A friend asked me after watching the newest Man of Steel trailer, “Have there ever been any good Superman stories? I just don’t like the character. I don’t feel like I can relate with a god.” I’ve heard this same thing from many comic book fans over the years, and while I understand the place where that comment is coming from, if you’re willing to spend a couple dollars I believe that it would take only a few issues to change your mind. Check out the 20 stories mentioned below to discover a few comics which will help you understand the character a little better.
“WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT SUPERMAN?”
I’ve heard that comment more times than I can tell you. Being (arguably) the most popular comic book character of all time will bring out the detractors, and this question seems to epitomize the thought process behind understanding the popularity of Superman. Listed below, in no particular order, are five comics that ask that set out to question (and give an answer to) the role of Superman.
Action Comics #775 – “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way”
Of all the comics mentioned in this post, it’s Action Comics #775 which confronts the issue of “Why should I care about Superman?” most head-on. As the title of the issue posits, the ideals of Superman and his representation of America of yesteryear are under attack. This attack is brought forward by a group of homicidal antiheroes called The Elite. The Elite represent the new cropping of violent “heroes” from popular comics in the nineties (i.e. The Authority) which intend on replacing Superman by becoming the world’s judge, jury and executioners. The battle for Superman not only represents his place in the DCU amidst groups like The Elite, but also represents the character’s place in current day American superhero comics. It’s not very often that a creative team can justify the existence of character so soundly in only 38 pages.
Hitman #34 – “Of Thee I Sing”
Of all the Superman stories on this list, this single issue would probably be my personal favorite read. Hitman was a subversive “superhero” comic that ran in the late nineties from the creative team of Garth Ennis and John McCrea, telling the story of a hitman and his buddies in Gotham. While this excellent comic book challenged the idea of what a superhero is, and exposed the ridiculous nature of those that wear tights and fight crime, there was a brief reprieve from the norm in issue #34 when Ennis decided to have Superman explain the hardships and pressures of being ‘Superman’ in a random rooftop encounter with Hitman’s titular character Tommy Monaghan. Sometimes it takes somebody who hates superheroes to make a case for why everybody loves them so much.
It’s a Bird…
This is the only comic on the list that doesn’t actually have Superman in it, yet it may make the best case for the character to those that can’t relate to the Man of Tomorrow. It’s a Bird… is an award winning autobiographical story told by Steven T. Seagle, built around the idea that he initially turned down the task of writing a Superman on-going comic book series due to not being able to relate to a fascistic godlike character. Tying in his family’s battle with Huntington’s Disease and other personal life issues, Seagle begins to see how Superman may actually relate to his life. This book is like nothing else on this list, and deserves to be read by everybody reading this post.
Link: Trade Paperback
Not a whole lot needs to be written about Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s classic Elseworlds tale. If you’re new to comics, Kingdom Come is an excellent story which sees Superman go into self-imposed exile only to come back years later when the world’s “superheroes” start to do more harm than good. It’s always been said that Superman is the pivotal character for all major DC Universe events, and this story takes that idea and runs with it. How important is Superman to the DCU? Read Kingdom Come to see why he’s seen as DC’s top superhero.
Superman: Peace on Earth
If you liked Alex Ross’s art in Kingdom Come, you’ll savor every massive page of this oversized comic book. Written by Paul Dini, this simple story distills the idea of Superman into a short beautiful package. The story follows Superman has he decides to attempt to end world hunger, only to see how difficult and impossible that gesture may be. Superman naysayers may not be converted by this book, but Peace on Earth nails why people love Superman: he represents hope for a better tomorrow.
Link: Trade Paperback
There have been plenty of origin stories for Superman, some drastically different than the basic ‘shot from a dying planet, raised by Kansas farmers’ that most origins adhere to. For those new to the character, you can’t go wrong with origin tales, as you’re starting from the ground up. With these five stories you’ll be treated with accessible Superman comics, which should help you to better understand how Clark Kent became Superman.
