Header image by Ron Salas
I’ve been a fan of Superman since I was practically an infant, and as this year marks the 75th anniversary of the character I wanted to put together my own personal recommendations for the essential Superman stories of the last three-quarters of a century.
I’ve divided my list into four parts, for every level of fan from beginner to advanced. It’s not a short list, it doesn’t cover absolutely everything worth checking out (THAT list would be three times as long) and not everything is easy to find, but if you get all the way through it you’ll be as informed on the matter of the Man of Steel as any diehard Superman aficionado.
(And here’s my chance to mention my blog, The Chronological Superman, which covers Superman’s first twelve years, appearance by appearance …)
Introduction to Contemporary Supermanica
For the beginner!
So you’re completely new to Superman, ’you’ve never read a single Superman comic and you’re rarin’ to go – but where to start? These three books are routinely listed as “personal favorites” among contemporary readers and – even though DC has since “revamped” Superman with a new costume and backstory - will get you up-to-speed with the character’s personality, origins and motive.
Superman:Birthright by Mark Waid and Lenyil Yu
Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immomen
Superman For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Also cut from the same cloth as these books is Superman:Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, a book which isn’t any better or worse than any of the above suggestions but which never ends up on anyone’s “best of” list, for some reason. So read that, too.
Video extra credit: DC is investing heavily in its direct-to-DVD animated features, the most recent Superman-centric title of which is Superman:Unbound. Largely adaptations of material which first appeared in the comics, any one of them is about the same quality as the others, so you may as well jump in with the most recent.
Essential Foundations of 20th Century Supermanity
Now that you’re out of your freshman year, it’s time to dive into research! Superman has seventy-five years of history to catch up on, so even this curated list is going to end up being pretty dense.
No era had a greater influence on the Superman mythos than the Silver Age – Brainiac, Bizarro, Supergirl, the Fortress of Solitude, all those different colors of Kryptonite, they all came from the 1950s and 1960s! DC’s line of DC Comics Showcase Presents provide inexpensive black-and-white collections of these years, including:
…Superman: There are four volumes, covering the years of 1958 through 1964, and is your most essential reading (at the very least, read #2 and/or #4, which typifies the both the joyful weirdness and occasionally phobic atmosphere of the Silver Age)
…Superman Family: Four volumes, containing reprints of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane adventures from their respective books. From the second volume onward, all volumes are split evenly between the two characters (volume one is practically all Jimmy). Jump on at #3 for typical Silver Age adventures in full swing.
…Supergirl: Two volumes, plenty of Superman guest appearances, either one will give you the gist of the character’s Silver Age adventures.
…The Legion of Super-Heroes: Four volumes, the adventures of Superman’s boyhood friends in the 30th century.
You’re doing yourself a massive injustice if you neglect to read Superman’s debut adventures from the late thirties, which is where The Superman Chronicles comes in. Ten volumes to date and an eleventh apparently planned, volume one is absolutely essential as it covers Superman’s first year – most importantly, the first five issues of Action Comics, which are a whirlwind of activity.
Likewise, in the world of print, regular Superman scripter Eliot S! Maggin is responsible for a pair or prose novels which have their feet firmly planted in the Bronze Age Man of Steel mythos, but with some wild and entertaining extrapolations: Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday, both highly enjoyable.
Video extra credit: There are six Superman films, but 1978’s Superman:The Movie remains the gold standard for superhero films in general, and Christopher Reeve’s performance went on to define the character in the public eye for thirty years. Meanwhile, in the world of cartoons, Superman’s first animated adventures remain many fans’ favorites, so you’ll want to watch the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons (they and their related Famous Studios cartoons are now in the public domain, so you can find cheap copies anywhere, including free copies online.) Lastly, the Dini/Timm/McDuffie version of Superman from Superman:The Animated Series, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons remains the definitive version for a generation of fans. If you can’t invest in the 100+ hours required to watch them all, try S:TAS’ The Last Son of Krypton (parts 1-3), World’s Finest (released on DVD as “The Batman/Superman Movie”) and the touching “Apokalips … NOW!” two-parter, as well as Justice League Unlimited’s adaptation of “For The Man Who Has Everything”
Now that you have a solid foundation in Superman’s past and present, here are the books that bend the character’s rules.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant, arguably the greatest Superman story ever told, simultaneously a recap and a reconstruction of the character right down to his essential themes.
