Ithacon 44

This is a guest contribution by Bob Proehl, who is a writer living in Ithaca. Proehl interviewed Louise Simonson about her career as a comic book writer and editor. Simonson will speak at Ithacon 44, which will take place March 23 and 24 at Ithaca College.

In my own nerdy equivalent of “trying not to think of an elephant,” I was determined not to ask comic book writer Louise Simonson what it was like to be one of the people who killed Superman.

In the end, I couldn’t help myself.

“Here we go again, playing that record,” Simonson said, chuckling.

Simonson, who will be at Ithacon 44 this weekend, began her career in 1974 as an editor at Warren Publishing, working on horror comics like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. She moved on to Marvel where she penned iconic runs on X-Men spinoffs X-Factor and New Mutants, and created characters including kid superheroes the Power Pack, X-Men villain Apocalypse, and the time-traveling mutant Cable. And yes, in 1992, she and a team of mild-mannered writers, artists and editors killed the Man of Steel.

Simonson was nice enough to tell me how it happened.

“We had one of these meetings where we work out the next year’s continuity,” she said. “We were working up to the point where we were going to marry Lois and Clark off. And then Jeanette (Kahn), who was the publisher, came down and said, ‘You can’t do that, because they have a TV show in which they’re not married and we don’t want to confuse our audience by having them be married.’”

The show, “Lois & Clark,” was set to debut the next fall. It was the culmination of several years of efforts by Kahn to get Superman onto America’s television sets. As the title implied, it was more rom-com than super-heroic action, focused on the flirtation between co-workers Lois Lane and Clark Kent. But television is a bigger market than comic books and the needs of the upcoming show won out. (“Lois & Clark” was cancelled at the end of a four year run when its weekly viewership was an abysmal nine million. By contrast, the best selling comic that year sold under a half million copies.)

Related: Walter Simonson reflects on nearly 50 years of drawing comics

“We were somewhat flummoxed,” said Simonson. “Then Jerry (Ordway, writer of Adventures of Superman) said, as he often did, ‘Well okay then, let’s kill him.’ And we all said ‘Yeah, okay, let’s kill him. What else are we gonna do?’”

In short order, the writer and artists in the room sketched out plans for a story that would culminate in Superman dying to save Metropolis from destruction. The announcement of the Man of Steel’s imminent demise was picked up by national media.

“It must have been a slow news week,” Simonson said. “Because…it’s comic books. But I guess Superman sort of transcends comics.”

The issue sold six million copies, a remarkable number even in the boom days of 90s comics. The media and fan reaction to the story came as a surprise both to the writers involved and to the publisher.

“I think DC hadn’t quite realized we were actually going to kill Superman,” Simonson added. “All around the world, he’s being licensed to sell things. There was, I believe in Life Magazine, a big spread with Superman breaking his chains and ‘Energizer batteries: They last as long as Superman’ and the same issue announced Superman was dead. Some advertisers were not pleased, as I understand it.”

Before writing Superman, Simonson worked at Marvel Comics in the 1980s, first as an editor then as a writer. Certain comic book fans like to imagine that comics used to be a boys club, back in some halcyon days gone by, but Simonson said it wasn’t so, even in the legendary Marvel Bullpen, the nickname for the Marvel creators who worked in the company’s New York offices.

“Virginia Romita ran the Bullpen!” Simonson said. “There were a few women in editorial. There were a batch of assistant editors. There were some women there. There weren’t as many as there are now.”

Asked if being a woman in a primarily male industry was difficult, Simonson said she didn’t think it made any difference. “There was maybe one editor who was kind of appalled at the idea of me touching any ‘real’ Marvel stuff,” she said. “The Avengers characters or maybe even Spiderman. But that was rare, and it was more funny than it was awful. Heck, they gave me the X-Men.”

Speaking of the X-Men, the last few years have seen a number of characters Simonson created make the jump from the comics page to the big screen. It’s not the first time: the generally-forgotten 1997 movie “Steel” starred Shaquille O’Neal as a superhero somewhat liberally adapted from a character Simonson co-created with Jon Bogdanove in the wake of “The Death of Superman.” The titular villain in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” was created by Simonson and Jackson Guice.

“I’m both pleased and horrified,” she said. “I always look at these things with my hands over my eyes, looking through the cracks. And so far, it’s been a good idea to look at things this way.”

Featured image provided by Ithacon 44.