Top 10 Superman stories

Seb examines some of the more imaginative comic excursions into the world of the Man Of Steel...

As we ended up having something of a Superman Week last week on Den of Geek – thanks to intense online discussion about what the heck Warner Bros. should do with what remains their highest profile potential comic book movie property, since nobody, least of all them, appears to have a clue – I thought I’d take the opportunity to whizz through the Man of Steel’s back catalogue and pick out my favourite ten stories published in the seventy years since Action Comics #1 first launched itself at an unsuspecting public…

10. The Secret Revealed!John Byrne’s 1986 revamp did a lot of good for the character – and featured some fantastic artwork from Byrne himself – but since I’ve already got one interpretation of Supes’ origin story elsewhere in the list, I’m going to plump for this little vignette from early on in the series proper (after the Man of Steel miniseries had taken care of the origin itself). In it, Byrne shows that although he’d drastically changed Lex Luthor by turning him from a mad scientist into a billionaire tyrant, he at least understood the relationship between him and the Man of Steel – and, more specifically, Lex’s superiority complex.

Simply put, Lex develops a supercomputer (the story is largely told from the point of view of an intimidated female programming genius) to try and discover the connection between Superman and Clark Kent, to help find a weakness in his foe. Eventually, presented with all kinds of circumstantial evidence, the computer comes out with the one logical conclusion – “CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN”. Uh oh, game up. Or so you’d think. Lex, however, isn’t convinced – no man with Superman’s power would ever waste his time pretending to be an ordinary human! It’s a fascinating insight into the way Luthor thinks, and also sets precedent for Clark being able to protect his secret identity simply because no-one even thinks to look for one.

9. The Return of SupermanOr : Superman as big-budget ’90s blockbuster. The entire “Death/World Without/Return of” trilogy of stories was seen as something of a publicity gimmick, lacking in real substance. But if you go into this final chapter in particular expecting little more than explosive, simple fun, you’ll find plenty to enjoy. There’s something neatly satirical about the way the four “replacement Supermen” represent modern character tropes that were apparently making their deceased predecessor look so outdated (one a hip teenager, one a cyborg, one a dark murderous vigilante and so on), and even the revived Clark himself was briefly shown wielding guns in a black suit – all of which made his full-on return all the more welcome. It’s hardly the most intellectually or emotionally taxing of Superman stories, but it was a satisfying conclusion to the whole saga, and offered plenty of adrenaline-fuelled excitement.

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8. Speeding BulletsOften the best DC stories – not just about Superman, but with various characters – pop up as part of the “Elseworlds” line. Much like Marvel’s “What If?” stories, they allow creators to go nuts exploring alternate possibilities without having to worry about messing up continuity. This one spins out of a quite simple conceit – what if the rocket that carried Kal-El to earth had been found by a childless Thomas and Martha Wayne? The resulting character is a genuinely intriguing mixture of the two – the inherent good qualities of the Clark we know conflicting with the trauma of the Waynes’ subsequent murder. It perhaps pushes it a little far in having Lois Lane, Perry White and co. upping sticks to Gotham, and even moreso by having Lex Luthor become the Joker – but it’s a good yarn, the suit worn by a superpowered Batman is kickass, and there’s a genuinely amusing twist on the final page. Well worth hunting down.

7. Red SonAnother Elseworlds story – albeit one far more well-known and revered than the above – Red Son was one of the first stories to make people sit up and take notice of comics’ current flavour du jour Mark Millar. It’s another “what if the rocket had landed elsewhere?” tale, only this time the location is Soviet Russia. Overall it’s a cracking book – his reimagining of Batman is particularly amusing – but I’m loath to call it a great Superman story in particular, as the character is so different, especially by the end, that it isn’t really about Superman at all. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a read, just to see what all the fuss is about if nothing else.

6. BirthrightAlthough it was released to comparatively little fanfare, Mark Waid’s 12-part miniseries is in fact the “official” replacement for Man of Steel as Superman’s current origin story. Elements of Byrne’s version remain, but it’s a more contemporary reimagining that also includes elements of Smallville (such as younger Kent parents, and Clark having known Lex as a youngster – although the latter has conveniently forgotten this as an adult).

Some of the timing’s a bit off (if Clark was emailing his parents while travelling the world in his teens, then he can’t have been an established hero for as long as the last two decades of stories – which probably represent five or ten years in “comics time” – suggest, can he?), making it difficult to reconcile as a proper origin without considering a full-scale relaunch. But it’s a very well-crafted tale, including Leinil Yu’s artwork (unconventional for the character, but it works well), and as a very contemporary version of the story, would make an excellent template for the first movie of a relaunched franchise…

5. Secret IdentityI mentioned Kurt Busiek’s and Stuart Immonen’s 2004 miniseries in my other recent Superman article, but to expand: rather than being about Superman himself, this is a story that instead draws on the themes and mythology that surround the character. It tells the story of a young man named Clark Kent, who – having put up with the usual jokes all his life – discovers during his adolescence that he does actually have superpowers. Donning a Superman costume – reasoning, quite logically, that no-one’s ever going to believe the story of someone claiming to have been saved by Superman – he secretly uses his power to rescue those in trouble.

