Superman is the first true superhero, the standard bearer for what has become one of the most powerful and lucrative entertainment genres. His creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster established the rules of the genre, including secret identities, capes, love interests, and supervillains, and everyone working on superhero stories since 1938 has been forced to reckon with that legacy and decide how to embrace or subvert it.
Being a paragon is a mixed blessing. Superman is regularly dismissed precisely for the characteristics he embodies. He’s too good, too strong, or too heroic. Where he first inspired people to believe a man could fly, reactions to the character today are more often blasé.
Yet there is perhaps no character that has instilled so much awe and wonder in both comic book fans and creators, and those emotions have been beautifully distilled into stories that show why the last son of Krypton deserves his place atop the pantheon of DC Comics and all superhero stories. These comics treat Superman’s strength as a storytelling opportunity rather than an impediment, and more often than not they also explore the Man of Steel’s weaknesses that have nothing to do with kryptonite.
Many of these comics include additional superheroes, a testament to the fact that Superman is often defined by the impact he has on others. They explore his origin, his relationship with his greatest allies and enemies, and even his death. They may or may not make you love Superman, but reading them will give you a better understanding of the character and everything he represents.
By Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
This list is arranged alphabetically rather than by rank, but either way, All-Star Superman would be at the top. The story distills the essence of what makes Superman such a wonderful hero by imagining how he’d spend his last days on Earth, after a plot by Lex Luthor increases his power but also leaves him with just a year to live.
This is an absolutely gonzo story involving time travelers flirting with Lois Lane, Luthor’s goth niece helping him with one last big scheme, and a sentient evil star. The absurdity of the big threats Superman faces gives him the chance to show off the full range of his abilities while also demonstrating that his greatest strength is his compassion. The series’ most famous panel centers on Superman taking the time to help a suicidal girl, not by flying her down from the ledge but by standing next to her and offering some words of comfort that make all the difference.
There has always been a whiff of divinity about Superman, who becomes a sort of guardian angel for Metropolis and his friends and family. Quitely’s soft touch with angles and colors give the character a beatific look, and combine with Morrison’s story to cement the Man of Tomorrow as a benevolent god who forever changes everyone who truly knows him. It’s a perfect distillation of the awe fans feel when they read or see the character done right.
By Mark Waid and Alex Ross
Morrison hinted at superheroes-as-divinity in All-Star Superman, but the idea is on full display in Kingdom Come, an apocalyptic story where the Justice League must reunite to stop a new breed of merciless superheroes. While the story prominently features Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and a host of other DC mainstays, Superman is the undisputed star who leads the others to retreat from the world years before the inciting events of the story — and then inspires them to end their exile.
Kingdom Come brings Superman low by killing Lois Lane and the rest of the staff of the Daily Planet and turning Kansas into a radioactive wasteland. It’s a haunting story, made even more eerie through Alex Ross’ painterly art style, which emphasizes every wrinkle and gray hair on its aging heroes as they struggle to find meaning and hope.
It’s a story that has only become more relevant with time with its anti-immigrant “heroes,” critiques of fascism, and emphasis on the power of unity and reconciliation over punitive justice. It’s also an indictment of the casual violence and destruction that dominates so much modern superhero media, a reminder that restraint and forgiveness can be the greatest shows of strength.
By Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong, and Kilian Plunkett
There have been an enormous number of stories imagining what might happen if Superman was evil, but Red Son is the definitive one. In Mark Millar’s limited series, a rocket bearing a baby that would become the most powerful man in the world lands on Earth in 1938 — not in Smallville, Kansas, but in the Ukraine. Superman emerges as a champion of the Soviet Union, changing the course of the Cold War and the entire DC Universe.
Like Marvel 1602 or Flashpoint, the alternate universe of Red Son is also used to provide fantastic new spins on other key characters, including Batman and the Green Lantern Hal Jordan, with Millar rethinking their own origins and approaches to heroism. But it’s Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor that gets to shine brightest, as the leader of America’s efforts to take down the communist alien.
Both Luthor and Superman are at the absolute peak of the usual power levels for the characters, which helps boil a decades long geopolitical struggle into a battle of wits and wills between two men. But the key to the conflict is Millar’s understanding that both believe that they are the heroes of their own story, and that they each believe they have the greatest capacity to lead humanity to a better future.
By Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen
This is a story about Clark Kent, but not the one you think. The limited-run series uses a decidedly meta lens to examine big questions faced by and about Superman. It follows a Kansas boy whose parents had an unfortunate sense of humor when it came to picking a name, but who discovers that he actually has the powers of the world’s most famous comic book hero.
