DC Comics celebrates the 80th anniversary of the publication of ACTION COMICS #1 with the publication of the celebratory ACTION COMICS #1000 on April 18 this week—exactly 80 years to the date since the first issue hit the newsstands. The original ACTION COMICS #1 had a cover date of June 1938 which leads many to think it must have hit the newsstands around the country in June but according to testimony in an old lawsuit between DC Comics and Bruns Publications, the on-sale date for the comic book was April 18, 1938. That single comic book, cover priced 10¢, introduced readers to such unforgettable characters as "Chuck Dawson", "Sticky-Mitt Stimson", "'Pep' Morgan", "Scoop Scanlon" among others and in recent years has sold in auction for over $3 million!
Oh yeah, I nearly forgot to mention that ACTION COMICS #1 notes the first appearance of a super-strong defender of the weak leaping around in circus tights and a cape—Superman! In a 13-page story written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster (a reworked version of their failed attempt at selling the concept as a newspaper comic strip), they introduced the world to Clark Kent. Kent was sent to Earth as an infant in a rocket ship by his parents right before their unnamed home planet was "destroyed by old age." Crashing onto Earth, the baby was found and turned over to an orphanage where he amazed everyone with his "feats of strength." Once fully grown, he found he could leap 1/8 a mile and hurdle tall buildings in a single bound, outrun a train, lift "tremendous weights," and "nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin." Kent determined that with such great powers came a great responsibility (that sounds marvelously familiar) and created his "Superman" persona as a champion of the weak and the oppressed. And in that first story he does this dramatically by saving a woman about to be executed for a crime she did not commit, protecting a woman being beaten by her husband, and rescuing ace news reporter Lois Lane from a gangster who had abducted her.
The sales numbers and popularity indicate that the appearance of the first cape-clad super-hero struck a chord with the public and sparked a phenomenon that has never disappeared. After Superman appeared there was a literal glut of copycats and derivatives that began appearing month after month that tended to be based on one directive: "Bring me something like this Superman guy." While 80 years of comic books have brought thousands upon thousands of other super-heroes, some of whom have arguably become more popular than Superman himself, none of them will ever be able to claim to be first. Superman was the first. All else are derived from him in some capacity. In 80 years, a lot has changed about Superman, especially whenever DC decides he is losing relevancy and makes some major change. But eventually the cycle shifts and things always seem to roll back to the basic conceptual elements and look. The concept is so basic and archetypal that it can morph itself to fit into whichever cultural mileau it exists within, which is why the character of Superman is always relevevant even if comic book, film, and TV writers may not always understand how to tell relevant stories. The failure is on the writers and not on the concept or the character himself.
In light of this unprecedented pop-culture event—the 80th Anniversary of Superman—I wanted to shine a focus light on my list of the 10 greatest single-stories about Superman ever told in comics. Some of these stories span more than one issue but the key aspect of each is that it is a complete story that stands apart from the weight and the mass of the tens of thousands of stories that have been published featuring Superman.
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artists: Wayne Boring (pencils)/Jerry Ordway (inks)
This is essentially the last-ever full on retelling of the very first Superman story (from ACTION #1) but fully informed by additional elements added to the character by his co-creator Jerry Siegel in subsequent stories. These additional elements include the name of his home planet, Krypton, and his Kryptonian name (Kal-L), the inclusion of his adoption by the Kents, and the naming of the newspaper that Lois (and later Clark) work for—The Daily Star. Note that the changes to his name (Kal-L to Kal-El) and the changes to the name of the newspaper (Daily Star to Daily Planet) were elements that came later. These original elements were relegated to the "Earth 2" Superman. In DC continuity, this became their built-in explanation for the differences between the original "Golden Age" versions of their characters and the modern "Silver Age" versions.
Since this version of the origin appeared after CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, it became the last official retelling of the golden age origin because post-CRISIS, DC had removed Earth 2 from their continuity thus erasing the Golden Age Superman at the same time. As writer, Roy Thomas, wrote on the splash page: "The CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS is ended....but the paradoxes remain. Even flourish. These are stories which need telling, and they shall be told. But perhaps the most perplexing, the most poignant of these paradoxes is the passing of the original Superman from the collective memory of virutally all mankind...but we remember him...and this is his story. His first story."
Roy Thomas, a child of the golden age, and a writer who was there during the rise of DC's chief competitor Marvel Comics (even Editor-In-Chief at one point) brought to the writing a nostalgic love and a modern eye. He wisely paired one of Superman's primary artists from those early years so many decades earlier, Wayne Boring, to pencil the story and current fan-favorite inker, Jerry Ordway, to pair together for the art. The three of them created the definitive version of the Golden Age Superman and it still stands tall as one of the best retellings of one of the most familiar stories of all time.
