I’m not the world’s biggest Superman fan. I don’t normally read that many Superman stories, but I tend to gravitate towards the really good ones. There’s something about Superman; I would say that the best Superman stories just feel like there’s something extra special about them compared to any other character. Maybe it’s because he’s the first and the best, but really good creators tend to do their very best work on Superman, whether that’s Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, or whomever.
5. The Death and Return of Superman
The thing people have to remember about the death of Superman is that nothing had ever hit the public like that from the world of comics. Not only was this story getting mainstream press every week, it was getting a LOT. Air time on Saturday Night Live, the Tonight Show, and pretty much every news show talked about it for quite a while. The creators and editors involved were made into instant pseudo-celebrities. It has since spawned video games, an animated movie, and a ton of stories. Its immediate follow-up, the Reign of the Supermen, created 4 new ‘Supermen’, 3 of which were still prominent figures in DC, at least until the recent line-wide reboot.
So to begin things off the creators introduced Doomsday, an unstoppable killing machine that would be the one to kill the Man of Steel. Doomsday effortlessly cuts a path of devastation across the country until he is confronted by the Justice League. Unfortunately for the League, they are utterly overmatched by Doomsday, even with one of his arms still tied behind his back. Literally. The dude has one of his arms confined behind his back and still punks the JLA out like they were a bunch of rookies.
Superman then shows up, and they proceed to destroy the hell out of each other and everything until at last they stop each other. With the last of his strength, Superman unloads everything he has into one last blow, which kills Doomsday. The effort from the punch, combined with the severe damage and injuries sustained during the battle, was just too much, and he dies in Lois Lane’s arms in the middle of the streets in Metropolis.
This is where the story really just begins, though. Shortly after his death, four new figures appear in and around Metropolis, 2 of which could legitimately be him! The 2 which fairly obviously AREN’T Superman are Superboy and Steel. Superboy is a clone of Superman’s DNA, combined with the DNA of an unrevealed human (years later Geoff Johns revealed it was Lex Luthor’s DNA, and that led to a whole mess of problems for Superboy and the Teen Titans). As a teenager freshly escaped from the labs he was bred in, it was fairly obvious that he wasn’t our boy.
Steel was John Henry Irons, a guy with a particular skill for engineering and weapons design, he was saved by Superman when knocked from a high-rise during the fight with Doomsday. He then created a suit of armor with an S on his chest in memory to Superman, and dedicated his life to fighting Superman’s fight.
Then there are the two that just might be the real deal. One wears what looks like Kryptonian clothing, a pair of shades (his eyes were light sensitive, he claimed because he just came back to life), and has Superman’s powers, plus some kind of energy blasts from his hands. He is sort of an anti-hero. He damn near kills crooks, and even gets the approval of Guy Gardner (after he beats Guy’s ass). He is eventually revealed to be the Eradicator, a Kryptonian creation that has tried to destroy Superman in the past, but it is revealed that was due to a corruption in his programming, or something to that effect. He is responsible for Kal-El’s eventual recovery, and for the missing body in Superman’s tomb.
Finally, there is the cyborg Superman. He looks just like Superman, except for the whole half of his body is metal thing. He claims his new appearance is from the massive injuries sustained while fighting Doomsday, and goes so far as to convince pretty much everyone that he is the real deal. Even Lois is beginning to think he might be. Of course, this is when he is revealed to be Hank Henshaw, a horrible bad guy with the ability to inhabit machines. His body long destroyed, he placed his consciousness into the body of a Superman robot. He almost kills the Eradicator and Superboy, and is scary enough that Mongul and his army kneel to him. He uses their weapons to nuke Coast City, home of the Green Lantern Hal Jordan, which eventually led to Hal giving in to Parallax and killing most of the Green Lantern Corps. Years after his defeat in this story he showed up again in the pages of Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, still dressed like the cyborg Superman.
