10 essential Superman stories to prepare you for Man of Steel
In the spring of 1938 the most iconic and well known fictional character of all time was first seen by the world. 75 years later in June 2013 Warner Brothers will release Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, and with it comes the hopes of Superman’s fans that the future of the film and of the franchise will be bright. If the most recent trailer is anything to judge by, things are looking quite rosy indeed. Man of Steel looks to be a significant departure in terms of tone but as long as the core of the character is maintained, I think audiences will embrace the film.
One problem I see for the industry with any comic book film is the complete lack of increase in readers. People will see the movie but not bother to search out the print stories. With that in mind, I have put together a list of what I consider the essential Superman stories in the print medium. The criteria here were twofold: 1) to showcase a well told story and 2) to give a reader the important, vital facets of Superman to help foster a genuine understanding of the character for the upcoming film. A hardcore fan will notice some notable omissions. For example; Superman: Red Son, an amazing and interesting take on the character, adds nothing to the overall concept that would aid in the readers’ understanding of what makes Superman so compelling. Likewise such masterpieces as Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow and A Superman for all Seasons are omitted mostly because they represent versions or eras of Superman almost completely negated by other entries listed. I’ve also left off the Golden and Silver age classics. While there are many fine stories, a new reader is less likely to embrace them as they are a product of their time and somewhat dated today.
Here are some choices that will either get you started or refresh your memory as to what makes Superman who he is today.
10. The Man of Steel
Shortly after Crisis on Infinite Earths cleaned up DC’s continuity by erasing most of the previous story lines and/or killing off a large portion of the characters, John Byrne did a six-issue hard reboot of Superman’s origin with Man of Steel. As part of the plan to clean up and simplify the character for new readers, Byrne’s series erased or ignored virtually everything from the Silver Age. Gone was Clark’s youth as Superboy (much of it spent in the 31st century with the Legion of Superheroes), Krypto, Streaky, Beppo and every other even slightly silly aspect of the character’s back story. With Supergirl having been done away with in the Crisis series, Kal-El was once again the last survivor of Krypton.
In a world devoid super-beings, Clark first appears as Superman in Metropolis while saving an experimental space shuttle. Lex Luthor has become an evil industrialist instead of the mad scientist he had been for the previous five decades.
This version of Superman was going to be THE definitive one and became the ‘official’ version of the origin for nearly two decades. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for DC to begin filling the story with junk that would clutter it up for many of those years. While the later stories and additions were mostly awful, Man of Steel became the template of the modern Superman for most fans from the 80’s and later. This was the first time a realistic sensibility entered the books and these stories were the first in decades to read like they were not pure fantasy. THIS Superman seemed real. Clark was in the forefront of the characterization, making the MAN in Superman seem important for the first time.
I’m not certain this is still in print but it is fairly easy to find and is a very readable book and accessible for any modern reader.
9 & 8. The Lightning Saga/Superman and the Legion of Superheroes
The Lightning Saga by Brad Meltzer, Geoff Johns and Ed Benes and Superman and the Legion of Superheroes by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank were not specifically intended to be one tale, but they flow into each other perfectly. They share this entry because they both center on the Legion of Superheroes trying to make changes to the timeline (The Lightning Saga) and save their own time from drastic upheavals (Superman and the Legion of Superheroes). While they are both excellent stories in which Superman is ultimately a supporting character, what they reveal about him is the real treat.
There are character moments that can thrill you and then put a lump in your throat. Superman’s “screen time” is brief but telling. In an early scene he discusses his childhood with the Legion and how they were his only friends growing up. While this been done before and since, everything fits perfectly here and you feel his sadness and the love of the memories of his lost friends. After the Legion was removed from continuity by the first Crisis, very little was ever mentioned about Superman’s life with the Legion since it had never actually happened. Slowly over time, the Legion has been allowed to seep back into continuity and The Lightning Saga was the start of the full reintegration into the regular DCU. This was the first story in years that utilized Superman in a group correctly and made you feel his humanity.
Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes takes place shortly after The Lightning Saga and brings Superman into the 31st century where the Legion needs his help to save the world from anti-alien xenophobes. The inspiration that Superman became to the Legion of the future has been perverted by political forces and Superman and the Legion reunite to save the day. Depowered and physically vulnerable, Superman learns a great deal about himself and his friendship with the Legion.
