It's A Bird, It's A Plane It's A Resurrection

He's alive. Or at least, his doppelgangers are. Superman will be rising from the grave and making a comeback, not in a movie but the old-fashioned way--in the comics.

Killed off by his editors at Time Warner Inc.'s DC Comics in November, the Man of Steel is scheduled for a resurrection on Apr. 15, just four days after Easter. But don't look for religious significance: DC says the divine timing is pure serendipity. "He's coming back on tax day," says Mike Carlin, editor of DC's Superman series. "Because now, only taxes are certain for Superman."

DC is hoping that Superman's rebirth will generate even more publicity than his demise. When last heard from, the bloodied and apparently lifeless superhero was lying in Lois Lane's arms after a drawn-out battle with an exoskeletal monster called Doomsday. The Man of Steel was buried with much fanfare, and DC Comics pushed the death for all it was worth, attaching black arm bands and obituaries from the Daily Planet to special editions of the death issue.

The hype worked. The death issue sold more than 3.5 million copies at $1.25 each, making it one of the best-selling comic books ever. Little yellow boxes on the last pages proclaimed, "...this is the day that a Superman died." Metropolis, Ill., the namesake of the superhero's fictional hometown, even held a two-hour memorial service. Says Gary Colabuono, owner of six Moondog comic-book stores in the Chicago area: "We had everybody who has ever seen a Superman movie, bought Superman underwear, or eaten candy out of a Superman dispenser buying a copy of that first printing."

It isn't clear how the new Superman will differ from his predecessor. Indeed, Carlin won't even say for sure if it was the Superman who kicked the bucket.

All Carlin will allow is that his artists and writers are readying separate comic books for four different characters claiming to be Superman: a cyborg, an out-of-control vigilante, an amnesiac teenager, and an African-American steelworker named John Henry Irons. The one thing he won't be--for the time being, at least--is an imitation of the hipper, more cynical superheroes of recent years. "We play him very straight and serious, and we treat him with respect," says Carlin. "[Many] people today would rather see Terminator or Death Wish-type heroes. That's the one thing Superman can't be for now."

LOIS AND CLARK. Whatever form Superman takes, his comeback is almost sure to jump-start DC's sales--at least initially. Milton Griepp, president of Capital City Distributors in Madison, Wis., one of the largest comic-book distributors in the U.S., says that stores have ordered 3.5 million copies of the resurrection issue. And DC hopes that once Superman is back among the living--all four of him--the hype will keep interest growing in the character. Already, ABC Inc. has ordered up a series for next fall called Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. And a new Superman comic book with a talking microchip is due out in July. Says Carlin: "Our goal has been to get people to notice a hero who is out of favor thematically."

Until his death, the Man of Steel had been in a long slide. Superman was the subject of several hit movies during the past 15 years, but sales of Superman merchandise didn't even come close to the $1 billion that the movie Batman generated through the box office and licensing deals. Worse, the comic book-buying public--mostly teenage boys and college-educated twentysomething men--thought the mercurial and occasionally irreverent Batman was cool but viewed the symbol of truth, justice, and the American way as an out-of-touch goody-goody.

The Man of Steel needs a more volatile love interest, more ethnic appeal, and some angst, comics distributors say. Marvel's X-Men series, which revolves around a group of competitive, emotional mutant heroes, has been outselling Superman comics almost 5 to 1 in recent years. "Teenagers relate to characters who are alienated, get into arguments, and have power struggles and love affairs," says Griepp. "What's missing from Superman is a believable character and strong relationship component." For one, Crane Allen, 15, a sophomore at Anglo American High School in Manhattan, thinks Superman is "boring." He bought the special arm band edition of the death issue, thinking it might be valuable one day, but never even bothered to open it.

The question now is whether Superman's return will muscle up DC's profits for long. Analyst Lisbeth Barron of S.G. Warburg Co. doubts it. "The week or two that the death issue was out, sales were enormous," says Barron, who estimates that DC Comics earned $10 million on $65 million in revenues for Time Warner in 1992. "But it's not sustainable, and I doubt that it will turn into better licensing deals for them."

Even admirers worry that changing Superman may alienate old fans while doing little to attract young aficionados of other superheroes. "The Superman character has tremendous potential," say Griepp. "But I'm really holding my breath on this one." Stay tuned to find out if that's what Superman has been doing, too.