There are many books teaming Superman with Batman, but when DC was looking to rebuild the relationship between their flagship characters, they used Dave Gibbons and Steve Rude’s atmospheric World’s Finest:Worlds Apart to draw lines distinguishing and contextualizing the two characters in contrast with one another.
For The Man Who Has Everything and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, a pair of stories written by Alan Moore and illustrated by (respectively) the up-and-comer Dave Gibbons on one and the veteran artists Swan, Schaffenberger and Perez on the other. These are available in The DC Stories Of Alan Moore which will also include a brooding, atmospheric meeting between a dying Superman and Moore’s recently reinvigorated Swamp Thing, all of which beat at the emotional core of the character’s considerable mythology.
Superman: Red Son, illustrated by Dave Johnson and written by Mark Millar, though Grant Morrison had some considerable input (most notably in what I honestly feel is a slightly bungled conclusion). Set in a speculative world where Superman’s rocket lands in Soviet Russia, it explores what would happen if Superman did use his powers to rule the world, and how it’s simultaneously for the best but still morally wrong.
Superman vs Muhammad Ali, technically a mainstream Superman story by industry giants Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, the character is lent particular additional pathos by his close association with the beloved boxer - and the actual scale of the book adds tremendously to the impact (and speaking of which)
Superman: The Power of Hope, part of a series of tabloid-sized, fully painted books by Paul Dini and Alex Ross which examines the limits of Superman’s might and the strength of his human limitations.
Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby vols 1 and 2, where the Superman-adjacent Fourth World mythology was begun, Kirby’s “hip dad” Superman and the complete reinvention of his “pal” Jimmy was the most dynamic change in Superman’s chronicles since the Silver Age.
Lastly, DC made an effort to Marvel-ize their big players during the Eighties, and their initial attempt was in 1982’s The Phantom Zone, a tense and atmospheric story by Steve Gerber and Gene Colan. In 1986, the Marvel-ized Superman was declared the mainstream interpretation of the character, and its genesis was John Byrne’s six issue Man of Steel series, which revamped the character and provided an at-a-glance summary of the new continuity’s particulars…
Video extra credit: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Although cobbled from archive footage and cut scenes, this recent edit of the classic sequel comes closest to Donner’s partly controversial vision without much of director Richard Lester’s slapstick and vaudeville additions. It’s hobbled by a reused ending and a misplaced coda, but Donner’s Phantom Zone villains are more gleefully terrifying and his Lois-and-Clark occupy the emotional spine of the film.
Explorations Beyond Conventional Superparameters
Liberated from strict corporate oversight, some creators have crafted alternate takes on Superman and his mythology
It’s Superman by Tom DeHaven sets the Man of Steel mythos back in the Thirties that birthed him, and mixes him with equal parts Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird and Hollywood Babylon. It’s a whole new origin for everyone from Luthor to Jimmy Olsen (although there are problematic elements to this version of Lois Lane), well-written and gripping, manages to recast the story in a realistic light without sacrificing the sense of wonder.
Supreme - Alan Moore’s Supermagnum opus, referred to often as the greatest Superman story not about Superman ever told. It’s hampered by uneven artwork, although when artists like Sprouse or Veitch take part, the book reaches remarkable heights. A near-retelling of Superman that covers every inch of the character with heart and wit.
Lastly, currently a work in progress, Chris Roberson’s and Dennis Culver’s ongoing comic Edison Rex looks at Superman-like myths from the perspective of his greatest foe, asking what would Lex Luthor do if liberated from Superman’s shadow?
Video extra credit: Disney’s Hercules; at the time of its development, the rumor surrounding this motion picture product from the House of Mouse was that Eisner’s Disney was planning to take advantage of the ever-rumored lapsing of Superman into the Public Domain to produce a Disney-style Superman film. That rumor was all kinds of wrong, BUT the actual story - a young man with incredible powers must rationalize his divine origins with earthly responsibility - is familiar. Additionally, future Batman Ben Affleck’s turn as TV Superman George Reeves in Hollywoodland humanizes a tabloid sensational death and addresses the human cost in portraying a character larger than life.
And that’s it! If you track down and drink in all of these books and films, you may consider yourself a graduate of the school of Superman! Your diploma and Kryptonian headband are in the mail, try not to let your acquired authority go to your head.
If you get this far and you’re still hungry for more, well, good news! There are literally hundreds-if-not-thousands of other great Superman stories out there, in the form of tv shows, comic books, comic strips, cartoons, and more. You’ve entered a nearly-endless whorl of entertainment!