Twenty five years ago, I woke up from a dream and cried out, "They killed Superman!"
It was one of the few times in my life I've experienced movie cliché #217: The Nightmare That Makes You Sit Up in Bed Panting. (For the record, I didn't respond with movie cliché #218: Walking to the Bathroom to Splash Your Face with Water.) Every other time I'd had this experience, I'd been dreaming that I was falling, tripping or dropping something fragile. Because in my nightmares, apparently, I am Jerry Lewis.
The actual content of the Superman dream faded quickly, but this much I could remember clearly: Lex Luthor and Brainiac were nowhere in sight. It wasn't a dream about supervillains finally vanquishing their super-foe, bwa-ha-ha. There hadn't been any "POW!" or "BAM!" It was a dream about a conversation someone was having, a decision someone was making. And the upshot:
"They killed Superman!"
Which wouldn't have meant much to me a few years before. I'd been reading comic books off and on since I was a kid, and my favorites were from DC -- the company that owned Superman. Yet for most of my childhood, Supes had bored me to death.
Partially, it was the whole infallible, invulnerable, invincible thing. Who could relate? I preferred scrappy second-stringers like Green Lantern, Green Arrow, the Flash and Wildcat. (Come to think of it, Wildcat -- a "super" hero with no powers, no gadgets, and not much of an I.Q. -- was probably a third-stringer.) These weren't the heroes you'd find on lunch boxes or Underoos. They needed me!
I'd also been put off by the silly, super-square adventures Superman was having when I was a kid. Adventures of Superman was on TV every Sunday morning, and it was the one thing no superhero show should be: boring. I don't remember the plots clearly, but every episode seemed to be about a gang (consisting of two to three guys in spiffy grey suits) trying to steal a kid's dog or rob a watch repair shop or tie Jimmy Olsen up in a garden shed. High-stakes stuff. Super Friends usually wasn't much better. "Merciful Minerva, Superman! Professor Nerdmann's matter transmogrifier has turned those ants into rampaging super-ants…and they're headed straight for Wendy and Marvin's picnic!" Ugh.
Even Superman's comic books were dull. New Teen Titans -- man, that comic was now! ("Now" being 1980.) The Man of Steel's books seemed stuck in the '50s. Anything alien or supposedly futuristic looked like it came straight out of Capt. Video and His Video Rangers. It was like the people doing the art had never seen Star Trek, let alone Star Wars.
I tolerated Superman because he was a member of the Justice League and he'd been in a couple good movies and…well, he was Superman. I got that he was special. The O.G. superhero. But, damn, was he dull.
Apparently, I wasn't the only one who felt that way. In 1986, a little thing called The Dark Knight Returns came along. It's famous now for reshaping how people thought about Batman. But it did the same thing for Superman, too.
It made it O.K. to hate him.
In the grim'n'gritty world of The Dark Knight Returns, truth is an illusion, justice is a joke and the American Way is corrupt and degenerate. And Superman? He's "the big blue Boy Scout" Batman beats to a bloody pulp -- with the fanboys, it seemed, cheering him on.
Something funny (or, to be more honest, churlish) happened after that: I started to root for Superman. The more other people expressed contempt for him, the more protective I felt toward the big guy. He wasn't invulnerable anymore. He needed me!
I started reading -- and enjoying -- Superman comics, which had been given a big shot of energy and relevance by John Byrne. Suddenly the Superman books felt very grounded, very now ("now" being roughly 1987-1991), very dense (in the sense of jam-packed rather than empty-headed), very fun. For a while.
And then I had the dream.
Maybe a guy who writes a series of tarot mysteries shouldn't admit this, but I don't believe in prophecy. But I never forgot that nightmare. Overhearing a conversation, witnessing a decision, and crying out, "They killed Superman!"
A year later, it came true. DC Comics killed the first and greatest superhero of them all.
Oh, they took it back, of course. A couple years later, Superman returned. Yet I never got over the feeling that both he and I had been sold out somehow. And around the same time they killed Green Lantern, my fave-rave second-stringer, too -- after having him go insane and brutally murder some of his best friends. They eventually brought him back, too. But by then it was way too late for me. The only comics I've bought in the last 20 years have been for my kids.
My daughter used to like Archie. My son likes Casper and Richie Rich.
And me -- I still have that soft spot for Superman. I want him to do O.K., be O.K. Which is part of the reason I'm in no hurry to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I hear it's doing just fine at the box office. But is Superman O.K.? Is Superman Superman? I saw Man of Steel, so I can't be sure.
They killed Superman. And he came back. So I'll try to have faith that the spirit of Superman -- hope and heroism and fun -- can come back, too.
P.S.: I should probably mention that this old comic book reader finally got around to writing a graphic novel. Secret Smithsonian Adventures: The Wrong Wrights (which I created with co-writer Chris Kientz and illustrator Lee Nielsen) came out last month. It's the first in a new series of light-hearted yet educational graphic novel adventures. Up, up and away!