True to the story’s name, writer Kurt Busiek largely turns his attention to the dilemmas involved in choosing to maintain a secret identity, starting with Clark as an isolated, lonely teen dreaming of the ways the school bullies and his secret crush would view him differently if they knew what he could do. What begins feeling a bit like a Spider-Man story told through a different lens continues to develop along with Clark himself, examining how a character with such a big secret and so much power would relate to the woman he loves, the U.S. government, and his children.
The comic is interspersed with retro panels showing Superman fighting crime, flying with his superpowered kids, cat, and dog, and being discovered by Lois Lane, a fun throwback and acknowledgement of the work that both Busiek and his Clark Kent are keenly aware of when they deal with the same challenges. Stuart Immonen does a spectacular job bringing that legacy to life throughout the comic with panels that transition through some of the many styles that have captured the character — from the realism of Alex Ross to the bright colors and smooth lines of Max Fleisher’s animated series.
By Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Alternating between the perspectives of Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang, Superman for All Seasons is a series of vignettes exploring Clark Kent’s transition from Smallville to Metropolis. Each section is a love story of a different nature, fatherly pride and concern for a son leaving home giving way to a woman fearing her hero will break her heart, giving way to Luthor, Metropolis’ jealous, abusive lover, as he tries to scare off the city’s new man.
Both the prose and art are relatively spartan, relying on readers having a pretty strong understanding of who the characters are and their relationships to each other and avoiding much in the way of big superheroic action. But what it does deliver is a beautifully humanized version of Superman filled with doubt, homesickness, and confusion.
Like some of the best Superman origin stories, Superman for All Seasons is a coming of age tale that explores what it’s like to try to make a life for yourself far from your roots. There’s something deeply relatable in Clark considering if he can take the family dog with him to Metropolis and trying and failing to slip back into routines with the best friends he left behind. But while he may feel nostalgic for a simpler life, he draws strength from his past to face the extraordinary challenges to come.
By Alan Moore and Curt Swan
When Crisis of Infinite Earths reforged DC’s continuity, Alan Moore was given the chance to write a final story for the Silver Age version of Superman. Far more than the action heavy, sensationalist, and ultimately pointless Death of Superman series, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? serves as a true finale for the character, bringing together a host of Superman allies and enemies for a bittersweet story of Superman’s final days.
There’s an evocative discordance in the story as it blends zany Silver Age plots and characters with a shocking amount of death and destruction — Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang gaining superpowers and suit up for one last stand, as Superman’s enemies descend on the Fortress of Solitude. It’s also a deeply personal story, with Superman brooding on the ways he’s failed those who loved him the most.
Moore also understood the power of Superman’s moral code and the despair he would feel for killing even his most dangerous foe. The surprising and beautiful conclusion to the story gives the character the sendoff he deserves and one that modern writers could learn from.
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is published in a compilation of the same name with one of Moore’s other seminal Superman stories, For the Man Who Has Everything. While loss plays a big role in so many origin stories, few heroes deal with the level of grief that Superman has as the last scion of a doomed planet. In Moore’s story with Dave Gibbons, first published in 1985, the alien tyrant Mongol gives Superman the chance of a relatively normal life on Krypton by gifting him with a psychic plant that shows its victims their heart’s desires.
Yet Superman’s vision of Krypton is far from utopian. Kal-El has a complicated relationship with his father Jor-El, who continues to prophesize doom for Krypton, this time as a part of a theocratic fascist movement. The story also broaches questions about the ethics of the Phantom Zone, an extradimensional prison used as a convenient way to dispose of the most dangerous villains in the Superman cannon. It’s an honest examination of the idea that sometimes you need to accept what you have lost to move forward and appreciate what you have.
By Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, and Lee Bermejo
Nick Lowe’s oft-covered 1974 song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” has become a protest anthem calling for accountability from corrupt and indifferent leaders — while asking listeners not to succumb to cynicism and despair. Riffing on the title, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? applies the same principles to comic books rather than politics.
Like Kingdom Come, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? focuses on Superman’s reaction to a new group of superheroes who believe that his refusal to use lethal force is a sign of weakness. The difference is that the edgelord heroes of the Elite have contempt for the very nature of superhero stories, believing that they should focus on real, geopolitical issues. While it was released before Sept. 11, 2001, it’s a pretty chilling harbinger of the militarization of a genre that was already changing thanks to the popularity of grittier and more realistic comics.
While the conclusion comes a bit too easy, the clash the comic sets up is a powerful one that is still being reckoned with. The story is also fun as a bit of throwback culture complete with references to Alien and Men in Black.
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