“Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!” Every instance of Superman kicking up kryptonite-laced dirt has been a spectacle. “How could the Man of Steel, Earth’s greatest hero, possibly be killed?” intrigued prospective readers were inclined to ask. You know, besides the way it happened last time, and the time before that.
Asking “how many times has Superman died?” is an absolute rat nest of Silver Age, newsstand sensationalism, bait-and-switches, multiversal malarkey, and bad ideas. The exact number of times that it’s happened since the Last Son of Krypton debuted in 1938 is murky, thanks to the number of fake-outs, retcons, and alternate universes. Let’s start at the top.
The Death of Superman: Take One
The first “Superman Eats It” story was a learning experience — the sort of “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” experiment that sometimes ends with the discovery of a terrific new wall glue.
A scant four years and change after Superman’s debut, his self-titled comic announced that the force for truth, justice, etc. was kaput in the pages of Superman #21. What’s wild about this first shot across the bow of the Man of Steel’s mortality is that the folks at DC really buried the lede. The story in question is the fourth one in the issue, and it’s a weird one: Chasing down a criminal named “Blinky Moxby” who ain’t no narc, Superman figures — rightly, it turns out — that the bad guy will confess to his cohorts’ crimes if he thinks that Superman is a disembodied spirit. Our hero fakes his death by stopping his own heart, paints himself glow-in-the-dark, and corners the mobster, who agrees to talk, stating aloud that the confession won’t help Superman since he’s “only a ghost.” It’s bonkers, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that the “Superman Dies!” headline on the cover of the Daily Planet gets your attention.
Things ramped up, and Superman “deaths” became a regular occurrence. In 1956, Action Comics #222, a story called “The Duplicate Superman” promised “the most incredible event of all time … the Death of Superman! Not an imposter, not an illusion, but the Man of Steel himself!” Supes gets hit with a “Q Bomb” — an experimental explosive with the power of 100 hydrogen bombs — and it smacks him so hard he gets a clone. Comics are hit and miss. After using the double to gaslight Lois for a while, one of the Supermen dies knocking a Kryptonite meteor off course on its way to Earth. The world loses a net total of zero Supermen. The end.
The many deaths of Superman
Superman #149 killed our hero at the hands of Lex Luthor in a three-part imaginary story. Superman #172 killed a different guy who was calling himself Superman and wearing a Superman costume at the time. Action Comics #319 saw our boy condemned to execution on an alien planet. Superman #184 saw him burned at the stake. In all, there were 23 separate instances of comics claiming to feature “the death of Superman” in one capacity or another leading up to the 1990s – just short of four deaths per decade.
In 1992, readers got the most notorious entry in the Kryptonian snuff genre: “The Death of Superman.” The unbelievably well-publicized event comic came off the recent comic book boom, promising a collection of must-have issues that would, no doubt about it, become more and more valuable with age. You can find most of them for around four dollars on eBay now.
Here, Superman was beaten by Doomsday, the genetic abomination from Krypton with a bad case of the Mondays. The occasion was heralded by black-covered comics and the iconic image of a red cape, tattered and stained, hanging from the wreckage of a terrible battle. Supes stayed dead for about three months this time around.
From there, we get deep into the weeds. In 2016, DC killed off a Superman thanks to the shenanigans of the New 52 universe. An offshoot of the Kingdom Come universe killed Superman. So did a no-good universe where the Legion of Supervillains took over and the Legion of Superheroes raised Superman as their bouncing bundle of adopted joy. An alternate Superman from DC Universe Online gets snuffed at the beginning of the game, and the dumpy-looking big screen Doomsday temporarily bumps off Henry Cavill’s take on the character in Batman v Superman.
Basically, Superman has died either dozens of times, or none, or somewhere in between, depending on your interpretation of which realities do and don’t count. We could pick a number if you really needed us to editorialize, but in all honesty — pulling your own number out of thin air will work just as well.