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CSBG Archive

365 Reasons to Love Comics #202

Look! Up in the sky! It’s an archive! It’s a reader survey! It’s…

7/21/07

202. Superman

Superman2.jpg

Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! This amazing stranger from the planet Krypton, the Man of Steel… Superman! Possessing remarkable physical strength, Superman fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice, disguised as a mild mannered newspaper reporter Clark Kent!

We all know Superman, right? The details may change, but the story’s always the same : “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.” Superman! Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and premiering in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman was the world’s first superhero, and gave rise to a huge comics boom that lasted for quite a while.

The character is just massively iconic and mythic and just damn important, but the problem seems to be that he doesn’t have many great stories. There’s a few really good ones, and a few silly personal favorites of mine, but there seems to be a far better chance of finding a good Batman story than a good Superman one. What’s the deal?

Superman’s gone through a lot of different eras and incarnations, and now I’m going to take a look at the most important ones, by which I mean “the ones I remember.”

Superman 2.jpg

In the Golden Age, Superman was a crusader for social justice, taking on wife beaters and crooked businessmen and Nazis. He started out fairly depowered, but his abilities grew over time. By the 50’s, he had morphed into a safer, happier, more fatherlike fellow who fought weird creatures and spent all his time tricking his friends (mostly Jimmy), avoiding Lois‘ romantic advances, and being a dick in general. The Silver Age had arrived, and Super-books were filled with brilliantly insane ideas from the Bizarros to magical imps from the fifth dimension to Brainiac to Titano the Super-Ape to midget menaces from space to fifty-two flavors of Kryptonite and whatever other crazy thing the writers decided to throw at the wall that day. The stories weren’t really that great, but they captivated kids and acted as a gigantic imagination factory. Now, these stories are available in handy Showcase volumes, and the Golden Age stuff is in glorious Chronicles editions. Seek ‘em out.

Superman 1.jpg

The Bronze Age rolled in, and Superman got a minor revamp, updating him to be a television reporter instead of a newspaper one, and banishing Kryptonite for the foreseeable future. The stories took some interesting sci-fi twists and turns, and we got some neat bits from Elliot S! Maggin, but I don’t think the era’s very memorable. The 80’s came and Crisis rolled in. Alan Moore finished off the Pre-Crisis Superman with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” considered by many to be the greatest Superman story of them all.

Superman Blue.jpg

Then came John Byrne, rebooting the character with Man of Steel and bringing him further down to Earth. But, you know, the ’90s were right there, and Superman was killed off, though not for long. Reign of the Supermen wasn’t bad for a huge event, I’d say. Superman returned with a bit of a mullet, he got married to Lois, he lost his powers, and then he turned into a blue energy being. Everyone hated this era except me. It made me really excited to read Superman, and it featured some good work by creators like Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett and Stuart Immonen.

All Star Supes.jpg

Superman returned to normal, of course, and he is now featured in relatively generic stories. Except for All Star Superman by our favorite auntie, Grant Morrison, and the frabjous Frank Quitely. In my opinion, it’s the best Superman story ever (even if it’s not finished yet). It’s a massive love letter to the character, it takes wonderful Silver Age ideas and breathes new modern life into them, and it’s exploring every facet of the Super-mythos in a stunning light. The best word to describe the book is beautiful, because that’s what it is.

I can easily see the vast potential available in the character and his world, and the huge archetypal power he possesses, but it still seems so damn hard to find a good Superman story. What are your favorites?

For me, I think one of the central concept of the Super-mythos is the theme of dichotomies. Superman/Clark Kent. Superman/Luthor. Earth/Krypton. Superman/Bizarro. It’s a yin and yang thing. And of course, he’s also the perfect American folk hero, as an immigrant made good. He’s one of the most popular fictional characters of all time, merchandised up the wazoo and appearing throughout comics, television, and film. My personal favorite adaptation? The Flesicher cartoons. Gorgeous animation.

What will Superman evolve into next? I suppose we’ll find out one day. Until then, I’ll be keeping my eye to the sky… You never know.

