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Comic Book / The Death of Superman (1961)

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The Death of Superman (1961) is a story authored by Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan in 1961 and published in Superman (Volume 1) #149. Back in the day it was labeled as an "Imaginary Story", but later it was retconned as an alternate reality and classified as Earth-149. It is both the first "imaginary story" and the first Death of Superman tale.

One day, Lex Luthor develops a cure for cancer and announces his intent to turn over a new leaf. Superman decides to give him a chance and testifies on Luthor's behalf, hoping to encourage him to keep using his considerable talents for good. Luthor is let out of prison on parole, and he reassures Superman they will be friends from now on because he wants to be a better person.

The criminal element is not happy with Luthor stopping his anti-Superman war, so they resort to bribery, coercion and even threats to get Luthor to fight Superman again. When Luthor firmly refuses, they try to get rid of him. Eventually, their assassination attempts become so dangerous that Superman builds one asteroid base exclusively for Luthor, complete with anti-missile shielding and an emergency beacon.

One week later, Luthor activates the beacon, and Superman swiftly flies into his orbital lab. Unexpectedly, he is knocked down by a Kryptonite blast, and as he is weakened, he is tied up to a stretcher and placed under a Kryptonite ray by Luthor. As Superman is dying, Luthor confesses he never intended or wanted to reform. He just wanted Superman to trust him completely so he could lure him into a perfect trap. Lex patiently waits until Superman is dead, and after carefully confirming his demise, he dumps the corpse into Earth together with Superman's close friends (Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White), whom Luthor had kidnapped because he wanted them to see Superman dying. Then Lex reveals his misdeed to the world from the safety of one of his secret lairs.

As crooks are celebrating everywhere, everybody else is mourning. Superman's funeral service is attended by his childhood friends, his co-workers, his Justice League of America teammates, his Legion of Super-Heroes buddies, his dog Krypto... and, under her Linda Lee disguise, Supergirl, whose existence had not been yet revealed to the world because she was still training.

Somewhere else, Lex Luthor is throwing a party attended by the heads of many criminal organizations, when someone looking right like Superman suddenly bursts into the room and starts tearing Luthor's statues down. Everyone is wondering whether Superman has somehow revived when the intruder rips her disguise and reveals her real identity: Supergirl, who neither Luthor nor the crooks knew nothing about.

Supergirl swiftly nabs Luthor, warning the gathering of crooks she will be dealing with them very soon, and takes him to the Bottle City of Kandor. A murder trial begins, broadcast worldwide, and Superman's friends who witnessed his murder are called to testify. Luthor thinks he may get away with the murder by cutting a deal with the Kandorians, but the judge will have nothing of it, and Luthor is sentenced to the Phantom Zone forever.

Over the next few weeks, Supergirl starts patrolling the skies accompanied by Krypto.


