Some Kind of Doomsday: a cultural primer for a mindless beast

Some Kind of Doomsday: a cultural primer for a mindless beast

Superman died in the middle of November in 1992. He fell in battle, trying to protect his city of Metropolis from the rampage of a mindless beast. The moment already happened back then and will never happen again. It can be retold and adapted, but the story had its specific moment and media, and it was in 1992 and it happened in comic books. And the creature that killed Superman was Doomsday.

Superman Doomsday Cultural Primer
Let’s ease into this with 2 choice quotes before we deal with that guy, though. One of the quotes is not specifically about Doomsday, but both capture some of the main ideas I want to address. If you’re some kind of Brainiac, you just might be able to guess where this piece is headed by looking at the two quotes.

The first quote I dug out of one of my most prized possessions, a beat-up, dog-eared first print The Dark Knight Returns trade paperback. This edition has a particularly neat introduction by Alan Moore (DC Comics, 1986) titled “The Mark of Batman: an introduction“:

“As anyone involved in fiction and its crafting over the past fifteen or so years would be delighted to tell you, heroes are starting to become rather a problem.”

So begins the introduction, but you’ll be surprised about the beautiful thoughts that it leads to, in regards to myths.

“They aren’t what they used to be…”, it continues, “or rather they are, and therein lies the heart of the difficulty.

“The world about us has changed and is continually changing at an ever-accelerating pace. So have we. With the increase in media coverage and information technology, we see more of the world, comprehend its workings a little more clearly, and as a result our perception of ourselves and the society surrounding us has been modified. Consequently, we begin to make different demands upon the art and culture that is meant to reflect the constantly shifting landscape we find ourselves in. We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations. We demand new heroes.”

And now, for another choice quote, this one from 2014 from another fanboy culture commentator, Bob “moviebob” Chipman, and it also comes from a video where he gave us his take on the whole thing about Doomsday and the Death of Superman:

“Superman gets killed by a boring brand-new villain, gets replaced by four different guys, the real one comes back, and the closest the whole production comes to having something to say is “If Superman died…people would be sad.”

–Bob Chipman, Dumbsday, Part 1 – The Death of Superman, The Big Picture episode 200, 2014.

 

Doomsday Superman Cultural Primer

The Death of Superman (1992)

More often than not, when we ask who Doomsday is, what we are actually trying to figure out is what was his point. And it’s a fair question to ask about a monster whose visual appearance points towards a raw, chaotic and messy design rather than the sophisticated, streamlined and overtly stylized that we associate with so-called meaningful design. It’s a fair question to ask, above all, about a monster who looks like just another version of the Incredible Hulk, something that at a first glance we swear is just a blatant appropriation of one company’s icon by its Distinguished Competition.

What if I told you that whatever it is you think about Doomsday is absolutely right? Even if it contradicts what each of us see in him? I’m not talking about relativism, either. I’m talking about you actually rolling up your sleeves and getting down on what his story is all about. Push away all the intermediaries, push all the opinions of vloggers and bloggers aside and draw your own conclusions.

Yes, this is not going to be a primer in the sense that I tell you what it is you need to think about Doomsday. It isn’t going to be a trip down memory lane for the sake of nostalgia either. This is what I like to call a Role Call, and I hope by the end of this piece you have an idea of what “Role Call” is all about.

1. Time period

“DC Comics struggled…for years–FOR YEARS–with ways to make Superman interesting and they had that meeting, all the DC executives around that table and they realized there’s really only one way…to make Superman relevant again…we gotta kill ‘im.”

–Max Landis, The Death and Return of Superman (2012)

Doomsday came on the scene in the year 1992. George Bush, Sr. was still president of the United States. On movie theaters we had the eclectic mix of massive modern classics ranging from the historical biopic Malcolm X by Spike Lee, the revisionist horror Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola and yet another animation home-run Aladdin by Disney. On the radio Boyz II Men were ruling the airwaves with their hit “End of the Road” (our soundtrack for today’s Doomsday article, btw) and we also got House of Pain’s “Jump Around”(sure, this one too, why not?). I did not need the internet to dredge up any of this as I was a fully-aware-12-year-old pop culture junkie with an obsession for taping everything that came on cable TV or the radio. I did need the internet today to verify it all, because we know memory can sometimes play games on us. But it all checks out.

