK: At least. It was probably like an eight-part story, so that would be two months for four books.
CB: What was the climax?
KK: A big fight in Metropolis. Superman takes out Doomsday with his last ounce of energy, and then he collapses.
CB: There was a big, 3-page fold-out illustration of the scene. Had that ever been done in comics before?
KK: I can't say for sure, but I don't think so.
CB: What was the response of the audience at that point? When you jumped in, what was going on?
KK: Even at the very first summit I went to, when we were planning to bring back Superman, at that point I don't think the death issue had been published.
CB: Were you aware that this was something pretty big that you were letting yourself in for? Did you have a sense of it?
KK: No! I honestly didn't realize what it was. I should have been a lot more intimidated. But for the most part, these were other cartoonists and an editor I'd worked with many times before. And I felt very comfortable. To the point that when we were figuring out how to bring back Superman, I would complain. I would say things like, "That sounds dull!" (laughs) And if I had known the stakes, I probably wouldn't have spoken up like that!
CB: Do you remember the point at which the reaction started kicking in?
KK: Obviously, the news that Superman was going to die had gotten out earlier, because like I said, my Dad wondered why I was hired to write Superman when he'd just died. So the news was out, and I'd either just started or was about to start writing Superman and my Dad knew that that contradicted the news. I really can't remember where I was or what was going on when the magnatude of it hit.
CB: Was there ever a point when you were working on it that you got the sense of holding a tiger by the tail?
KK: The thing is, it was a long time, four or five months into the book before I actually wrote Superman. And by then, I was used to the working relationship. I was comfortable working with these other people. And from then on I was working on Superman, he was back from the dead, bla bla bla. It was a very exciting time, but I don't ever remember being overwhelmed. It was kind of like I wasn't thrown into the deep end, it was like I was wading in and I never really noticed when I got up to my shoulders.
CB: Superman had died and it had become a pretty big media event. I remember thinking there's going to be some sort of backlash when they bring him back because people are going to think they've been played for suckers. People who aren't used to comic books and Super-heroes coming back from the dead all the time. Did any of that happen?
KK: People certainly noticed, but I think people were glad when he came back. And I do think that maybe in a few conventions I heard a few grumbles, but those were obviously from people who don't get how comics work.
CB: Who was the driving force behind this storyline?
KK: "The Death of...?" I can't really say for sure, because I wasn't there. Obviously, Dan Jurgens was very instrumental. The final death took place in his comic. But I think probably everyone: Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Jon Bogdanove, Weezie Simonson, Roger Stern, -- I think all of them had their part to play in that.
CB: After the death scene, didn't they actually stop publishing Superman comics for a month?
KK: Two months.
CB: That seemed like kind of a gutsy move.
KK: I remember Mike Carlin saying, "We've finally got people to start buying Superman comics and now we're not publishing any!"
CB: What was the thinking there? On one level it had to have been done for dramatic effect. He's dead and now there's no Superman comics.
KK: I believe there were two months worth of Superman comics called "Funeral For a Friend," concerning his funeral and the fallout and the aftermath. But then after the "Funeral For a friend," they ceased publication for two months. Then they brought back four Superman.
CB: Oh yes, the four Supermen. Go into that a little bit, what was it all about?
KK: What happened was, we had the Superman summit. We were all supposed to bring ideas on how to bring Superman back.
CB: You didn't aready know at that point? It wasn't plotted out that far ahead?
KK: No. In the previous summit they had sketched out an idea. And all I know for sure was that it involved Mongul. Mongul was some sort of outer space despot.
CB: He seemed like an odd choice for such a high profile role.
KK: I thought he was an odd choice too. That was one of the times when I piped up and said "Why Mongul?" So there was some sort of basic idea about bringing him back. But we all brought in new ideas. And I will say, but I don't want to take credit for this, because it didn't necessarily come from me, but when I was writing up my ideas, one was, 'Superman has come back from the dead, but he has no idea who he is, and so he sets up a new identity, and then you have a big long storyline where Lois Lane -- who knew who Superman really was, obviously, because she was engaged to Clark Kent -- tries to figure out Superman's secret identity. I thought that would be a fun story. And I had at least one other idea, and I had a third idea where I said "Each of the books could have a different Superman." I thought that was kind of an 'out there on the edge' kind of idea. But I had written that up in my list of things that got handed out at the meeting. It was the last thing, on the third page. Buried.
