A lot of fans like to gripe about the recent depictions of Superman in the movies. I know I do, and I haven't even seen them. Which in a rational universe would preclude me from having an opinion on the subject, but this is the Internet. One of the biggest gripes is how the Cinematic Superman is now a murderer. He defeats General Zod, the Kryptonian criminal escaped from the Phantom Zone, by killing him.
In Superman's defense, he did this as a last resort to save the lives of millions. And it's not like there hasn't been any precedent. Supeman has also killed in the comics. Not often, it's true, and always with a goodly amount of controversy, but he has on occasion done it. He's even had justification sometimes.
Let me tell you about the first time Superman killed Zod.
I suppose we'd better start with the Crisis. In the mid-'80s, DC Comics published CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, a ground-breaking, and reality-breaking maxi-series, the very first Company-Wide Crossover Event. Its purpose was no less than to re-structure the entire DC Universe, condensing the myriad alternate earths into a single, more manageable one. That was the plan, anyway. As the slogan said, “Earths will live; Earths will die; And the DC Universe will never be the same!”
Since they were re-organizing everything anyway, they decided to do the same to a couple of its most iconic character, stripping away decades of accumulated backstory and getting down to the essentials. To do this for Superman, DC scored a coup comparable to Jack Kirby's defection from Marvel a decade earlier. To redefine the biggest star in the DCU, they hired one of the biggest stars at that time at Marvel, John Byrne.
Byrne was probably most famous for his artwork on the All-New, All-Different X-MEN with writer Chris Claremont. He had gone on to draw and write other titles for Marvel, including ALPHA FLIGHT, which he created, AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and a well-regarded run on FANTASTIC FOUR. And I think he came from Marvel with a certain amount of snobbishness. A lot of Marvel fans had the opinion that DC comics were stodgy and unrealistic, while Marvel comics were more believable. Comparatively speaking, at least.
They had a point. During the era when Mort Weisinger edited the SUPERMAN comics, the character had accumulated what could be charitably called a Rich Mythology; (and less-charitably as a Lot of Goofy Stuff): Krypto the Superdog, the Bottle City of Kandor, Red Kryptonite and the broad spectrum of other colors, Clark's Mermaid Girlfriend Lori Lemaris.
Byrne had a mandate from DC to dich all the Weisinger Era stuff and rebuild the Man of Steel from the ground up; starting with a six-issue limited series titled, naturally enough, MAN OF STEEL, which retold Superman's origin and established key pints of his early career: the Destruction of Krypton, his adoption by the Kents; his first encounters with Lois Lane, with Batman, and of course, with Lex Luthor.
He made several changes. Some were trivial: Superman's cape was no longer indestructible. Some were beneficial: Ma and Pa Kent were still alive and able to give him advice from time to time and help keep him grounded. Some were significant: the Planet Krypton was altered from a world of scientific wonders to a cold, sterile dystopia; and Lex Luthor was changed from a criminal scientist to a corrupt zillionaire industrialist. And two of the changes caused severe complication further down the line.
For one thing, it was decreed that in the Post-Crisis Univers, Superman would be the sole survivor of the destruction of Krypton. No more Phantom Zone Criminals; no more Bottle City of Kandor; no more Krypto; and no more Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl. This last made a little narrative sense, because Supergirl had been killed during the Crisis, so there was some justification for saying that she had been retroactively deleted from existence. It was still a disappointment for fans of heroines in mini-skirts, though.
The other change seemed more trivial but had far from trivial repercussions. Back during the Silver Age, DC had expanded the Super-Franchise with SUPERBOY, the adventures of Superman, when he was a boy. With the Byrne reboot, it was decided that Post-Crisis, Clark Kent did not don the Big Red “S” costume and begin a public career as a super-hero until he was an adult. Superboy and all his wacky teen super-exploits in Smallville, were chucked down the memory hole, along with Supergirl, Krypto and the Legion of Super-Pets.
Ah, the Legion. There was the rub.
The Legion of Super-Heroes, a team of super-powered teens from the 30th Century, first appeared in a Superboy story in ADVENTURE COMICS. They had been inspired by the example of the Boy of Steel's legend, and so traveled back to the 20th Century to invite young Clark to join their super-club. Superboy became an integral part of Legion history; but with Superboy gone, where did that leave the Legion?
The explanation the writers came up with involved an old Legion villain called the Time Trapper who lived at the End of the Universe. Not the geographic end; the chronological end. It turns out the the Trapper had created a Pocket Universe, similar to our universe in many respects, except that it only contains two inhabited planets: Earth and Krypton. Oh, and the pocket universe has a Superboy. And it turns out that every time the Legion traveled back in time to visit the 20th Century, the Time Trapper was shunting them off into this pocket dimension. Why? He lives at the End of Time, a place almost as boring as Des Moines. He has to do something for amusement.
Superman finds out about the Pocket Universe when that world's Superboy crosses over to his world (along with Krypto!) and appears in Smallville. After some initial confusion, (including a panel which rivals anything in the Weisinger Era for goofiness, in which Krypto tries to stop Superman by pulling on his cape. Superman comments on how odd it is that the flying dog seems surprised that his cape ripped), the Time Trapper's role in this is revealed, and Superboy is returned to the Pocket Universe.
This explanation for the continued existence of Superboy was ingenious, but inelegant. The whole point of the Crisis was to do away with all those extraneous universes. Superboy's Earth was a loose end; and calling it a “Pocket Universe” did not make it any neater.
I don't know if John Byrne received an editorial mandate to eliminate the Pocket Universe, or if he decided to do it on his own initiative; but within a year of the Superboy cross-over, he began a multi-part storyline to ensure that Superman was once again the Last Son of Krypton – any Krypton.
