“Superman is dead. Long live Superman,” shouts a 30-ish guy, fist clenched, arm waving wildly in the cold night air.
A kid of about ten calls back, “I’m glad he’s dead. He’s boring!”
A pack of fans hisses at the kid. “Watch it, someone tells him. “You’re talking about the man of steel.”
The fist clencher is at it again. “Long live Superman!” “Woof” sounds rise from the crowd.
A hearse with the famous S emblazoned on its window pulls up, and a coffin draped in red is carried into the Toontown Comic Company, on Southport just south of Irving Park.
There are a couple of hundred people lining the sidewalk, all waiting to cram into the tiny store. Everyone wants to get their hands on the much ballyhooed collector’s edition of the episode in which our hero bites the big one. He meets his match in Doomsday, a stone-and-bone creature from the center of the earth.
Actually, Superman is being killed off by DC Comics, which has been in a real slump in recent years and figures this will boost sales. Nobody believes this is really the end of the character that started it all.
“He’s one of a kind. The first of a kind. There would not be a comic-book industry if not for Superman,” says Howard Johnson, co-owner of 23rd Century Artworks, around the comer from Toontown. Johnson’s gallery is running an exhibit called “So Long, Superman: A Tribute in Art” to mark the death. “He started it all. Long before Batman, long before Spiderman, there was Superman.”
The gallery is full of original comic-book art, but the big draw here are seven artboards in a cordoned-off corner at the back of the gallery. These are from the death issue, given to Johnson by his friend Dan Jurgens, the cartoonist who drew them.
Johnson doesn’t have the originals–the 22-page Doomsday edition has been consigned to auction, he says. But these seven stats are nonetheless fascinating to the crowd that gathers to stare at every detail.
“Do you think it means anything that he dies the same year the Republican Party does?” asks a dark-haired guy of about 25 who has shown up with his girlfriend and another guy.
“He looks like Randy Travis and Randy Travis was Bush’s favorite,” the friend says. “Yeah,” the dark-haired one says, “And his arms resemble Arnold Schwartzenegger. And he looks a little like Bruce Willis.”
The girlfriend gets into it. “What if Superman comes back to support the Democratic Party? He’d be more like James Taylor or Carly Simon. Politically Correct Dude.” “You know,” the friend says, “If you think about it, Superman’s haircut looks a lot like Elvis’s. And it was during the 70s that Superman and Elvis began wearing the big collars.
“And Superman and Elvis are both dead.” Out of nowhere, the girlfriend, who’s been whispering to her boyfriend, adds, “Does Clinton think Elvis is alive?” They don’t want to give their names. “Actually,” she says, “I’m a little embarrassed to be here, but my boyfriend loves this.”
Back at the front of the gallery, Johnson greets everyone entering. “Hey man, look at this,” a young guy shouts, pointing to the Madonna portrait that is inexplicably mixed in with the Superman stuff. “Is this for sale?”
A woman holding her infant son, who’s been dressed as Superman, glares at the Madonna fan and walks away, cuddling the baby.
An Asian teenager who speaks very little English comes up and complains about Superman being killed. “How can they do this?” he says.
“Hey,” Johnson answers, “everybody who’s read comic books knows that nobody dies forever.” He turns back to me. “What’s really frustrating is to see people saying, ‘Oh, they can’t do this. This is terrible. We’re going to write petitions.’ DC Comics isn’t going to listen to petitions. They’re going to listen to sales. If these sell well, I’m sure they’ll bring him back.” A tall black kid wearing an “XL” cap (“It means extra large,” he says, snickering) is standing in front of a picture of Superman swooping down into a street crowd. I ask him why he likes comic books. “Well, it’s all like cross-pollination. You start with comics and end up with fine literature.” Outside the gallery a 40-ish woman bundled in a blue parka is taking in the atmosphere. A gray-haired lady walks by. “What’s this all about,” she asks, pointing to the party.
“It’s Superman. He died today,” the parka woman answers.
The lady takes a look. “Really, in real life?”
The parka woman stares at her. “Well, as real as a comic book can be.”
We stand in the cold together, part of the crowd lined up outside of Toontown. “You know I used to return pop bottles and use the money to get comic books,” she says. “For a couple of six-packs you’d have enough for a couple of days’ worth of comics. Now they’re $1.25 up to $5.00.”
The crowd outside is getting antsy. “Come on, man, let us in,” they plead with a good-natured but stern bouncer who’s been hired to guard the entrance. A little boy of about seven is begging: “Pleeeze mister, can I go inside?”
Like livestock, we collect as close to the door as possible. Everyone has a story–about the thousands of comics they collected as kids, about their brother who ruined them, about how they lost them all.
I manage to get inside of Toontown after nearly an hour. Dale Harrah, who owns the shop with his wife Vickie, is frantic. “There were four boxes of these comic books back there and only three now. Where are they?” He rushes into the back to check.
The Harrahs are trying to move people along, but a grandmother who’s shown up with her grandson refuses to go back outdoors into the cold. “If I had known it was going to be this, I could have gone to my comic-book place tomorrow,” she complains.
Now she’s speaking a little louder, to anyone who’ll listen. “I’ve been interested in Superman since I was 10 and I’m 61 now.They didn’t have to kill him off. They could have saved him like they did Daredevil. He was in a slump, too.”
Her grandson leans against her leg, trying not to fall asleep. “They’re not going to keep him dead. Heck, everybody comes back sooner or later. Nobody never dies, not in comic books.”
A middle-aged man clutches two complete sets of the Doomsday series. “Christmas gifts,” he explains. “He couldn’t have died at a better time.”
I ask if he sees any political overtones in Superman’s death. “Oh, I never saw him as a political type,” he says. “He’s more of a union man–man of steel, blue-collar type. Red cape, but blue collar. The only political statement is that he’s going to help the economy, Everyone’s going to want these.”
Vickie Harrah is standing at the back of her shop next to a TV set that’s been showing Superman cartoons and movies. The music from Superman, the Christopher Reeve movie, fills the shop as Harrah watches her customers pick up Superman T-shirts, plastic toys, trading cards.
She’s wearing a somber black suit with a black-and-red arm band. “Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way. He’s been with us for over 50 years. People have grown up with him. They need to revamp him,” she says. “The characters that are selling very well now are X-Man, Wolverine, Spiderman, Punisher. They’re characters that use a darker side. Even Batman has a darker side.
“Superman is too nice,” she laments. “I don’t have trouble with identifying with truth, justice, and the American way. But that whole bit didn’t work for the Republican Party. When you look at your political system, sports figures, the ministry, the people we set up as idols have fallen.
“In Comic Book Land, to look at someone who’s perfect and does no wrong has become boring,” she says. “I think they’re going to bring Superman back as a Terminator-type. Maybe they’re going to introduce a few character flaws.”
As I leave the shop, there are still about 75 people waiting to get inside. I walk down the sidewalk with a customer going my way. “You know,” he says, “I remember listening to my brother read to me from Superman comics. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to learn to read, so I could read them myself.”
Someone passes us calling, “Be careful. Youll probably get mugged by someone who didn’t make it inside.” Sure, where’s Superman when you need him?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.