The rich history of Superman places a burden on those who choose to sift through those 75 years of comics in search of identifying a finite batch of stories that define the character. Frankly, it is a fool’s errand that is guaranteed to rankle readers who have their own ideas about which Superman stories are must read, but that is part of the fun. So we have gone and done just that with an eye toward balance, historic significance, and good old fashioned quality.
Along the way, we hope that any missing tales don’t stand out like a beacon. With Superman’s 75 year history, an all inclusive list is difficult and impossible to narrow down to ten. What we hope to do is share these and maybe have you discover a few new tales or perspectives on the Last Son of Krypton that give new perspective on the hero.
Many call Superman a character that is often boring, over powered or impossible to relate to by those who haven’t looked deep enough into the character’s origins and his long journey from a scribble and a notion that fell out of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster‘s head. That is selling the story telling short. While the Man of Tomorrow is an orphaned alien from a distant world, he is a reflection of us, and has evolved with us for the last seven and a half decades.
The Superman “S” is the second most recognizable symbol in the world. He was the founding Father of the Superhero genre. A complex hero, an outcast, a Christ-like figure, a being comprised of unfathomable strength and virtue, a scared kid, a stoic old “man”, wounded, alone, a savior and someone who has been saved. Superman has been all of these things throughout his existence, and we hope that these stories demonstrate that, so without further ado, we present the Ten Superman Comics that Everyone Should Read.
Action Comics #1 – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Where would we be without Action Comics #1? Without Superman and the God-spark of superhero comics that has inspired — even in the smallest of ways — every four color panel, flawless sketch, fuzzy scribble, and unbelievable tale that has come after it?
What Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created in their youth — an industry, a machine, a God, all torn from their imaginations and affixed with the struggles and morality of their heritage — will likely never die or dim in our lifetimes.
An alien do-gooder who could only leap and not fly, a meek reporter at the Daily Star and not the Daily Planet, and a hero with a penchant for saving damsels and a bit more immature swagger than we’re probably used to — yes, the Superman that we first met in Action #1 is different than the one we see today in the pages of Action or Superman Unchained; more fully fleshed out and flush with the contributions of several comic geniuses, but the thread still extends through the ages, and that is the truest testament to the greatness of Superman’s historical origins, as they were laid out in that first comic, that historic document. – Jason Tabrys
Superman Annual #11 ‘For The Man Who Has Everything’ – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
In the Bronze age of comics Superman retained most of the trappings of his Silver age incarnation, but as the early 80’s saw comics move back to the darker more socially relevant stories not seen since the Golden age so too did the Man Of Steel. At the hands of comic book legends Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comes one of the greatest Superman stories of all time.
“For the Man Who Has Everything,” published in 1985, starts out like a common Silver age story. Wonder Woman, Batman and, Robin are going to the Fortress of Solitude to surprise Kal-El for his birthday. Very wholesome, right? What unfolds is a dark (for the time) and psychological exploration of the Man Of Steel. The trio arrive to find Superman locked in a coma with a large and very alien looking plant (the Black Mercy) burrowing into his chest. This turns out to be the machinations of the merciless Mongul, and the Black Mercy infects Superman with and extremely realistic and plausible dream based on his “heart’s desire.” We meet a Kal-El, married with children, on a Krypton that never exploded. It is an idealistic vision meant to sooth the Man of Steel into peaceful bliss. What happens when he is awakened to find it was all make-believe and a plot dreamed up by the poor man’s Thanos? Spoiler alert, he’s not pleased.
“For the Man Who Has Everything” is a comic so profound that I can recall the exact moment I first read it. I won’t bore you with details but it was when it was first published and when I was too young to collect comics but just reading the ones available. Predating any ability to appreciate the talents of Moore and Gibbons, I knew even then that this was an amazing piece of storytelling and now know it is arguably one of the greatest single issue reads you will ever find.
It’s also worth mentioning that the story was adapted by J. M. DeMatteis for an episode of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and also was nominated for the 1986 Jack Kirby Award for Best Single Issue.
