So reading about how Crisis on Infinite Earths held up after thirty years got me to thinking about Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? The original Crisis was the end of the entire DC universe, but Whatever Happened... was specifically made to be the end of Superman and the Superman Family.
At first, Julius Schwartz, the outgoing editor at the time, wanted to get Jerry Siegel to write it and create a symmetry to the entire thing, but Siegel wasn’t able to write it due to legal restrictions. Schwartz mentioned this to Alan Moore at a convention and later recalled, “So I told him about my difficulties. At that point, he rose out of his chair, and said, ‘If you let anybody but me write that story, I’ll kill you.’” And so, Alan Moore wrote the story and Curt Swan (famous drawing Superman for many years) illustrated it.
The story takes place in the last two issues of Superman #423 and Action Comics #583 before the reboot. It’s not only one of the best Superman stories, it is one of the best comic books ever. It is, in a ward, a gut-punch. It is the end of the Silver Age Superman, an end to everything about that era. It is the Last Superman Story.
And it begins with Lois Lane-Elliot agreeing to give an interview about Superman’s last days. Everything had been fine in Metropolis until suddenly they weren’t. Until things took a turn for the dark: Bizarro had gone on a rampage and killed people in an attempt to be Superman’s “perfect imperfect duplicate.”
Yes, this story starts off by killing Bizarro and making you feel sad for him. I told you it was a gut-punch.
And then things turn even worse: Toyman and Prankster killed Pete Ross and sent his dead body to the Daily Planet and, in the process, revealed Superman’s secret identity. Toyman and Prankster don’t even know why they killed him or how they knew to torture him for information about Superman, they just did.
In the arctic, Luthor searched for Brainiac’s body and then got possessed by Brainiac’s mind. And in Metropolis, dozens of Metallos attacked the Daily Planet, making Superman realize that his friends are in danger because of him. So he took them all to the Fortress of Solitude.
Where he got a visit for the Legion of Super-Heroes...and Supergirl. Yes, just to dig in the knife, Superman knew that Supergirl is dead. This takes place after the Crisis somehow, but still in the Silver Age Earth-1. (There’s a particularly tragic moment where Supergirl asks where her present self is, because she should be incorporeal if there was another Superman in the present. Superman has to say, “Right now, Supergirl...Supergirl is in the past.”)
The Legion of Super-Heroes know that these are the last days of Superman. So they give him a parting gift: a golden statue of him holding up the Phantom Zone projector. And then they leave him, knowing that his last battle is coming.
And all Superman can do is cry.
And now, here is the cover of Action Comics #583:
Notice those people waving at the bottom? The three people in front are Jeanette Khan, Curt Swan, and Julius Schwartz, who was the editor of Superman and Action Comics from 1971 to 1986, fifteen years. This wasn’t just Superman’s last story; this was Schwartz’s last story, too.
And now Superman was in his Fortress of Solitude with his friends and the siege is about to begin.
The Brainiac-controlled Luthor has shown up at the Fortress and apparently created a forcefield around it to make sure nobody can get through.
And he gets help from the Legion of Super-Villains from the future, who know that this is Superman’s last battle and want to be a part of it. They help by bringing in the Kryptonite Man and increasing his powers.
And then Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang got an idea: remember all those times they got superpowers? Well, they still have the serums for those powers at the Fortress. Lana superhearing arrived just as Superman confessed that although he loved Lana in the past, he currently loves Lois will all his heart. So what does Lana do? She suits up and gets ready to fight for Superman:
What follows is this: Lana Lang kills Luthor. The Legion of Super-Villains then electrocute her to death. Jimmy tries to stop them, but they kill him, too.
And when Superman hears this, he goes berserk. The Legion of Super-Villains becomes terrified because Superman is ready to kill them. They flee and instead the Kryptonite Man rushes in to try and kill him. At which point, Krypto attack and sacrifices his life to kill him.
So the body count is now at six: Bizarro, Pete Ross, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, and Krypto. (I told you this was a gut-punch.)
Superman goes outside to see who’s left and finds Brainiac still in control of a now dead Luthor. But Luthor is going through rigor mortis and Brainiac can’t control his body any longer. So without any effort, Braniac is defeated. But the forcefield still stands. There’s still a hidden villain. Who is left?
Mister Mxyzptlk. That’s right: the imp from the 5th Dimension that would cause trouble for Superman before being tricked into saying his name backwards. He did it all. Why?
Why not? Mxyzptlk explains that being immortal is boring. For 2,000 years he just did nothing. For the next 2,000, he did good deeds. And then for 2,000 years he was a trickster. And now he’s decided to be evil. And then he changes into his true form:
That’s right: the real Mxyzptlk looked unlike anything ever seen or witnessed. As Lois put it: “I can’t describe what Mxyzptlk then became. He had height, width, depth, and a couple of other things, too.”
But Lois helps Superman remember his gift from the Legion of Super-Heroes and so he grabs the Phantom Zone projector and turns it to Mxyzptlk. Mxy, realizing what would happened, then said his name backwards...and he was pulled between the 5th Dimension and the Phantom Zone, tearing him in two.
Superman knew he would do this. He knew and he did it anyway: he has crossed the one line he said he wouldn’t and killed. So he walks into his room of Gold Kryptonite and removes his powers...and is never seen again.
The story then cuts back to the interview of Lois Lane-Elliot. Lois explains that she met another man, Jordan Elliot, and then got married and had a child. The interviewer leaves just as Jordan comes home...and we know that Jordan is just a depowered Clark Kent. And “Jordan” seems to be fine working and living as a normal human. As he says, “Superman? He was overrated and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get away without him.”
And unobserved by both of them, their child has just turned a piece of coal into a diamond.
And so this is how the story ends:
Superman winking to us and then living happy ever after.
And that was the Last Superman Story.