Wearing lycra shorts was not considered an offense, rather a fashionable thing to do. And if you wanted to go neon with it, the brighter, the better. That correlation was that you were fit, you were badass dancer, you were a gym rat, you were part of the C + C Music Factory group. Hey, nowadays skinny jeans and man buns are a thing so I’m the kind of guy who holds no judgement. I’m just setting the stage.

During these years, the Superman comics did something that to this day has not garnered as much dissemination or attention as I believe it deserved: each of the four different Superman comics grew into an interconnected relationship that enabled the different creative teams to share and exchange characters, plot points and scenarios and flesh out the living, breathing world of Superman and everyone close to him. What do we call this? A cinematic shared universe? Nah: The Triangle Years.

Doomsday Superman Cultural Primer

First “triangle” issue (1990)

The Triangle Years is a concept that’s very crucial in understanding what Doomsday is about and who he is. Because even though some of us think he is a meaningless character or has a dumb design, the truth is that he is the ultimate monkey wrench which the very creators threw into their own idiosyncratic order to open up the opportunities to experiment with what at the time was thought to be an unexperimentable character such as Superman. The Triangle Years had given us, the 2-3 Superman fans who were reading his comics each week (I kid, there were a LOT of us), a fully functioning world around Superman, often independent of his presence, but definitely influenced by it. And all you had to do is follow up the numbering on that simple little triangle they placed on all the covers of the Superman books. It was a naturalistic ecosystem that sustained an impressive amount of secondary and tertiary characters that had their own epic arc in relation to Superman. And to this day it stands as the most diverse and character rich fictional community that has ever been attempted on serial superhero comic books.

Y’know what? To be honest, the Triangle Years is yet another one of those things that some fans love and others like to be critical about. Nothing is ever perfect. I obviously love it. But don’t just take my word for it, go and do your thing. For more on the Triangle Years I can recommend Superman Fan Podcast Episode 153, or the gigantic 6-part editorial Superman: The Triangle Years by Kyle Garret.

The Triangle Years, to this day, I believe was the best approach in managing a character like Superman, because even if as a creator you get who he is and what he is about (with 100% accuracy) you still would only have about 20% of a good story. Everybody knows he is an aspirational figure, and as such nothing he ever does holds any meaning in the same sense it holds for Batman or Spider-Man, or the Flash or Wolverine, even if these characters are also held to be aspirational to varying degrees. Most superheroes share Superman’s set of skills and even dress up the same way he does, but Superman was the first and only character specifically designed to overcome any and all threats to himself and the people he cares about.

So, baring the little kryptonite here or there, you can’t really build that many interesting stories about physical conflicts with him. He is the most powerful “brother’s keeper” in all of mythology and was only possible in a world that could end at any time, like our Post-World War I scenario. Superman’s relevance is intrinsic quite literally to our need of him.

Think about that for a few seconds, because it goes deeper than just a religious or social cliche.

The character of Superman is designed to appeal to our creative powers, to extract ourselves from harm’s way, or more importantly, having someone we can depend on, in this often corrupt world. So, the best stories about Superman are stories about us, or the next best thing: people like us. We may not be able to wear a cape and fly or be impervious to bullets, but we can care about people, care even about our enemies and make a positive difference in all their lives. This is what the Triangle Years were all about and that’s why many fans who have fond memories of many of these stories call those years in the 90’s the Golden Years of Superman comics.

Many commentators of culture like to lay on thick the fact that society had fallen out of touch with the myth of Superman, or that he wasn’t relevant anymore in the early ’90s. Even some of the creators involved in his comics around that time have gone on record to sing that tune. But the truth is that in that particular time, the world relied on more vivid and vibrant real life Supermen through which they could live vicariously without needing to open a comic book.

