They say that the Superman ‘S’ is the 2nd most recognisable symbol in the world behind Christianity’s cross. That’s how popular Superman is. Widely considered the greatest superhero of all time and a timeless cultural icon that transcends global boundaries, how could it be that the company that owned him was in big trouble? This is a business turnaround story of how DC Comics turned their fortunes around by doing something drastic – kill Superman. In this post, we’ll go into the story behind the now iconic ‘Death of Superman’ story and the business lessons we can glean from this.
The State of Comics in the 90s
So how did things get so bad that DC Comics had to kill their most popular character just to survive? In the early ’90s, DC Comics was in big trouble. At the turn of the decade, DC was severely lagging behind Marvel Comics in sales. By 1991, DC Comics only had an estimated 20% market share.
The negative trend continued and the following year an unprecedented thing happened – DC was being outperformed by Malibu Comics. This was the first time in history that a non-DC/Marvel company had gained majority market share. To put things in perspective, DC’s most popular characters were being outsold by Marvel’s less important characters. The best of DC couldn’t beat the worst of Marvel. It was no contest.
Business Turnaround Idea #1
Desperate to regain their former glory, DC Comics knew they had to do something. Their first idea centred around their most popular character, Superman. DC figured that they needed to do a story that would shake and disrupt the comic book industry.
In late 1992, DC assembled a team of their most acclaimed writers to come up with an earth-shattering story. Their team included Mike Carlin, Dan Jurgens, Jon Bogdanove, Louise Simonson and Jerry Ordway. The team’s task was to not only combat declining comic book sales but to also try and gain media coverage and good PR.
Their earth-shattering idea?
Yep, that’s right. It was time for ‘Big Blue’ to get Lois Lane to borrow something blue. Now you might think this doesn’t sound all that impressive. However, you must consider the context of the time. In the early ’90s, there weren’t that many major superheroes getting married. The marriage storyline was still fairly novel and it was previously successful. In 1987, Marvel had success when Peter Parker (Spider-Man) married long term sweetheart, Mary-Jane Watson.
The writers began working on the romantic tension between Clark and Lois and had the idea that the two would marry in June 1993. However, there was a problem.
The TV show, ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman‘ was also looking to work the marriage angle. The TV writers were going to have the pair marry in the show’s finale. At the time, CD Comics President, Jenette Kahn told her writing team that their wedding would have to coincide with the TV show’s wedding. Therefore this threw all the timing off and the writers were back to square one.
Needless to say, the exhausted writers were now heartbroken, frustrated and unsure of what to do. They were no further forward and still going backwards. It was only a matter of time before DC Comics was doomed.
“Let’s Just Kill Him!”
A running joke between the writers was something that Jerry Ordway would say in every meeting, “Let’s just kill him!” Up till now, Ordway had said this is pretty much every writer’s meeting whenever they were stuck or staring at a blank sheet of paper. The writers would laugh and they’d carry on.
After the news that their wedding idea was a no-goer, the writers had a meeting. Ordway stood up and once again shouted, “Let’s just kill him!”
This time nobody laughed. In fact, the writers contemplated it. What if they killed the Man of Steel?
Mike Carlin (then Group Editor for all Superman titles) gave the go-ahead for the writers to pursue the idea of killing Superman.
Business Turnaround Idea #2
And so it was. The team were to kill Superman in January 1993 (Superman #75) and resurrect him later 5 months later in the Adventures of Superman #500. The ‘Death of Superman’ would show us what a world without Superman would be like. This plan was solid, disruptive and was sure to get DC Comics sales back on track.
Now, being a comic book enthusiast, I’m not going to go into the full detail of how they killed Superman and the whole backstory. However, just know that non of the current Superman villains roster was strong enough to do it. DC Comics therefore had to create a new villain, Doomsday to kill the Man of Steel.
At the end of #75, Superman and Doomsday have an epic battle in the streets of Metropolis. It takes everything within Superman to defeat the hulking menace. Finally, Superman takes one last swing at Doomsday with all his might and stops him. However, the battle proved too much for Superman. A distraught Lois Lane holds Superman in her arms (now an iconic image).
Did It Work?
DC had played their hand. They killed the most recognisable hero of all time. But was it enough?
Superman issues #75 went onto sell 4 million units. It was the biggest selling comic book of the year and the best selling Superman comic of all time. People lined up on the streets to get their hands on the black-sleeved Superman comic. It made the headlines all over the world (I remember seeing it on the 6 o’ clock news in England!). DC increased their market share from circa 20% to 31% in the blink of an eye! By contrast, Marvel plummeted to just 17%! DC was finally back on top! The gamble had paid off. It was a major success. DC had done it.
[SUMMARY] Business Turnaround Lessons from DC Comics
- Widen the focus
- Consider every possiblity
- Don’t be afraid to suggest controversial or unprecedented ideas
- Don’t be afraid
- Desperate times may call for desperate measures
- If you have a Superman, consider killing him