Superman is an incredibly tricky character, with godlike power and an unshakeable moral base that make it difficult to tell relateable stories with the hero. He’s an idealist in a world of increasingly cynical realism, and the best writers find a way to use Superman’s optimism to comment on social decline. As times changes, Superman risks becoming more and more dated, but still the character persists. That’s because no matter how bleak the world gets, Superman reinforces the idea that everyone can be better. As J’onn says in this episode, Superman knows exactly what needs to be done and will go after it no matter the personal cost, and that kind of heroism never goes out of style, even when grim and gritty characters like Lobo rise to prominence.
So what happens when Superman dies? DC temporarily killed off Superman in the 1990s and experimented with four more extreme versions of the character (Superboy, Eradicator, Cyborg Superman, and Steel) before bringing back the character’s classic iteration. The storyline was quintessential ’90s comics, more of a sales gimmick that a plot, and a hugely successful one at that. “Hereafter” tackles the death of Superman in a far more concise manner, killing off Superman in the first 10 minutes of the first half. When Metallo, Toyman, Weather Wizard, Kalibak, and Livewire team up to kill Superman, Toyman shoots the hero with an energized tachyon stream, disintegrating his body and leading everyone to believe Superman has died. The world mourns the loss of its greatest hero, but without a body, Batman doesn’t believe he’s lost his friend.
Can there be a Justice League without Superman? J’onn and Flash aren’t so sure. J’onn remembers all the times the League was saved by Superman’s strength, and Flash talks about how he was able to goof around because Superman had his back. Dwayne McDuffie does great work showing how this loss affects the team, specifically with Batman, who begins to wonder if he’s in denial as more time passes without Superman’s return. When Batman visits Superman’s grave, he tells him that despite their differences, he always had respect for The Man of Steel, and that he showed him that justice doesn’t always have to come from the darkness. That reverence goes beyond the superhero community, as even Lex Luthor admits that he’s going to miss Superman when Lois Lane goes ballistic on him at the funeral. Granted, Lex Luthor probably misses having an enemy to focus all his energy on, but it also makes sense that Luthor would develop some respect for someone who was able to thwart him time and time again.
The League decides that they’re going to bring on an eighth member to take Superman’s place, and when Batman denies Diana’s invitation to become a full-time member, intergalactic bad-ass bounty hunter Lobo comes crashing through the Watchtower window to announce his addition to the team. What begins as a somber look at loss quickly transforms into an action-comedy starring the Main Man, and the best thing about McDuffie’s script for this episode is the way that it makes sharp changes in direction that aren’t jarring and are perfectly suited to the characters. The death of Superman has the appropriate gravitas behind it, but its pretty obvious that Superman isn’t actually dead. To build excitement for the second part of the episode, Lobo arrives to turn up the heat.
With his heavy-metal backing music, blue jeans, leather jacket, and skull belt, Lobo doesn’t fit with this team at all, but that creates a lot of opportunities for comedy, especially with the exceptional Brad Garrett voicing the character. This is one of Justice League’s funniest episodes (see the long list of memorable quotes in the stray observations), and not just when Lobo’s onscreen. The Main Man’s great at shouting one-liners when he’s helping the Justice League take down escaped supervillain inmates, and after burying Kalibak under a mountain of cars, Lobo asks, “When you’ve got Lobo on your team, who needs Superman?” The response is a quick cut to Superman buried under rubble on an unknown planet, setting up Kal-El the Barbarian for the second half of the episode.
A one-man odyssey through a post-apocalyptic world in the vein of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the second part of “Hereafter” is one of my favorite Superman stories ever, recasting the character as a vulnerable warrior in a dangerous desert landscape. The story actually reminds me of the current Prophet series being published by Image Comics, which has the same quiet intensity, riveting action, and sly sense of humor. Under this planet’s red sun, Superman is powerless, so he stocks up on supplies and hops in one of the muscle cars that was teleported along with him. He grows a beard and forges a sword for himself, and the character has never looked more threatening (or studly) than he does in this episode. He kills and skins a wolf and tames the rest of the pack so that they can pull him across the terrain, eventually arriving at the Justice League Watchtower, crashed into Earth and nonfunctional.
