Now in Paperback: Doomed
DC Comics, 2016
Back in 1992, when a small group of deeply inebriated DC Comics editors decided, basically on a lark, to kill off Superman, the most famous comic book character of them all, they had no shortage of would-be killers to choose from. There was Metallo, the man with the kryptonite heart, who had only to open his hinged chest-plate to give the Man of Steel a lethal taste of his irradiated homeworld. There was the Parasite, whose very touch could drain away not only Superman’s powers but his life. There was Brainiac, the alien entity who’d previously used his advanced technology to shrink an entire Kryptonian city to bottle-sized and could presumably figure out a way to similarly reduce the last son of Krypton. And of course there was Lex Luthor, the entirely human super-genius whose hatred for Superman has become a byword even in the broader non-virgin culture outside of comics.
Instead of any of these villains, those drunken DC editors decided to invent a new bad guy to do the deed. A monstrous, nearly-mindless killing machine they called Doomsday.
Thinking up the extremely derivative name was the extent of actual work those editors put into the centerpiece villain of one of the 20th century’s most pivotal comics stories. Doomsday’s power source? Who cares? His origins? Huh, whut? His reasons for travelling to Earth, rampaging to Metropolis, and essentially beating Superman to death? Um, can we get back to you?
Nope, instead the whole adolescent plot just rambled ahead. Doomsday mops the floor with the 1992 version of the Justice League (even though its members included a seasoned fighter wielding a limitless energy-weapon and an alien capable of shutting off the monster’s mind). Then he faces the Man of Steel himself, and they slug it out.
They only slug it out. Even though our rapscallion editors and writers had presumably sobered up by this point, they decided to have Superman fight Doomsday as Doomsday. He used none of the superpowers he possesses but the monster does not: he doesn’t fly Doomsday into the sun; he doesn’t pulverize Doomsday at super-speed; he doesn’t burn Doomsday to a crisp with his heat-vision. He certainly doesn’t use his brain – the always-thinking Superman of the 1950s would have come up with ten fixes for Doomsday in ten minutes. The Superman of the Eastwood/Schwarzenegger just keeps punching and punching and punching. Eventually, the two simultaneously death-punch each other (the drinking had obviously resumed by this point).
It was an ignominious, idiotic punt of a story, and it sold like hotcakes and got mentioned on the evening news. And of course it wasn’t permanent (in comics, nobody dies forever) – Doomsday seems never to have been dead at all, and it turns out Kryptonians get some kind of post-mortem do-over, so in good times both characters were appearing in DC Comics again.
In the wake of the company’s “New 52” reboot of 2011 (yet more boardroom drinking, one suspects), there remained an open question whether any of the old stories – including the Death of Superman – had ever happened in the new continuity. Did Batman ever “really” have his back broken by an equally-moronic confrontation with a steroid-abuser called “Bane”? Was Wonder Woman ever “really” written at long last as a mature, extremely powerful character in her own right, instead of as one of half a dozen adolescent male fantasies? And … did Superman “really” die? And no matter how the question is answered, what about Doomsday in the New 52?
Now in paperback is a graphic novel in which writers Greg Pak, Scott Lobdell, and Charles Soule provide a prolonged, very prolonged, hyper-prolonged comic-book answer to that question. It’s a big, overstuffed graphic novel called Superman: Doomed, and it attempts to retell the original story of Doomsday with all kinds of new bells and whistles. Whereas the old Doomsday had no origin-story, this one has at least an origin-place: the Phantom Zone, where the lawmakers of old Krypton sentenced their criminals to an eternity in a limbo of disembodied shades, like a collection of so many Nobel laureates in literature. And whereas the old Doomsday had no motive, this one wants to kill everything that lives (no motive for his motive – maybe, ala Buffy, he couldn’t get a date to the prom) – and he’s even better equipped to carry that out than the original. That old Doomsday had to handle things in order to kill them; this one – bigger, craggier – certainly loves to kill things with his hands, but he also gives off a huge cloud of death-particles, much like that one guy asleep at the end of the subway car.
This Doomsday doesn’t face a pack of second-stringers; he faces not only Superman but the A-list Justice League of Batman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman (although in this version of the story as in the old one, the guy who wields a limitless energy-weapon is out of the equation: Green Lantern is busy with an intergalactic war and so isn’t free to defeat Doomsday in 1.5 seconds). But his very presence is now so toxic that only Superman is powerful enough to spend any considerable amount of time around him. And at one point early in Doomed, Superman actually inhales all those death-particles in order to save the citizens of Smallville from being exposed to them. The particles then – for some reason (huh, whut?) – begin transforming Superman into the terrifying amalgam of a new Doomsday pictured on the book’s cover and confronting the world with its ultimate nightmare: Superman as a monster bent on destruction.
There follows a hundred torturous pages of characters yelling things and scheming things and journeying to outer space and the Phantom Zone and Smallville and back. Both Lex Luthor and Brainiac get in on the action, and throughout it all, Superman struggles with the Doomsday urges inside him. Wonder Woman and Batman (and Krypto, Superman’s super-powered dog, who in the New 52 is a gigantic wolf-like creature instead of the perky white terrier from decades past) recruit various villains as allies; Lois Lane and Lana Lang show up and get lots of page-space, and although I’ve now read the whole thing twice – once in hardcover, once in paperback – I don’t really have the slightest idea what happens, who half the characters are, or how Superman ends up saving the day and returning to normal (only with a hipster beard). During the now-standard make-or-break reality-warping finale, there’s a splash-page in which some kind of ominous narrator glimpses the real DC continuity, pre-New 52, with the real Superman and glimpses of the real Justice League and even the Legion of Super-Heroes – but nothing comes of it, and in the end we’re still left with the same dreary, angry new re-alignment of the old DC world, one in which the heroes talk like A-holes and scarcely ever do anything for actually heroic motives. Out of thousands of panels in Doomed, one neatly illustrates the new-52 mind frame: when Superman is heading off to confront Doomsday, Wonder Woman stops him and says, “Go! Kill that thing and bring me its head!” – to which Superman replies, “Diana, honestly, that’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me.” They’re both floating a foot off the floor while they murmur these sweet nothings – you know, just like relatable heroes would.
It’s possible – it’s almost certainly true – that the demographic math behind the success of the New 52 clearly indicates that the people buying these issues actually like this kind of pointless Sturm und drang. And there’ve been New 52 story lines that effectively harnessed the bleak, raw energy of the new continuity (Superman: Unchained comes to mind). But Superman: Doomed is just a chaotic, bloated mess.