There are those who say Superman as a character is too perfect, too boring. He doesn’t have any definitive stories the way that Batman, Spider-Man or the X-Men do. This is, of course, total nonsense. Sure, Superman doesn’t have as many definitive stories as Batman does, but then again, pretty much no superhero character out there does. So on this, the day we celebrate the Man of Steel and everything the character represents, I present to you six essential tales every fan of the Last Son of Krypton should read, and get reacquainted with all the reasons Superman is anything but boring, not to mention the source from which all superhero fiction comes from.
Superman: Peace on Earth by Paul Dini & Alex Ross
So, say you’re an all powerful god-like figure, instead of fighting bad guys all the time, can’t you use all that power to…you know, just fix the world? This is a question every one who reads Superman or has watched him in film or television has asked themselves, and it’s a question the comics usually avoid, because a perfect world doesn’t need a Superman, and there would be no more stories left to tell. The movies tried to address this issue once, sort of, in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but the less said about that particular gem of a movie the better.
The one comic that successfully dealt with this topic, instead of side stepping it, was Paul Dini and Alex Ross’ Superman: Peace on Earth, which was the first in their oversized series of OGN’s that focused on each of the DC Icons. Superman proposes to the United Nations to help to end world hunger through the gesture of spending a day delivering as much food as he can to countries that need it anywhere on the planet, but even this gesture of goodwill is met with hostility from some governments, who use Superman’s generosity against their own people, and Clark learns the hard lesson that once people rely on you to fix their daily problems, they won’t even try to fix it for themselves.
As good as Paul Dini’s handling of Clark Kent is (and as one of the producers of the excellent Superman: The Animated Series from the ’90s, he’s behind one of Superman’s best ever media interpretations) the real star of this book is artist Alex Ross. No one draws Superman like Ross does, whose photo realistic paintings makes the character come alive better than any artist on the planet. Almost every panel in this book is a thing of beauty worthy of framing, and Ross captures both the mythological grandeur of Superman and the humanity of Clark Kent. Although the book has been out of print for awhile, you can still buy it in the collection of Paul Dini and Alex Ross’ series featuring the DC icons under the title The World’s Greatest Superheroes.
Superman: Brainiac by Geoff Johns & Gary Frank (2008)
The alien android Brainiac has long been Superman’s #2 villain, right behind Lex Luthor, since he was introduced way back in 1958, as a green skinned alien in little pink shorts and white go-go boots. But there have been so many different versions of him over the decades since he was introduced, that they all barely seemed like the same character. Well, writer Geoff Johns took care of that problem in his 2008 run on Action Comics, in a five part story simply titled Brainiac, which explained that all those different versions Supes had encountered over the years are just probes or nanite infected bodies sent from the real Brainiac, a hyper-intelligent, centuries old intelligence who Superman would now encounter for the first time.
The story is note worthy for several major plot developments for the modern version of Superman, including the death of Clark’s adopted father Jonathan Kent, and the return of the Silver Age concept of the Kryptonian bottled city of Kandor, giving Superman a link to his homeworld once again. Artist Gary Frank redesigned the character, giving him a bio-mechanical, creepy HR Giger edge to him, and making him look genuinely off-putting.
This version of Brainiac also has motives similar to the Superman: The Animated Series version of the character, in that he travels the universe and steals the knowledge of different alien cultures, abducting and shrinking cities from each planet as samples, and then destroys the planet so that the value of the destroyed civilization’s knowledge is increased. Brainiac’s ship then travels to Earth and prepares to abduct the city of Metropolis in hopes of doing the same thing to Superman’s adopted world as he did to his birth world. Johns took the original concept of Brainiac, a goofy looking android, and give him all the menace of Star Trek’s the Borg. An animated version of this story, titled Superman: Unbound, was released, and while it’s pretty good and worth checking out, the original comic still trumps it.
Man of Steel by John Byrne (1986)
Back in the early 1980’s, you couldn’t give Superman comics away (or even Batman comics for that matter.) DC was down in the dumps, and with the exception of a couple of hit titles, Marvel was basically wiping the floor with them in terms of sales. This Top 100 comics chart from 1984 says it all- Superman was being outsold by the entire line of Marvel books, even books like Dazzler, and black and white indie books like Cerebus. With rumors spreading that Warner Brothers was going to sell the DC publishing line to Marvel, it was clear that something really drastic had to be done. The drastic action was the mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, which rebooted the DC Universe and allowed for fresh takes on classic icons, and Superman’s modern age update came from writer artist John Byrne, then the biggest star in comics. Superman’s whole backstory was then redone in the six issue mini-series Man of Steel.