These books were the start of a return to great storytelling for Superman, The Legion and The JLA. Johns claims many of these characters as his own and making them interesting for the first time in years.
7. Superman Braniac
Superman Braniac by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, follows shortly after Superman and the Legion of Superheroes with the goal of redefining the villain Braniac. In so doing, Johns has given Superman even more depth and feeling to the human life he has as Clark Kent. I should state that while Frank is an amazing artist, his portrayal of Superman portrayal is something very special. His version of Superman owes a HUGE debt to Christopher Reeve’s characterization from the films. Most of the time Frank’s Superman looks so much like Reeve that it is a little eerie, but it is never distracting or unpleasant. This is the Superman I grew up with. To me this Superman is much more realistic than the earlier comics and these stories feel like an extension of the films due to Frank’s art.
In updating Braniac, Johns taps into what makes the Kal-El side of Superman tick and sheds new light on his human life as well. This is a darker story with touches similar to films like The Matrix and Blade Runner as well as things from the first Superman film. Powerfully defining Clark’s relationship with his human parents and creating more clearly the bond between Superman and Supergirl, this is a story that fits well at almost any point in the mythology while still working as a good starting point for readers.
6. Secret Origin
Since his arrival in 1938 Superman has been changed, revisited or flat-out rebooted many times. He has died in at least 3 ‘non-imaginary’ stories I can think of, most notably the 1993 Doomsday arcs. The major reboots have been 1986, 2006 and most recently 2011 for the New 52. Secret Origin is the 2006 version of Superman’s origins and restores much of what the 1986 John Byrne post-Crisis reboot removed. Most notably it cemented a change that had been happening since The Lightning Saga & Superman and the Legion of Superheroes; the full return of Clark’s days as Superboy and his time with the Legion of Superheroes. Also restored are Lex Luthor’s time in Smallville and his prior relationship with Clark.
Reuniting Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Secret Origin is a nearly perfect version of the Superman concept for a modern audience. It still keeps classic elements like Krypto and the fact that Clark’s parents are still alive to see him become Superman. This story holds the first hints of the tone that DC would use in adapting Superman for the New 52. Humanity does not know what to make of him and many people, usually those in power, are afraid of him and what his existence could mean for their way of life.
Secret Origins is also just a crazy amount of fun. The first few chapters reestablish Clark’s childhood and are the strongest and funniest. The best Superman books have a way of taking the fact that much of what the character has become is fairly silly. They create a fun work of fiction that the reader can enjoy despite the silliness. Secret Origins is just such a book and I will be very interested to see how much of it ends up in the new film.
5. Kingdom Come
Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come probably saved Comics for a lot of readers fed up with the overblown dark and angst-ridden books of the 1990’s. Written as a response to the growing trend of super-heroes as nothing more than people that fight other people for no reason, Kingdom Come is a tale of a future where Superman and most of the heroes we know today have retired or disappeared to be replaced by an irresponsible violent bunch of super beings. This new crop of ‘heroes’ has no concept of helping those in need and only serve to please themselves in shallow acts of violence disguised as heroics.
While not technically a Superman story, he certainly is the main driving force. His departure from public life years earlier created the situation the world has found itself in and his intervention is what galvanizes the ‘old guard’ to return. This is a story of a Superman that has given up on everything that had meaning to him as a younger man. He has allowed himself to be exiled by the actions of these brash new heroes and the apathy of the people of the world. Now Superman must act to restore some level of peace and dignity to the heroes of the Earth.
Kingdom Come is the story of Superman as a messiah. He is a redeemer incapable of comprehending the effect he has on others. His mere presence in peoples’ lives caused them to strive for something better. Superman’s inability to realize his power to inspire people reveals more about him than any fight with a super villain.
This is another story I expect to see parts of when I watch Man of Steel in the theater and it is an outstanding book to familiarize readers with Superman once more.
