Has the prospect of seeing “Man of Steel” made you hungry for more Super-stories? Then read on, for the five essential Superman graphic novels, in reverse order of importance:
5. “SUPERMAN: RED SON” ($17.99) is a play on words; as every Super-fan knows, Kryptonians lose their superpowers under a red sun. But the title is also a reference to the book’s fascinating concept: What if baby Kal-El’s rocket ship landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas?
Written by the endlessly inventive Mark Millar, “Red Son” posits the eternal question of nature vs. nurture, while still telling a ripsnorter of a story. Here we see the Man of Steel raised as the right-hand man of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (whose last name, incidentally, comes from the Russian word for “steel”). The story runs through the real events of the Cold War, and is peopled by many historical figures.
In addition, we see what effect the absence of Superman has on a United States that turns to Lex Luthor for a way to offset the USSR’s greatest strategic asset. Even more interesting is what becomes of characters like Batman and Wonder Woman without the influence of Superman’s greatest superpower: His character.
If nothing else, “Red Son” tells you why, without jingoism, Superman must be American. Superman’s creators have always depicted him as representing what our country stands for when we’re at our best, and “Red Son” demonstrates that if American ideals aren’t the driving force behind the Superman, we’re in for a world of hurt.
4. “SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS” ($17.99) is a coming-of-age story that emphasizes the “man” in “Superman.” Writer Jeph Loeb demonstrates how a super boy becomes the most admirable of men in the course of four seasons in Smallville, in what amounts to a love letter to one of our greatest myths.
Once again the big guy’s character shines through. Superman may be technically a strange visitor from another planet, and have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, but “Superman For All Seasons” reminds us that he’s the most human hero of all.
3. “KINGDOM COME” isn’t technically a Superman story, as it features a huge cast of DC characters, both familiar and brand-new. But the Man of Tomorrow — and, once again, his character and influence on other people — is the beating heart of this tale, which asks: “What is a hero?”
“Kingdom Come” ($17.99) is set in a near future where a disillusioned Superman has retired to a farm, after the Daily Planet staff (including Lois Lane) has been killed by the Joker, and the public has turned from Superman’s idealistic approach and embraced a new heroic ideal: Violent superheroes who fight each other for fun, and end most supervillains’ careers permanently. But Wonder Woman entreats the graying Man of Steel to suit up again, because these new superheroes — many of them the children and grandchildren of the Justice League — are out of control, and a frightened United Nations is gearing up to put them down permanently. So Superman leads a new League to clean up the mess.
Batman — now crippled from years of combat — fears the fascism underlying the methods of Superman’s group and recruits his own team, while the remaining supervillains flock to Lex Luthor for protection. The finale that results when these three groups and the U.N. come into conflict remains shockingly brutal to this day. But when the dust clears, we see why the ideals of Superman are so necessary, for human and superhuman alike. “Kingdom Come” is also notable for the amazing artwork of Alex Ross, who painted every page using live models. The result is stunningly gorgeous, and makes even superheroes look plausible.
2. “SUPERMAN: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” ($14.99) is an unusually sad Superman book, one that it has been known to make grown men tear up (including me). First, some background: What pops into most people’s heads when they think of Superman comic books are the stories and concepts that were developed in what is called the “Silver Age” of comics, which coincided with editor Mort Weisinger’s time on the Super-books (1958-70). It was during Weisinger’s tenure that Superman went from the Last Son of Krypton to paterfamilias of a huge, sprawling cast that included a Supergirl, a Superdog, a Supercat, a Supermonkey and a Superhorse.
It was a time when hundreds of Kryptonian criminals found alive in the Phantom Zone, and Supergirl’s parents found alive in the Survival Zone, and millions of Kryptonian citizens found alive in the Bottle City of Kandor, began to suggest to some wags that nobody died when Krypton exploded except Jor-El and Lara. It was also a time when Superman’s friends and family had adventures in their own books, including Supergirl in “Action Comics” and Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane in their own books.
But all that came to an end in 1986, when DC Comics decided to reboot its entire superhero line. With a new version of Superman in the wings, DC allowed legendary writer Alan Moore (“Watchmen”) and longtime Superman artist Curt Swan to craft a story that, essentially, wrote “The End” to the Silver Age Superman. It’s a wonderful and poignant farewell, but a farewell nonetheless.
1. “ALL STAR SUPERMAN” ($29.99) is another story focusing on the human aspects of the Metropolis Marvel, but at the same time restores something I hadn’t felt reading a Superman story since I was a child: A sense of wonder.
Comics superstar Grant Morrison wrote the 12-issue story collected here, a stand-alone about the final days of a Superman dying from solar-radiation poisoning. That sounds pretty depressing, but honestly, Morrison writes a Superman whose calm optimism and joie de vivre reassure everyone around him (and the reader) that everything will be all right.
And, in those final days, a joyful Superman enjoys a number of small, charming moments with friends and foes alike that are both organic to the story and somehow iconic. Meanwhile, Superman is just — super, topping one superfeat after another in logical extensions of his powers. That led to gasps from this longtime reader, and rekindled the excitement I had about Superman as a child, a sense that anything was possible and that the universe was just waiting for us to try.
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