Byrne’s back to basics approach removed a lot of clutter from the Superman mythology-there were no more multiple survivors of Krypton, no fifty different kinds of Kryptonite, and no more career as Superboy in Smallville. Krypton went from being this Flash Gordon like planet to a stark, monochrome world, where selective breeding had rendered the population cold and heartless. After decades of only caring about getting Superman to fall in love with her and marry her, Lois Lane was restored to the fierce go-getter reporter she’d been in the 1930’s and ’40s. The biggest change was to Lex Luthor; instead of being a genius who was eternally angry that Superman made him lose his hair when they were kids, he was now one of the world’s richest men, the CEO of LexCorp, who has his massive ego crushed by the arrival of Superman, who refuses to be under his payroll, a much better explanation for the deep seeded animosity that Lex had for Superman in previous decades.
And while John Byrne retained the costume, he drew Superman as larger and more muscular than he ever had before, cutting an imposing figure in any group shot. The result was an instant creative and sales success for Superman, and the boost in sales he received remained for the next decade, but the foundation of all that can be found in the Man of Steel mini-series.
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid & Alex Ross (1996)
Ok, I know that technically Kingdom Come is a DC Universe story, but its main focus is on the DC trinity of Batman, Wonder Woman but most especially Superman. Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ now classic story originally came out in 1996 as four part mini-series, which at the time it came out, was a commentary on the state of superhero comics of the day, which were filled with “extreme” heroes, mostly with the words “dark” or “blood” somewhere in their names. Was there room anymore for a superhero as straightforward and traditionally heroic as Superman?
Kingdom Come is set in a not-too-distant future, where a younger generation of superheroes has taken to fighting among themselves, not caring a whit if their actions have consequences on normal civilians. Superman has been retired for a decade at this point, living alone in his Fortress of Solitude, choosing to flee from humanity after the death of Lois Lane. He’s content in his solitude until a horrible incident forces him out of retirement, and the original hero is brought back to remind everyone what being a hero really means. Of course, things don’t exactly go smoothly in that regard.
Writer Mark Waid’s love for Superman shows through in this book, even when he has him making huge mistakes that come at a high price. This comic is perfect for anyone who says that Superman is boring because he’s perfect and never makes mistakes; he makes plenty of them in this book, and many suffer for it, but they come from a place of caring too much, instead of not caring enough. And Alex Ross’ art, as always, is breathtaking, giving us a definitive look for not just Superman, but for most of the DC characters.
Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns & Gary Frank (2009/2010)
Superman’s origin story is one which is re-told over and over again, both in comics and in other media, but there’s a good reason for that; it’s a great story, mythological in all the right ways, borrowing from the Old and New Testament, Greek myths, and enough of its own All-American ingredients to make it something totally unique.
In 2009, Geoff Johns decided to follow up his run on Action Comics with Gary Frank by updating Superman’s origin yet again…but this time, he decided to put back most of the toys that John Byrne had taken away in the ’80s reboot of the character, and find a way to take all the Silver Age tropes, which had been deemed too silly in the ’80s and were jettisoned, and put them back into the mix. He found a way to re-introduce the idea of Clark’s career as Superboy, his relationship with the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the fact that he knew Lex Luthor from his Smallville days, and even Krypto the superdog, things that were all deemed to ridiculous for today’s comics, and made them all work within a modern comics context.
Somehow Geoff Johns made it not only not seem silly, but made you wonder why some of it was taken away in the first place, no matter how great (and needed) John Byrne’s Man of Steel reboot was. His versions of the main characters are the right mix of classic and modern, taking from not only the comics and but the more well known media incarnations as well (Gary Frank’s Superman is a dead ringer for Christopher Reeve, and a lot of Clark’s Smallville years were clearly inspired by the TV show of the same name.) Within one year, this version of Superman’s origin would be erased by the New 52 version, but luckily you can still read this story in several collection editions.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
If you were asked to take one comic book that defines a character, and have that book represent everything that character represents, what would it be? In the case of Batman, most would say Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One. But in the case of Superman, the popular consensus is Grant Morrsion and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Originally told over the course of twelve issues and two years, All-Star Superman tells the epic story of Superman’s imminent death, after he gets poisoned by intense solar radiation when saving the lives of several scientists in space and getting too close to the sun. He attempts to prepare for his end while accomplishing the 12 great feats he’s told he must accomplish before his time runs out.
Morrison manages to cover the depth and scope of Superman’s entire publishing history in one epic story; not being tied to any one continuity, Morrison takes from every era of the Man of Steel’s adventures, and pays proper homage to them all. He nails Clark’s relationship to Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor and both of his fathers, Jor-El and Jonathan Kent. He even manages to give Superman one last, poignant day with Krypto. But maybe the best moment in the whole book comes when Superman saves a suicidal woman from jumping off a building, reminding us all just what the character is meant to represent. All-Star Superman isn’t just a great Superman comic, it’s one of the finest comic books ever made, period.