We all went into DC's offices and they had rented a bus, and they had reserved boardroom space in a retreat place just north of New York City. So as we're riding in this little mini-van, we're talking about different ideas for bringing back Superman. And Mike Carlin goes, "I think we can do all of them." So Mike already had in his head the idea of doing four different Supermen. I don't know if he got that idea from me, or if it was an independent idea. So then we got there, pretty quickly, we all agreed to bring back four different Supermen. We thought that would be really cool and exciting.
CB: The idea being that one of them would turn out to be the real Superman?
KK: I will say that, in my original writing, the idea was that one of the four would be the original Superman. And maybe there was some question mark about which one it was.
CB: They weren't all like the original Superman. They were all distinctly different.
KK: Right. As we sat down, that was one of the things we did. On a big sheet of paper we started writing down different versions of Superman. Alien Superman, Robot Superman, Super-Boy, those sort of things. Different versions of Superman that could be in the different books. Pretty quickly it became clear that not all of these could -- easily be -- the real Superman. You would have to come up with convoluted reasons how a black man could be the old Superman and stuff like that.
CB: It was a misdirection to make the reader believe that one of these would end up being the one and only Superman from then on?
KK: I guess it was misdirection, sure. We knew fairly quickly that none of our Supermen were the real Superman. So we just decided to play it that way, that each of out Superman, on some level, said that they were the real Superman, whether they believed it or not.
The four pretenders to the Superman throne. L to R: Superboy, Cyborg, the Man of Steel, and the Eradicator.
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CB: Okay, so who were these four guys?
KK: Obviously there was the one I worked on, Superboy, who was, theoretically, a clone of Superman. But he didn't have any of Superman's memories, he just believed he was a clone of Superman. He had Superman's powers, with some variations. Physically, he looked about 15 years old.
Then there was the Man of Steel, who was a black man named John Henry Irons. he built a suit of armor to call himself the Man of Steel. He was actually the most interesting one in a certain way, because he did not claim to be Superman. But people thought that's what Superman would say (laughs). You know what I mean? Just because he denied it or didn't beat his own chest, he had a certain air of authority to him about that that people in the comics responded to. I actually thought that was a really ingenious way to play that character.
CB: From a logical standpoint, in what sense was this guy supposed to be Superman? After all, Superman was dead --
KK: They used the explanation of a walk-in spirit. Kind of like, Superman's soul was posessing this person. He never said that that happened to him himself. But that theory was espoused by other people around him.
CB: And it wasn't just a suit of armor, it was some kind of scientific battle-suit. suit of armor.
KK: Yeah, exactly. It wasn't like a medieval suit of armor, it was more like an Iron Man suit.
Then there was the Eradicator, who was kind of like the "Punisher Superman." The guy who kicks ass first and asks questions later. That was a case of giving the readers what they wanted, because at the time, the "grim and gritty" hero was very popular.
CB: In hindsight, that does play to the idea of bluffing the readers into thinking, this is the way comic book characters are going, so finally we have a Superman that fits the current fashion.
KK: Right. And then we had the Cyborg character in Dan Jurgens' Superman book, who flatly said that he was Superman. He just said that he was Superman, and something happened to him in outer space, I forget what the explanation was.
CB: This one actually looked like Superman, with robotic parts mixed in.
KK: The thing I remember most about this meeting was, we came up with these four Supermen, and then decided what to do with them. We knew we wanted to have a few months of each of them having solo adventures. The way these books had been set up, with the cross-continuity, none of the creative team had ever done solo Superman stories. All their stories had been interconnected. You did Part One, but not Part Two; you did Part Two, but not Part One. So the chance to do solo stories, even for a couple of months, was very exciting. Of course, I never had the experience of doing interconnected stories, so this was just business as usual for me as far as writing goes.
CB: Were you inking as well?
KK: Was I still inking at that point? I think I was inking something. But not a Superman book. I was not inking the Superman books at all. It had been years since I'd inked Superman at that point.
And so it was all about trying to weave all these characters together and bring back the real Superman. And the Mongul story comes up again. Mongul, who had been on the previous charts as the big baddie who would be big and bad enough to bring back Superman, so Superman would have to come back to face him. And I have to say, I remember saying, "I think Mongul's boring." He just seemed like a very generic villain. And I actually remember Mike Carlin putting me down at that point, saying, "You'll make him interesting." (laughs) I was the new guy and he wanted to be sure I stayed in my place, I'm sure.
