Hello again everyone! I had such a blast doing my top fifteen Superman stories list last year, and as I said then, I wanted to do a list of ten more to make it an even Top 25!!
With that said, here it is!
16. “Earth One” (Superman: Earth One GN 1-3) J Michael Strazcynski, writer; Shane Davis, Ardian Syaf, artists
When DC began releasing this line of OGNs, my first thought was why? Did we need a) another retelling of Superman’s origin, or b) a new series of alternate realities, especially so soon after the return of the multiverse? Ultimately I think it was about bringing in the Twilight audience, er… new readers, and lending to cinematic adaptations, which I guess worked given that much of Book One was incorporated into Man of Steel three years later.
Where “Earth One” succeeds- and where MoS did not- was that for me a Superman self-discovery story works when the character is much younger, as he is here. The book is about a Clark Kent who is fresh out of school coming to Metropolis, getting a job at the Daily Planet and first learning to cut his chops as a superhero. If that sounds familiar, you’re definitely not wrong, but this story has enough new elements spun into the Superman mythos, including new villains and several new supporting cast members, to give it a shot with confidence. It’s an easy read with sharp, witty dialogue and great action that anyone can enjoy, whether they’ve ever read a Superman story or not. Although not in the title of the book series, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this my favorite Superboy story ever.
Not that that’s saying much… but still.
Unfortunately, Straczynski’s failing eyesight caused him to retire from comics altogether right as this story was getting really interesting, and the series stopped after Book Three. Hopefully another writer can pick it up at some point down the road with JMS’ blessing and continue.
17. “Brainiac” (Action Comics 866-870) Geoff Johns, writer; Gary Frank, artist
By this point in Geoff Johns’ career, he could do no wrong.
“Brainiac” came about as the (more or less) conclusion to Johns’ successful and all too brief run on Action Comics. His partner in this and its preceding arc, the also brilliant “Superman and the Legion of Superheroes,” was Gary Frank, whom by Johns’ own admission is the artist he pairs up best with. The two combined to tell a story with plenty of action and character work, which included Cat Grant’s return to the Superman books and the death of Pa Kent.
According to Johns, this story was an attempt to show readers Brainiac’s true form for the first time ever, the now definitive big brute in a black/green suit with neon trim (a design now used on Krypton as well). In doing so, I would argue he went one step further and gave us the best Brainiac story since the Silver Age, certainly, and maybe ever. Your mileage may vary.
Despite the fact that the book weakens for me by Frank’s insistence on drawing Clark Kent and Lois Lane as Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, complete with bumbling Clark, it’s still great. I’d love to see Johns get a shot at writing Supes in an ongoing book again.
18. “The Death of Superman” (Superman 149) Jerry Siegel, writer; Curt Swan, artist
I’ve often talked about how the Silver Age is my least preferred era for the Man of Steel, despite it’s admitted charm and many contributions to the mythos. By this point in the book’s history, the majority of fans were children tuning into George Reeves’ classic portrayal in The Adventures of Superman on weekday afternoons and reading comics as well. As such, most stories of the era are whimsical and fantastical, often silly yarns about Superman swapping heads with an animal, Jimmy Olsen turning into a giant turtle or Lois Lane acquiring superpowers amidst a mad quest to get Superman to marry her. Many fans love these stories and legions of creators have been inspired by them ever since, so admittedly, I’m in a minority.
One of the greatest features of the Silver Age, however, were what were often called “imaginary stories.” Years before “What If?” or “Elseworlds,” some issues of books would begin with the disclaimer that that month’s story was not in canon and wouldn’t be remembered by the next issue. Although this trope originated toward the end of the Golden Age, it became a staple here.
Arguably the greatest such story, and perhaps the greatest Superman story to come out of this era, is the “original” death of Superman. What amazes me about this issue is how dark it is, despite being published during heavy censorship. Quite simply, Superman loses. He is beaten by Lex Luthor and is killed. The remainder of the book is about bringing Luthor, shown here at the height of his “mad scientist” phase, to justice. There are some genuinely moving, emotional moments that ensue, the degree of which must have been rare, indeed, in the period.
Add to all of that the fact that the book was written by a Jerry Siegel who had reluctantly returned to DC after being swindled out of rights to his character and lost his job. Perhaps some of the dark tones to this story were reflective of what he was going through in his life at the time. Nevertheless, his transition to a Silver Age style of writing is impressive and demonstrates how good he was at writing his greatest creation in any era.
19. “Thy Kingdom Come” (Justice Society of America 10-22, Annual 1 and Kingdom Come Specials Superman, Magog and The Kingdom) Geoff Johns, writer; Dale Eaglesham, Jerry Ordway, Fernando Pasarin, Alex Ross, artists
What if the Superman from Kingdom Come existed in the DCU? This is the main premise of “Thy Kingdom Come,” a JSA story that was a tie-in of sorts to Kingdom Come.
Before reading this story, it’s important to note that by the mid-2000s, all of Geoff Johns’ work tied together in some way or another, telling the story of the return of DC’s multiverse after Infinite Crisis and beginning the next era of DC Comics. Between Green Lantern, Flash, Legion and Action, I would argue that Johns almost singlehandedly made me fall in love with the DCU as a whole. Everything he did during this era was excellent and I’d highly recommend it.
