There is something frightening about a pause. I don’t mean a momentary hesitation or even a true time of rest, but rather the sudden silence and stillness of a hurricane’s eye, or of a graveyard. That is probably what is most eerie about a cemetery, the silence and emptiness. Well, that and the reminder of mortality that it represents.
Superman #51 is decidedly eerie because it is a pause, a sudden stop on the way to the Rebirth that is soon to overtake the DC Universe. And it is also an intimation of death as surely as the most gothic graveyard. The death in question is that of Clark Kent, the Superman of the New 52 universe, and with him the universe itself. There are not many writers brave enough to start a major crossover with Superman staring directly out of the panel and telling the reader “I’m dying,” and Peter Tomasi actually makes his blatant revelation work, providing a sense of purpose and movement to the story as Superman enters his last days.
This paradox is heightened by Mikel Janin’s artwork. His trademark bold, clear lines and bright colors clash creatively with the somber message of the book, generating a tension that helps fuel the smoldering unease and restless energy that imbue the story with momentum. Superman is dying for reasons that Tomasi doesn’t see fit to pin down exactly, that he doesn’t crystallize in a neat diagnosis, but which are grounded in the multiple blows the Man of Steel has received from Ulysses, from Vandal Savage, and from the fire pits of Apokalips. He is a hero not defeated, but accepting and in a way at peace even as he worries about what his death will mean for Earth. The bulk of the issue is filled with moving conversations with Lana Lang, from whom he requests burial next to his parents, with Lois Lane, from whom he wants a chance to tell his story, and even Krypto, whose reappearance is welcome and oddly comforting.
Clark’s preparations are intercut with scenes from China, where a mysterious scientist is attempting to access files from Stormwatch and the Justice League, and of the appearance of a fiery being wearing Superman’s shield and claiming to be him. It is almost shades of the Death of Superman, except played out before the martyr’s fall rather than after.
But the further tension comes from the fact that we know the death will not be the end of Superman’s story. Leaving aside how economically foolish that would be for DC Comics, there is another Superman in this world, the refugee from the universe before Flashpoint. And with an event like Rebirth in the offing, one has to wonder whether death might prove even shorter than usual.
It isn't easy to dance to a funeral march, but that is what Tomasi and Janin urge us to do. They have presented a countdown to death that is vibrant and bursting with life. Hackneyed as it is to say, this is a celebration of what and who Clark is, not a dirge for what he could not be. It is the end of a story that can have no end, and one suspects the beginning of a tale that has been underway for a very long time. If this is the prologue to REBIRTH, it is fitting enough to start with death, for the promise of life is strong and clear.