When tasked by DC to create an accessible origin for any and all readers in the 21st century, writer Mark Waid and artist Leinil Yu took the challenge and created one of the better tellings of Superman’s rise to greatness. The thing that makes this story a must read is that it, unlike most Superman stories, makes Clark Kent a interesting character. Check out Birthright if you want to read a story that stays grounded in more real world fare.
Superman for All Seasons
Of all the origin stories, Superman for All Seasons is easily my favorite. Written by Jeph Loeb with incredible old-timey art by Tim Sale, this comic is did more to make me love Superman than pretty much any other comic I’ve ever read. The basic premise is that the book is cut into four parts, represented by the seasons, and narrated by different characters in Clark Kent’s life. When you take all four tales told by each unique character, you have a great understanding of just who the character of Superman really is. If you need another reason to check For All Seasons out, the book contains my favorite (two-page) panel ever to grace the comic book medium.
Superman: Red Son
Our second Elseworlds title on this listing (Elseworlds means a story told out of DC’s main continuity) can be easily explained: What if Kal-El landed in the Soviet Union instead of the United States? Writer Mark Millar may not have broken new ground with the ‘What Superman landed in ??? instead of Kansas?’, but he did craft the definitive what if Superman origin tale. While Elseworld titles such as Justice League: The Nail show what happens in a world without Superman, and books like Superman: Speeding Bullets show what what happen if he was raised by another family in the USA (Batman’s family!), it’d be the vast ideological differences of the US’s cold war opponents which would give the most fascinating view of how things could have been different if Ma and Pa Kent didn’t raise the young super-powered alien.
Superman: Secret Identity
This comic may be viewed by some as a stretch for this category, yet it fits the criteria perfectly. In Secret Identity writer Kurt Busiek and illustrator Stuart Immonen tell the tale of Clark Kent, a kid growing up a fan of the comic book hero Superman, in a world without superheroes. Really, the less you know the better, so I won’t go too far into the story details, but I will recommend this title as one for those looking for a Superman story without the baggage of the DC Universe weighing it down.
Superman: Secret Origin
In 2009 writer Geoff Johns began to craft a new beginning for Clark Kent with the help of artist Gary Frank – this won’t be the last you hear of these two writing Superman on this list. While DC may have rebooted their continuity with the New 52 in 2011, Superman: Secret Origin remains the newest traditional origin story for the character of Superman. As always, Geoff Johns creates an accessible superhero tale which can be read by those with no previous background with Superman, but contains easter eggs and tidbits that act as nods to long time DC comic fans. Don’t pass up this excellent telling of Superman’s early years.
NEWER SUPERMAN STORIES
Today saw the release of the DC Universe Animated Original Movie Superman: Unbound, which is based on Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s “Superman: Brainiac” story. John’s entire (on-again off-again) run on Action Comics was full of creative ideas, but it’d be his new take on Brainiac which would stand out as one of the writer’s best stories told at DC Comics. Featuring plenty of Superman vs. robot action, Brainiac has never been more lethal. To keep drama high Superman is quite vulnerable in this story, enough to keep you guessing where everything is heading. Pick it up after watching Unbound!
There are plenty of great Superman stories out there, but none as fun as All-Star Superman. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely take old concepts and make them feel new again, somehow finding a way to turn the idea of Superman as a godlike being into the story’s biggest asset. Though it may seem odd, or go over some readers heads, All-Star Superman stands as a fantastic adventure which explores the true character of Superman. And if the book is a little too much for you, try watching the DC Universe Animated Original Movie All-Star Superman, it deftly condenses Morrison’s story into a fun 76 minute package.
Superman Family Adventures
While all the rest of the stories on this list skew towards an older audience, Superman Family Adventures serves as a perfect way to bring children in on the fun of Superman. Parents, you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank with this book either, as the book was (unfortunately) cancelled after only 12 issues, so buying this series by issue or in trade is painless. Take note of the ‘all-ages’ aspect of this book, as it may be directly marketed to young kids, but it’s good enough that even the adults reading the book with their kids will undoubtedly enjoy this fun series.
