The Man of Steel. The Metropolis Marvel. The Last Son of Krypton. The Man of Tomorrow. Supes. Kal-El. Superman.
First appearing in Action Comics #1 back in 1938, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would go on to become a worldwide icon and a pioneering figure for all costumed superheroes that would follow. So prevalent is Superman in today’s culture that multiple studies have found that the embroiled “S” on his chest is reportedly the most recognizable symbol next to that of the religious cross.
In the 75 years since the image of him lifting a car first attracted readers to the rackets, Superman has experienced his fair share of ups and downs. Today sees the release of Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated reimagining of the character. And while it remains to be seen whether or not that film will inspire the same fervor in general audiences that Nolan’s Batman films or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man installments have instigated in recent years, few will deny that interest in the character has reached fever pitch.
In preparation, this list offers up some of Superman’s finest hours in the comic-book medium. Whether you’re a newcomer to comics or a slightly more experienced reader looking to dive into the world of Metropolis for the first time, here are the Superman stories guaranteed to turn anyone into a full-fledge fanboy.
Writers: Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway
Artists: Jon Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice, Dan Jurgens (pencilers); Brett Breeding, Doug Hazlewood, Dennis Janke, Denis Rodier and Rich Burchett (inkers)
In the early ’90s, the creative team behind Superman found themselves struggling to come up with ideas after their plans on marrying Clark and Lois were axed by Warner Bros. Writer Jerry Ordway jokingly suggested, “let’s just kill ‘im.” What started as an inside joke, however, soon grew into a reality and the Death of Superman arc was born. To perform the titular task, writer Dan Jurgens created a character named Doomsday, a hulking, prehistoric creature from the early days of Krypton who finds his way to Earth. Upon engaging it in battle, Superman quickly realizes the creature equals him in strength. Following a series of brutal fistfights, Superman finally manages to defeat Doomsday, only to seemingly succumb to his fatal injuries.
The tragedy proved to be a massive hit, receiving significant national news coverage and selling millions upon millions of copies. Spanning several different Superman titles, the arc was a blockbuster in every sense of the word. That being said, it’s not without its faults. In fact, Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis released a popular (and very funny) video taking the story and its subsequent Return of Superman arc to task. Despite this, the story still benefits from a breakneck pace. Likewise, the final fight between Superman and Doomsday is a knock-out brawl for the ages. Of course, DC’s flagship character would not stay down for long and, a few issues later, Superman would make his dramatic return (complete with a ’90s mullet!).
Writers: Geoff Johns, Richard Donner
Artist: Adam Kubert
One of the most enduring aspects of Superman’s character is that he’s the last of his kind. And though the introduction of his cousin Kara and the return of the Kryptonian capital city of Kandor in New Krypton have subsequently disproven this, Superman’s sense of isolation regarding his place in the universe has become an integral part of his character. Thus, Superman’s world is turned upside down when a pod ship carrying a young Kryptonian boy crash-lands on Earth. Superman must then fight to protect the boy, who quickly becomes a wanted object by both Lex Luthor and General Zod, returning with his two flunkies Ursa and Non for the trio’s first post-Infinite Crisis appearance. To co-author the story, regular writer Geoff Johns roped in his hero and mentor Richard Donner, the acclaimed action filmmaker who directed the 1978 Superman motion picture. The resulting product simultaneously demonstrates the deft pacing inherent in Donner’s films while providing an excellent vehicle for Johns’ emotionally based storytelling.
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Stuart Immonen
In a clever twist on Superman’s archetypal origins, Kurt Busiek sets his one-off, non-canonical Superman story in a world where superheroes only exist as fictional comic-book characters (Superman included). The main character is a Kansas farmboy who just happens to be named Clark Kent, a name that makes him the butt of many “Superman”-related jokes among his friends and family. Upon discovering that he has the ability to fly, however, Clark soon realizes the jokes hit far closer to home than he could have ever imagined. In spite of its high-concept meta-narrative, Secret Identity manages to be an engaging and heartfelt love letter to its titular character.
Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Leinil Francis Yu
Beginning as a one-off tale, Superman: Birthright grew to replace the Superman origin story set in place by John Byrne with the 1986 series Man of Steel. The story focuses on the exploits of a young Clark Kent as he explores his burgeoning powers, takes on his daytime job at the Daily Planet and engages in battle with Lex Luthor. Waid even gives a somewhat plausible explanation for how the infamous Clark Kent glasses manage to disguise his true identity (sort of—it’s still a stretch). A supposed inspiration for the Man of Steel movie, Birthright is an excellent starting point for any Superman neophytes.
Writers: Mark Waid, Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross
While Superman is not necessarily the central focus of Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ 1996 Elseworlds epic, his presence provides the story with its proverbial heart. Set in a distant future, the story posits a world where the upstanding members of The Justice League have retired, allowing for dangerous, irresponsible superhero vigilantes to fill the void. Following a chaotic battle that results in the decimation of the American Midwest, however, Wonder Woman convinces an elder Superman to re-form the Justice League and take back control. Still haunted by the death of his beloved Lois Lane at the hands of The Joker, Superman nevertheless attempts to bring order back to the chaos surrounding him. Perhaps the closest Superman will ever have to a Dark Knight Returns-like tale, Kingdom Come marks a darker, more mature counterpoint to the standard Superman fare.
Writer: John Byrne
Artists: John Byrne (penciller); Dick Giordano (inker)
After giving the Silver-Age Superman a proper send-off (we’ll definitely cover that particular story later), DC hired red-hot writer/artist John Byrne to revamp its iconic character for the modern age. In a six-issue miniseries entitled Man of Steel, Byrne did just that, stripping away some of the more cartoon-y elements of the Silver Age in the process (that means goodbye to Superman’s super-dog, Krypto). Though Superman: Birthright would eventually replace this arc as the de facto Superman origin nearly 20 years later, Byrne’s re-imagining remains a skillful introduction to the character.
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank (penciller); Jon Sibal (inker)
Although Lex Luthor may stand as the most identifiable and frequently utilized of Superman’s foes, Brainiac remains perhaps The Man of Steel’s most dangerous and intriguing adversary to date. Boasting an otherworldly intellect and a seemingly infinite supply of destructive drones, Brainiac is the textbook definition of an unstoppable supervillain. To paraphrase Supergirl in this story, if Lex Luthor is everything bad about humanity, then Brainiac is everything bad about aliens. Geoff Johns’ arc gives the proper lip-service to the two’s extensive history while also crafting an action-packed epic that works on its own as a stand-alone story. Ultimately, however, the action comes secondary to the arc’s gut punch of an ending, which sees Superman experiencing a loss unlike any he’s faced before.
Writer: Mark Millar
Artists: Dave Johnson, Killan Plunkett (pencillers) Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong (inkers)
With his red and blue color palate and his relentless spiel about “truth, justice and the American way,” Superman and the USA are as closely bound together as Batman and bats. It’s interesting to think then that, had his Kryptonian shuttle landed but a tad bit later, the infant Kal-El would have flown straight past Smallville and ended up God knows where. Inspired by a “what if?” Superman issue where baby Kal-El landed in a neutral area between the USA and USSR and the two sides battled to get to him first, writer Mark Millar crafted the ultimate Elseworlds story by asking a simple question: what if Superman had landed in the USSR? Besides the inherent joy of seeing how this change in history affects other DC characters such as Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, what’s more impressive is how Millar negotiates the morally gray area that such an arrangement would inevitably bring about. And while the closing pages are perhaps a bit too cheeky for their own good, the story is an absolute essential read for anyone looking for a bit more unconventionality in their superhero tales.
