If I'm being honest, I'm a recent convert to the cult of the Kryptonian. That is, until recently, I found Superman to be, well, boring. All those insurmountable powers? That perfect spit curl? His conflation with a Cold War iteration of unwavering nationalism? In a post-Watchmen, post-The Dark Knight Returns era of morally flawed (and thus more "realistic") superheroes, Superman just seemed outmoded to me. But I had a dirty secret: just like my distaste for brussel sprouts, my distaste for Superman was entirely theoretical. Once I actually tried brussel sprouts, I discovered I loved them. So it was with the Man of Tomorrow. Below are five titles — one classic, four written in the last 30 years — that realize Superman's enduring appeal in gorgeous, glossy panels, and expertly written word balloons.
Moreover, after finally watching Zach Snyder's joyless Man of Steel the other night, I think it's even more pertinent to direct would-be fans to the comics. These comics all forgo Snyder's expository dialogue, soulless and overwrought CGI action sequences, and self-seriousness, and instead focus on what actually makes Superman interesting. That is, I generally agree that Superman's superpowers, in and of themselves, do not make for engaging drama.
Rather, it is Superman's commitment to a perfect ethical system — as supernatural as invulnerability — that forms the foundation of his uniquely modern mythology. The fantasy of flight is nothing compared to the fantasy of moral certainty, of doing the right thing every time, in spite of the power to make any whim a reality. Man of Steel's polarizing ending, an attempt by Snyder to situate Superman within the current cultural and political context of an America grappling with the moral ambiguities of her mission (torture, increased surveillance, extra-judicial killing), suggests that Superman is not the man of tomorrow, but rather something less: the man of today. Where is the joy in that? Where is the fantasy that enlightens us to what our reality could be, if only we were a little more like a farmboy from Kansas, by way of Krypton?
The below comics offer wildly different, but similarly enjoyable, perspectives on how Superman defends truth, justice, and not just the American way, but the best of the American way. Give 'em a try. I swear you'll like them.
1. Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1 (1938-39)
While Golden Age comics have become easy targets for modern comics readers bemoaning the diminished status of the superhero genre within the medium, these early Superman stories by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster actually espouse some pretty radical politics. Siegel originally billed his hero as a "champion of the oppressed," and in this collection, it is clear Siegel envisioned his hero as a tonic for economic inequality. Superman tracks down war profiteers, destroys manufacturing facilities that produce unsafe vehicles, and forces corrupt politicians to own up to their greed and face justice. If any of this strikes you as particularly Marxist, and thus a complete subversion of that Eisenhower-era "Boy Scout" critics love to dismiss Superman as, you're spot on. And this is how Superman began his career!
2. Superman: Red Son (2003)
Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunket, respectively, this three-part graphic novel begins with a simple but fascinating premise: what if Superman had crashed landed in the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, instead of the breadbasket of America? What would the world look like if Superman fought for "Stalin, Socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact?" Millar and company present an engaging alternate history, but also envision what would happen if Superman actually applied his supernatural ethics to a political system. By the end of the narrative, the reader is reminded why Superman is the defender of truth, justice, and the American way, and not an enforcer of it.
3. Kingdom Come (1996)
As much a story about DC's other Golden Age heavyweights (Batman and Wonder Woman) as it is a Superman story, Alex Ross and Mark Waid's Kingdom Come responds to the generational conflict between the foundational pillars of the superhero genre, and the "extreme," morally ambivalent superheroes ushered in by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Alex Ross's lush, Norman Rockwell-like art provides a pitch-perfect, nostalgic patina to a comic that explores what role the traditional heroes of our past can play in the complicated present. Through a conflict about how to solve this dilemma between perennial rivals — if not outright antagonists — Batman and Superman, Ross and Waid assure their readers that traditions can adapt, but not without some severe growing pains. Even for the Man of Steel, the learning curve remains steep and on-going.
4. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (1986)
Written by the venerable Alan Moore and pencilled by Curt Swan, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" presents an "imaginary" last Superman story before John Byrne rebooted the character in the mid-1980s. The story wraps up the loose ends of Superman's Silver Age continuity, bidding farewell to the more fantastic elements of the character's past, like Krypto the Superdog and Bizarro. Eventually, after Superman violates his own moral imperative, we say goodbye to the Man of Steel himself in a satisfying ending that Zach Snyder's film desperately needed.
5. All-Star Superman (2006-08)
Taking a cue from Alan Moore and Swan, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's amazing All-Star Superman also situates itself as a "final" Superman story. But rather than writing out everything that seems "childish" about the mythology, Morrison embraces the lighter side of Superman, and Quitely's illustrations are simultaneously contemporary and evocative of classic Superman comics. The twelve-part narrative has enough literary depth and complexity to compete with Moore's Watchmen, and has kept readers coming back to search for new layers of meaning. Perhaps unique among this era of superhero comics, All-Star Superman is a neither a pessimistic reaffirmation of the limitations of the superhero genre, or an attempt to "modernize" the Man of Tomorrow by adding more Watchmen-like "gritty realism" (read: "sex, violence, moral ambiguity"). Instead, the circularity of Morrison's narrative underscores and illuminates our relationship to America's most enduring 20th century cultural icon. That is, as we empower Superman to be a fantasy of moral perfection, of ethical transcendence, the fantasy of Superman empowers us.
All-Star Superman is the essential Superman story. If you can't get behind the Man of Steel after reading this one, then you likely never will. However, I'm here to tell you what Superman has been telling us for 75 years: life is better with the sun, than without it.