  • The Bad Guy Wins: Even though he could not enjoy his victory for long, Luthor still got exactly what he wanted: Superman permanently dead.
  • Ballroom Blitz: Lex Luthor is throwing a party to celebrate his victory when Supergirl smashes through a wall, grabs Luthor and takes him away to be trialed, while warning all criminal attendees they are next.
  • Batman Gambit: While watching several inmates pounding boulders, Lex Luthor spots a strange glowing stone, and he immediately punches a guard. Luthor is put to work on the rock pile, which gives him a chance to examine the strange boulder.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Back when Kara was Superman's secret emergency-weapon, she was dying to reveal her existence to the world. When she finally reveals herself, it is because her beloved cousin has been murdered by his worst enemy, and she must take up his mantle.
    Bystander: Good luck! We miss Superman, but we're glad you're taking over for him!
    Supergirl: ... I never thought it would turn out this way... All the time I was Superman's secret emergency-weapon, I eagerly looked forward to the day when I could operate openly! Now that it's finally happened, I — I feel no happiness at the "glory" that's now... mine...
  • Bittersweet Ending: Superman gets killed and nothing will bring him back. It is not a Downer Ending just because Lex does not get away with his actions, and Supergirl takes up her cousin's mantle.
  • Broken Masquerade: Most people on Earth were not aware of the existence of a shrunken city inhabited by Kryptonian survivors before the trial of Lex Luthor in Kandor was broadcast worldwide.
  • Changing of the Guard: Superman gets killed off permanently, but his younger cousin and pupil takes over his duties.
  • Cure for Cancer: Lex creating one is done to help sell his act of reforming.
  • Death Trap: Luthor's ploy works because he avoids typical mistakes such as leaving the room after putting Superman in a slow-acting trap or turning off the Kryptonite ray before confirming beyond a shadow of a doubt that his enemy is dead.
  • Do Not Adjust Your Set: After murdering Superman, Luthor hacks all radio channels in the world to gloat.
  • Due to the Dead: Superman's funeral is attended by Lois, Jimmy, Perry, Kara, Krypto, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris, the Justice League, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and hundreds of people from Earth and beyond.
  • Dynamic Akimbo: After murdering Superman, Luthor pulls off the pose while gloating that nobody can stop him from taking over the world now.
  • Easily Forgiven: Luthor dupes Superman into becoming his best friend after publicly renouncing evil, then promptly slaughters him with Kryptonite while laughing derisively at Superman's dying expressions of heartbreak and betrayal.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Subverted. When Lex Luthor discloses that he has found a cure for cancer, Superman reflects that not even Luthor can be completely evil. Ultimately, though, Luthor proves he is rotten to the core.
  • Evil All Along: Lex Luthor goes to extreme lengths to convince everyone he has turned over a new leaf and become Superman's friend until Superman falls into his trap.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Luthor sits smugly through the Kandorians' trial, confident that he can bribe his way out. When asked for his plea, he answers that he is guilty, but promises that if they let him go, he will work out a way to restore them to full size. Luthor is taken aback when the judge retorts that "we of Kandor do not make deals with murderers" before sending him into the Phantom Zone for all eternity.
  • Evil Gloating: Lex Luthor's need to gloat doesn't ruin his Superman-murdering scheme, but it ultimately leads to his downfall: he kidnaps Lois, Jimmy and Perry so they see Superman die, and he lets them go afterwards, gloating the whole time. As a result, when Luthor is captured by Supergirl and dragged to Kandor to be put on trial, the prosecution is able to call on three witnesses that are willing and able to testify against him.
  • Evil Is Petty: Luthor finds a cure for cancer, earns a fortune legally and gains worldwide fame and admiration... and he throws all of it away because he cares for nothing other than killing Superman.
  • Evil Plan: Luthor goes to extreme lengths to convince Superman that he has become a good person, so he can murder him and then take over the world.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: As Lois succinctly put it, Luthor was released from jail because Superman vouched for him, and he repaid Superman by murdering him.
    Lois: Luthor would never have been released from prison if Superman hadn't gone to bat for him! He repaid Superman's kindness, by killing him!
  • Green Rocks: Luthor finds one piece of a glowing meteorite, and upon analyzing it, he develops a substance which can be used to cure cancer.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Supergirl becomes Krypto's sole owner when she takes over her cousin's job. Poor Krypto will not accept another master.
