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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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