Bo JacksonThe action movie superstar was in full swing and we had superman Arnold Schwarzenegger up in the big screen. To say that he personified Superman in both physicality and background would be an understatement and yeah, he didn’t come from Krypton, but the parallel of a visitor from outside who became one of us is there. We also had Bo Jackson, the real world All-Star superman.

And the most important one: Hulk Hogan and his Hulkamania was in major outbreak mode. Heck, just a year before the conception of the Death of Superman, Hulk Hogan had helped the WWF (WWE’s moniker at the time), break attendance record with the biggest Wrestlemania event at the time by laying out the Ultimate Challenge to the Ultimate Warrior. They had built an entire cultural event out of a slugfest between the two most popular real life superheroes at the time.

2. Location:

“MHH-TRR-PLSS!!”

–Doomsday, Action Comics #694, 1992.

You can find Doomsday’s main arc in the first year of the massive multi-year storyline the creative team had cracked for Superman and it has been neatly collected in various editions but always running in the same order, starting in Man of Steel #18 and ending with the climactic tragic battle in Superman #75. This is the physical, most concrete location of where Doomsday first rampaged through. This run is merely the beginning of a larger story frame and merely a creative monkey wrench that the team in charge of the stories had come up with to turn the world of Superman upside down. This had been the idea since the beginning, and it sometimes escapes commentators such as the above quoted Bob Chipman, who would rather focus more on the more cynical commercial aspects.

The truth is, there’s a lot of archival documentation taken during the creative meetings, where you can see clearly that even though the creative teams didn’t count any of the Image superstars of the time, nor a Frank Miller or Alan Moore among their rank, it was comprised by a team of creators who loved the character of Superman and were themselves considered superstars by the fans who humbly followed Superman’s adventures each week. To this day I still consider Jon Bogdanove my favorite Superman artist, and more importantly, the definitive artist for Steel. And each book had great artists who contributed their own visual style for Superman. You had the pulpy Jackson Guice Superman in Action Comics, the bombastic Tom Grummet Superman in Adventures of Superman, the expressionistic Jon Bogdanove Superman in Man of Steel and the superheroic Dan Jurgens Superman in the eponymous title. Each of their takes offered distinct voices and interpretations, while preserving the ideal of the never ending battle, alive and consistent. I would like to also add that out of all the comic book series that were running at the time, it was about the only one that was paying respects to what many at the time considered “old fashioned” aesthetics such as Jack Kirby’s, whose work and characters on the old Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comic books served as a foundation to all the ongoing stories of the Metropolis of the Triangle Years. Project Cadmus, Dubbilex, the DNAliens, The Guardian, Intergang, the Newsboy Legion, etc.

Superman comics weren’t published with the same paper quality of an Image Comics, nor did it have the edgy, postmodern or cynical bent that permeated most superhero stories at the time. Each of the creative teams were already seasoned pros in the industry and had an expert grasp on story structure, perhaps better than most other creative teams, given the yearlong creative workshop nature of the Triangle Years. The stories they cracked had to be more than just gimmicks or standalones, they had to contribute to the sense of the ongoing life in Metropolis. Events that occurred would get picked up and built upon through character relationships, proving that nothing that happened was an isolated or one-and-done moment. To manage such a sprawling story ecosystem, story meetings had become a routine for the different titles’ creative teams. And the only way all these people could ever hope to work together was by holding on to the mantra: “Leave the ego at the door”. These were meetings of professional geeks who lived, ate and slept the characters they brought to life each week. And they held these meetings often to chart out stories in advance, usually a year.

As the story goes, their next big arc would’ve been the marriage of Superman to Lois Lane but it got axed due to conflicts with the ongoing TV series Lois & Clark at the time. Their brainstorming, which amounted to a year’s worth of stories had to be shuffled for something else that could be just as potent and as interesting. So, the commercial considerations were on the table, after all it was their job to sell comics, but so far what we’re still talking about is creators who are trying to figure out a story hook that could get their creative juices flowing and come up with something that could amount to more than just a one-and-done gimmick. We’re talking about a comic book arc. Sure, it would not be the first time a comic book story arc was designed to sell comics, or a crossover was designed to break records, but this one came from a sincere need to generate excitement for an iconic superhero. It was orchestrated to draw attention towards the revamped fictional world these creative teams had painstakingly realized in the years prior and believed (rightfully so) that deserved the real world’s attention.