Superman #423 ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ – Alan Moore, Curt Swan and George Perez
Alan Moore is not the first name that comes to mind when you think about the great writers that have guided The Man of Steel’s path through the years, but after Superman Annual #11, the Swamp Thing and Watchmen writer was asked by departing DC editor Julie Schwartz to join forces with him and the great Curt Swan on a “What if” story that said goodbye to the Silver Age Superman in a thrilling and somewhat cynical way. I’ve got a much fuller write-up on Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow here, but suffice it to say, I’m a large fan of Moore’s guts here and also his vision.
Moore is unafraid to show a Superman with angst, a Superman with depth and pain. We practically see Superman cry in one panel and it is so effecting because it’s Curt Swan’s Superman with his head in his hands.
More than that moment, though, we are also shown something like a suicidal Superman at the end, when he is found guilty of a crime in a trial that could only take place in the mind of a God for whom perfection is demanded. Superman has killed and he cannot deal with that fact, seemingly quitting on those he loves, not to spare them from the shrapnel of his life, but out of guilt and quite possibly fear that he will no longer be able to recognize the moral line that he has walked down for all of his life because of the changing world around him.
It’s just a balsy portrayal, one that earns admiration still, and one that would never ever exist in an industry that fetishizes corporate synergy and brand management. – Jason Tabrys
Superman: Man Of Steel – John Byrne
In 1985 DC Comics decided it was time to giant continuity reset button and clear out the bloat from the Silver and Bronze age. Tapping one of the hottest commodities’ in the comic industry at the time, DC hired writer/artist John Byrne to relaunch the company’s flagship character for the Modern age.
What we got was a six issue mini-series that set up a new ongoing and redefined the character for a new era. Superman was now considerably less cosmic in power, no more running or flying at the speed of light. No longer was he strong enough to move an entire planet by sheer strength alone.
The world around Kal-El was revamped as well. His birth planet was re-envisioned as a cold sterile planet filled with an emotionless and asexual society that had simply run its course after a few millennia, a story Byrne expanded on in separate mini called The Wold of Krypton. A stylized and modern sci-fi setting replaces the campy version that preceded it in the Silver age.
Smallville and Metropolis were also updated to suit a modern audience. Ma and Pa Kent are alive and well (and also commonly called John and Martha,) the small town in Kansas servers to juxtapose Kal’s alien origin with a wholesome dose of Americana. Kal, or rather Clark, grows up to be an all American boy, a hometown football star, with a strong sense of morals and good old fashioned right and wrong who is raised in a loving home. His reasoning for become Superman, how he gains his iconic costume and various other key elements of the character are organically and logical brought into play by Byrne.
In the big city, intrepid lady reporter Lois Lane is no longer a damsel in distress but now an intelligent independent woman (with the requisite giant shoulder pads, hey it was the 80’s.) Lex Luthor traded in the green and purple powersuit of the past for the more modern dressings of a rich industrialist, a modern evil for a modern age.
What Byrne created in the 1985 set the stage for the next few decades of Superman comics. Yes the character still had a few of his Silver age habits, his broad smile and ironclad code of conduct, but it was met with a more modern sensibility and sense of style. It was a new status quo for the Man of Steel that would stand for decades (and still does as my personal favorite.) – [jrh]
Superman #75 ‘The Death of Superman’ – Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding
There are many ways you could play Superman’s death. Some of the other comics on this list suggest a few. He could “die” by hanging up the cape and living a quieter life. He could “die” by sacrificing himself for all mankind only to leave the right material to clone him behind. He could die as a wearied old war hero, thousands of years in the future, when his Kryptonian biology finally craps out on him. He could even die thanks to a Kryptonite bullet fired from Lex Luthor’s supergun, or something.
But this was the ’90s, kids, so Superman had to die because he was punched (a lot) by a giant monster with bone claws.
There is no subtlety, at all, in Superman #75, the issue where the now-infamous event takes place. Dan Jurgens draws every panel as a full page, which creates a nice cinematic effect, but also means there’s not much time for anything more than punching, destruction and death. The result: this comic is now better remembered for the event of Superman’s death – which spawned massive media coverage and a huge amount of comics speculation from people who didn’t even read the things, who stormed comic book shops to pick up copies of what they were sure would be a prized issue someday – than for what actually led to it. There are probably still thousands of people who bought Superman #75 and never bothered to read it. They can tell you “Yeah, I remember when Superman died. I bought that comic,” but not the name of the villain who did it, or what the final page looked like, because that book is still in its black bag with its limited edition Superman memorial arm band still safely sealed inside. That is just so very ’90s, isn’t it?