So after a while the real Superman is rejuvenated in a Kryptonian healing chamber (or something like that) which the Eradicator placed him in. He catches up on current events at his Fortress of Solitude, and sets off to save the day. When he first shows up nobody, not even Lois, believe he’s the real deal. He’s wearing this weird black Kryptonian suit, and just walked out of the ocean in a giant suit of mech armor. But he convinces Supergirl and Lois, and eventually Steel and Superboy, that he is in fact the real damn deal.
His powers are coming back very slowly, so he needs all the help he can get to take down Henshaw, which he receives from Steel, Superboy, Supergirl, and eventually the Eradicator, who sacrifices himself to save Superman. His sacrifice restores Superman’s powers and he destroys the hell out of Henshaw.
While these stories tend to read like they came out 20 years ago, that’s because they did. If you are reading them for the first time, keep that in mind and you will likely really enjoy them.
4. Superman: For All Seasons
While the story in “For All Seasons” is pretty strong, the real appeal is the amazing artwork of Tim Sale. He draws and paints the entire story, and it is simply gorgeous. The story is pretty simple. Clark is preparing himself to leave Smallville behind for the big city life in Metropolis, saves Smallville again, then makes his big move. After that, it’s really about him getting to know his new home, and his new home getting to know him, including his first encounter with one Lex Luthor.
The real reason to read this story, however (besides the art) is the relationship between Clark and his father. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more realistic interpretation of their relationship before or since.
Clark’s home life is depicted beautifully, and you can understand how he grew up to be the way that he is when you see him in Smallville. It’s pretty much straight out of something like the Andy Griffith Show. I especially like the glimpses we get a Ma Kent’s photo albums.
Another high point is Clark’s first time in the suit in Smallville, saving everyone from a bad storm. Sale does a great job of portraying the humanity and vulnerability in Superman, while at the same time portraying the strength and sheer power he possesses.
Finally, my favorite shot in the book. Before Clark leaves Smallville he has to say goodbye to his childhood sweetheart, Lana Lang (jeez, what is it with big blue and L’s? Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor…). They start slow dancing under the stars, when….
There are a ton of stories that focus on how badass Superman is, or his relationships with the people of Metropolis. But I’ve never read a story that relates the humanity of Superman as well as For All Seasons.
Plus, check out this Tim Sale art! It’s ridiculous!!
3. Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes
If ever there was a team of super-heroes I didn’t give a crap about, it was the Legion. They live in the future, they didn’t have any direct ties to the current DC (well, at least after the first Crisis, in which their long and storied past with Superman was erased). I just couldn’t care less.
Then Geoff Johns and Gary Frank come along and, in the span of six issues, got me to actually LIKE the Legion. They were smart about it, and let the reader view the Legion through Superman’s eyes. These are his friends, the kids he grew up with. On the weekends they’d swing to the past, pick him up, take him to the 31st century, and go on insane adventures before time-travelling him back home.
In this story Superman is dragged into the future against his will. The Legion is in serious trouble, and he immediately volunteers to help, but they tell him they don’t want his help this time, they actually weren’t trying to grab him. The reason they don’t want him there is that someone has turned Earth’s sun red, which makes Superman powerless! They give him a Legion flight ring so he can move around, but he doesn’t have any other super powers.
It seems a group calling themselves the Justice League of Earth have turned the public against the Legion, and Earth is extremely xenophobic, which is bad news for the Legion, since there are very few members from Earth. Not only have the JLE disgraced the Legion, but they’ve perverted Superman’s legacy completely. They teach kids all across the world that Superman was from Earth and hated all aliens.
As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the Legion have been on the run for months, and can’t find many of their members.
Eventually you see Superman help the Legion find their lost members, confront the JLE and their leader, Earth Man, and prove why he’s the greatest super-hero in the universe, no matter what year it is.
2. All-Star Superman
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely told a Superman story for the ages, really. In 20 years this book will be just as cool, just as relevant, and just as accessible. You don’t need to know shit about Superman to dig this story. If you do know about Superman, the story’s even cooler, but you don’t have to know to understand.