9. ACTION COMICS #554 "If Superman Didn't Exist"
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Artist: Gil Kane
This story stands out first of all because of the art by one of the all-time greats, Gil Kane. Kane is an artist known for his dynamic anatomy and superior design ethic (he designed the Green Lantern costume worn by Hal Jordan, for example). In a world where our history has been rewritten and humans have lost their violent tendencies because we were conquered by aliens thousands of years ago, there are no heroes to be found. No Superman. No Batman. No Wonder Woman. This is a world where the heroic ideal never arrived. It is within this context that 2 young boys, Jerry and Joe, conceive of an idea. That idea is expressed artistically by young Joe who draws their new hero on a cave wall; their Superman who is really strong, can fly because his cape captures the wind, and does only what is right. Their creation magically comes to life, inspiring humanity and freeing them from the control of the aliens—even demonstrating empathy and understanding for the aliens and their own plight.
The story is really an exploration of the deeper impact that a character like Superman can have beyond just entertainment. It also serves as a beautiful way to honor Jerry (Siegel) and Joe (Shuster), who originally created Superman.
8. SUPERMAN #230 "Killer Kent Versus Super Luthor"
SUPERMAN #231 "The Wheel of Super-Fortune!"
Writer: Cary Bates
Artists: Curt Swan (pencils)/Dan Adkins (inks)
In this "imaginary tale" two-parter, we encounter a Superman who is not Kal-El but rather Lex-El. In this new version of the story, driven mad with grief over the loss of his wife, Jor-El commits an act of genocide and destroys his home planet of Krypton. He escapes the destruction with his son Lex-El in a rocketship bound for Earth. After landing, Jor-El adopts the identity of a small town doctor in Smallville and puts a wig on Lex to protect his identity as he starts his career as the quite-bald Superboy.
Clark Kent is the son of 2 notorious bank robbers who pay a criminal scientist to implant a stimulant in Kent's brain that will guarantee that no matter how he is raised, he will be "the greatest criminal who ever lived."
Young Clark and Lex become best friends but Jor-El flips out again and insanely tries to destroy Smallville. Through a complicated series of events, we get to the point of Lex becoming a reporter for the Daily Planet, meeting Lois Lane who has no love for Superman—only for Kent, and a galvanized "Killer" Kent wielding a machine gun and swearing to destroy Superman.
Kent and Superman engage in a series of conflicts until Kent learns Superman's secret identity and launches one last attack. Superman ultimately prevails and the brain implant in Kent short-circuits killing him. Once Kent has died, Lois's head clears and she loses her feelings for him, Superman realizes that her brainwaves were being inadvertently manipulated by the implant in Kent's brain putting her into a suggestible state whenever she was around Kent. The story ends with a close-up of Kent's body as Superman's voice-over intones: "Tragic...only in death is Clark free of the awful curse of Markem's Chromo-Stimulant...Free from the evil that tortured his and distorted his face into a look of hate!"
7. SUPERMAN ANNUAL #11 "For the Man Who Has Everything..."
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Widely recognized as one of the most popular Superman stories ever written. This story has been adapted into at least one animated adaptation in JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED and one live-action adaptation on the SUPERGIRL tv series. Why does this story resonate so much? I think Ian Dawes at Sequart nailed it when he noted here that it is essentially THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST but with Superman instead of Jesus. Both stories illustrate the "necessity of a heroic figure to choose to suffer...to sacrifice something of [himself] in order to make that gesture."
In brief, Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman visit Superman in his Fortress of Solitude bearing gifts for his birthday. What they discover upon arrival is a catatonic Superman with a strange alien plant attached to his chest. The plant, we later learn is called the "Black Mercy," is a parasite that survives by attaching to its host body and infiltrating the host's mind to determine their deepest heart's desire and letting the fantasy unfold. Like the humans in THE MATRIX, the host is unaware that the fantasy is not the reality, and because the fantasy is their deepest desire then they are not necessarily inclined to try and fight it.
As the heroes attempt to determine what the plant is and how to free Superman, we see what is happening inside of Superman's mind. He is living his life on a Krypton that never exploded and is married with a son and a daughter. Batman risks his own life to rip the Black Mercy off of his friend but winds up with it on his own chest. The reader sees Bruce Wayne's deepest desire, in which his father overpowered the criminal and his parents were never killed. Before the plant is torn from Batman's chest, he grows up and is happily married with a teenaged son.