  • The Hero Dies: Superman gets murdered for real.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Luthor's need to gloat about his actions instead of disposing of Superman quietly ultimately becomes his undoing when he is captured and put on trial, since everybody listened to his radioed voluntary confession.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Luthor finds a cure for cancer, and people begin thinking he may not be completely evil after all. Then he reveals it was always part of his plan to kill Superman.
  • Killed Off for Real: Superman gets murdered, and nothing will bring him back.
  • Kryptonite Factor: Lex Luthor kills Superman by strapping him to a stretcher and exposing him to Kryptonite radiation.
  • Latex Perfection: Kara crashes Lex Luthor's victory party in a full Superman suit and mask. Before removing them to reveal herself, the gathered crooks really think she is her taller and bigger cousin.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": All the crooks attending Luthor's victory party freak out when Supergirl crashes into the place wearing a Superman disguise.
  • Nerves of Steel: Caught and taken to Kandor, Luthor is surrounded by people who really hate him, and yet still he remains silent, calm and stone-faced throughout the whole trial.
  • Nothing Can Stop Us Now!: After killing Superman, Luthor gloats that nobody can now stop him from ruling the world. Shortly afterwards, while he is throwing a party, Supergirl storms his lair and takes him away.
    Lex Luthor: Only Superman stood between me and my great goal to rule this planet! Soon, I'll be the king of the Earth!
  • Offscreen Inertia: Since this alternate universe was never revisited again, it is easy to think Lex Luthor indeed remained forever imprisoned in the Zone.
  • Pedestrian Crushes Car: Superman crushes a car driven by a pack of crooks into a ball and then kicks it into a police station.
  • Phantom Zone: As a punishment for murdering Superman, Lex gets thrown into the Zone.
  • Put Their Heads Together: During Luthor's bogus reformation, Superman grabs two crooks who were attempting to gun Luthor down and smashes their heads together.
  • Shooting Superman: When Supergirl crashes Luthor's party, several thugs fire at her. Kara nonchalantly suggests them to stop wasting bullets.
  • Spanner in the Works: Lex Luthor does not get away with murdering Superman because he was unaware of the existence of another Kryptonian - Supergirl - who proceeded to capture him and take him to Kandor to stand trial.
  • Spoiler Cover: If you exclusively read the story inside, then the titular event is very much a plot twist: Luthor's turn to good appears entirely sincere, and the title inside the story is "Lex Luthor, Hero!", suggesting that to be the "imaginary story" part of the equation. Indeed, part of what makes the death so shocking is that the comic up to that point is rather upbeat. Of course, if you take even a glance at the cover, it becomes clear what's really going on from the get-go.
  • Storming the Castle: Supergirl bursts into Luthor's manor, trashes the place, terrifies everyone present, and then arrests Luthor.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table: Luthor straps Superman to an operating table so he can bathe him in Kryptonite radiation until he dies.
  • Take Over the World: After murdering Superman, Luthor sets his sights on conquering the world.
  • Take Up My Sword: Supergirl takes over for her cousin after capturing Lex Luthor.
    Supergirl: You can stop wasting bullets! I have all of Superman's astonishing powers! Gangdom may have succeeded in treacherously killing Superman, but I'm going to carry on his great work!
  • Tap on the Head: Superman puts a crook to sleep by tapping on his forehead.
  • Tempting Fate: After murdering Superman, Lex Luthor is certain that nobody can stop him from Taking Over The World. Cue Supergirl revealing herself and dragging him to Kandor where he is put on trial and sent into the Phantom Zone forever.
  • There Was a Door: Supergirl loudly smashes herself through a wall when she crashes Lex Luthor's victory party.
  • Thrown Down a Well: At the end, Lex Luthor is sent into the Phantom Zone.
  • Tranquil Fury: Supergirl's face remains eerily cold when she bursts into Luthor's lair and informs the attending crooks they may have succeeded in killing her cousin, but they would have to deal with her from now on.
  • Villain Cred: After Luthor has succeeded in murdering Superman, the criminal underworld throw a party in his honor, declaring he is the greatest of them all.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Luthor spends his televised murder trial smugly confident that he'll find a way out of it. When he's found guilty, Luthor offers to restore Kandor to its regular size in exchange for his freedom, confident that they'll agree. Instead, the judge declares "we Kandorians do not make deals with murderers!" Unable to accept losing like this, Luthor begs for mercy but it's too late as he's sentenced to spend eternity in the Phantom Zone.
  • We Will Meet Again: Before taking Luthor away after crashing his party, Supergirl warns the attending crooks she will be meeting them again very soon.
  • You Killed My Father: As she takes Luthor away, Kara warns a group of gangsters they may have succeeded in treacherously murdering her cousin, but they will have to deal with her now.
    Supergirl: My name is... Supergirl! I'm Superman's cousin from Krypton! I've been his secret emergency weapon for years! Luthor, in the name of Planet Krypton, I arrest you for murder!