Inside the Watchtower, Superman wonders what happened to the rest of the League, prompting Vandal Savage to emerge from the shadows and tell Superman that his teammates have been dead for thousands of years. Superman has been sent to the future, and Vandal Savage has destroyed the world and permanently damaged the gravitational pull of the Earth’s solar system. But Vandal’s not proud of that. Just as McDuffie used Vandal Savage as a villain for Wonder Woman in “Maid Of Honor,” he makes the inspired choice of allying him Superman in “Hereafter,” showing what happens to the tyrant when he finally gets what he’s wanted his entire immortal life. It took Vandal 30,000 years to realize that his lust for power and control was meaningless, and the arrival of Superman gives Vandal the opportunity to make things right by sending Kal-El back in time to prevent his plans from coming to fruition.
Like the first half of the episode, the second half of “Hereafter” begins with a tense, serious tone that shifts into something lighter and more entertaining as it continues. Vandal Savage has become quite the joker in his millennia alone, and he teams up with Superman for a postapocalyptic buddy comedy as they try to retrieve the zero point generator that will power his time machine. Vandal is the perfect example of how Superman’s very presence influences people to be better, and even a life-long villain like Vandal Savage seeks redemption after considerable time around the Big Blue Boy Scout. This is Vandal Savage’s final episode on this series, but he succeeds in redeeming himself, sending Superman back in time to prevent the past Vandal from stealing dwarf star matter from Ray Palmer. Without it, Vandal can’t build his weapon and everyone lives happily ever after.
Superman reappears in the present at the perfect moment, deflecting a missile from Deadshot just before it blows Batman’s brains out. The League is elated to see Superman back, and his first order of business back is cutting Lobo from the team. The Justice League isn’t about power, it’s about ideals, and Lobo doesn’t have any. He’s not interested in helping anyone but himself, and there’s no room for someone like that on the Justice League. Lobo should try again next year, though, because the League goes recruitment crazy in Justice League Unlimited. The episode ends in the future, with Vandal watching the world change from barren desert to flourishing city as he begins to fade away. “Thank you, my friend,” Vandal says, then disappears. It’s a poignant ending, although if it takes Vandal getting what he wants to ultimately become a better person, there’s now an evil Vandal Savage somewhere in the future, plotting the Earth’s destruction at the very moment his past self fades to nothing.
- DC Comics’ #0 month is over, and the results were very mixed. Scott Lobdell took over Superman, and that went just about as well as could be expected. Very pretty art from Kenneth Rocafort, though.
- Wonder Woman’s funeral outfit is so great, I wish it was her regular costume. Although she’d have to have it cleaned a lot.
- I like that Superman’s caveman look still has underwear over the pants, but now it looks like a giant diaper.
- What a cruel tease to mention Ray Palmer and not show him at all. We’ll just have to wait for Justice League Unlimited.
- “There are so many reasons why that shouldn’t have worked.”
- “Maybe you should get a strap for this.”
- “I’m going to punch a hole… in your head.”
- “Kal-El from Krypton, the immigrant from the stars who taught us how to be heroes.”
- Wonder Woman:“You’re no Superman” Lobo: “The ladies say different.”
- “Remember to look both ways before you cross me.”
- Kalibak: “I’m not dead yet.” Lobo: “You’re right, my watch is about 10 seconds fast.”
- “Should’ve taken a compact.”
- Superman: “You’re insane.” Vandal Savage: “True, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good company. Say, you wanna come over to my house? Like you’ve got something better to do.”
- “Anyway, I’ve got issues, what with my destroying the earth and all.”
- “On your feet, Mr. Wizard. We’ve got work to do.” I like the idea of Vandal Savage as the Wizard of Oz.
- “I love the beard. Keeping it?” He really should.
- Lobo: “Next time you lollipops need help, don’t bother askin’ the Main Man!” J’onn: “We didn’t ask you this time!”