Saturday, July 10, 2010

10 Must-Read Superman Stories

I suggested in an earlier post that Superman is where we should start to talk about superheroes.  But where should we start with Superman?  I will be writing about Superman for the next few posts, but what primary sources should we go to?  Here I present my pick of 10 must-read Superman stories, some of which are chosen for their representative or historic nature rather than their high quality.  So these aren't the best Superman stories necessarily.  They're the stories that I think define the character.  So here we go, in chronological order.

10. Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Action Comics #1 (50th Anniversary Reprint Edition)

The first appearance of Superman, written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster.  This isn't necessarily Shuster and Siegel's best work (the story starts abruptly and confusingly), but it is a fast-paced and funny introduction to the iconic hero. The Golden Age Superman is missing a lot of what we think of as iconic now -- he can't fly, and he's a reckless vigilante -- but he's still a Superman who fights for the little guy and hates bullies.  Most importantly, this is where it all started.

9. "The Lady and the Lion" (Action Comics Aug.No.243) by Otto Binder and Wayne Boring
Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 1

The Silver Age saw Superman with vastly expanded powers, and virtually no threats. Most of this era features Superman trying to protect his secret identity and evade Lois' feminine wiles. This era also features complete off-the-wall wackiness, as in this story where Circe (yes, the one from the Odyssey) turns Superman into a half-lion. Will Lois love him even when he has the head of a lion? Yes. Yes she will.

8. "Kryptonite No More" (Superman #233) by Denny O'Neil, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson
Superman in the Seventies

This story is the first part of an eventual attempt by Denny O'Neil to scale back Superman's powers -- an attempt that would be soon undone by the next writers. In this story Clark Kent becomes a tv anchorman, and develops an immunity to kryptonite. The Bronze Age Superman may not have been quite as wacky as the Silver Age, but Superman taunting a would-be robber by eating a chunk of kryptonite is a strange and wonderful event.

7. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

In 1986 the powers-that-be decided to revamp Superman. They ended Superman comics, to begin again as if from the beginning. Writer Alan Moore famously (and possibly apocrophally) grabbed editor Julie Shwartz by the throat, threw him up against a wall and told him he would kill him if he gave the writing job to anyone else. The resulting comic is a beautiful send-off for the Silver/Bronze Age Superman, one in which all of Superman's villains finally do the horrible things they've always threatened to do, and kill Superman. Or do they? *wink*

6. Superman: The Man of Steel By John Byrne
Superman: The Man of Steel, Vol. 1

Following Moore's ending, John Byrne had the job of beginning again. His run on Superman features a much less powerful Superman and a much more powerful Clark Kent. After the excess and clutter of the Silver Age, Byrne's Superman feels like a breath of fresh air. There's no Superboy, no Krypto the Wonder Dog, and no red kryptonite or gold kryptonite. This simplicity, however, comes at the expense of a lot of the humour, fun, and fantasy of the earlier eras.

5. The Death And Return of Superman by Dan Jurgens and others
The Death and Return of Superman Omnibus

The Death of Superman is a mess. The art is almost unreadably cluttered, and the lack of fun that began with Byrne has by this time become overwrought melodrama. It is, however, a momentous event in comics history, culminating in the ill-advised but fascinating Superman Blue/Superman Red. I consider this to be one of the most interesting eras of Superman, because it demonstrates the disconnect between the official control of the character and the existence of the character in oral tradition. But I digress.

4. Superman: For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Superman for All Seasons
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are a very talented comics team, and this is some of their best work. Examining Superman's early days through a metephor of the four seasons, this is a beautifully drawn, wonderfully written book that captures what I take to be core of Superman.

3. Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Analguilan
Superman: Birthright
Written by Mark Waid, with pencils by Leinil Fracis Yu and inks by Gerry Analguilan, Superman: Birthright is one of dozens of retellings of Superman's origin story, and it stands out.  Beautifully drafted and illustrated, it is an unironic and idealistic portrayal of the flying strongman.

2. "Angels" (Superman #659) by Kurt Busiek, Fabien Niceza, Peter Vale and Jesus Merino
Superman: Redemption (Superman (Graphic Novels))

Collected in the trade paperback Superman Redemption, which has low- as well as high-points, "Angels" is a great modern example of a single-issue. Kurt Busiek's run on Superman was a favourite of mine, and "Angels" is his attempt to address the problem of pain in the DC universe.  If Superman is so powerful, why does anyone in the DC universe suffer?  If Superman can see us and hear us and protect us from evil, how is he not God, or at least an angel?  This issue, written by Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, pencilled by Peter Vale and inked by Jesus Merino is a great example of how good a single issue of a Superman comic can be.

1. All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
All Star Superman, Vol. 1

This two-volume story written by Grant Morrison is frequently lauded as the best Superman story ever told.   Like Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Morrison's All-Star Superman is essentially a story about the death of the Silver Age Superman, but it is now told with the perspective that allows Morrison to celebrate the best parts of the Silver Age while quietly ignoring the worst. Morrison's Superman is supremely powerful, unerringly good, and a lot of fun.  


  1. You give an interesting and insightful analysis of many of these books—especially your remark made in passing about the "disconnect" between the legal control held by DC over the Superman character and the sense among fans (and among the wider public) that Superman belongs to all of us..

    But I'm disappointed that so many of these stories date from the late 80s forward. Not that I could do much better (I began reading comics seriously around the time of "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow"), but that's precisely why I'd like to be able to turn to your list to find out which ten of the thousands of back issues of Action Comics and Superman I should read.

  2. Thanks for reading!

    There are some good reasons why I chose to stay mostly with more recent comics, and I'll say what they are in a later blog post. But you make a good point, and I'll try to make suggestions of some Golden-and-Silver age Superman comics that are particularly worth your attention. And I'll put it in a later blog post.

  3. Is there any place online where I can go and read some of the great classic Superman and other DC comic greats like Flash, Green Lantern, etc.?


    1. Here is a link to whee you can read the first Superman comic

  4. Great list.. Thanks

  5. Good list with analysis

  6. Hi
    Nice one! I like the outfit of the characters. Wish i could do the same thing too but im not that techie.i like the outfit of “from farmer to warden”.. really interesting.