This is probably the only comic on this list that we didn’t put here because it’s good. It can be entertaining if you read with the right mindset, but it’s far from a masterpiece of the medium. It does, however, represent one of the defining moments of comics in the last 25 years, and that makes it an important part of Superman history. – Matthew Jackson
Kingdom Come – Mark Waid and Alex Ross
Pardon me, I’m going to gush about Kingdom Come for a moment and the talent that made a book that was an instant classic and which stands as my personal favorite.
Alex Ross is our Rockwell and a man whose brush outclasses any lens. I’d favor his work over a photograph in it’s ability to rightly capture the perfect human form, because Alex Ross draws human beings as we should be, with barrel chests and chiseled chins. They are mirror images of real life people, but also Gods who have tumbled down from Olympus, and though Siegel and Shuster birthed the idea of Superman, Alex Ross perfected the vision.
Before, when I spoke of the geniuses who have had a hand in shaping the Superman of today, Mark Waid was foremost in my mind. The co-creator of Kingdom Come, Waid could have moved away from the character never to return and still been among the greatest to ever write a Superman story, but he returned with Birthright, rebooting the Superman mythos that had been in place since John Byrne’s Man of Steel.
What’s more, Waid is also one of the finest active writers in the market and a legend who is still keeping the plaquemaker busy. Waid presently runs Thrillbent.com, churns out Daredevil, Indestructible Hulk, and a growing list of other titles every month. An industry, a machine, a God, Mark Waid may be Superman and Kingdom Come should render silent all who would argue that point.
As for the book itself, well, like the previous entry on this list, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Kingdom Come takes aim at Superman’s ideals, this time positioning him as an outcast who has retired and ceded the mantle to a new breed of hero that is more brash and reckless, despite the danger posed by this group to humanity.
Eventually, though, Superman returns and goes hardcore Gitmo, creating the Gulag to house these metahuman combatants while reassembling the Justice League. A war ensues, humankind struggles to not get stepped on, and the whole thing serves as a brilliant treatise on comic book heroism. -Jason Tabrys
Superman: Birthright – Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu
I really can’t think of another comics writer alive right now that I’d rather have write a Superman origin story than Mark Waid. Yes, I’d pick him over Alan Moore, over Grant Morrison, over Geoff Johns or Scott Snyder or you name it. If the money’s on the table and I’ve got to hand that job to anyone, it’s Mark Waid. Lucky for us, DC Comics chose to do just that with Birthright.
It’s not the canonical origin story anymore, having been eclipsed by Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin in 2009 (which itself might not be canonical anymore depending on how all this New 52 stuff goes), but Birthright remains my favorite tale of the Man of Steel’s early years, and it’s because of Mark Waid. He’s one of the great comic book writers of his generation, though he’s never been as flashy as many of his peers. He’s driven by two things: hard work (his bibliography is a massive, inhuman list of comics he’s written) and a genuine, overwhelming love of the medium. This is a guy whose knowledge of superheroes is so vast and respected in the industry that entire comic book convention panels have been convened just to see if he can be stumped. This is a guy who loves comics to his very core.
That means that when Mark Waid re-writes Superman’s origin story, he does it his way, but he also doesn’t do it in a vacuum. Elements of what came before are always woven into the fabric, and that means we get to read a new story laced with warm nostalgia. There are so many wonderful character moments in this book, from Clark Kent’s days as a journalist in Africa to Ma and Pa Kent helping him learn how to slouch and mumble and transform into the Clark that Lois Lane would come to know. Also, he fights an army of fake Kryptonian robots built by Lex Luthor and it’s badass. – Matthew Jackson
Superman: Secret Identity – Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen
There are a lot of Superman origin stories out there, and almost all of them (with the exception, I suppose, of the first one) set out to somehow change the way we think about the Man of Steel, if only just enough that we see a new facet of him. As far as I’m concerned, Secret Identity is the only one that completely succeeds in doing that. This is the “Superman” story that makes you think in a completely different way about Superman, and it does it by making Superman someone else.
