So you’re walking out of Man of Steel, and you think to yourself, “Boy, I’d really like to read some actual Superman comics!” HAHAHA I’m kidding that almost never happens, no matter how much the comics industry might hope to the contrary.
But if it DOES! I thought I’d take a moment to offer some Superman comics recommendations, but probably just as importantly, mention a few titles to steer clear of – particularly those a lot of other websites (like those fancy-dans over at Entertainment Weekly and what have you) might try to confuse you into thinking are good.
Superman: Birthright – Mark Waid’s “Superman Year One” story is heartfelt, insightful, and – as with most things Waid – action-packed and funny, too. I feel like it’s too easy for Superman comics to slip into The Importance Of Being Superman that it forgets comics about brightly-costumed do-gooders should probably be entertaining, too.
Superman: Secret Identity – Kurt Busiek’s “Superboy of Earth-Prime” update explores the idea of a “real-world” teenager named Clark Kent who grows up sick of all the Superman-themed birthdays and teasing from classmates…and then one day wakes up with all his fictional namesake’s powers. It’s an impressive, loving take on what it “means” to be Superman, and the impact that would have on the major milestones of one person’s life.
Superman: Brainiac – The basis for the recent animated DVD Superman Unbound, Geoff Johns (the OTHER Superman writer who spells “Jeff” wrong!) and Gary Frank put a new spin on world-stealing alien computer invader Brainiac that’s pretty creepy.
All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison’s “greatest hits”/love letter story plays with all the major Superman elements, even those that have been previously discarded for being too hokey (red Kryptonite, Bizarro World). Worth it to read three times, once for the story, once to pick up all the tiny visual details Frank Quitely throws into the mix (check out Clark Kent wordlessly saving lives simply by bumbling, or Lex Luthor’s understated overcompensating), then once more to see how it all comes together.
Superman For All Seasons – Jeph Loeb has kind of a reputation for big dumb comics, and at least in the last 10 years or so, that’s been a well-earned reputation. But he has a good handle on Superman, and artist Tim Sale brings out the best in his writing. The season-themed special looks at how young Clark Kent’s relationship with Smallville changes over the years, how Superman’s debut is seen through the lenses of Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, and how Clark comes to accept his role as a “savior” who can’t save everyone. (There’s also a runner about the welfare of the Kents’ dog Shelby, and it’s one of those moments where you realize you don’t care if a hundred people die in a flood but if the DOG is in peril you’re deeply emotionally invested. This might be a pet owner thing.)
Superman Adventures – Before he got swallowed up by his sophomoric efforts to be “edgy” (or, if you believe certain sources, after he stopped getting ghost-written by Grant Morrison), Mark Millar wrote some of the most accessible, all-ages-friendly, one- and two-part Superman stories out there, and of course they’re out of print (until a new edition finally comes out this September). Fortunately, they’re all up on Comixology for a dollar a pop. (Issues 16-38, 41 and 52)
Smallville: Season 11 – I put this at the bottom of the firm recommendations because I knew you’d need to take a moment to process it all, but the fact is this: Smallville Season 11 is probably the best Superman book being put out there, and that’s for two reasons. 1) Bryan Q. Miller has such a firm grasp on the characters of Superman, Clark, Lois and Lex – not to even mention the fact that, in this TV-universe, Superman’s best friend is GREEN ARROW – that everything he writes feels utterly natural for a Superman-just-starting-out story, and 2) This is the comic book that gets to do EVERYTHING Smallville wasn’t able to. So it’s very explicitly the continuing adventures of SUPERMAN, flying around, saving the day, learning the extent and limits of his abilities, and having close personal relationships, but with a few added soap opera elements carried over from the show. Oh and then Batman shows up. Seriously, just read the first story – each issue’s $.99 and really easy to get, so don’t be surprised if you download one after another.
Deeper Cuts (meaning, even Comixology’s pretty light on these full runs – you’d have to hit your local comic shop’s back issue bins, or put together a collection via torrents – and without the aid of the comics-heavy, and now-defunct, Demonoid):
The BACK IN ACTION era:
In late ’99, the four Superman titles were given over to Joe Kelly, Jeph Loeb, Mark Schultz and Joe Casey, and each of them put in some fantastic runs, each with their own flavors (Schultz’s veers toward science fiction, Casey goes for playful weirdness, Kelly and Loeb go for big bold super-heroics). Real shame these aren’t more readily available.
WHAT TO AVOID!
I’m mentioning these specifically because they end up on so many “Best Superman” stories and it completely baffles me.
Superman: Red Son – Mark Millar’s other major contribution to modern Superman stories, it’s an Elseworlds that imagines Kal-El’s ship crashing down in the USSR, completely altering the Cold War and setting up an effective (and deeply unsettling) Super-dictatorship, versus the U.S.’s last hope, Lex Luthor. It’s an interesting story – with a pretty great “twist” epilogue (that Millar might have “borrowed” from Grant Morrison) – but it’s not a very good way of understanding what makes Superman, y’know, Superman.
Superman: Earth One – I’ve gone into this one in more detail before, but Jesus Christ This Is Terrible.
Superman: For Tomorrow – If there’s one interpretation of Superman I am just not down with, it’s the Sad Crying Alien. The guy who mopes around, constantly reminding himself of how Alone and Different he is despite having a quite varied and IN SOME CASES RELATED BY BLOOD supporting cast. This is one of them, despite some undeniably Super-Hero-Ideal-style art by Jim Lee.
Superman: Last Son of Krypton – This one’s gotten a pretty big push recently thanks to a new collection with Geoff Johns and Superman director Richard Donner’s name all over it. But the story’s an awkward mess about Superman raising a young Kryptonian boy (by the way, this one came out around the same time as Superman Returns, if you were wondering why that would be a plot point), and Adam Kubert’s art is really sloppy.
Superman Vol. 1: What Price Tomorrow – The “vol. 1” and New 52 push might give the indication that this is a bold new direction readers can get in on the ground floor with, but the reality is it’s a collection of hastily-planned, dull, and awkwardly written stories (which isn’t really writer/artist George Perez’s fault, since constant, last-minute editorial interference caused him to quit before any real direction or voice could be established).
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? – I’m actually not saying “Don’t read this,” I’m just saying “Don’t read this right NOW.” This is one to read after you’ve read a bunch of Superman comics, since it’s basically the Last Superman Story for the Silver Age, meaning Alan Moore writes with a gigantic sense of finality. Lotta people die in this story, is what I’m saying.
Superman: Death & Return – There’s a pretty great omnibus edition collecting the whole “Death of Superman” story from the 90’s, but it’s a bloated mess. A FUN bloated mess, especially for those of us with some 90’s nostalgia, but hardly “essential reading” for someone looking for top-quality comics.
So there you go. Superman readers: Any recommendations I missed? Anything else people should just flat-out not read?