The story climaxes when the alien villain, Mongul, who sent the Black Mercy to Superman winds up with the flower on his own chest and sees himself as having murdered Superman and all the heroes and hailed as the new emperor of Warworld.
6. SUPERMAN #296-299
Writers: Cary Bates & Elliot S. Maggin
Artists: Curt Swan (pencils)/Bob Oksner (inks)/Bob Wiacek (partial inks on #297)
I'm not sure if this was the first time that DC did a complete story that spanned 4 complete issues, but it still stands strong as one of the first and best explorations of the deep tension between the Clark Kent and the Superman identities. In Part 1, "Who Took the Super Out of Superman!," an alien named Xviar effects a change in Superman in which he only has his powers after he puts on his costume (think GREATEST AMERICAN HERO). Superman, unaware of Xviar's meddling, determines that it must be his body telling him that he needs to choose either Superman or Clark rather than continue as both. There are some fantastic moments in this issue, including the moment where Clark saves someone by allowing himself to be clipped by a car, then unexpectedly waking up in a hospital afterward as a needle is inserted in his arm. Before he realizes that he regains his powers when he puts on his costume, there is a funny scene as he exits the hospital by slipping his costume on and moseying through the halls.
In Part 2, "Clark Kent Forever—Superman Never!," Superman decides to live for one week as only the non-powered Clark Kent. Without powers, Clark finds himself becoming more assertive and confident since he does not have to hide his powers anymore. He stands up to the workplace bully, Steve Lombard. He tells off his boss, Morgan Edge. He even single-handedly breaks up an Inter-Gang operation. And most notably, he asks out Lois on a date and she finds herself actually falling for Clark finally. Their first real kiss sweeps her off her feet.
LOIS: "Clark, where have you been all my life?"
CLARK: "Would you believe...the office next door?"
Part 3, "Clark Kent, Get Out of My Life!", is the week where Superman decides to be a full-time Superman—no Clark Kent. A new villain, Solarman, arrives on the scene and Superman takes him down. While Clark is absent from his apartment for the week, Xviar takes that opportunity to sneak in there and swipe some hi-tech equipment that Superman had stored in a hidden closet. A dramatic moment occurs when a goon from Inter-Gang, desiring revenge on Kent, also breaks into Clark's apartment while Xviar is in there. Xviar promptly disintegrates him. We also discover that Xviar's plan in doing this to Superman was to distract him long enough for Xviar to gather together the equipment he needs to destroy Earth.
In Part 4, "The Double-or-Nothing Life of Superman!", the alien Xviar pits Superman against 9 of his greatest villains. He has irradiated Superman's costume such that with each use of his powers to defeat a villain he is building up towards an explosion of power and energy such that when he delivers that final punch Superman himself will inadvertently destroy the planet. Thankfully, Superman figures out the plot and does not utilize his super powers to defeat the final villain and simply has to wait for the radiation to fade away before capturing Xviar and delivering him to a space prison.
In the end, Superman self-actualizes: "Poor Lois--I tried to decide whether Clark or Superman is more important...and I realized that to do away with one would be to kill half of myself—whoever I really am! So even before I got rid of my power problem, I'd decided meek, mild-mannered Clark Kent will still walk the streets of the city...while up in the sky...the world will still watch and thrill to the sight of...a job for Superman!"
5. SUPERMAN #423 & ACTION COMICS #583
"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"
Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: Curt Swan (pencils)/George Pérez (inks SUPERMAN #423)/Kurt Schaffenberger (inks ACTION #583)
In 1986, DC Comics decided to restart Superman from scratch with THE MAN OF STEEL mini-series by writer/artist John Byrne. This was the first intentional reboot of the character. This story was the final story about the version of Superman we had all known before. When speaking of Superman we would now speak of pre- and post-MAN OF STEEL.
Alan Moore delivered a story that began in the future (1997) with a reporter interviewing Lois Lane about the last days of Superman's life before he disappeared 10 years before. As the story goes, there was a period of time in which most of Superman's villains had either died or just sort of disappeared. But then there is a horrific breakdown of expectations as some of his least dangerous enemies (such as Bizarro, Toyman, Prankster) reappear but take on murderous activities. Luthor brings back Brainiac as Superman gathers up his circle of friends and family and hides them safely within his Fortress of Solitude.
There is an assault by the Legion of Super-Villains and a creepy Brainiac-controlled Luthor attack. At one point, Luthor begs Lana to kill him, which she does but Brainiac continues on using Luthor's body as a puppet. In the course of the battle, all of Superman's friends are killed except for Perry White, his wife, and Lois.
