To the best that my memory serves me, The Death of Superman was the first big comic book event that I saw since I started reading comics. Before it even happened, everyone knew that Supes would die at the hands of an enemy called Doomsday, knew that it would be followed up with a company-spanning event called "Funeral for a Friend," and I'm pretty sure everyone knew that Superman would eventually come back. And what sort of impact did it have on Superman as a character? Well, for one thing, he returned sporting a mullet. Superman and all his Justice League buddies can make the occasional comment on how he died but came back. Elements of his death and the appearance of the Cyborg Superman played a significant role for Green Lantern, but there really isn't a whole lot of impact it made on Superman. He died, he came back to life, it's been referenced here and there since, but pretty much everything has been put back together and Superman is still Superman as we all know him.
The Death of Superman seems to have made a bigger impact on us than it did him...because the one thing it did do was it made a whole lot of people buy The Death of Superman.
There's been countless stories before and after The Death of Superman that I tend to lump into the same category. They seem important when the come out, but over time, everything is put back into it's right place. Many of these stories go for mere shock value, killing off one comic's most beloved heroes, only for them to come back later. Some of them drastically change something about the character, be it their costume, their powers, or in some cases, they turn evil. Yet those changes are always reversed, Spidey ditches the black suit, Hulk goes back to being dumb, and Hal Jordan becomes the Green Lantern again. Some of these stories explore some rather interesting territory (such as Bruce Banner's multiple personalities, the Green Hulk, Gray Hulk, and Banner himself), others are nothing short of tiring (how many more times is Jean Grey going to die?). They all lead back to the same, safe, fan approved place. To be honest, I find that to be rather boring, and even more so, harmful to the art of storytelling in comics.
J. Michael Stracynski (Babylon 5, The Real Ghostbusters) wrote Amazing Spider-Man for 6 years. By today's standards, that's an impressive stretch of time. With each story arc, Stracynski took Peter Parker to entirely new places. He made him a teacher, he had Aunt May discover he was Spider-Man, and most controversial of all, he suggested that Peter's abilities are more totemic, that the spider chose to give it's powers to him rather than that they're the result of radiation. It was also during this time that Peter revealed his secret identity to the world as a part of the Civil War event. Love it or hate it, this was some bold, daring storytelling not just as far as Spider-Man goes, but mainstream superhero comics in general. It made us think about what we think we know about these supposedly firmly established characters, what they're capable of doing, and what they would do if they thought it was right. And at the end of Stracynski's 6 year run, Marvel hit the giant RESET button. All as a means to restore Spider-Man to a "classic" state.
I'm not saying that every superhero story needs to push characters to these extreme places, or that they should be broken to some unrecognizable state. I'll be the first one to admit that I dropped Batman after R.I.P. wrapped up and I realized that not only was the story weak and that it pulled from places too obscure in Batman's past, but for the foreseeable future, I'd be reading about a Batman that wasn't Bruce Wayne. Rather, good storytelling should be revered and rewarded, not erased. Which brings me to Irredeemable.
The premise of Irredeemable could be explained as, "What if a Superman-type character had something happen to him that made him snap and decide to kill everyone?" It's a somewhat accurate description, but theres a whole lot more to it than that. This is the story of the Plutonian, whose powers are very much like a certain Big Blue Boy Scout's. He can fly, he's invulnerable, he's got the heat vision. But what if his friends and allies knew very little about him aside from that? If they had no idea where he came from, his real name, or if he even has a weakness? That as far as anyone could tell, this being with seemingly limitless power was completely unstoppable? It's an unsettling concept to say the least.
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, Empire) tells this story with an unflinching eye. He isn't afraid to show this character that fills such a familiar, heroic archetype perform some absolutely horrific acts. Yet it isn't a super powered killing spree. There's a mystery at the heart of Irredeemable. Waid doesn't plainly lay out why the Plutonian is the way he is, but rather tells the story through the memories of the Plutonian's former allies. He reveals it a little bit at a time, a glimpse of jealousy here, the overheard mockery there. It all comes down to what happens when our traditional comic book senses of right and wrong comes into contact with the real world. It's obvious that the Plutonian is not your run of the mill insane super villain with schemes of world domination. Whatever it is that's pushed him to this point, he believes in it, he suffers for it, and that virtually anyone else would do the same.
Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and all the other classic superheroes have come to have a sacred quality to them. Writers will always try to mine new territory out of their familiar components. Some of those developments might ring true with character, or might reveal a detail we never really knew was there all along (like just how similar Batman and the Joker really are). But my guess is that most of those stories will come and go, and at the end of the day, all our favorite comics will be back the way they should be. And that's why getting a book like Irredeemable is such a treat. It takes something we thought we knew, thought we trusted, and brings us somewhere we didn't think possible to go. And it doesn't look back.