The space despot Mongul was considered a substantial enough threat to eventually earn an appearance on the Cartoon Network's "Justice League Unlimited" series.
CB: You don't have any sense of why he was so attached to Mongul? Why not... Lex Luthor? That would seem like the obvious person to get into this storyline.
KK: I don't know. They decided Mongul. It had been decided. So anyway, the thing is, after I expressed my reservations about Mongul, Weezie (Louise Simonson) said to me, "Why don't you like Mongul?" And I said it just doesn't seem big enough for bringing back Superman. And Dan Jurgens was sitting at one end of the table, very quietly. And all of a sudden Dan stood up. And he says, "Mongul's ship comes down. And when it comes down, my guy, the Cyborg-Superman comes over and shakes his hand and says, "We've done it!" And as soon as Dan said that, we all got really excited. We really loved the idea that one of the Supermen was a bad guy. From there it just snowballed. It was just energy from then on.
CB: Looking at the Cyborg character, it seems odd to me that people would have thought he was a good guy, because he just looks sinister.
KK: Right. He did pull it off for a while, though. I'm not sure he's the kind of Superman I would feel comfortable about, if he flew in next to me.
CB: Of the four, if there was any possibility of one of them 'sticking' as the true Superman, he's the one I would have discounted from the start. I just couldn't see that lasting. But it wasn't until that late point that Jurgens decided his character was a villain?
KK: As far as I know, Dan might say he went into this thinking that his guy was the bad guy. But this was the first time I heard him say it. But when he said it -- First of all, all of a sudden, Mongul was just a minion. And I liked that a lot. And I liked the idea that this character that we had invested issues in, and probably some sort of sympathy and likability in -- turning him 180 degrees, I thought that was ingenious. And I know Dan is also the one who suggested blowing up one of DC's fictitious cities, which once again, I thought was a beautiful idea. That's when this story became big enough, in my opinion.
CB: So how did Superman come back? He was dead!
KK: He was dead. I seem to remember a lot of fudging as to the how. There was a lot of, 'well, we don't really know Kryptonian physiology,' and I know his body was taken to his Fortress of Solitude, where he was put in some sort of rejuvenation chamber, and I can't remember all the twists and turns there, but we worked very hard to emphasize that this was a one-time event, that this won't happen again if for some reason his heart stops beating again. The series of events was unique.
CB: It was a convergence of factors that couldn't happen again.
CB: Until the next time --
KK: Right, until the next time we needed to bring him back! (laughs)
CB: Of the entire storyline, that was the part that seemed unsatisfying to me. There was no clear-cut explanation, to the degree that if somebody asked you, "How did he come back?," you couldn't give a concise answer. It was an inelegant solution.
KK: Well, we did out best. You're the first one to complain! (laughs)
CB: Even then, the story wasn't over. Superman came back and he was depowered; I remember him running around in a black fighting outfit.
KK: He came back, his power was not quite up to snuff yet. There were a number of big emotional moments. He had to get back into his costume and fight that Cyborg and Mongul. I thought it was a pretty rousing ending.
CB: What became of the other three Superman at that point? Superboy had thought that he was actually Superman.
KK: He had always said that he was a clone of Superman. He knew that Superman had died. At this point he could no longer call himself Superman, so he took the name Superboy. And then went off to have his own adventures. The Man of Steel just became known as "Steel," and went on to his own adventures too. And, what did become of the Eradicator? I guess he just disappeared, I don't know what happened to him.
CB: Steel and Superboy were spun off into their own books. They seemed able to support their own audience.
KK: I don't know why the Eradicator wasn't given his own book. That's an interesting question.
CB: What were the lasting effects of this whole extravaganza?
KK: Well obviously, it gave me work for years to come. (laughs) But I actually do think, in the bigger picture, it showed that Superman really was a viable character. Mike Carlin, as the editor, had worked very hard for a number of years to make the books interesting to readers. And I think he'd done a good job. I know I was reading the books even when I wasn't working on them. He'd done a good job of making them very entertaining comics. But this showed that Superman was still a character that touched most people in the culture, and that the fans could not only enjoy the comics, but get really excited about the comics. I mean, there certainly was excitement around John Byrne's Superman, but that seemed to focus on John Byrne. And when he left, Mike had to work very hard to make sure people kept reading the books. Mike obviously believed in this character very strongly. But I think with "The Death of Superman" he showed that Superman was a character everybody could get excited about, given the right circumstances. Probably the downside was that it ushered in this whole "event" thing with comics. I'm sure there were events before that.
