If the Internet in 1993 had been more than just a way for University Scientists to trade porn over Usenet, it would have been abuzz when Superman #84 came out. And not The Dark Knight OMG this is so awesome" abuzz; Identity Crisis "WTF this is way too dark and comics should be fun" abuzz.
And for good reason: it's not a particularly good comic. It lays the melodrama on with a trowel and caps it off with a depressing downer ending. Its message is a very heavy-handed, Spider-Man-style moral of power and responsibility, which feels a bit out of place in a Superman comic--even if it is only two issues after his full return from the dead. It just rings hollow. Plus, it's got painfully forced meta-jokes like this one (I've highlighted it, just to make it extra clear):
But in 1993 (and for many years thereafter), I counted this comic among my favorites. It's safe to say that nostalgia-colored glasses have tinged my feelings toward this book, but it was touching and disheartening and frightening when I was ten. And it's not to say that the comic does nothing right; I like a lot of the choices, and the story actually altered the status quo (slightly). But I'm getting way ahead of myself.
The story opens on Toyman, who is dressing a little like The Ventriloquist meets Jack the Ripper, and a collection of children that he's kidnapped. This issue represents a serious change in Toyman's character, from stripe-clad villain who sends whimsical murderous toys after Lex Luthor (and others) for revenge, to a psychotic manchild with murderous toys and, um...knives. He sleeps in a giant crib with several large stuffed animals and captures children away from the evil world of adults to be his perpetual playmates. After this issue, Toyman has something of a breakdown, and begins exhibiting signs of schizophrenia, hearing the voice of "Mother" and otherwise becoming a bit like a child-obsessed Norman Bates, minus the crossdressing.
Meanwhile, Superman's off hauling a ship away from the shore, whereupon he accidentally discovers a shipwreck sunken beneath the ocean floor. He rescues a treasure chest and muses about how much he enjoys his abilities, and how he'd be doing this kind of thing all the time if he were Aquaman. After taking the chest to the proper authorities, he shows up outside of Lois's apartment to take her to breakfast...which is actually dinner, since they'll be flying to Paris. While this is a great example of Superman actually enjoying his abilities for a change, it brings up the obvious foreshadowing of our Aesop:
We cut back to Metropolis, where Cat Grant and her son, Adam, have come to attend a Halloween party. Adam, disaffected preteen that he is, is dressed in his finest Superboy leather-and-shades number, and finds the shindig totally lame. Cat chats with Jimmy Olsen, dressed in his Turtle Boy outfit, while Adam goes off to find something more entertaining. It's okay, Adam, after "Countdown," I think everyone's in agreement about Jimmy's entertainment value. Moments later, apparently, Adam is approached by the Toyman in a big green dinosaur costume, who tells him about a room with "some superb video games." Naturally, this catches Adam's attention, and he follows the would-be Barney.
Clark and Lois have been walking around Paris, talking about future Elseworlds stories:
Cat and Jimmy have looked everywhere for Adam, to no avail. They're finally about to call the police. Meanwhile, Toyman has doffed the dino suit and is dragging Adam back to his hideout, claiming to have "rescued" him from his "lush of a mother." Adam, who is kind of a jerk, not only tells Toyman that he wants to go home, but also insults his selection of toys. While Schott's monologuing, Adam tries to find a way out. Instead, he finds the other captured kids. True to his costume, he does the Superboy thing and sets the kids free.
Whereupon Toyman shows up, angry because Adam has broken the rules. He...well, you can guess:
The next scene is really more of a montage--two nine-panel pages of Cat Grant finding out about Adam's death and subsequently identifying the body. When shown, inexplicably, Adam's face is in total silhouette...it doesn't make much sense (his hair is colored in, for crying out loud) but it really adds something to the gravitas of the scene. I don't know, maybe it's the human equivalent of Optimus Prime's body turning gray after he died.
Clark and Lois return, arriving at the Daily Planet offices in good spirits. They are, naturally, the only ones. Jimmy informs them of the terrible news, then drives the point home with all the subtlety of a tackhammer:
As I said, the story's heavy on the melodrama. There's not much subtlety to it, which is probably why it touched me so hard as a ten-year-old. Nuance probably would have gone just a bit over my head. Still, it was a genuine change to the status quo, and a genuine development in Cat Grant's character. The grieving process ain't easy for her, and the next issue focuses on her drive for revenge. It's a decent little storyline, if a heavy-handed one.
And I like what they did to the Toyman in this. Like I said, this is a transitional issue for the character. Here, he's a bombastic villain, making grand gestures and big, Snidely Whiplash speeches about his heroism, saving these children and bringing them to his perfect world. And yet, he's also an emotionally-stunted man with a child's mentality, taking playmates because he cannot have them otherwise, throwing deadly tantrums when his 'friends' don't play by the rules. I think the next issue completes his transformation from supervillain to psychopath (as I recall, that's when he starts hearing "Mother's" voice), but the ultimate effect was to make him a more menacing, more frightening, more generally disturbing character. Let's face it, the Toyman as a long-haired man in a striped suit sending deadly teddy bears after Superman...well, it's kind of a one-act play, isn't it? His character is the gimmick. This took the concept to a more logical conclusion--the fact that the Toyman would be severely creepy. The character's shift in drive (delusions) and target (specifically going after children) made him quite a bit more effective as a villain. Now, he's going after the innocent and vulnerable, and he's doing it with the intellect of a homicidal genius and the maturity of a petulant child--far more dangerous than sending robot nutcrackers after an indestructible superhero or a rich businessman. In effect, they made Toyman into a Batman villain. And I think it worked well to make him a more versatile character (for awhile).
Sure, it's melodramatic. Sure, it really smacks you in the face with the responsibility lesson. But this issue was necessary at the time. Two months prior, Superman had been restored to full health and power at the end of the Death and Return arc. Lots of characters were changed by the experience, and there was plenty of collateral damage, but ultimately most of the pieces--particularly the named pieces--had been put back in the right places. This story re-established the finality of death in Superman comics. It hit hard and heavy precisely because it needed to remind us that not everyone can be tossed into the Kryptonian Healing Matrix and be restored to life. And in that regard, the melodrama and heavy-handedness are slightly more understandable; they were trying to give Adam Grant's death the same kind of focus and weight that they gave Superman's...with the exception that we all knew Adam wouldn't be coming back.
But the most effective part of the story, at least for the grown-up me, is something that I don't recall ever noticing before, something that presents a severe contrast between Superman's death and Adam Grant's:
The other kids didn't make it. When Superman died, at least he took Doomsday down with him. When a civilian dresses up in a superhero costume, does something heroic, and makes a terrible sacrifice to ensure the safety of others, we're conditioned to balance their deaths with the good they were able to accomplish.
Not this time. Adam Grant died for nothing. That's about as depressing as Superman comics get.