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Reading Room: Superman

by on February 21, 2011

While American newspaper comic strips were published in collected form since the middle of the 19th century, the true launch of the American comic book industry is generally accepted to begin with the launch of its first and arguably most famous original character: Superman. Introduced in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman was a smash hit from day 1, and he remains one of only three characters whose adventures have been in continuous publication since that time (the other two being Batman and Wonder Woman).

Over time, Superman’s popularity has led him to a variety of other media, including radio plays, animated and live-action TV shows, feature films, and video games. Like many of his superhero contemporaries, it seems like his comic book adventures are overshadowed by his appearances in those other media today. In conjunction with the release of the All Star Superman direct-to-video animated movie, we’ve put together a list of our top 5 Superman books to explore the best of the comic book exploits of the Man of Steel. Taking it as a given that the original All Star Superman graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely will be on your reading lists (and it really, really should be, because it’s fabulous from its one-page, four-panel, eight-word origin story to its tremendous conclusion), our picks for the top 5 Superman books for further reading are:

1. Superman: The Complete History 

This exhaustively researched and lavishly illustrated volume by Les Daniels is one of three examining the history of DC Comics’ iconic trinity of superheroes. Beginning with the struggles of his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the book chronicles the meteoric rise of the Man of Steel, his spread to other media, and his evolution over the years. The book would be worth it for Chip Kidd’s design alone, which lends the text much visual pizazz and showcases all the glorious artwork and photography, but Daniels’ text is thorough and accessible. There is a good amount of time spent on other media, chronicling the actors from the radio plays to the deals that ensured long-overdue pensions for Siegel and Shuster before the first movie to the Warner Bros. animated series and TV shows like Superboy and Lois & Clark. However, comics never get short shrift, and Daniels also makes sure to provide enough context so novices to the history of comic books will not feel lost when outside issues with no direct relation to Superman still had notable impact on his publication history. The combination of scholarship and artwork make this book essential reading.

2. The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told Vol. 1

With more than 70 years of comics split into at least four or five distinct stylistic periods, it’s a minor miracle that one book can manage to encapsulate Superman’s entire publishing history. And yet, DC Comics’ The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told Vol. 1 manages exactly that feat, providing small but superb windows into Superman’s comic book exploits over the years. It includes several pieces from the Siegel and Shuster years, chronicling Superman’s origin story and playing a “what if?” game to suggest how Superman could end World War II (which, it must be remembered, was raging at its peak at the time Superman was first published). It gives way to the overheated madcap soap opera of the 1950’s and 1960’s with two rightly famed stories, one of which bears a striking resemblance to Richard Donner’s second Superman movie and the other of which seems to have been a clear inspiration to All Star Superman. The split-personality of the 1970’s is nicely encapuslated by the more grounded social realism of “Must There Be a Superman?” and the consciousness-expanding cosmic scope of “The Exile at the Edge of Eternity.”

The Crisis on Infinite Earths essentially restarted the DC Universe at zero in the mid-1980’s, and this volume includes issue #1 of The Man of Steel, which covers the arrival of the baby Kal-El on Earth up to his adoption of the famed blue tights and red cape; it is followed by another, remarkably good speculative story from the same period titled “Return to Krypton.” The volume closes with “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” from early 2001, as Superman (and writer Joe Kelly) take on the naysayers who decry Superman as being an impractical relic that should be replaced by grimmer, grittier, and amoral “realistic” superheroes. While it probably hasn’t aged too well, I find I still prefer its more optimistic viewpoint over the superheroic nihilism of writers like Mark Millar. It also turns out to have a throwaway nugget that Kelly would recycle for Generator Rex.

There is also a second volume in this series, but I would suggest digging into other reprints instead, as detailed below.

3. The Man of Steel

As mentioned above, John Byrne’s 1986 mini-series The Man of Steel relaunched DC’s flagship character for a new era. It has aged significantly better than many of its contemporaries, although it never quite achieved the kind of transcendent brilliance of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One even when it was first published. Miller and Alan Moore were busy rewriting the entire superhero comic playbook with their works, while Byrne did an excellent job playing the old game by the old rules. The fashions and the dialogue were up-to-the-minute at the time, but seem rather dated now, and many of the plot elements and characterization will seem nearly as antediluvian as Silver Age comics seemed to audiences in the 80’s. Still, there is plenty to like in this self-contained volume that launches Byrne’s run on the title, from the Hepburn-and-Tracy banter between Lois Lane and Clark Kent to a Superman/Batman team-up story that is still a personal favorite. DC has retold Superman’s origin story multiple times over the years, but I don’t think any recent attempts have managed to improve significantly enough on Byrne’s relaunch.

The follow-up issues in Byrne’s run are also available in trade paperback reprints, although I don’t find that they hold up as well as this rebooted origin story. Mostly, they slip into the usual month-in, month-out superheroic treadmill quickly, burnishing Superman’s comic book incarnation without adding anything really new to it. This stands in direct contrast to Frank Miller’s Batman works (which, admittedly, he did not try to repeat month after month for years) or even George Perez’s revamp of Wonder Woman.