CB: Even in the middle of it, there were some gimmicks. The death issue was sold in a black plastic wrapper.
KK: Right, right. And there were some die-cuts in the cover of #501, and there was an issue that was wrapped in white plastic, the opposite of the death issue.
CB: DC sent copies of the "Death of Superman" issue out to everybody on their freelance list and probably a lot of other people because it was such a significant issue and they wanted to make sure everyone got a copy.
KK: I didn't know that.
CB: Something you said earlier I thought was interesting: After this made a big splash, it seems that DC went back to the well a couple more times with the big event thing for Superman. One being the wedding. They finally married him off. But, what I hadn't remembered, but you just reminded me, was that Clark and Lois had gotten engaged in the comic even before the Death storyline started. So that wasn't just a matter of "How do we follow up this event?" It had already been in the works.
KK: Yeah, the wedding was in the forseeable future at some point ever since I came on the book. At that time there was the Lois and Clark TV series. And it was made clear that when the characters got married on the show, we would also have them get married in the comic -- which was kind of the tail wagging the dog as far as I was concerned. But, that was the deal. And when word came down that they were thinking of ending the season with the marriage of Lois and Clark, we literally had to scramble to put together a wedding issue almost overnight.
CB: Then did the "Death of Superman" thing take place during the course of the TV series?
KK: I don't think it took place during the run of the TV series because I believe the series started after I came on the book as writer. I think.
CB: Was there talk of, "We'd better get Superman among the living again because we've got to get him married off in the TV series?"
KK: No, I don't think so. I mean they probably knew at that point that there was a TV series in the works, but let's face it, they knew Superman was coming back, too.
CB: That issue in the black plastic bag. I gather a lot of people have got boxes of those sitting under their beds.
KK: They probably do.
CB: That event brought to the public attention the collectibility of comics again.
KK: That's true. But of course, collectibility is based on rarity. (laughs) If there's millions of copies out there, it's not too rare.
CB: That's so obvious, but it gets lost on people.
KK: It got lost on a lot of people. Unfortunately I think there were a lot of people who bought a hundred copies of that comic, thinking they'll put their kid through college. And I think they're going to be horribly, horribly, horribly disappointed.
CB: The next big event that came up was the "Electric Blue" Superman. Why don't you just briefly tell us about that?
KK: Actually, that was my fault. That was, again, at one of the summits, one of the few big ideas I ever through into the Superman pot was, I said, "I think Superman should have different powers." I just thought it would be really interesting if he woke up one day and he had totally different powers and we could actually see him learning how to use his powers and learning, not knowing what his limits were. It would be an interesting storyline to do with Superman who, forever, has known exactly what he can and can't do. Just trying to figure out how to get across town all of a sudden became a problem for him. I thought this was all really fascinating stuff. I know Dan Jurgens thought it was a very interesting storyline too. I didn't have anything planned beyond that. So at the summit, other people got behind the idea and we decided to do it. It was deciced by mutual consent to give him some sory of energy powers, the 'electric blue' powers. I didn't have any problem with that, I just thought it would be cool to give him new powers and just go from there.
CB: Had you also thought that he should have a different look?
KK: I figured at that point that it would happen that way. Giving a character a new costume and visual was a real clear indication that something had changed. A new look like that gives people an excuse to start the comic. "Oh, I'll start buying it while he has this costume." People are strange that way, they have funny little rules and things that they allow themselves to do and not do.
CB: Again, this was not a plot that had never been done before in Superman. Back in the Silver Age, certainly. But it had always gotten wrapped up in fifteen pages or so before.
KK: Back in the sixties, where each panel took place on a different continent.
CB: After "The Death of Superman," was there thinking in the air that you had to keep coming up with new big promotable extravaganzas?
KK: Probably to some degree. I never really felt that way, but I think that what I brought to the Superman books was kind of the offbeat sensibility. Most of my stories were just a little off-center. Which is what I enjoyed doing. So it was odd for me to walk in with a big idea. But Dan Jurgens was very good at coming up with the big idea. And Jon Bogdanove was good at that. And some of those big ideas would come from, you know, "We have Action Comics #700 coming up, we should have a big storyline. What are we going to do?"
CB: This lasted for a year?
CB: I remember that it made the news, "Superman's completely different now," and the wedding made the news, and "The Death of Superman" made the news. So when you had the idea of giving him different powers, were you picturing that as a huge story?