All they needed was one simple catalytic agent.

Doomsday Superman Cultural Primer

Doomsday is Coming

3. Who is Doomsday?

“There is nothing in his mind but anger—no thought but destruction. There is no way to tell where he came from. Not that it matters. We’ll have to work to stop him in any case. If anyone can stop him.”

—Dubbilex, Man of Steel #19, 1992(cover dated January ’93).

In the fictional world of the DC Universe he barely registers as a sentient agent. Most people say they hate him because he is a poor man’s Hulk. Well, he is less than Hulk actually, in the context of agency. You can’t begin to understand the value or the identity of Doomsday if all you want to do is compare him to other famous comic book characters. Including the personifications of death and destruction such as Marvel’s Galactus or their marvelized female Death. Doomsday is something else. He is a dynamic challenge of Superman, not so much in the way of being a character, but in being a construct of his apparent neglect to the modern world. From the first panels where we see Doomsday’s fists punching their way out of captivity the artists capture a dreadful sense of inevitability through a consistent and repetitive image, almost like each panel serves as a ticking clock, while the captions read “Somewhere else… Doomsday is coming!” The creature was a time-keeper, signaling that the Never-Ending Battle had an expiration date.

DDIC
Yes, Superman had continued his Never Ending Battle, yes he still was an All American icon, but the real world had the perception that he had remained in a frozen time bubble back in the ‘50s. Or more accurately the ‘70s, which was the last decade the world felt anything for him. None of the big Superman media events after his popular ‘70s movie adaptation tackled or pondered about any of the world events that had been happening. The movie itself, as classic as it is regarded by many of us, only attempts to be grounded enough in any semblance of a real world for the purpose of delivering on their promise that we will believe a man can fly. But Superman had gone one-on-one with the Great One Muhammad Ali. He had joined the war effort during World War 2. And in his first years during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s fought against the Great Depression’s greatest evils such as domestic violence, social injustice and the rising criminal activities of an underworld that was growing out of the shadows of a bankrupt society.

ddci2
So his adventures were designed to look boldly at what was going on in the world and contrast it with escapist stories that somehow tackled very real issues in a roundabout way. Despite the fact that he could survive an atomic bomb or fly through time itself would always be in service of an important message for the world. But somewhere along the way a disconnect occurred.

Superman had been fighting the Never Ending Battle up until the ‘90s, way over 50 years by then, but was he alive? He was a pop icon but was he a legend? As long as his adventures were still set to the tune of an Imaginary Tale—a perception they still hadn’t gotten rid off despite the best intentions of the Crisis on Infinite Earths company-wide reboot, and John Byrne’s grounded retelling of Superman’s origins for a modern audience—Superman could never hope to reach and satisfy the new sensibilities of the modern comic book reader. The writers weren’t so much interested in going for the quick-and-easy method of re-interpreting the hero under grim ‘n’ gritty terms, but they knew they’d have to tackle it in some way.

So Doomsday is this raw hard look into Superman’s greatest challenge: the ugly truth that Superman just wasn’t good enough for our modern world. We, the fans, obviously knew the answer(of course he is enough!), but the world at that time didn’t have the luxury of blockbuster superhero movies and TV series cluttering pop culture each month. The world tuned in to superheroes like Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan and Hulk Hogan in specific and limited doses such as seasons or PPVs. Throughout the year they were trying to make ends meet, dealing with the prospect of the Desert Storm, while listening to Boyz II Men or House of Pain, or watching Malcolm X, or playing Sega Nintendo.