For more on Superman, there can be only one website: The Superman Homepage.

23 Comments

Youri Zoutman

July 21, 2007 at 6:11 pm

There can also be Say It Backwards, a love letter to Superman. Thomas can bitch, but damn, it is all out of love.

The Moore story was very good, but Ennis’ take on the character in Hitman is fan-freakin’-tastic. Also, Steven Seagle’s It’s a Bird …, while not a Superman story per se, is an excellent Superman story. The problem with Superman is that it doesn’t seem hard to write one good Superman story. The problem, it seems, is writing a lot of good Superman stories over the course of a series.

A *bit* of a mullet? At its height, that sucker easily qualified him for NHL membership.

Anyway, the basic problem has always seemed to me to be that Superman is, well, Superman. He can do just about anything – and if he can’t at the beginning of a story, by the end he’ll have discovered some long-lost aspect of Kryptonian biology that compensates.

Even his secret identity seems uber-stable – old-fashioned upbringing, steady job…no Spidey-style crises of confidence for Mama Kent’s boy.

Once you’ve created the Ideal, what can you come up with that would perplex him? Or at least, would continue to perplex him?

…Human nature, maybe. Which is why I’ve always had a sneaking affection for those Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen stories, stupid and sexist as they are. At least the two of them generally found a way to seriously get under his Super-skin.

Rohan Williams

July 21, 2007 at 8:12 pm

Yes! Superman is, in my opinion, not just the best character in comics, but the best story ever told anywhere, ever. It synthesises so many different myths and folk tales into this one crazy, fun pop legend that just never gets old. Superman’s the greatest.

So, it’s great Superman stories you want, hey?

For starters, I’d suggest not to get too hung up on ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow’… it’s really good, but, IMO, not all that great. Other people’s mileage obviously varies on that one. If you want a great Alan Moore Superman story, I’d go with ‘For the Man Who Has Everything’, or even his run on Supreme.

‘Superman, Champion of the Oppressed’- the story in Action Comics #1- remains one of the most fun and energetic takes on the character. Superman fights for justice with a real zeal in that story, and the moment when he first leaps out a window somehow remains thrilling, even though we’ve seen it a million times by now. ‘Superman and the Dam’ is another story from back then that makes the Super-feats we readers take for granted today seem, well, super.

From the Silver Age era, it’s hard to pick a favourite since there’s so many fun stories, but I’d go with ‘The Menace of Metallo’, which introduced the original Metallo- the version that should have stuck around forever, and been played by either Matt Dillon or Bruce Campbell in a movie. Bizarro’s first appearance, in Superboy #68, is another classic, and was given a good tribute in John Byrne’s MOS mini-series. ‘The Death of Superman’ and ‘The Amazing Story of Superman-Red & Superman-Blue’ are both great stories, and either makes for a more fitting finale than Moore’s approach, IMO.

In the modern era, I couldn’t go past Morrison’s run on JLA- ‘New World Order’ is an especially great Superman story. After the first six issues, I would have agreed that All-Star Superman was on track to be the best Superman story ever, but I’m not so sure now. I really liked the Death and Return of Superman as well, Bill, so you’re not the only one.

Elliot S! Maggin’s novel, ‘Superman- The Last Son of Krypton’ is a great read, and you should definitely seek it out if you haven’t read it before.

I agree that the Fleischer cartoons are the best adaptations of the character on-screen, but I honestly don’t think you can go wrong with any of the Superman TV shows, not including Superboy. Just last night, I was watching ‘The Dog Who Knew Superman’ from the George Reeves Superman show, and it’s a great little melancholic Superman story. ‘Panic in the Sky’ is an obvious classic from back then, too, and I really like ‘Crime Wave’ as well.

‘Lois & Clark’ struck gold with episodes like ‘The Foundling’, ‘Tempus Fugitive’ and ‘Individual Responsibility’ (a Red Kryptonite story guest starring Bruce Campbell!), and Smallville has had it’s fair share of good stories- ‘Rosetta’, guest starring Christopher Reeve, is a classic episode. The ’90s animated series was occasionally brilliant, especially episodes like ‘Promethean’ and ‘Bizarro’s World’.

