So you may have heard – a certain soaring superhero is taking flight in your local multiplex again this summer. You can probably imagine that we’re Very Excited Indeed about this at DragonDark Towers; though we make no secret of our love for Superman Returns, we’re fully aware that we’re in the minority on that score. If Man of Steel ends up being half as impressive as it looks, a new generation will finally have a cinematic Superman to call their own once again.
These filmed flights of fancy are all well and good, but what of the four-colour funnybooks that introduced us to the Man of Tomorrow? After all, while literary scholars may scoff, Clark Kent is undoubtedly as important a figure in pop culture as Holden Caulfield, Jane Eyre or Captain Ahab. Tales of his adventures have thrilled children of all ages for generations ever since June 1938, when issue #1 of Action Comics introduced America to a new kind of hero; a man that could leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding bullet.
75 years later, more stories have been told about Superman than any other comic book crusader. Sadly Big Blue has struggled to earn the respect due to him though, with many readers dismissing the character as a one-note goody-two-shoes, a dull and wishy-washy counter to the exciting and devilish Batman. While this isn’t strictly true (the original 30s Supertales feature a brutal and uncompromising vigilante, more concerned with mobsters and domestic violence than aliens with visions of world domination), there can be no doubt that the Man of Steel has stuttered and wheezed his way through more than his share of shoddy storytelling. In unskilled hands there is very little peril to a Superman story – after all, he can do everything. On the other hand, dramatic potential is always rich for a character who can do everything…
Anybody wholly unfamiliar with the Last Son of Krypton will presumably be keen to check out his printed origin tale; a challenge in itself, thanks to DC’s propensity for reboots. Action Comics #1 has been reprinted several times in the last few decades, with a new graphic novel edition set to hit stores this summer. A more detailed account of Kal-El’s trip to Earth followed a decade later in Superman #53, but the most celebrated telling arrived in 1986 with the six-issue mini-series Man of Steel.
A stripped-down retelling of Clark’s creation, written and illustrated by the legendary John Byrne, Man of Steel jettisoned the more outlandish elements of the Superman legend (including the more colourful members of his supporting cast), introduced the Lex Luthor that we now know and loathe (prior to Byrne’s book, Luthor was a stereotypical mad scientist; it was this series that made him a ruthless psychopathic genius), and made the title character just a little more human and a little less super. Man of Steel remained DC’s canon-approved origin story until 2003, when Mark Waid penned the delightful Leinil Yu-pencilled Birthright.
It’s this title that remains DragonDark’s origin story of choice (and promises to influence the latest movie), not least because of the focus on Clark Kent – we dearly love any tale that gets to the heart of Superman, as will become increasingly obvious in the coming paragraphs. Birthright also re-instated a handful of powers and established new tropes for the Supermythos, such as a Smallville High School friendship between Clark and Lex before their future antagonism. Birthright remained Kal-El’s canonical foundation until 2009, when DC Chief Creative Office Geoff Johns teamed with Gary Frank for Secret Origin. The latest, and to date current, reboot focusses less on Krypton and more on Clark’s early years in the big bad city of Metropolis. It’s more of a whizz-bang affair than some of the other titles mentioned, but Johns’ name anywhere near a DC comic is guarantee of quality.
With an origin established, there are plenty of lengthy storylines any new reader can sink their teeth into. Perhaps most famous of all was the infamous Death of Superman, a multi-title spanning event that captured the attention of the mainstream – and has recently been collected into a huge oversized hardback to celebrate the storyline’s twentieth anniversary.
The Death of Superman won no awards for its writing and art (there is nothing really wrong with either, but they rarely raise above perfunctory – even the famous image of a dead Supes in the arms of Lois Lane lacks a real emotional punch), and somehow it doesn’t feel right that Superman’s life could be extinguished by a simple slugfest with a then-new character. The collected Death and Return would managed to fill a a rainy weekend’s reading schedule though, with a sequel series, Reign of Doomsday, belatedly following in 2011 and also available as a trade paperback.
Anyone looking for something a little less melodramatic could do worse than investigating the reprinted ongoing adventures of Superman that followed the Man of Steel reboot (though given how continuity has been wiped and restarted at least twice since then this could get confusing for a novice!), or the more recent sequence of paperbacks started by Geoff Johns with Last Son Krypton, running through collected editions such as Braniac, New Krypton, War of the Supermen and Grounded – again, however, some of these titles are a little dense and may flummox a more casual reader.
With this in mind, standalone stories are perhaps the way forward. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitley’s All-Star Superman leads the pack in this field; not only as one of the finest character stories of all time, but one of the finest comic books of all time, period. Spinning the tale of what happens when Superman’s time on Earth comes to an end (and dare we say it, doing so better than even Alan Moore managed with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow), All-Star Superman captures everything we love about the Big Blue Boy Scout in one volume, and is certain to melt even the hardest heart.