4. Superman: Peace on Earth

If Superman represents the adolescent power fantasy in its simplest form, then this oversized graphic album by Paul Dini and Alex Ross revolves around the limitations of power, even powers as prodigious as Superman’s. The high-concept is that Superman declares he will dedicate all his powers to end hunger on Earth for just one day. It is a wonderful, if bittersweet, story that provides much food for thought. It presents a Superman whose compassion, upright character, and inspirational nature are his true super powers, not solar-powered muscles or heat vision. This Superman is also confronted with the reality that all those powers are still not enough to meet such an overwhelming challenge, but this is tempered with a parallel message that one person can make a difference, however small. The real-world parallels are clear, and as poignant and important now as they were when this book was originally published in 1999, but they never feel like preachy moralizing as much as science fiction’s unique ability to comment on the mundane using the fantastic.

This book also features some truly gorgeous artwork by Ross. His photo-referenced style was still relatively new when this book was first released, and the prose of the book also seems to fit Ross’ detailed paintings better than traditional comics. I find that Ross’ style has ossified into stiffness and rigidity lately, but his artwork here still has the same vibrance and life that is found in works like Marvels and Kingdom Come.

5. Superman: Secret Identity 

While there are any number of superheroic soap opera collected editions that might have been selected for the last spot on this list, it is reserved instead for this tragically under-recognized gem by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen. An “Elseworlds” tale, this book follows the life of Clark Kent, a normal person who wakes up one day and discovers that he has the super powers of his famous fictional namesake. What follows is a chronicle of a life at specific key points, as he grows from a boy to a man, and then to a husband and father, while trying to use his powers for the greater good and keeping his identity a secret from those who would exploit him for more venal ends. If conventional Superman is a metaphorical adolescent power fantasy and Superman: Peace on Earth uses Superman as a metaphor for the limits of being a superpower, Superman: Secret Identity uses super powers as a metaphor for life’s journey. While it’s hard to accurately describe it as “grounded” when the entire story revolves around a character who is bulletproof, there is a powerful sense of reality that pervades this story. It’s also wonderfully populated with an unforgettable cast of characters, like the lovely Lois that this Clark ends up marrying or the government agent that starts off hunting Clark and ends up as something else entirely. Immonen’s artwork is also quite striking throughout, with a personal favorite scene being the one that comes after a surprise revelation in the fourth chapter. It’s a lyrical, double-page splash that’s rather calculated to punch emotional hot buttons, and damn if it doesn’t work beautifully to do just that.

Sadly, the trade paperback collecting this series is out of print, and copies are demanding quite a price premium on Amazon or eBay. With any luck, it will be receive a new printing (or, dare I hope, a deluxe hardcover or an Absolute edition) with the publication of Busiek’s follow-up series (which promises to give a comparable treatment to Batman). Don’t mistake it for the recent origin story rehash Superman: Secret Origin or another similarly titled book that covers considerably different ground.

Further Reading

There were many other books considered for this blog post, many of which are at least worth mentioning. Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow is an excellent second step after Les Daniels’ history above, since it follows the evolution of the comic book industry through the lives of four men: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster on the creative side and Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld on the business side. It is an eminently readable, thoroughly researched, and absolutely invaluable historical document that really should be required reading for any comic book fan. Note that the paperback edition is revised and expanded, and is recommended for that reason.

DC has made it fairly easy to obtain Superman’s earliest adventures in a variety of formats. Siegel and Shuster’s original Superman stories can be found in several DC Archive Edition hardcovers or in the more affordable Superman Chronicles series. These early issues are crude by modern standards, but they make up for any deficiency in technical skill with the same overpowering sense of energy of Superman himself. The madcap adventures of the 50’s and 60’s can be obtained in the color anthologies Superman in the Fifties and Superman in the Sixties, or in black-and-white in several phone-book sized DC Showcase editions. All Star Superman owes a powerful debt to these “Silver Age” stories, as do websites like Superdickery. The comics of the 1970’s get a decade anthology volume of their own, along with a “DC Classics” hardcover edition of the “Kryptonite Nevermore” saga, which is rather enjoyable and presages many of the changes that would come with John Byrne’s The Man of Steel.

Famed comic book scribe Alan Moore wrote many comics starring the Last Son of Krypton, most of which are collected in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. These include the original “For the Man Who Has Everything” story (which was adapted into a solid episode of Justice League Unlimited) and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” which was a capstone to Superman’s long history before the reboot in Byrne’s The Man of Steel. This last story has also been reprinted many times, most recently in a deluxe edition hardcover. Unfortunately, despite the many merits of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, many of its plot twists depend on Superman’s earlier continuity, making it slightly opaque to relative newcomers.

Grant Morrison wrote Superman spectacularly during his run on JLA, which Shawn Hopkins has already delved into for his Reading Room entry on Grant Morrison. Finally, Kurt Busiek wrote a beautiful Superman story with “In Dreams,” the first issue of his creator-owned series Astro City, even if the story doesn’t happen to star Superman.

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