The four issues each jump through different stages of his life as he tries to remain one step ahead of the government, still finding time to become a writer and even marry a girl named Lois. It’s a brilliant, deeply human tale, and the stylish artwork put Immonen’s name on the map. Well worth checking out – and, as I’ve suggested, not entirely unsuitable for a movie adaptation one day…

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4. …For The Man Who Has EverythingAlan Moore’s first entry on this list – although not his last – is this brilliant one-shot Annual from the mid-80s. Teaming up with Watchmen cohort Dave Gibbons, it tells the story of Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman (when those lot were all bosom buddies, in pre-Crisis continuity) visiting Kal-El in the Fortress on his birthday – only to find that an apparent “gift” (actually from the tyrant Mongul) of a parasitic flower has burrowed into his brain, shutting him off into a fantasy world of pure happiness. Where this really excels is in showing us the life he might have had on Krypton – where he is, in fact, just an ordinary bloke (albeit one with a nutty father) with a loving family. The point at which he begins to break free of the trance and the Kryptonian dream world – complete with his son – fades away is one of the most moving things Moore has ever written.

3. All-Star SupermanThere hasn’t been a writer/artist team in comics like Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely since… well, since the aforementioned Moore/Gibbons, frankly. Following up their incredible miniseries We3 was this, a truly wonderful out-of-continuity reinterpretation of Superman. Drawing much of its inspiration from the insane sci-fi orientated stories of the Silver Age, but with a modern – or, in fact, futuristic – twist, it creates a truly unique aesthetic, and perhaps its greatest achievement is in restoring a long overdue sense of awe and wonder to the title character.

A 12-part series – structured like a TV show with an underlying arc, but mostly individual one- or two-part stories – it actually still has one issue left to be published, but has already established itself as one of the greatest Superman comics of all time. Of particular note are issues #6 and #10 – the former a heartbreaking look at the day Clark learned he simply can’t save everyone, and the latter taking the daring step of essentially casting Superman as God and yet somehow making it utterly convincing (and throwing in comics’ most startlingly brilliant piece of metafiction since Morrison’s own Animal Man). The icing on the cake is the breathtaking art of Frank Quitely, who here establishes himself as arguably comics’ foremost current pencilling talent. An utterly essential read for any sort of comics fan, even those without an inherent fondness for the character.

2. The Death of SupermanNo, not the one from the ’90s – see above – this was one of the Silver Age’s famed “imaginary stories” – the precursors to the aforementioned “Elseworlds”, from which similarly memorable sparks of inspiration would come forth. Arguably the best example is this slice of brilliance in which Superman really, genuinely dies. Luthor comes up with a plan that, for once, is actually brilliant and actually works – pretend to reform by conveniently finding a cure for cancer, get his “new pal” Superman to build him a secret outerspace lab to protect him from “the Underworld”‘s reprisals, then lure him there and blast him to hell with a kryptonite ray.

Eventually Luthor is put on trial by the Kryptonians in the bottle city of Kandor and sentenced to the Phantom Zone, while the then-“secret weapon” Supergirl emerges to carry on her cousin’s work. The reader is reminded not to worry too much, as it’s “only an imaginary story, which may or may not happen”, but it’s more ballsy and daring – and so more entertaining – than most “real” stories of the era managed to be.

1. Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?In 1986, DC were fresh from scrubbing their continuity clean the year before with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Keen to bring the curtain down on comics’ longest-serving superhero before John Byrne stepped in to relaunch the character from scratch, they decided to give him a proper send-off with this two-part story.

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Writer Alan Moore (who legendarily got the job by jokingly grabbing editor Julius Schwartz by the neck and saying “If you let anyone but me write that story, I’ll kill you”) cheekily decided to treat the two issues of Superman and Action Comics as if they really were the last ever issues – and so we see our hero’s final days as his most famous foes band together to bring him down once and for all (with a quite surprising face as the architect behind it all). No stone is left unturned in paying tribute to the diverse supporting cast of the Silver Age, and the whole thing is in turns exciting, funny, tragic, action-packed and moving. There are at least three or four moments where, if you don’t have tears in your eyes, you clearly have a heart made of stone.

Complete with career-best artwork by the legendary Curt Swan – quite simply the greatest Superman artist of them all – it’s a beautiful piece of work, and for many people it really is the end of the character that Siegel and Shuster first gave us in 1938. But then, as Moore puts it in the introduction – riffing on the classic terminology of the ’50s – “This is an imaginary story… aren’t they all?”

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