‘Superman and the Mole Men’ was a perfect Superman story, with George Reeves really selling the idea of an iconic, patriarchal and just Man of Steel. The first Donner movie was genius, and there’s a great story about immigration and our relationship with the land beneath the surface level of ‘Superman Returns’.

There’s a lot of fun Superman stories, and the overall mythology is phenomenal, but at a moment’s notice like this it’s hard to come up with any Superman stories that even come close to Year One or DKR, so I see what you mean. In a lot of ways, that’s what’s fascinating about the character- despite his 70 year existence, you get the feeling that the potential for great Superman stories hasn’t fully been tapped yet.

Supes has never been a chatracter I particularily liked a lot, nor has he been one I disliked.
Sometimes he can be very entertaining.

I used to wacth reruns of the old live action Superman as a kid, and that’s the version I mostly knew–I also had a memeber of the extended family who had a bunch of old comics–mostly Superman, and I read those when we visited as a kid, but I seldom bought Superman comics–I preferred BAtman and Spidey, among others.

Still I don’t mind Supes–he has been done well.

My favorite Superman stories are True Brit and the Elseworlds story where Kal-El is found by the Waynes, not the Kents.

If I had to name one, and only one, reason to love comics (or at least superhero comics), Superman would probably be it, because he represents, embodies, and relates to so many of the medium’s best qualities and creators.

The high concept is so, so simple, and yet so utterly iconic and fun that it’s one of the strongest premises out there. It’s true that Superman’s power can occasionally be an issue, but honestly I think that’s more often an excuse for lazy storytellers then it is a genuine weakness of the character. Besides, good Superman stories are generally less about flat-out danger and more about pathos and/or fun, and Superman’s life doesn’t have to be on the line for that.

Superman may not have the incredibly solid catalog of stories readily available that Batman does, but there’s an awful lot of good stuff out there:

I personally enjoy Byrne’s revamp a lot, even if it read pretty dated these days. Mark Waid and Leilil Yu’s Superman: Birthright is a sort of Ultimate Superman that’s lots of fun. The Death and Return of Superman is enjoyable as a sprawling, colorful epic. Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb’s Superman: For All Seasons is a beautiful book with many enjoyable moments. Those old Golden Age stories you can find in Chronicles are great. Superman Adventures, based on the 90s animated series, is readily available in digest form and was chock full of great stories. And, of course, the animated series itself is a treasure trove for Super-fans… I love “The Late Mr. Kent” in particular. I’m a big fan of two of Joe Kelly’s Superman stories — the one introducing the Elite, and the one where Superman answer mail while visiting every time zone for New Year’s Eve. Dini and Ross’ big Superman book was pretty enjoyable.

And, finally, Busiek, Johns and Woods’ OYL arc, “Up, Up and Away” might just be my favorite Superman story, so perfectly does it combine all the coolest parts of the Superman mythos.

Bill, I am surprised you didn’t mention Superman: Secret Identity, since your man Stuart Immonen was the artist. I really enjoyed “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow”. I have always felt that Superman worked best as a foil for other characters, an ideal they could aspire to. Like Captain America, he just seems to work better in a group dynamic. I was intrigued by the idea of Red Son, where his ship crashes in Russia, but I have not read it, does anyone recommend it?

ks – ‘Red Son’ is actually my favorite Superman story. ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow’ and ‘Superman: Secret Identity’ were both great, but ‘Red Son’ is just a fascinating twist on the basic premise. Highly recommended.

Astro City #1 is among the best Superman Stories…

Crisis #7 is up there.

While the Death of Superman was dumb, the Funeral for a Friend was great and many moments of the Return were, too.

Joshua Cochran

July 22, 2007 at 12:10 am

“What’s so funny about truth, justice, and the American Way” is the perfect Superman story, at least for me (porbably because the last time I was buying 12 books a month, it struck a chord by proving how valid Superman is with all the anti-heroes running around. ‘Kingdom Come’ is also good, for the same reason. Ennis, it must be said, nailed it with his guest appearance in Hitman. Steve Seagle gets credit also, especially with the theme that there’s a little bit of Superman in all of us.