nint

There’s nothing wrong about Imaginary Tales, by the way. But the best of them work when they are somehow aligned to our world, maybe not necessarily with the social makeup of the fictional world, but definitely with the themes and rationale as we understand them in our time. You wouldn’t know it from all the cultural reappraisal the industry-defining Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns have constantly gotten, but they are Imaginary Tales in the best sense. So much press and commentary has been devoted to promoting the ideas that these were the comic book stories that brought about the obsession for grounded and mature storytelling in superhero stories, which quickly devolved into the grim ‘n’ gritty aesthetic, but these influences, as with everything that is a commercial hit, came from a total misconception about what made those two stories break through the glass ceiling. The truth is that both stories wear their political and mythical qualities proudly and loudly. They are still escapist entertainment, but both are meticulously aligned to the contemporary world. And the reason why their creators Alan Moore and Frank Miller are able to accomplish this is because they both had a great hook that goes beyond comic book conventions. A hook that feels like you have got to get in on the action even if you’re not a comic book fan.

Doomsday was the same type of hook. The more you read about DC Comics history the more you will find that they have been at the forefront of crossover media ever since the ‘70s Superman adaptation. They did cartoons during the Saturday Morning cartoon boom. They did action figures during the action figure boom. They did Crisis on Infinite Earth. TV series and TV commercials. They brought Batmania with the Batman movie adaptation in ’89. And with each and every one of these media interventions their characters are in the psyche of more than one generation. If you want to call it corporate luck go ahead and knock yourself out.

Doomsday is an effect and a consequence above anything else. You knew what was happening before you knew why or who. He is a monster, designed in the most classical sense, as both a challenge for our hero and a mythical passage. His design is bare bones. Pun almost intended. Almost no color. He’s like one of the unfinished statues of Michelangelo, half defined, half ossified formations. A cave troll from outer space. And here’s the kicker: he may be called Doomsday, but he usually is only ever the beginning of an epic story. He is only there to slash through the story safety nets, the conventions such as “Happily Ever After” and “The Never Ending Battle Rages On”, and take them away so both the creators and the readers can engage, let loose and be experimental with myth. I’m only writing this because that is what happens when you read The Death of Superman and then continue with Funeral for a Friend.

You know Superman will return, but the way they have killed him this time around, as opposed to previous deaths, the creative team is committed into befuddling the reader. The characters in his world are not just sad that he’s gone, they are figuring out how to carry on with his legacy and how to make sure the world stay safe. Funeral for a Friend is just as important as the Death of Superman because it tackles rituals that we as a society back then had distanced ourselves from. Up until the days before 9/11 the whole story might’ve felt like an Imaginary Tale about grieving, but afterwards it transforms almost into spiritual manual as we are faced now with the possibilities of massive urban tragedies, and the ravages of war hitting closer to home each day. The writers were not foreseeing any of this, but they were adapting a sense of real world fears into a comic book series geared for general audiences and redefining who Superman is within these new social expectations. Instead of telling us who is Superman, they laid the question entirely to us. And that’s what the Reign of the Supermen(the storyline that immediately followed Funeral for A Friend) was all about. But that’s a story for another time.

mach

 

4. What was the point of Doomsday?

“Doomsday leaps but he doesn’t fly. ‘Long as I have him off the ground, I have some advantage.”

–Superman, Man of Steel #19, 1992(cover dated Jan. ‘93)
That scene is some straight up Hercules v Antaeus from classical mythology! Antaeus was a fearsome wrestler who derived power from his contact with earth. He was said to be invincible. He was also nasty: he built a temple to his father with the skulls of his victims. When Hercules wrestled him, he discovered the source of Antaeus’ strength, and lifting him up from the earth crushed him to death. The larger narrative framework where this story is told is the epic myth of the 12 Labors of Hercules.

What was the point of Doomsday? It’s kind of the same as asking the question of what was the point of legends or mythology, in my opinion. The point of mythology and legends is to explain a set of cultural experiences and rituals and preserve a sense of belonging. In a clash of cultures, such as it happened during the Roman Empire, mythology serves as the diplomatic system through which any one member of a cultural group can hope to understand his culture or the one from someone of a different group. The mythic realm is as ancient a standard procedure of the human condition as our breathing, and through it we begin to understand and interpret our reality. I will take it upon myself to define the Ancient World as a world in which different cultures understood themselves as living the one true reality. However, now as a contemporary society that is connected to other societies through technology and media, we have experienced several generations of people who have had to deal with more than one singular reality.