It begins with the appearance of a mysterious new Supergirl. She is not from Krypton, nor from the other Krypton either. Her name is Matrix and she is an artificial life-form created by the Lex Luthor of the Pocket Universe. In her natural state, Matrix looks like an anthropomorphic wad of bubble gum, but she is a shape-shifter and at first appears in the form of Lana Lang, Clark Kent's high school crush, because John Byrne has a thing for redheads.
Matrix has been sent to this world because the Pocket Universe needs Superman's help. Her Earth has been attacked by the three Phantom Zone Criminals led by General Zod and all but conquered.
A quick digression about the Phantom Zone. As old-timers who remember the Christopher Reeves SUPERMAN will recall, the Phantom Zone is an other-dimensional limbo where the Kryptonians used to exile their worst criminals. Superman's father, Jor-El, devised a means of sending criminals to the Phantom Zone as a humane alternative to execution. The idea was that the Kryptonian parole board would periodically check in on the Zone to release those who had served their sentence. Then Krypton blew up. Oops. No parole for you, Zod.
In the Pocket Universe, Zod and some of his followers have escaped from the Phantom Zone and have laid waste to the Earth. By the time Superman gets there, they have wiped out all life on the planet, except for a small enclave built by Luthor, who is a good guy in the Pocket Universe. Superman is just in time to participate in their desperate last stand.
And it is their last stand. In that final battle, pretty much everybody dies: Luthor, Superboy, the works. Zod and his cohorts are defeated, but apart from Matrix, who is badly wounded, only Superman survives on the good guy's side.
And here is where it comes. Zod is captured, at Superman's mercy. Zod has just killed the entire population of the Pocket Universe's Earth; (which, since Krypton has already blown up, is the entire population of the Pocket Universe). It falls to Superman to decide what to do with these criminals.
He goes into Luthor's lab and gets out the kryptonite.
It had been previously established that the kryptonite of the Pocket Universe did not affect Superman any, but it would affect Kryptonians of that universe. Superman takes the kryptonite out of its lead container and exposes Zod and his companions to it until the radiation from the kryptonite kills them. The last survivors of the Pocket Universe are dead.
And Superman broke his most sacred oath; to protect life and to never kill.
But surely, could he be blamed? These criminals had just killed an entire planet full of people; billions of them. Surely they deserved death. You could even make the argument that the relatively quick, if excruciating, death by kryptonite poisoning Superman gave them was more merciful than they deserved. But did Superman have to do it that way?
He could have just banished them to the Phantom Zone again, like Jor-El did years ago. It's not like there was anybody in the Pocket Universe who could bring them back anymore. They would spend the rest of eternity in a dimensional limbo as bodiless phantoms.
Perhaps crueler still, Superman could have just walked away. He could have just gone back to his home universe and left Zod to be emperor of a ruined, lifeless planet. Of course, Superman would want to make sure that Zod couldn't use Luthor's technology to follow him back to Earth, but that wouldn't be all that hard. Or so you would think.
No, comic book narrative logic insists that Zod would find a way out of the Pocket Universe eventually, just as soon as some other writer wanted to use him. Which is why he had to die. The whole point of the story was to get rid of the Pocket Universe, and eliminate all those pesky loose ends.
Byrne could have had Zod killed by a twist of fate; by an act of hubris that proved fatal. He could have had Superman kill him in the heat of battle, as Superman later did with Doomsday. Instead, he chose to have Superman execute Zod, with cold-blooded deliberation. I think that's what stuck in the craw of many fans. I know it bugged me.
And then Byrne left and went back to Marvel. The issue in which Superman kills Zod was the last one John Byrne wrote on his run of SUPERMAN; his farewell to the Last Son of Krypton. Later on he did other stories for DC, such as a decent WONDER WOMAN run during the '90s, and the Green Lantern graphic novel GANTHET'S TALE, written by Larry Niven; but his re-defining of the Post-Crisis Superman, and the bitter ending to his reign, marks a significant era in Superman history.
Afterwards, the Legion of Super-Heroes dealt with the Time Trapper, which wound up retroactively messing up their history further.
One character from the Pocket Universe survived: Matrix, who now formally adopted the identity of Supergirl, because DC has to keep the trademark active so that they can continue to license Supergirl Underoos; and who adopted the Supergirl look and hair color the fans knew and loved, because parents aren't going to buy their daughters Lana Lang Underoos. Supergirl dated Lex Luthor Jr. for a while, until she learned that he was actually Lex Luthor Sr. in a cloned body. Gross. Then she merged with an angel, (which was not as doofy as that sounds) and after a while faded away to be replaced by a more traditional version of Supergirl in a later DC re-boot.
And what about Super-Judge, Jury and Executioner? The writing team that replaced Byrne had Clark grapple with an enormous amount of guilt after killing Zod. He killed one dangerous enemy. What would he do the next time he was in such a situation? Would it become the easy way out? Troubled by his conscience, Clark began unconsciously fighting crime in his sleep, taking on the identity of a non-powered street-level hero because he was afraid of misusing his powers. Finally, worrying that he might become a danger to the public, he left Earth for a time, wandering space in a self-imposed penance. It was a while before he regained his equilibrium.
I guess at heart I'm a bit like Jim Kirk. I've never liked the Kobiyashi Maru, the “No-Win” situation, ever since the time in a college writing class we were given such a situation to write about. (I came up with a third option which the instructor hadn't given us; I had the option fail because under the premise we were given it couldn't work, but by Crumb I insisted on making a third option).
I can understand a writer wanting to challenge his hero by putting him in a situation where he has to make hard choices that test his ethical principles. And you can argue that allowing the hero to come up with an escape that lets him out of those choices is contrived and unrealistic. But it seems to me that the situations some writers come up with to force heroes like Superman into these choices is just as contrived.
And that's how I felt about the First Death of Zod.