And I second the love for the mid-90s energy-powers Superman. It seemed like he actually evolved and gained more power but, at the same time, was new to handling it, which is a type of Superman we’ve rarely gotten a chance to see. Ironically, the best USES of these powers, and showing how it affected him, seemed to not even come from his own titles. I always loved how Morrison’s JLA run handled it brilliantly by having Supes improvise using them (in #5, using the magnetic fields instead of pure strength to push the moon back into its proper orbit) and later, in issue #10, bemoan the fact that he kept trying to fight using his OLD powers.

The high concept is so, so simple, and yet so utterly iconic and fun that it’s one of the strongest premises out there.

See, this has always been my problem. I get the ‘iconic’ part; I just don’t see the fun in it, so much. Personal taste, I guess (possibly augmented by my non-American-ness). I have the same problem with most of the DC heroes, Batman sometimes excluded.

It’s true that Superman’s power can occasionally be an issue, but honestly I think that’s more often an excuse for lazy storytellers then it is a genuine weakness of the character.

Yeah, I’ll concede that. Given what Bill was saying above, though, and my own experience, I’d suggest there are a whole lot of lazy storytellers out there. Even most of the movies depend heavily on weakening Supes to create the climactic drama.

Besides, good Superman stories are generally less about flat-out danger and more about pathos and/or fun, and Superman’s life doesn’t have to be on the line for that.

Exactly what I was trying to say. I don’t really need his life on the line, I just want to see him confronted with problems he can’t solve without acknowledging his weaknesses.

I always liked Superman for some reason. I do wish that writers would play up the old crusader for social justice angle a bit more.

The Kirbydotter

July 22, 2007 at 8:56 am

I have to admit that I was expecting Superman to be the star of your # 200 entry in this excellent series. But I’m glad that it was Elongated Man and it fits in your pattern of quirky tastes in comic books.

Superman is, of course, the most important character ever created for the comic book format. He was the first star of this medium’s early years. He started the main genre of the american comic book medium, for better and for worse…

I must say that I disagree with your opinion on Superman’s Bronze Age. Admitted, for purely personnal reasons. You see, some of the first comics I read were french reprints (I am a french canadian from Montreal) of Superman that were the great bronze age stories illustrated by Superman # 1 artist: Curt Swan or course, inked by Murphy Anderson. Covers (and one or two inside jobs) by Neal Adams at first, soon replaced with my favorite cover artist of all time: Nick Cardy! Stories by various young fresh writers like Denny O’Neil, Cary Bates, Elliot S. Maggin, Len Wein, under the new Superman editor: Julius Schwartz!

Silver Age Superman was a period of great creativity of course. Under the heavy editorial hand of Mort Weisenger, it was a period of imagination (and imaginary stories!), myth and fantasy and wonder, the birth of the Legion of Super Heroes, the rise of many of the most classic villains of Superman’s rogue gallery… No idea was too crazy or wild. No color was too bright for kryptonite. It is a classic, fun and cool period. I can’t really appreciate Superman’s Golden Age (aside from the Siegel and Shuster stuff), but as soon as Curt Swan became Superman’s prime artist, I am in!

