The deaths of Supergirl and the Flash in Crisis are among the most powerful and fondly-remembered passings in the history of superhero comics, and with good reason. But Kara and Barry were far from the only characters to meet their demise in the series. Beyond the marquee names, there were a few more significant deaths: Dove, Lori Lemaris, the Losers (Johnny Cloud, Gunner, Sarge, Captain Storm). Some of the characters who met their ends had been already or would soon be rendered obsolete or superfluous by the Crisis, folks like the Earth-2 Green Arrow, Robin and Huntress. Most of them, however, were pretty clearly canon fodder: who among us shed a tear for Angle Man and Nighthawk?
To the creators' credit, as unimportant as characters like Ra-Man and the Prince Gavyn Starman were, every hero who died in the Crisis was given the chance to die heroically. I've never read a single Prince Ra-Man story and yet I still remember his death clearly, saving a child from the Anti-Monitor's Shadow Demons in Crisis #12. Kole died trying to rescue Robin and the Huntress, etc.
But there was one more passing - not a death, precisely, but a definite end nonetheless - that sticks out at me as perhaps the most affecting of the entire series. Yeah, even more than Kara.
I'm speaking, of course, of Superman.
Lots of pictures under the cut!
Crisis ends, as these things usually do, with a massive battle. The Anti-Monitor has been stymied by Earth's heroes at every step of his plan. His first body was demolished by Supergirl; his plan to destroy the five remaining Earths with a gigantic anti-matter cannon was foiled by the Flash; his plan to destroy the universe at the beginning of time was foiled by (primarily) the Spectre. It's this last attempt to undo creation that fails most spectacularly: instead of canceling the creating of the positive-matter multiverse, his tampering at the dawn of time actually strengthen Earth by partially undoing Krona's mistake, thereby directly causing the reintegration of the infinite earths.
(If that last sentence was gibberish to you, don't feel bad. I've read Crisis half-a-dozen times and it's still partially opaque to me - you just have to go with it.)
So the Anti-Monitor is pretty pissed by the time Crisis #12 rolls around. After all these setbacks, he really wants nothing so much as to destroy Earth as quickly and painfully as possible. To this end he opens a giant portal and drags Earth into the anti-matter universe, where it can easily be destroyed. But, of course, Earth's heroes don't go down that easily. On the contrary, they succeed (spoiler warning, I know!) in defeating the Anti-Monitor's Shadow Demons while also pushing Earth back into its orbit in the positive-matter universe.
All well and good - except for the fact that the Anti-Monitor doesn't die so easily.
Whenever they think they have him, he springs back again. With the heroes' making their hurried escape from Qward back to Earth, he lashes out once more, destroying the Earth-1 Wonder Woman in a flash of energy. (Her death doesn't really count as a "real" death, I would argue. If you've read the book in question, it states fairly unambiguously that her death wasn't what it appeared, and in fact it would soon be revealed that she was "killed" for the sole purpose of setting-up George Perez' subsequent Wonder Woman reboot, which followed just a few months later.) As desperate and brutal as the fight had been up to that moment, Wonder Woman's death was - for both remaining Superman - the straw that broke the camel's back:
One of Wolfman's skill as a writer is his ability to handle large ensemble casts - and this is, arguably, the largest ensemble in any comic, ever. But part of knowing how to write a lot of characters is also knowing how to pare the action down at the appropriate moment, to focus on the characters who matter most in any given moment of the narrative. If Crisis taken as a whole was the story of hundreds of characters en masse, the series also held room for the individual stories of significant characters like the Flash and Supergirl, not to mention folks like Alex Luthor, Doctor Light II and Brainiac. And it's important to remember the story was not just about these characters, or even about all of these characters together, but about DC Comics as a whole - and DC Comics is, ultimately, the story of Superman.
At the very end of the Crisis, Wolfman pulls back the curtain and you realize that it's been Superman's story all along - the story of Superman's friends and allies, his enemies and his battles, all the fantastic worlds and ideas he calls home - Superman and the industry that sprang up in his wake. And it's not just any Superman, either, who's left standing at the series' end - it's the Earth-2 Superman. You know, the original Superman - this guy right here.
There's no place for him left on the new, fully-integrated Earth - it's only the Earth 1 Superman that people remember. His world is gone, overwritten. So he volunteers to stay behind in the anti-matter universe, sacrificing himself so that Earth and everyone on it can survive while he remains to finish the job with the Anti-Monitor. Which he does, with the help of the Earth Prime Superboy (surely a stand in for the Superboy concept as a whole, another facet of the Superman mythos that would not survive the Crisis) and Alexander Luthor, not to mention the timely intervention of Darkseid. After sitting out the bulk of the main action throughout the series, Darkseid finally steps in to deliver the killing blow against the Anti-Monitor with his Omega Effect, aiding Earth with the understanding that any creature with the power to destroy the positive-matter universe would inevitably turn his attention towards Apokalips. (Remember: Apokalips and New Genesis exist apart from the regular universe, in their own discrete pocket reality which can only be reached by Boom Tube technology, so they survived the Crisis unscathed.)
Superman and Superboy, left in the crumbling anti-matter universe, don't know anything about Darkseid's intervention, however. They just know that the Anti-Monitor has finally been destroyed . . .
This sequence always gets me, and if you have ever loved superhero comics it should get you, too. This is Superman. the Superman, the first superhero. At the end of his long career, after having defeated the greatest villain imaginable - after having created practically the whole damn comics industry - he is given his just rewards, direct entrance to paradise.
This isn't some sort of vague subtext, either, it's right there in the story: Superman sacrifices himself so that Earth may survive, but at the last moment he is saved from death and allowed to ascend bodily into Heaven. Think about that one for a moment. If that's not the best happy ending conceivable for the grandfather of all superheroes, I don't know what is.
It is my opinion that bringing back the Earth-2 Superman as an antagonist in the pages of the Infinite Crisis was a singularly terrible idea, if only because it invalidates one of the greatest endings in all of comics. I choose to believe that at the end of the first Crisis Superman and Lois Lane went to Heaven, nothing more and nothing less, and that is where they stay.