World Wars and major disasters have at times brought different groups together, but the fact remains that more and more each day we are faced with the challenge of living door-to-door next to vastly different or outright opposite ideologies, beliefs and ways of life. It is true what they say in all of those books about the history of superhero and comic books that the act of mythology has not been neglected, instead relegated to the funny papers for a couple of decades. Because who in their right minds would stake their serious reputation in trying to figure out a new mythology all these different groups of people could share? I believe that it’s not a coincidence that these funny paper characters are being dragged into the forefront of cultural experience once again through the massive blockbuster movies that have conquered both cinemas as well as the public discussion and traffic on social media. Nowadays, you will find on twitter and on different comment sections of major media outlets people of opposing political ideologies and social experiences fighting over who Superman is supposed to be. It often leads to heated discussions and arguments, but the fact that a mythic character could appeal to people of different religious beliefs, political inclinations, race, etc., speaks volume about the success of the superhero as a modern myth.

So, way back in 1992, what was the point of Doomsday? The same as Crisis In Infinite Earths, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and the record-breaking movie adaptation of Batman in 1989: turn the attention of the world towards comic books. Show the world that there are powerful stories and powerful characters. More than anything, the point was that there’s always an alternate world where things could be worse or things could be better. But it’s up to us to imagine it. And that’s what comic book stories like the Death of Superman are there for. And as long as we rise to the challenge and address problems of our communities to the best of our capabilities, there will always be a real life Superman or Supergirl around.

smoking of doomsday

Seinfeld AmEx comercial

5. Conclusion

Comic book characters aren’t designed to solve our real world problems. Superman–the best of them–the most he can be is aspirational. There is a big business behind them, but there’s also art. We are in the privileged position where we can decide the fate of these fictional worlds and their characters, through our consumer trends in regards to what we need as individuals or a society. I believe the character of Doomsday, as dumb as he may seem, deserves reappraisal because he is way more than just a gimmick. He is at the center of a very important moment in time for superheroes and their gaze toward our real world.

When Doomsday is utilized in adaptations let’s pay a closer look at the reasons why because he can be a great reference point or shorthand for a particular tone in a story and I think it’s a mythic tone rather than just a gimmick. The latest adaptation will be in the upcoming movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and despite the fact that he will be a special effect, the man tapped to perform his movements is none other than Robin Atkin Downes. His name may not be as popular as Robert Downey, Jr., but he has been as hard at work in popular media as our favorite Iron Man. Specifically, on superhero adaptations where he has lent his voice to characters such as Marvel’s Abomination, Annihilus, Baron Zemo and DC’s Green Arrow, Manchester Black, Harvey Dent, The Guardian and the Court of Owls’ Grandmaster. His wikipedia and imdb pages serve as long lists of consistent work in the realm of superhero adaptations. I think that even in Doomsday’s movie version in Batman v Superman doesn’t amount to as much as the original impact of the character in comic books did, they are at least handling the adaptation with a lot of care.

So there you go. If you like something support it, if you don’t like something don’t support it. Don’t let people tell you what you have to like or what you need to buy. Do whatever you want and make up your own mind. But do the work. Do the reading. Do the time. And stop bothering the critics. They’re people like you and me, and they’re entitled to their own opinions, which are well informed most of the time, whether you agree with them or not.

sdbl

Joe León

Río Piedras, 1980. Artista plástico graduado del Departamento de Bellas Artes de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras. Frecuenta las disciplinas de la pintura, el dibujo y el graffiti a través del lenguaje visual de los cómics. En sus obras maneja las temáticas del posthumanismo, la crítica social y la construcción de la identidad. Integra elementos mitológicos y religiosos en sus discursos. Fanático y estudioso del cine de ciencia ficción. Lector de teorías y crítica del Arte. Ha diseñado un manifiesto artístico, llamado "la Falsismoda", con el cual anticipó una revolución global que hará esencial las destrezas del individuo en curar su identidad a un nivel artístico ante los cambios políticos y socioeconómicos.
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