Superman 101: Introduction to the Man of Steel

Superman For All Seasons

Today is considered the 75th anniversary of the publication of Action Comics #1, with the first appearance of Superman (and Lois Lane.) That new Man of Steel trailer looks rather impressive. So there’s likely to be a high amount of interest in the Superman comics right now. And this raises the obvious question for anyone unversed in the material: Where to start?

Fortunately for anyone intrigued by the Superman comics, DC’s habit of producing prestige  one-shots and mini-series as well as the emphasis on self-contained stories within their regular titles has resulted in several plausible introductions to the most iconic superhero of them all. Things would be more complicated for anyone curious about any of the Marvel heroes. With Superman, it’s a matter of separating the good from the fantastic.

One potential source of confusion is that many of these stories are set in completely different universes. These should remain accessible for new readers, as long as you remember that some stories feature new versions of Superman, just as the upcoming Man of Steel film will not feature the same version of Superman as Superman Returns or Smallville. It’s something to keep in mind when certain key details (Does Lois Lane know Superman’s identity? When did Clark Kent’s parents die? What was Krypton like?) differ from one story to another.

Superman For All Seasons

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s mini-series is possibly the best introduction to Superman. It’s a fantastic Year One project, looking at Superman’s arrival to Metropolis from the point of view of some of the people closest to him. It conveys the difficulties a man who grew up in Smallville, Kansas would have becoming an important figure in a big city, facing the wrath of important people.

Superman 101

Alan Moore’s Superman

Alan Moore wrote three Superman stories which consistently appear on “Best of” lists, and which are often reprinted together. “For the Man Who Has Everything” from Superman Annual #13 is probably the most acclaimed team-up between DC’s big three (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) as a villain shows Superman what life would be like if his greatest dreams had never come true. Moore’s Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons also demonstrates what it’s like when Superman is angry.

“Jungle Fever” from DC Comics Presents #85 is an unconventional team-up with the Swamp Thing, as Superman finds himself dying after accidental exposure to a Kryptonian toxin. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (Superman #423, Action Comics #583) is the final exploit of the Silver Age Superman, as all of his enemies unite against him. It also features the best work of Curt Swan, the definitive Superman artist, while Alan Moore ties together lots of loose ends from decades of adventures in a way that makes the story satisfying to a reader who has no idea who the Kryptonian Man is.

The stories are reprinted together in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, as well as the 128 page edition of Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? There is an older collection of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? that just includes the two-part storyline. It goes well with the also out of print Across the Universe: The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore, which doesn’t include that story or Batman: The Killing Joke, a mainstay on the Batman 101 list.

all-star-superman-10-frank-quitely-grant-morrison-jamie-grant-s

All-Star Superman

The remainder of the Superman holy trinity, the three volumes anyone interested in the character or superhero comics should own, is a twelve issue mini-series by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, as they try to tell the definitive story of the man of steel. And it’s possibly the best DC superhero story ever, arguably better than Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. This is the story that convinced me that Superman is a better character than Batman. Lex Luthor sets a fatal trap for the Man of Steel, whose powers increase tremendously. A dying Superman tries to make things right with his loved ones, as he strives to complete twelve legendary labors.

Kingdom Come #1-4

For some reason, just as there are several great first Superman stories, there are several iconic final stories for the character. This is the latter, as he’s essentially the main character in a story about a possible future for the DC Universe. A new generation of superheroes has emerged with a different moral code, forcing Superman to come out of retirement. But it may not be in time to prevent humanity from striking back. This mini-series is notable for the stunning painted art of Alex Ross, and includes the best fight scene involving Superman, as he finally throws down with ripoff Captain Marvel.

Superman: The Man of Steel #1-6

John Byrne’s 1986 Superman reboot is now largely out of continuity, but it’s still one of the most acclaimed Superman comics. It’s an accessible Year One story with many of the things we associate strongly with Superman, featuring his origins in Smallville, arrival in Metropolis, and first encounters with Lois Lane, Batman, Lex Luthor and Bizarro. It’s set in the same world as Superman For All Seasons, so these are two good companions volumes, although the reading order doesn’t matter. Byrne balances the introduction of the Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman with solid storytelling.

22-1

The Supergirl Saga (Superman #21-22, Adventures of Superman #444) 

This crossover was the conclusion of John Byrne’s run on Superman, as well as the highlight. It also served as the introduction to the Post-Crisis Supergirl, who would go on to have a large role in the 1990s Death and Return of Superman event. It’s also the best comic book version of a story that filmmakers love to tell:  Superman’s battle with Evil Krypytonians. At the time, DC had insisted that Superman was the only survivor of the destruction of Krypton. John Byrne got around that, by introducing another universe in which three evil Kryptonians had killed most life on Earth. For many readers, this was the story that answered the moral question of whether superheroes should kill.

What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way (Action Comics #775)

Wizard kept hyping the hell out of this comic, and they were right to do so. Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke use the 38 page story to address questions of Superman’s relevance, as he faces a violent and careless superhero team suspiciously similar to the Authority, and demonstrates why his sense of morality is so very important.

Superman Earth One Volume 1

This is another Superman Year One project, set in its own world, with Clark Kent coming to Metropolis just as newspapers are dying. J. Michael Straczynski was the first to convey  the difficulty of Clark Kent’s decision to sacrifice the guarantee of earthly success in any field imaginable in order to become a symbol. The story also has a great take on Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, introducing a version of Superman’s girlfriend who would go on to rescue him. The success of the volume was apparently instrumental in DC’s decision to go with Flashpoint and the new 52 relaunch.

Zod’s speech in the viral video for Man of Steel is also quite similar to demands made by the villain in this storyline.

Earlier today, readers at Comic Book Resources selected their favorite Superman stories. There is a lot of overlap.

  • 59. Superman Earth One Volume 1
  • 44. “The Jungle Line” DC Comics Presents #85
  • 43. “The Supergirl Saga” Superman Volume 2 #21-22, Adventures of Superman #444
  • 8. What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?
  • 7. Superman For All Seasons
  • 5. Man of Steel #1-6
  • 4. Kingdom Come
  • 3. All-Star Superman
  • 2. For the Man Who Has Everything?
  • 1. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

These Stories Also Appeared in IGN’s Top 25 list…

  • 18. Man of Steel
  • 8. Superman For All Seasons
  • 6. What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?
  • 5. Kingdom Come
  • 3. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
  • 2. For the Man Who Has Everything
  • 1. All-Star Superman
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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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