The villain behind it all is revealed to be a distorted version of Mr. Mxyzptlk who had decided the time had come to stop just being mischievous but to become fully evil. Because he is so powerful, Superman is pushed to the point of having to kill him. To self-punish, Superman subjects himself to Gold Kryptonite to strip himself of his powers then disappears into the Arctic wasteland presumably to die.
The story concludes by letting us know what the reporter does not realize—that Lois's husband, Jordan Elliot, is actually the unpowered Clark Kent in disguise. And we see their young son Jonathan playfully squeeze a piece of coal in his hand turning it into a diamond.
4: SUPERMAN #300 "Superman 2001!"
Writers: Cary Bates & Elliot S. Maggin
Artists: Curt Swan (pencils)/Bob Oksner (inks)
In 1976, to celebrate the 300th issue of SUPERMAN comics, they published this story that imagined the world of 2001 where Kal-El's rocketship landed on earth in the year 1976. The story of how he arrives on Earth is the same but once he arrives, he is not found by a kindly old couple but rather draws the attention of the U.S. and Soviet military. Navy Lieutenant Thomas Clark is the one who recovers the ship. The rocket is taken back to a military base where the super-powered young Kal-El climbs out. General Kent Garrett has a costume made for the flying boy and gives him the name "Skyboy."
In the 1990s, Skyboy prevents a third world war from escalating but in the end, General Garrett dies and Skyboy decides to give up the costume and try to blend in with humanity as Clark Kent, reporter. However, in 2001, a new plot against the world and a 4-armed android send Clark diving into the ocean to recover his old Skyboy costume. Calling himself Superman he saves the world and defeats the android and disappears again. This time, however, he's holding onto the possibility of returning if he is ever needed again.
A highlight of this comic book, in retrospect, is the vision of 2001 that artist Curt Swan visualized. Yes, there appear to be a lot of floating vehicles and male fashions that include flared collars and ascots.
"The Super-Cigars of Perry White!"
Writer: Elliot S. Maggin
Artists: Curt Swan (pencils)/Vince Colletta (inks)
This comic is such a product of its times and so charming in its simplicity. In gratitude for his helping Superman save some young mutants from the evil Calixto, the mutants decide to secretly give Perry White a box of cigars that have the ability to give him whatever super-powers he desires while he's smoking it. The charm of watching Perry White getting to essentially be Superman for awhile, but all the while, chomping on a lit cigar is entirely as entertaining as you would expect.
In the end, he winds up with one super-cigar left and decides to put it in his vault...just in case: "I, for one, don't want to have super-powers ever again! That is, unless I absolutely need them!"
2. SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS #1-4
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Brilliantly structured, SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS is told in 4 parts with each part being titled after a season (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) and a different narrator, which also means an entirely different point of view. The focus overall in this story is a grand overview of Superman. Artistically this is accomplished with lots of gorgeous double-page spreads and large imagery through the simplified graphic lens of artist, Tim Sale.
Part 1 is narrated by Clark's adopted father, Jonathan Kent, and the emphasis is on Clark as...Clark. The boy and the man he was before he became Superman. Part 2 is narrated by Lois Lane and the focus is on the worldview-changing impact the presence of Superman was on her and on the entire city...and even the world. Part 3 is narrated by Lex Luthor and keys in on how Luthor perceives himself and also how he so perfectly figures out ways to hurt Superman in psychological ways that tick away at the hero's self-confidence. Part 4 is narrated by Lana Lang, the girl Clark left behind when he moved to Metropolis. This is the full-circle part of the story where we get to see Superman now through the eyes of Clark's childhood love. We see how the farmer's son is still the farmer's son while at the same time he is the world-changer—the Superman.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Frank Quitely
This 12-issue story is the ultimate Superman story. Structured on the 12 Labors of Hercules, writer Grant Morrison wanted to explore different aspects of the character's full history. In a brilliantly effective manner, he and artist Frank Quitely squeeze the entire origin of Superman into a single page. From that start point, the story takes off and tackles everything from the loss of Clark's adopted parents to silly confrontations with super-powered suitors attempting to steal Lois from him, to a dramatic encounter with various Supermen from the future, fellow Kryptonians attempting to conquer Earth, becoming stranded on Bizarro's crazy world and encountering the depressed normal Zibarro, and ultimately facing down Luthor for the last time and his own certain death.
Utterly and equally mythological, archetypal, nostalgic, modern, emotional, and as perfect a distillation of who Superman is and why he is.