4. Dark Knight Returns
I know what you are thinking, “This is a Batman story. Maybe THE Batman story. How is this a good Superman story?”. While it is true that The Dark Knight Returns is one of the finest Batman stories, people forget that it is also another story that helped define Superman for a large part of the late 80’s and early 90’s. I don’t think that it was Frank Miller’s intention to damage Superman when he set out to do DKR, nor do I think that he really did, but for a great many fans this was the story that turned Superman into the ‘Big Blue Boy scout’ that many recall. Superman appears in the last half of the story as a government stooge. He is allowed to continue to operate by the US Government as long as he remains a puppet. He is brought down and made to appear morally weak and without any true will of his own. Superman started in the 1930’s as a crusader for social justice and a champion of the oppressed, but by the 1950’s he along with all the other DC heroes had become an agent of the status quo. In DKR, Superman is the ultimate tool of that status quo controlled by a doddering old President (obviously Ronald Regan, though never explicitly stated) whose jingoistic paranoia fuels the Soviet Union to use nuclear weapons on the US.
The hokey, apple-pie Superman that the modern media believed was the definitive version of the character was actually the aberration. Created in the minds of the people that either saw the DKR version and identified with it or merely had their opinions informed by what would later be called a cultural meme, this version of Superman is 1980‘s Conservatism gone to the extreme. With Batman representing the extreme opposite, this book is as much a cautionary tale as it is an adventure.
3. All-Star Superman
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman was DC’s first modern attempt under a new imprint to tell continuity-free stories of the major characters using top industry talent. It was the most successful but with Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s controversial All-Star Batman sputtering and dying and the abandoned All-Star Wonder Woman by Adam Hughes never seeing the light of day, DC conceded that the All-Star line was done.
Before the All-Star line died however, we were treated to a defining Superman story. It is too early to tell if Morrison’s New 52 run on Action Comics, and its new take on the character, will be one for the ages. All-Star has been with us for a long enough period of time to have earned a place in the cannon of great Superman tales. All-Star Superman is a retelling of the origin and an entirely new take on the character. This is homage to all of the largely abandoned Silver Age ideas and a reinvention of the core concepts. Morrison’s knack for taking something old or unrealized and creating it afresh has never been displayed more successfully than it is here. Some of the dumbest ideas from the past are as fresh and fun. Jimmy Olsen’s stupid signal watch is now a clever plot device. Krypto the super-dog actually works here and is just like any boy’s beloved pet, just way cooler. The reveal of Superman’s secret identity to Lois, so poorly done in the 90’s, is retold here in a much more sensible and humorous manner. Everything falls together to tell an out-of-continuity story that you find yourself wishing was part of the official canon.
2. It’s Superman
It’s Superman, a novel by Tom DeHaven, is the only non-comic entry here and like so many other Superman stories from other mediums, it is allowed to be richer and more free in its exploration of the character. Where It’s Superman sets itself apart from even the best cartoons and movies is it’s ability to expand the myth believably without making major changes. The best moments here are smaller character driven details that do not negate the essential bullet points of the origin.
Set in the 1930’s of the original origin, It’s Superman shows us a young-adult Clark Kent trying to have a normal existence, while struggling with things that have begun to change his life. Clark has always been strong and resilient but it is when he stops a bullet with his face that he begins to realize he is something more than just human. Clark is never explicitly stated to be an alien but neither does the story deny this or any other major story point. This novel is filled with touches of the science fiction and pulp stories of the period and feels like it is of that era.
To me, It’s Superman is a much a more grounded and down to earth version of the origin story, filled with lush details of who Clark is and what makes him tick. Did you ever think about the fact that Superman would have crooked teeth? How do you put dental braces on the ‘boy of steel’? The almost crippling isolation from the people around him is fully formed here as a shyness that borders on a psychological condition.
It is purely a guess on my part, but I would not be too surprised to see many of the more human touches from this book make their way into the Man of Steel film.
1. Superman Earth One
The newest of the books on this list, Superman Earth One volumes one and two are most definitely a Superman for the new world. J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis have created a Superman that is far more human than Kryptonian. For the first time Clark is real in the way you would think an alien raised on Earth might be. His first reactions are the most telling as they are often a bit selfish. He was raised well by parents that loved him but the human need to think of yourself first is there too. Does he want to exploit his gifts for his own gains or for the benefit of others? Can he live a normal life with all the things we take for granted or will he live above us, isolated and without real human contact?