KK: I pictured it going on for a long time. The thing you wanted to do was keep it going long enough for people to start picking up issues. I compared it to a long time ago when (Marvel Comics writer) Bill Mantlo was doing The Hulk. There was a point where he gave the Hulk Bruce Banner's brain. This was after decades of the Hulk being "Hulk smash!" And I remember picking up every issue of that comic going "He must be stupid again by now!" But each issue he was still smart. And I just kept wondering, "How long are they going to keep his up?" But it made me pay attention. And so I have to admit that's what I was thinking with Superman, I wanted people going, "Oh, he must be back to his regular powers now! No?! How long is this going to go on?"
CB: As with the Death story, it seemed like you were playing a bluff, trying to make the public eventually think that this was the way he was going to stay. Even the Superman logo was changed.
KK: I think that's... valid marketing. (laughs)
CB: I don't know what the turnaround of readership is these days, but assuming some new ones came on board during the Superman Blue storyline, you've got readers who came on board thinking of this as the actual Superman...
CB: ...and maybe put off when he returned to his original form.
KK: I guess we didn't worry about that. (laughs)
CB: One of the things to come out of the Big Event era was, we had a movie based on Steel. Have you ever seen it?
KK: No, I've never ever seen it. I hear it was bad. It starred Shaq. But he had like a Batman mask, it was really weird. It showed his nose and mouth.
CB: I guess if you're paying for a star you want to show his face.
KK: And his hammer was a gun! he had this big hammer, but he would turn it up and shoot! (laughs)
CB: I also remember some talk about the next Superman movie being an adaptation of "The Death of Superman" in some fashion or another.
KK: I heard that too, but of course it didn't happen. The movie's been on and off for a long while, and keeps changing.
CB: The Superboy book was a spin-off of that storyline. You wrote it for quite a while.
KK: Mm-hmm. Sixty-some issues of a hundred-issue run.
CB: When you came up with the Superboy character, did you have thoughts of him being a viable character in his own right?
KK: I guess I did on some level, I hadn't really thought it through. When we were given a pretty quick go-ahead to give him his own book we had to scramble to figure out what that would be. You know, setting-wise, and stuff like that. I did thirty issues on Superboy, then went away, but then I came back for issue #50 and did another thirty issues, and I actually think that Tom and I, Tom Grummett, the artist who created the character with me, had a better run the second time around. because I think we actually knew what to do with the character. The first thime through, I think he's just a teenage super-hero. And I don't think there was much special about him, except he lived in Hawaii. But I think the second time around we actually had a concept. And I really enjoyed our second run.
CB: It was very Kirbyish.
KK: The idea was 'Jack Kirby does Jonny Quest.' That was our idea, right there. And it gave us our whole tone, attitude, theme, dimension, everything. And I really enjoyed those books.
CB: One other lasting effect that came out of the Death storyline had to do with another super-hero, Green Lantern -- It was his city that got destroyed.
KK: That's right. Coast City.
CB: The result was, Green Lantern eventually went nuts and was replaced in his own book.
KK: That's not my fault! Let's blame Dan Jurgens, he's the one who said 'destroy a city.' Somebody at DC said to make it Coast City.
CB: Do you think "The Death of Superman" storyline encouraged the editorial end of things to start doing more 'out there,' extreme, lasting-effect stories?
KK: I can't say anybody ever said that to me, but I'm sure it had an effect. Actually, this is something I've started thinking about in the last few weeks: All of these big things that are happening in Superman or any super-hero comic that's promoted as a big event -- Stan and Jack (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) were doing that all the time. They would marry their characters off, have them graduate from college, let them have babies. There were always big milestones for these characters that would change their lives forever, really. They're promoted in a more high-profile way these days.
CB: Is there a diminishing return on these types of stunts?
KK: I think so.
CB: I haven't seen such storylines in recent years.
KK: The big events now are new creative teams, and they give them a big push for the year, but within that year, I don't know that there are gigantic events in the storyline.
CB: That's the kind of promotion that would appeal more directly to the comics-buying community, rather than the public at large. Anything else about the topic that needs covering?
KK: Not at all!
CB: What are you doing now?
KK: Inking the Fantastic Four, and I have a few writing projects in the works.
CB: Anything else you want to get off your chest?
KK: No, I think I've said far too much already.
The graphic novels below collect all the stories discussed by Karl. "The Death and Life Of Superman" is the best-selling novelization of the saga by fan-favorite Superman writer Roger Stern. Click on the pictures to order.
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