The Action-Packed Selected Superman Re-Read — Part One of One
“Superman is boring.”
“Superman’s too invulnerable.”
“Superman is not as cool as Batman.”
I think it’s fair to say that a large majority of comic fans around my age have said one or all of the above. We grew up in a time with the one-two combo of having Marvel being Marvel with its flawed and relatable heroes, but also the mainstream “rehabilitation” of Batman, thanks to Tim Burton’s 1989 film. So, Superman—who wasn’t seen flawed and relatable, or who wasn’t a dark avenger of the night—just wasn’t cool.
Two things happen to fans like us as we grow up, assuming we stay fans of superhero books. One is that we stick to those first impressions formed during our teenage years, and believe that Superman is a fuddy-duddy boy scout whose best moment was when Batman beat the crap out of him in The Dark Knight Returns. The other gives the Man of Steel a shot.
I’m far from a massive Superman fan. I would not call myself an authority on what are the most essential stories featuring Big Blue. But I can at least say that I have grown to have a much greater appreciation for him.
So, while I can’t point you to the essentials, I can certainly point you to the books that turned me from Batbro living in the stagnant opinions of my past self… to a Man of Tomorrow.
Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s… er, swan song to the Superman of old before John Byrne rebooted the character in the eighties is a good story. What it definitely isn’t is a good introduction to him.
Read with enough of a context to Superman and the nature of DC’s universe on a whole, you can appreciate what Moore and Swan were doing, giving this iteration of Clark, his cast of characters and, really, an entire era of DC Comics the send-off that they deserved, and if you read it with that context in mind, it works very well.
It’s not timeless, but then again, it wasn’t meant to be.
I think Superman vs Muhammed Ali might’ve been one of the first books that made me really enjoy Superman. The power of this comes from contrasting the Man of Steel with The Champ, showing the differences in them, sure, but also showing their similarities as heroes.
I was a fan of Ali’s, so by association, he brings a level of humanity to Superman that I might not have seen before. If you’re a fan of Superman, however, this story makes Ali seem superhuman—so, really, either way, it’s a good thing.
All of this, however, wouldn’t shine through as brilliantly without Neal Adams’ incredible work. His version of Superman is simply iconic, and he brings that same awe-inspiring scope to Ali by channelling The Champ’s trademark swagger perfectly.
Kingdom Come and Birthright
If Superman vs Muhammad Ali was one of the first Superman comics that I enjoyed, then these two were definitely the first ones that elevated that enjoyment into appreciation. They’re very different stories, but at their core, explore very similar themes.
Kingdom Come looks at Superman regaining his humanity after losing all ties to it and isolating himself in the Fortress of Solitude, while Birthright — a Smallville-era revamp of Superman’s early years — follows a very human Clark Kent as he embraces his superheroic and Kryptonian identities.
They’re a great pair because they deal with the two most basic, yet most important, aspects of the character: the Super and the Man.
Kingdom Come, despite being a pretty bleak tale that’s steeped in tragedy, on the surface at least, eventually ends on a wonderfully hopeful note—taking us on a journey that really pushes Superman to his emotional limits, all in the service of showing the depths of that aforementioned humanity.
Alex Ross’ art is… well, I mean, what can I say about his work that hasn’t already been said? This story is epic and world-shattering—and Ross is really one of the few creators, if not the only creator, who could tell it visually.
Birthright, on the other hand, is so wonderfully down-to-earth. In his proposal for it, Waid talks about making the hopefulness of Superman appealing to a generation that grew up in cynical times, and he does so in two parts. First, he focuses on the humanity of the character, getting the audience heavily invested in Clark, by touching on the broadly universal idea of wanting to belong. Then, he takes Clark—and the audience—soaring into the superheroics.
It’s kind of a similar approach to what he did in Kingdom Come, but in reverse, where instead of starting Clark’s story with him isolated from humanity, Birthright opens with him immersing himself in it, reporting from all over the world and learning smaller lessons that would inform his superhero identity in a big way.
It seems like a simple enough approach, but the way Waid does so—by channeling his own love of Superman to create a solid story, filled with awe-inspiring moments—can only be done by a master of the craft that understands these characters better than almost anyone else. And, man, there are some seriously amazing moments here, whether it’s Superman’s “like hell” when Luthor’s squad threatens to soil the memory of his birth world by wreaking havoc on his adopted world, or even something as simple as Clark’s incredibly heartwarming conversation with his dad.
Leinil Yu is definitely an idea fit for this story. He brings enough modern sensibilities here to make it visually appealing to that new generation Waid and DC are clearly aiming for, while also being an incredible storyteller in his own right, so that the quieter moments are given enough room to shine as much as the splashier action.
Red Son, Secret Identity and It’s a Bird…
I used to hail this trio of Elseworlds-type stories as my gold standard for different interpretations of Superman—and while that mostly remains my opinion for Secret Identity and It’s a Bird…, this re-read’s certainly changed my thoughts on Red Son.
Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett’s take on what if the Man of Steel had crash-landed in Stalin’s Russia instead of the American heartland remains a very solid concept, there’s no doubt about that. I’m generally not a fan of Millar’s work, but I’ll always give the guy credit for coming up with some brilliant ideas.
For the longest time, Red Son was the one comic of his where I thought his script matched the quality of the concept, and while I certainly still rank it higher than a lot of his work—and it’s definitely worth at least one read for that concept alone—a lot of its shine has worn off for me.
I definitely enjoyed Secret Identity a lot more this time round, focusing less on the neat idea—a kid named Clark Kent in our world gets super powers—and more on what that idea represents.
Kurt Busiek does a phenomenal job of taking our own fears and anxieties, our hopes and our dreams—our lives—and filtering them through the eyes of superpowers. It’s not as much of a love letter to Superman as you might think, which isn’t a criticism at all. In fact, what I’ve come to appreciate the most about Secret Identity during this re-read is how the Superman angle is just a hook. The true joy in this story is that—like all the best stories—it’s an incredibly well crafted mirror held up to reflect our own lives, to make us feel less alone in our own struggles and uncertainties.
Also, I think we can all agree that this is, without a doubt, Stuart Immonen’s best work ever. His storytelling choices and his use of colours are brilliantly precise. And his art is just stunning—every panel a painting—but those splash pages in particular are simply gorgeous.
Re-reading Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s a Bird… has been a similar experience. A semi-autobiographical work about a writer named Steve whose struggle to understand Superman is intertwined with his family’s history of Huntington’s Disease, It’s a Bird… is an uncomfortable read in the best possible way.
It uses the idea of Superman less as a metaphor and more as a platform to confront issues of mortality and family, of how the unreality of fiction can help you work through the harsh reality of life.
It’s obviously a deeply personal book for Seagle and it shows. The structure, the dialogue, the pacing—you can see how much he’s struggled to get it all right, not just because that’s what a great storyteller does, but because it absolutely needed to be right.
And Kristiansen clearly was the right choice to collaborate with Seagle on this—his striking and artfully surreal style matched only by his ability to capture the emotional beats perfectly.
Aside from Mark Waid, Grant Morrison’s the modern day creator most commonly associated with the Man of Steel—specifically for their All-Star Superman, with Frank Quitely.
Primed as the ultimate Superman story, All-Star Superman is somewhat similar to Morrison’s run on Batman—compressing everything great about the character into a twelve-issue arc. While their Batman run is driven more by the concept of disparate continuities being canonical, however, in All-Star Superman, everything hangs by a very simple idea: Superman is dying and this is how he chooses to spend his last days. And this is both the crux of what works and doesn’t with this story.
It’s a tribute to the character by showing how he faces his final days not just with determination, but with grace. Unfortunately, Morrison’s dialogue tends to drive the idea of the story more than the emotion—and while this works for their Batman run where the ideas are front and centre, it seems ill-fitting at times for a story where the driving force is more emotionally charged.
Still, it’s not like they don’t have great moments though. Everyone points to the scene where Superman helps a suicidal girl as a truly powerful example of who Superman is, and rightfully so.
Frank Quitely’s art, however, is as always fantastic. Some people are understandably not fans of his style—and while I get that, there’s no denying that his storytelling sensibilities are just wonderful. You can see the extent of it more in his other work like We3, but even here, moments like the sequence where Clark bumbles into the office, or the Christopher Reeves-inspired way he makes a distinction between Superman and Clark Kent, is just inspired stuff.
And finally, we come to some of the most recent Superman comics—and, for my money, some of the best ever within whatever is regarded at the time as the main DC Universe.
This series stands out for me, for focusing on a not-as-explored side of Superman: his role as a dad. His and Lois’ relationship with Jon is clearly the greatest strength of this series—so much so that the emotional core of their family far outweighs any questions I might’ve otherwise had about the greater New 52/Rebirth continuity.
It’s telling as well that, for all the books I’ve gone through, this is the first time I even mention Lois Lane, purely because, as well written as she is in some of the previous examples, she never feels as much of a focus as she does in this series, standing shoulder to shoulder with Clark and Jon.
It’s also a testament to this series that it’s the only entry here that’s actually a series, and not a standalone story—yet it remained, more or less, consistently great throughout all seven volumes. Sure, there are stories that I liked more than others, but every one of them was at least enjoyable.
Credit for this clearly belongs to Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason, the two main creative driving forces behind this run. That said, it’s worth highlighting some of the excellent artists that worked on this series, including Gleason himself, as well as Doug Mahnke and Jorge Jiménez.
The last volume of the Rebirth run ended on a similar note as Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?—which felt like a nice way to close out this post. After all, throughout pretty much every book highlighted here, Superman has stayed generally the same: a loving, very human paragon of truth and justice.
I suppose, many fans’ initial instincts about him were sorta right then. He’s not flawed or relatable—but that’s not a problem with him. We can’t relate to him on a one-on-one level because he is a paragon; an ideal for us to strive towards.
And there’s nothing boring about that.