Standard Issue Comic Book Geek Jim—that’s SICBG Jim to you—is back for another Starter Stories article. He rambled on about “truth, justice and the Geekly way,” and I told him he could commandeer the site if he didn’t preach Superman to me. Okay. Superman—the Standard Issue Comic Book Superhero—doesn’t get enough love. Shine on, you Crazy Kryptonian.
Superman is my favorite superhero. It’s hard to come up with a starters list for him, though, because so many of his best books are retellings of his origins, or Elseworlds stories that can’t be considered canon. With that in mind, here are the titles I recommend for approaching the character and better understanding where he is today.
Birthright (written by Mark Waid/art by Leinil Yu; 2003-2004)
Superman: Birthright is a good place to start with Superman. It’s a reimagining of Superman’s origin that includes a lot of what’s part of canon today. Maybe most notably, the idea that the “S” on his chest isn’t an “S,” as “Man of Steel” famously told us. Birthright sets the stage for Krypton to be used as more than a passing point of interest in Superman books. Mark Waid is always a good bet.
What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? (written by Joe Kelly/art by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo; 2001)
I love this one because it wrestles directly with so much of what people say is wrong with Superman. It’s a defense of his optimism and an example of how his real powers aren’t in his strength, speed, or invulnerability, but in what he has the power to show humanity about itself. It’s not an attempt to retrofit the character to make him more interesting to modern audiences, but an exploration of what everyone seems to overlook about him now. Lee Bermejo is also one of my favorite creators, so that doesn’t hurt.
Kingdom Come (written by Mark Waid/art by Alex Ross; 1996)
This book builds on what I’ve said about our second entry. Kingdom Come contrasts Superman with a lot of the more edgy characters in recent comics and makes a case for why Superman is not only relevant, but necessary. Mark Waid does what he does, rendering a faithful depiction of the character, and Alex Ross offers some of the definitive Superman art in recent history.
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (written by Alan Moore/art by Curt Swan; 1986)
This book is meant to put a cap on the story of Superman. It’s told by Lois Lane ten years after the supposed death of the hero. It’s gloomy, especially by the standards of Superman comics, but there’s a bittersweet quality in seeing the character’s legacy laid out on the page.
The Death of Superman (written by various/ art by various; 1992-1993)
This arc was written and drawn by various creators, as it encapsulates a pretty long arc. I’ll be honest here and say it isn’t one of my favorite stories in Superman lore, but it’s on this list because it’s iconic, and it’s too important to comics history to leave off. This is the story of how Superman died defeating Doomsday. The image of Lois cradling Superman’s broken body, Jimmy Olsen in the background pleading for him to be okay is one of comics’ great panels. Of course, this was the moment that broke death in comics, as the resurrection of Superman set a trend and lowered the stakes moving forward.
All-Star Superman (written by Grant Morrison/art by Frank Quitely; 2005-2008)
This is my personal favorite. The story that gets to the heart of what makes Superman so special, that even in the face of his own mortality, he protects the people of Metropolis. He stops to comfort a troubled teen on the verge of suicide in another of recent comics’ great panels. Quitely’s art is serene, and Grant Morrison’s affection for the character comes through without making the story saccharine.
SICBG Jim has given your uncle Geekly the honor of writing a closing statement. I hope I can live up to the great example he set. Here it goes.
Superman’s portrayal in the DC Extended Universe—and I blame the writing and directing more than Henry Cavill—leaves a lot to be desired. The DCEU may be one of the largest targets Jim thought of when he said that creators “retrofit the character (Superman) to make him more interesting to modern audiences.”
The stories above, and especially All-Star Superman, do a great job of showing that the Man of Steel is more than a super-powered Batman in gunmetal blue tights. He represents hope, and the original comic book superhero is still one of the best. Do agree with SICBG Jim’s story selections? Let us know either way. I’ll just be in the corner doing my best Mister Mxyzptlk impersonation.