The art is mind-blowing. Frank Quitely has been one of the most popular artists in comics ever since the Authority. His run with Morrison on New X-Men helped build his name, and We3, a project he did with Morrison for Vertigo, really cemented his name at the top of the list of comic artists. Not only is he an amazing draftsman, but his attention to detail is astounding. I defy you to find a single page of any of the 12 issues of this title that isn’t incredible. I bet you can’t find a single one. In fact, I’d like to point something out. Normally when an artists draws Clark Kent, they just draw Superman with glasses on and unkempt hair. Check out how Quitely does it, and notice that not only would you never think that this dude was Superman, you wouldn’t even think this dude was capable of being a halfway competent reporter. This is Quitely’s Clark Kent just walking towards Perry White’s office for a meeting:
Right? Dude’s amazing. Anyway, the story…
The story is pretty nuts, but essentially Superman is exposed to a lethal amount of solar radiation; it’s too much for his body to process, and it’s slowly killing him, one cell at a time. In the time he has left he puts his affairs in order as best he can and tries to make sure he goes out swinging, and he wants to make sure to tie up any and all loose ends, namely Lex Luthor, who was responsible for sabotaging the mission that Superman went into space to save when he received the lethal radiation.
Of course, there are more than a few twists and turns along the way, like when he gives Lois superpowers, or when Jimmy Olsen injects himself with the Doomsday virus in order to fight an out of control Superman who was exposed to black kryptonite (it makes him a crazy evil dick). Then, of course, the moment everyone has been waiting for for about 60 years: Lex Luthor gives himself super-powers. There’s also a ‘tyrant sun’ hellbent on destroying the planet, the Parasite attempts a jailbreak, and Superman meets a bunch of different Supermen from different futures, one of whom is strangely familiar…
Simply put, this is one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, and rightfully belongs ont he DC pantheon of Watchmen, Sandman, Preacher, Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Swamp Thing, etc.
1. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Hands down, my all-time favorite Superman story. Written by uber genius Alan Moore, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is the curtain call for the Golden Age Superman before the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot by John Byrne (“Man of Steel”). This particular Superman is the one that had been around since the 1930’s, and had lived through some craziness. He had super pets, crazy gadgets, was super smart, and had really strange villains. This is the Superman that showed up in Infinite Crisis as the Superman from “Earth 2”.
So I’m not going to really go over the story that much, because this is one case where I’d really like to avoid spoilers. But basically this is the last Superman story. His bad guys have learned who he is, and start destroying everything he holds dear. After he is revealed in front of all of his friends as Superman, and one of his friends turns up dead, Clark takes everyone he cares about up to the Fortress of Solitude, reasoning that he will be able to protect them better from there. Supergirl and Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl from the Legion show up, too, as does Krypto. Even Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang find a way to give themselves powers in order to help Superman.
He needs it, too, because he’s going up against some serious heavy hitters, including Brainiac controlling Lex Luthor’s body!
One by one his allies and friends start to fall, and it looks like even Superman won’t be able to save the day this time…
This is one sad fucking book. I nearly choked up when Krypto died. Let that sink in for a second. Krypto. The stupidest character ever, and I was super sad when he died. To be fair, it’s a sad scene:
Anyway, after so much of the story being one bummer after another, it does end on a happy note. Keep in mind, the mandate for this story was to retire Superman and to clear the decks for the new generation. Alan Moore said that he was told to kill Superman at one point, and he said he told DC he would rather kill Jesus Christ than Superman (meaning he wasn’t about to be the guy that killed Superman, not necessarily that he wanted to kill Jesus. Just sayin’). So instead of an even sadder story than we already have, we get what I feel is the perfect ending. It ties everything up, but leaves just that little tiny crack in the doorway for a teeny tiny whisper of “To Be Continued”.