Over the course of the two volumes, we see Clark in all the aspects of living a double life. When he is Clark Kent he is shy but no longer the mild-mannered Clark of the past. His shyness now truly comes from his need to not stand out. When he is Superman there is still a shyness there but the costume and the needs of the super-heroics give him confidence. Most of what drives him forward is the need to be a part of his adopted home and to protect it.
The small touches in all of the books on this list are what make these books so special, and Earth One has them in spades. The story of Clark’s ‘only real friend’ growing up is very touching and sad while still offering up one of the stories funniest moments. His efforts to get to know a young lady in his building while at the same time resisting her advances, is one of the parts that brings much of the charm of this story.
Of all the books on this list, I think Earth One is the story that will be referenced most in tone if not actual content by the new film. This really is the template for the Superman of a new age of comics and it would be foolish not to take cues from it. Where the mainstream DC continuity reboots have often fallen short is where Earth One and the others on this list have succeeded. They do not assume that there is something wrong with what has come before. They just try to tell the story with an eye toward the intended audience and do not automatically assume that audience is 12 years old.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Your top choice is my top choice. It is rarely that we get a new comic age Superman made for mature audience too. Thanks for having some classics too, I couldnt have made a better order of recommendations if I even tried!
Thanks for the kind words!
I put a fair bit of thought into the selections and had to rule out some other well known and popular books. These seemed to be the most relevant while still being good stories.
Taylor, your articles keep getting better and better. I have read Superman Braniac. This new version of Brainiac is cosmic terror truly worthy of being Superman’s worst alien enemy!
When I first saw TDKR listed, I was ready to take you to task, but when I read what you wrote, you actually took the words right out of my mouth. Imagine how many people (*cough* posters *cough*) who thought, “oh yeah, I love Batman. Let’s take a look at the definitive Batman comic people talk about the most,” and got this.
While I honestly think today’s Superman-bashers are just aping lines they’ve heard before without knowing what they mean, TDKR–and even the in-canon “Superman & Batman don’t like each other” stuff–did a horrible disservice to the character and it took the death & return of Superman–which wasn’t nearly the failure Max Landis wants people to think it was–to help him.
I didn’t like the death of Superman at the time, but it has grown on me.
As for DKR, a lot of fans miss what Big Blue’s motivations in becoming the govt stooge were. A careful read of it shows that he did it to save his best friend(s). He made a sacrifice and suffered for it all those years and even through the much less enjoyable DK Strikes Back.
Honestly, I do not consider myself a Superman fan, I just like a good story that I can connect with. On balance Superman has quite a few and these last 20 years or so have been mostly pretty good.
The trailer really gives the feeling that this might be a dark and mature take on the superhero in contrast to the previous movies. I’m ready for the taste…
I find that final sentence about 12 years olds EXTREMELY offensive, as I am a 12 year old and have read Watchmen, The Killing Joke, Year One and TDKR and understood them perfectly.
That is unfortunate and I did not wish to offend, but it does not change two important facts: The comics you have mentioned were not intended for an audience in your age group, and as a general rule, comics have historically been written for a younger audience than is currently reading the majority of them. Your understanding is not at issue. At issue is the fact that TDKR etc are the exceptions to the rule, and most books are written for people that want action and boobs. If you want to change that, vote with your dollar, and later perhaps start writing some comics of your own. Turn your ‘offense’ at this into something useful.
Well. As someone who’s considerably older than 12 (cough, cough), I can say that I’m still surprise at learning new things when I re-read Watchmen and TDKR. No pressure for anyone to understand them “perfectly” in one reading, whatever your age…!
Great list, Taylor, thanks for these suggestions. I’ve been curious to check out the Lightning Saga and Stracynski’s take on Superman for a long time. I did find Johns’ Secret Origins a bit over the top, particularly with its depiction of Luthor. Gary Frank drew the villain as such a contemptible psycho, I found myself wishing for a little of that Michael Rosenbaum seductive charm from the Smallville TV series. (The Legion issue was good fun, it would’ve been even more awesome if they went all out and had Super”boy” fight a Starro or Suneater in the 30th century.)
Great article! superman is an all-star boy scout but he also has the potential to be a damaged and potent character. Man of Steel does a commendable job of depicting a superman afraid to become what fate has decided he should be.
This does seem to be rather 80s heavy; probably because that would be the modern origins.