Superman: The Last Son of Krypton
A few years back writer Geoff Johns teamed up with Superman: The Movie & Superman II director Richard Donner in order to tell a story featuring some of Superman’s most fearsome enemies – General Zod, Ursa and Non. While the book may be remembered best for its delays (due to artist Adam Kubert’s health issues), “Superman: Last Son” is now collected in various formats and can be read as intended. The main reason to read this book (outside of the gimmicky 3D issue – glasses included!) is that it handles Superman’s struggle between living human and being Kryptonian. Plus, after Donner’s portion of Superman II, it’s nice to see him work with Zod again.
Superman: Up, Up, and Away!
After the events of the DC crossover event Infinite Crisis, Clark Kent has lost his powers. After the events of the 52 miniseries Lex Luthor has been disgraced and become bankrupt. “Up, Up, and Away!” follows Clark as he enjoys his time as a normal human being, while Lex amasses power enough to strike back at the populace that took his wealth away. If you want to read a Superman story that focuses on how Supes would live his life powerless, Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns have crafted a fun 8-issue story just for you.
OLDER SUPERMAN STORIES
The Death and Return of Superman
My favorite line from the DC event Infinite Crisis is Batman telling Superman, “And let’s face it “Superman”… the last time you really inspired anyone — was when you were dead.” Although I did not enjoy Infinite Crisis, that line is one of the most profound DC has written in this generation of comics. Geoff Johns was right writing that, when was the last time people really cared about Superman? The unfortunate answer was when Doomsday beat him dead. Superman is one of the most American creations in comics, and “The Death of Superman” also rings out as an example of America’s obsession with celebrity death. Although it’s easy to dismiss “The Death and Return of Superman” as a cash-grab comic, it stands as an important milestone for the character, and the last four issues telling Superman’s demise are extremely well told.
The Man of Steel
After DC’s crisis that started the fad of event crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman was due to be revamped for a new generation. The new origin for Superman was crafted by comic legend John Byrne who pulled double duty as artist and writer. If you were tasked with stating everything that you knew about Superman, chances are that the details you’d mention were put in place in the 1986 six-issue miniseries The Man of Steel. For those looking for a solid and familiar Superman story, The Man of Steel is for you.
Superman #149 – “The Death of Superman”
This is the oldest story on this list, and it is also of the darkest. Released back in 1961 Superman #149 told an imaginary tale that had Lex Luthor killing Superman. While DC has actually killed Superman in main continuity since, at the time this must have been a truly devastating read, imaginary or not. Now, about 52 years after it was initially released, it still reads well and remains an entertaining story. Good luck finding the issue though…
Superman #423 / Action Comics #583 – “Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow”
This two part story, crafted by Alan Moore and Curt Swan, was used as the final hurrah for the Silver Age of Superman. Alan Moore created a perfect Superman comic by writing a story which tied up his mythology, framing the issues in a sort of remembrance of a character which left us. While it’s nearly 30 years old, the timelessness of Superman’s character makes this comic perpetually relevant.
Superman: Annual #11 – “For the Man Who Has Everything”
If there are any Justice League Unlimited fans out there, you may not be aware that the episode “For The Man Who Has Everything” was actually based on the classic one-shot story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (the same team who created Watchmen). For those who haven’t read this, or seen the episode based on it, all the better. No spoilers. While it will cost you a bit to find the single issue, I recommend picking up this incredible Superman story either digitally through Comixology, or by picking up the excellent Alan Moore’s DC Universe collection.
There are plenty of other stories to read if you get through this listing and want more. This list represents mostly issues and stories that exemplify Superman’s character and his impact on the DC Universe. If you’re curious about where to go from here, hit me up in the comments or on Twitter (@Dan1verson) and I’ll throw a couple more stories your way.