But I disgress, Bronze Age was my first contact with Superman. A few months ago, I bidded the largest amount of money I ever bidded on Ebay (by far!) for full runs of early Bronze Age SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS. It was a joy to rediscover the tales of my childhood’s early contact with the medium. The mysterious Sand Superman, Terra Man, Viking of Valhalla, the Popeye-parody/homage Captain Strong, etc. Julius Schwartz and writer Denny O’Neil cut down Superman powers (he was now just a demi-god instead of a supreme being) and where Weisenger’s Superman was classic Superman mythology, Schwartz’s Superman was more into early 70’s reality with a dash of science fiction of course. The Schwartz ealy years on the Man of steel also put more emphasis on Clark Kent, so his supporting cast grew with the addition of new boss Morgan Edge and jerk-jock Steve Lombard, there was even a series of “Private Life of Clark Kent” back up stories. Superman’s classic rogue gallery became scarce. A few new villains were introduced, but there could be many issues in a row without really a super-villain in sight. Schwartz was more about telling a good story on it’s own (most of the times, in one issue, rarely in two), than doing a villain of the month type of book or long soap opera sagas or continuity follow ups. Clark Kent went to the dentist and you had a story! No need for Brainiac or Luthor (who were mostly absent from the first few years of Schwartz editorial run). A crook with science on his side could challenge Superman. They were a few weird team-ups of course, Batgirl a few times, Wonder Woman’s I-Ching (created by Denny O’Neil who was also responsible for cutting down the Amazon’s powers as well), Muhammad Ali!

Bronze Age Superman titles were also were Kirby’s Fourth World saga started on his run of SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN. Kirby’s imprint of the Superman mytholgy influenced the great Bruce Timm Superman tv animated series as much (if not more so) as the superb Fleisher Bros original cartoons did.

And another great thing about Bronze Age Superman: those giant formats! 100 pagers, 48 pagers, etc. They had reprints of the best of the Silver Age, and those were the issues that introduced me to this cool and fun period.

Finally (about time too!), I agree with Jacob T. Levy that some of the best Superman stories didn’t star the Man of Steel at all. Granted, ASTRO CITY’s Samaritan, especially in the very first issue, is an interesting substitute. But, by far, the very best Superman stories were written by Alan Moore. Not in his “Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” IMHO, that was too sad of a story for me to really appreciate it. No, I’m talking about Moore’s run on SUPREME! If you haven’t read those yet you HAVE TO! Now this is a love letter to the Superman mythology if there ever was one! It’s a classic, it’s a must in any decent comic book library! I can’t recommend it enough to any true fan of the Man of Steel.

Greg Burgas said: “The problem with Superman is that it doesn’t seem hard to write one good Superman story. The problem, it seems, is writing a lot of good Superman stories over the course of a series.”

I don’t think so. I’ve seen several folks who’ve written a series of very good Superman stories.

The gents currently writing SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS, for instance.

— Uncle Rog

Not wanting to sound grumpy or anything, but I do find it…shall we say, unique to Grant Morrison…that he can write a Superman comic that pretty much straight up rips off old Silver Age Superman stories (that, apparently, “weren’t that great”) and have it lauded as “the best Superman story ever.”

The more Silver Age comics I read, the less impressed by Morrison’s imagination I am. :)

Rohan Williams

July 22, 2007 at 5:06 pm

John, I think you might be missing the point of Morrison’s Superman run, or at least, what everybody seems to love about it. It’s not that it “pretty much straight up rips off Silver Age Superman stories”, which may well account for the basic content of the stories but in no way explains the appeal of the way the stories are told.

Morrison brings his own unique spin, clever details and, most importantly, pathos to All Star Superman that just wasn’t present in the Silver Age comics. I love those classic stories, and I’m not saying Morrison is necessarily a more talented superhero writer than Otto Binder, but the storytelling techniques in comics have evolved since then, and the result is great work like All Star Superman.

Of course, if you wanted to say the last couple of issues haven’t been all that, I’m right there with you…

I will heartily second the kudos for Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s “It’s a Bird … ” Though a highly unconvetional Superman story (it’s self-reflective and, you could argue, not really about Superman at all), it’s well worth anybody’s time.

I guess it’s hard to bring tension ta story when the main character is indestructible, extremely powerful and apparantly has no character flaws whatsoever. That being said, I enjoyed Red Son a lot and it might technically not be a Supes-story but I’d recommend It’s a Bird too.

i agree that the unfinished ASS is the best superman story ever written, donner’s action comics run also going on now is AMAZING and frank quitely not getting enough respect (see what i did there, eh, eh?)
otherwise sor all seasons rocked my boat and kingdom come is superman’s DKR for me, a commentary on the attitude that he is outdated, superbly surrounding him qwith his many fictional children – ooh, and the moment when wonderwoman gives him that look after he says ‘…but people will die’ or something like that and a gazillion people have already died – quality.