Kurt Busiek has an incredible gift for bringing superheroes down to Earth without ever really getting cynical about it, and he shines here with the story of a young man coincidentally named Clark Kent (his parents thought it would be clever), who never stops taking crap for it. Yet, irony of ironies, this young man who does not want to be Superman (in this world, as in ours, Supes is merely a pop culture figure at this point) finds himself with Superman’s abilities. What follows is a powerful meditation on what it means to be superhuman, backed up by some of the most stunning art Stuart Immonen has ever produced, and that’s really saying something. – Matthew Jackson
All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
For years I said “I’m not a Superman guy. I’m a Batman guy.” I’m still a Batman guy above all else, but with just 12 issues of comics, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely made me a Superman guy.
All-Star Superman is easily the best Superman story since Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, and like that book it seems on the surface to be about endings. This is a Superman taking stock of his life, trying to decide what he’ll do with his numbered days, and the result is a strange mesh of Silver Age goofiness, metaphysical playfulness and downright profundity that only Grant Morrison could write. By the end, Morrison has explored what Superman means to Earth to its absolute fullest, transmuting him into a literal sun god, a being so bent on sacrifice and kindness and the right thing that we can only look upon him in awe.
But all that deep thematic weight aside, this is also one of the most fun Superman stories you’ll ever read outside of the Silver Age. All that stuff that other writers might have shunned, thinking it too whimsical and not “gritty” enough for their own postmodern riffs on the character, Morrison embraces. This is the comic where Superman fights monsters and faces off with Lex Luthor, yes, but it’s also the comic where Superman gives Lois Lane a vial of his DNA so she can be “Superwoman” for a day (it’s a birthday present), where we get our most intimate view ever of the Fortress of Solitude, where we discover that the way Superman keeps the Fortress safe is by making the only way to open it a key made of dense star material that only he can lift, where we see that Superman is keeping a cosmic being called a Sun-eater as a kind of pet, and that he’s feeding it suns that he synthesizes himself, where he teams up with other Supermen from throughout space and time, where he battles Bizarro, where he frees Kandor. This has everything. This is Superman in all his outrageously powerful glory, plus the dual and very often overlooked glories of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen.
To sum up, if you’re looking for a Superman comic that’s both a layered, complex examination of what the character means to the world and to the universe, but also a gobsmackingly big dose of joy, read this book. – Matthew Jackson
Action Comics (new 52) – Grant Morrison and Rags Morales
In 2011 DC decided to hit the giant universe wide continuity reset button for a third time. Handing the reigns of Superman over to Grant Morrison seemed an easy choice after his above mentioned run on All-Star, however this was to be something very different. Morrison was offered the chance to do what no other writer preceding him could (save of course for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.) He was given the chance to start the character completely from square one with the New 52’s Action Comics #1.
He took this as a chance to return the character to his Golden Age roots with a modern twist. He wrote the world’s first superhero as a modern age folk hero. The idealism of the Silver Age would come later, the emotion of the Bronze was still on the horizon, the logic and realism of the Modern age was there but back seat to brash social activism of this 75 year old legend suddenly born anew. Morrison stripped the character right back to what Siegel and Shuster had first created some seven and a half decades previous and applied it to the 21st century.
Lois Lane is still wonderfully written as the independent modern woman as she has been for decades, but the romance between her and Clark/Kal-El has been nixed. Add the fact that both Ma and Pa Kent are no longer alive creates a deeper feeling for Superman’s alienation and a stronger drive for him to develop connections with his adopted home world. This mixed with numerous other concepts both new and old that Morrison laced through is run on the title serve to seed future stories and still honor what so many had wrote before.
Morrison’s new Superman (along with the whole New 52) has been met with both high praise and deep criticism. Now that Lois is no longer a plot piece to please the leading man was met with a great deal of fan outcry (spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure Lois and Clark will happen one day again, but this time we’ll get to see the relationship grow and unfold organically rather than be pre-determined by canon.) His t-shirt and jeans attire (that would eventually be replaced by Kryptonian armor sans red underoos on the outside) was also met with displeasure. As a quick aside, if you were to ever develop super powers, would you immediately grab spandex and Kevlar?
In this new era of comics Morrison brought forth a Superman that works, an amalgam of the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and (now past) Modern ages. His stories had the ‘grit’ for and realism that current comic audiences demand why still being fun (which is what comics are supposed to be.) – [jrh]