These warm stories are always winners, and few artists can tug at the heartstrings like the legendary Tim Sale. As a result, two of our top recommendations come courtesy of Sale’s pencil; namely Kryptonite, written by Darwyn Cooke, and A Superman for Seasons, by Jeph Loeb. The former is a ‘year one’ story which introduces us to a youthful Superman who is still coming to terms with his powers and is yet to discover the extent of them; the character has never felt more human, and thus we have never rooted for him more. Scenes that see Superman leap into action in defence of innocents while attempting to hide his terror for his own life, wondering if whatever mishap befalls him next will push beyond the point of his supposed invincibility, is some of the most engrossing writing the character has ever been treated to.
Loeb’s story, meanwhile, is a twist on his classic Marvel Spectrum titles; with a quartet of characters recount their experiences with the visitor from Krypton, while Loeb does what he does best – plays the emotions of the reader like a cheap harp. Just about the only title which can rival this book for emotional heft is the superb Secret Identity from Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen, an astonishing work that manages to be one of the greatest Superman stories of them all without ever actually featuring the character. To say more would give away too much of the plot but take our word for it, it’s pretty special.
Naturally any mention of outside-continuity tales would be incomplete without Red Son, undoubtedly the highlight of Mark Millar’s career and surely DC’s finest Elseworlds story. This ‘what if’ story that details a world in which Superman crash-landed in the Kremlin instead of Kansas offered more laughs, thrills and tension in three prestige-format issues than most books can manage in a lifetime, and heavily inspired for the cracking
Superman has also enjoyed a number of cross-overs that vary from the expected to the bizarre. The character has teamed with Batman more times than we can count, most notably in Dave Gibbons’ sadly dated World’s Finest and Jeph Loeb’s early-noughties blockbuster title Superman/Batman, the first couple of volumes of which are well worth investigating. Trinity also saw the pair unite with Wonder Woman for some enjoyable exploits.
Outside of the DC universe the Big Blue Boy Scout has also enjoyed some interesting interactions; Superman: War of the Worlds is a curious twist on the Wellsian martian invasion, Kal-El’s infamous boxing match with Muhammad Ali from 1978 is back in print and offers a fascinating time capsule (if not much else), and the usual battles with Aliens, Predators and Terminators have taken place over the years. No collected editions for these Dark Horse crossovers are currently in print, but the issues can be tracked down at reasonable rates if such things float your boat.
While Superman is a character that dwells on the side of all that is right and good, he does occasionally drift over to the darker side of comic book literature. All too often it feels forced when this happens, but a rare triumph came with Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (now better known simply as Luthor) by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo. This five-issue mini-series shifted its focus to Superman’s deadliest foe, with compelling results. Kingdom Come, predominantly a Justice League story, is another look at happens when Superman decides he knows what is best for the people he swore to protect. The book is also an absolute must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in superhero comics, thanks to Mark Waid’s superb script and Alex Ross’s jaw-dropping watercolour art.
So those are the classic books to investigate – but what are the titles to avoid? Sadly, the answer to that is ‘most of them’. Anything that hasn’t been listed above should be approached with caution, but there are two particularly high-profile titles which really need to be given a wide berth. Brian Azzarello teamed with Jim Lee back in 2005 on For Tomorrow, a 12-issue event which promised to do for Superman what Hush did for Batman. It failed, miserably; For Tomorrow is a long, meandering and nonsensical farce that makes little sense, only for die-hard fans of Lee’s artwork. J. Michael Straczynski meanwhile, assisted by artist Shane Hope, also served up a big old slop of disappointment with Earth One; an angst-ridden ‘real world’ reboot of the mythos that ignores everything that makes Superman great. We’ve said before, but we’ll do so again here – it needs a compelling reason to send this character spinning off into darker directions, and Straczynski fails to deliver one here.
You may also be curious about the John Cleese-penned Superman: True Brit. Please, for your own sake, don’t be.
Finally, a word on the most recent exploits of the character since DC’s latest reboot. Post New 52, no Superbooks have really managed to stand out, with the possible exception of the characters appearances in Justice League. Grant Morrison’s tales of a hot-headed younger hero in Action Comics were a surprisingly disappointing affair, and while Andy Diggle’s two issues has shown signs of reviving interest, creative differences forced the writer off the book before his first issue even saw print. Superman’s main title has also suffered from a slightly confused tone (although some delightful artwork), with H’el on Earth, a crossover with the rest of the Superstable, a rare highlight. In fact it’s Clark’s cousin, Supergirl, that is providing the must-read Kryptonian capers of recent months.
The publisher is unsurprisingly pushing their flagship character hard this year though, and the release of a new Batman/Superman title in June, and the dream team of Bat-scribe Scott Snyder and Jim Lee on the new ongoing Superman Unchained this summer, should keep the character where he belongs – flying high at the top of the sales charts.
While Superman stories may not have as high a hit-rate as the character deserves, there’s no denying that when a writer gets it right things really soar. Investigate any of the books we’ve recommended above for an insight into just why this cultural icon has endured for so long in the face of adversity, and why he remains so relevant in a world where people laugh at the concept of “truth, justice and the American way”. Most of all, there is one thing that 75 years of these books have in common; that the finest Superman stories convince us to try and be the best versions of ourselves that we can. Surely that’s a superpower that we can all get on board with.