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Following the massive success of their Batman story The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale naturally turned their attention next to the Man of Steel. And while the creative team would carry on their thematic obsession with seasons, they were not about to repeat themselves. Whereas Long Halloween was an engrossing, gritty murder-mystery, Superman For All Seasons felt more in line with a meditative tone poem. Consisting of four issues, each corresponding to a different season, the segments present differing views of Superman from the perspective of those closest to him, including father Jonathan Kent, love interest Lois Lane, archnemesis Lex Luther and childhood friend Lana Lang. For his part, Loeb’s use of language has rarely been as fluid and as evocative as it is here. And while Tim Sale’s interpretation of Clark Kent/Superman may take a bit of getting used to, the artist’s rendering of the background, from the Smallville cornfields to the Metropolis skyscrapers, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitley (penciller); Jamie Grant (inker)
The story that asked the question—what is on Superman’s bucket list? After a seemingly routine mission that has him saving a space shuttle from collapsing into the sun, Superman is exposed to a dangerous level of solar radiation. The subsequent prognosis is not good. Superman has less than a year left to live. Spanning 12 issues, Grant Morrison’s masterpiece follows Superman as he attempts to tie up the various loose ends of his life. As a story, All-Star Superman consists of several seemingly episodic adventures but ultimately culminates in an ending that’s both exhilarating and as emotionally satisfying as a good novel.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
With his steely veneer, Superman can be a tough cookie to crack. The brilliance of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story is how it shows that even the most powerful being on Earth still has the capacity to dream for a better life. The story begins with Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman visiting the Fortress of Solitude to give Superman his birthday presents. Here, they find him unconscious, with a large, alien plant attached to his chest. The heroes are then attacked by villain Mongul, who explains that the plant creates an immersive and realistic dream for its host based on his or her “heart’s desire.” For Superman, this involves him living a normal life with a loving wife and children back on his home planet of Krypton. As his friends battle Mongul in the physical world, Superman must contend with his dream paradise, which slowly warps into a nightmare. One of the most well-regarded Superman stories of all time, “For the Man Who Has Everything” was later adapted into a Justice League Unlimited episode of the same name in 2004.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Curt Swan (penciller) George Pérez, Kurt Schaffenberger (inkers)
In the mid-’80s, DC was in the process of a massive relaunch following the events of its 1985 series Crisis on Infinite Earths. Though John Byrne would be given the reigns to rewrite the Superman mythos, the DC brass wanted to send one of its biggest characters off in style. Thus, the company recruited legendary comic scribe Alan Moore to pen the supposed final adventure of the Silver Age-era Superman. The story is set in a future where Superman has been missing for more than a decade and has been pronounced dead. A Daily Planet reporter visits the home of Lois Lane, who is now married with an infant son. Lois proceeds to weave the tale of Superman’s last stand. After witnessing erratic behavior from a handful of his more minor villains, Superman senses that something monumental might be on its way. He retreats to his Fortress of Solitude to prepare for the onslaught, which includes an attack by a Lex Luthor-Brainiac hybrid.
As it should, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? plays like the epic series finale to a TV show, with the Citizen Kane-esque structure lending it a reverential feel. Had this truly been the last we ever heard of Superman, it would have served as a more than appropriate goodbye to the character.
Writer: Joe Kelly
Artists Doug Mahnke, Lee Bermejo (pencillers); Tom Nguyen, Dexter Vines, Jim Royal, Jose Marzan, Wade Von Grawbadger, Wayne Faucher (inkers)
Let’s face it—Superman can be sort of a wet blanket at times. In fact, one of the most common (and well-founded) criticisms of the character is that he’s just too goshdarn perfect. Between his invincibility, ever-expanding roster of convenient powers and Boy Scout-like demeanor, there are only so many ways of making a Superman story compelling.
Writer Joe Kelly more than understands this critique and frames it as the central concern of What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?. After decades upon decades of stories, is Superman an outdated idea? The story centers on the emergence of a group of antiheroes called The Elite, who—in direct contrast to Superman’s more peaceful, “take-prisoners” fighting aesthetic—dispatch their enemies in the most vicious and theatrical ways possible. While The Elite’s techniques make them popular among the masses, Superman decries their behavior and orders them to stand down. The conflict escalates until Superman decides to cut loose and show off how destructive he truly can be. Rarely in the 80 or so years of Superman history has Supes been as forceful, as frightening and—yes—as badass as he is in these closing pages. It’s definite proof that even the nicest of guys still have their breaking point if you push them too hard.
While the story is not averse to a bit of heavy-handed soapboxing, it more than makes the case for why—while his costume, his villains and the world around him may change and adjust with the times—the core values of Superman remain as relevant and necessary as ever.