The Bronze Age rolled in, and Superman got a minor revamp, updating him to be a television reporter instead of a newspaper one, and banishing Kryptonite for the foreseeable future. The stories took some interesting sci-fi twists and turns, and we got some neat bits from Elliot S! Maggin, but I don’t think the era’s very memorable.

I think a wholesale dismissal of an entire era of Superman is a bit cheeky, Mr. Reed!

1970s Superman is awesome. Done-in-one (and occasionally done-in-two) tales that are full of invention and wonder and great science fiction. You could put ‘Paul Dini’ on the script and show it today and people would be praising them.

Some of the best Superman easily comes from that era, including the four-parter “Who Took The Super Out of Superman”
http://supermanthrutheages.com/tales2/whotook/1/

Not to mention “The Return of Jonathan Kent” which made me cry when I was 11; “Must There Be A Superman?” the “Thirsty Thursday” story that became a precursor to Elliot Maggin’s glorious Superman novel “Miracle Monday”, plus stories by Bates, Pasko, Maggin and others too numerous to mention.

I would argue that 1970s/early ’80s Superman was one of the last vestiges of the Silver Age in DC. Julie Schwartz was doing stories a lot like he did for The Flash and Green Lantern in his glory days and it was good solid storytelling. He bent to the fashion of the era in the early 70s and the early 80s with Denny O’Neal and Marv Wolfman writing respectively and produced some absolutely superb work even then.

At the very end of the Bronze Age I would agree it was tired and formulaic and looked poor compared to other books. But even in that era they had stories by Alan Moore that were superb.

In summary: PHHLLLTLLLLLTTTTTTTT!

My favourite era of Superman is probably Denny O’Neal’s because his wisecracking, dynamic Superman for me is the closest the character’s ever come to the version by Siegel and Shuster in a then ‘modern’ comic and I just haven’t seen a better Superman.

I’m also quite fond of the original Siegel/Shuster Superman. Again, there’s a wisecracking, swashbuckling side to Superman that has been somehow lost. I loved the early version’s crusading for social justice and the mid 40s version is a lot of fun too.

I have special affection for John Byrne’s Superman because I followed it right from the start and collected it (and it’s successors) for a long time. I have to say I know we live in a post-continuity age but I get still get upset when I see all the changes Byrne made to Superman’s origin get pushed aside in the same way I knew old fogeys got upset when they saw the Silver Age Krypton get pushed aside back in ’85. Which shows you that I’m now officially old. And that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Elliot Maggin’s Superman stuff is always inventive and smart– his Superman novels are two of the best stories featuring the character ever.

I grew up with the Silver Age Superman and fondly remember the first Brainiac story, the first Bizarro and the prison greys Luthor stories. I read everything Superman including the Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane titles. I disliked the 70s no-kryptonite revamp, but I find great moments in the Byrne revamp and the subsequent run to the present.
Superman is one of the few characters who seems to translate well to any medium. There are great cartoons, radio shows, movies and the various TV shows for any fan to enjoy.
I recently rediscovered Smallville after giving it up early on as a “monster of the week” show. In the past couple of months I’ve bought and enjoyed the 1st four seasons and find several of the shows to be classic re-tellings of the legend.
We often see that comics are a dying medium, but I’d predict that as long as comics are around, Superman will be a major part of them.

I disagree… about half of the worthy superhero graphic novels are superman tales. The Red Son, Kingdom Come(that’s a superman story, everyone else is just a minor character heh).

Also about whatever happend to the man of tomorrow. That’s an interesting, good tale, but it is one of the worst “Silver age” SUPERMAN stories ever. Resolution by death?? that’s not resolution folks. Needless death to loved characters was not the silver age way, and it shouldn’t have been the way it ended. The ideas were interesting, but it wasn’t a proper send off at all. Even as a comic book tale, its good, and interesting, but not great. So turn off the hype machine folks.

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