From the standpoint of Superman (since this is kind of about him), Johns decided to tell his first story about the new multiverse through the pages of Justice Society of America, one of several titles at the time which launched after IC. In TKC, the Justice Society stumbles onto several alternate realities including the world of Kingdom Come, now known as Earth-22.
The brilliance of this story, however, is not simply folding KC into the main DCU, but the fan service that follows as a result. We get new pages of art once again painted by Alex Ross, as well as the return of Jerry Ordway drawing chapters that take place on Earth-2, all the while bouncing between all three. It is great fun and a love letter in many ways to DC history. Earth-22 Superman’s story continues as well, and over the course of the next two years we get a closure of sorts for him, made all the more gratifying by having Johns and Ross co-write much of his story.
If you don’t like multi-world stories, or even if you do, this might make your head spin. But if you enjoy the DC multiverse or Kingdom Come as much as I do, I think you’ll love the follow up.
20. “Angels” (Superman 659) Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza, writers; Peter Vale, artist
An underrated aspect of Kurt Busiek’s run on Superman are his standalone stories, many of which have still never been collected (maybe a future post with thoughts about that…). I always love when writers break up the monotony and weight of a multi-part saga with an occasional “interlude issue,” which many great writers have done over the years to great effect. This is more or less what Superman 659 is.
Stories about what Superman means to the world, or in this case, what he means to each individual person he runs across, really work. This issue is about an elderly woman living in a less than great part of Metropolis who comes to see Superman as an angel and a direct answer to prayer. After she is saved from a car crash by Superman, each time she sees some sort of danger on the news she prays for him to come help, and (coincidentally) he often does.
Where this story goes from here is what makes it an interesting superhero adventure, while also providing some beautiful messages about choices we make in our life as well. These kinds of heartfelt, touching stories that don’t involve power crazed despots or alien invasions are always great places to take the Man of Steel, regardless of how much or how little action is in the book. I wish writers would try this direction more often.
Peter Vale does a fine job on this issue’s art, one of his only collaborations with Busiek on Superman. I wouldn’t mind seeing him on more books as a featured artist.
21. “Red Son” (Superman: Red Son 1-3) Mark Millar, writer; Dave Johnson, artist
I’ve said before that Mark Miller is crazy, in a good way. In fact, I would say he is a great kind of crazy.
Cut from the same cloth as Moore, Morrison, Milligan, and other “British Invasion” creators (whose last names all start with the same letter…?) who brought adult sensibilities with bizarre, Silver Agie ideas, he has made a big name for himself in American comics (and is now continuing that streak on streaming television). Like any great writer, his work is often brilliant in a way that makes you wonder why no one else thought of it before. His work includes many stories with Superman, and most would agree that “Red Son” is easily his best output.
Perhaps what amazes me most about this story is, much like countryman James Robinson did in “The Golden Age,” he captures a feel for Eisenhower-era USA brilliantly, almost seamlessly. Using that as the backdrop for an incredibly simple but hugely creative premise of a certain Kryptonian rocket landing in the Soviet Union, we get a Superman story that has become an instant classic.
Millar succeeds in weaving a tale of what does Superman really mean to the world, and how much of who he is comes from being raised by the Kents: the whole nature vs nurture argument. There are also some great moments with Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and even Lex Luthor in one of his few appearances as a semi-protagonist. The story spans over the course of this Superman’s entire life, and truly feels like a great epic (so much, in fact, that the story is currently being adapted as the “Red Daughter” storyline on CW’s Supergirl show as we speak).
I found the ending to be a bit too far fetched in one aspect and, quite frankly, confusing, to put it too much higher on this list, but it’s still a brilliant story and one that I enjoyed very much. Besides, when it comes to Millar, the craziness is part of the fun.
Now all we need is a reprint of the deluxe edition!
22. “War of the Worlds” (Superman: War of the Worlds GN) Roy Thomas, writer; Michael Lark, artist
The DC Elseworlds line had some real gems that came out during its heyday. Many are well known- Kingdome Come, The Golden Age, Gotham by Gaslight– others less so, including this beauty, which I’ve never heard anyone talk about. Ever. And yet I find it’s one of my favorites to come out of the era.
The story is about the HG Wells classic of the same name taking place in Metropolis in the 1940s, and a fledgling Superman fighting back on humanity’s behalf. The story is fantastic, much like anything written by Roy Thomas about WWII or the Golden Age usually is. There are several references to real life events happening concurrently as well as several nods to that era of comics (ie Superman jumps far but doesn’t fly, Daily Star, George Taylor, etc). The art, too, is brilliant, handled by a young Michael Lark, who right away is head and shoulders above most artists of the late ‘90s. His pencils are clean and crisp, and the colors are bright and vibrant.
As with most Elseworlds/What If? stories, the stakes are high and repercussions that usually wouldn’t happen in in-continuity stories happen here. If you like “imaginary tales,” or period piece books like the wonderful All-Star Squadron, or both, definitely give this a try.
23. “Last Son” (Action Comics 844-846, 851, Annual 11) Geoff Johns, writer; Adam Kubert, artist
I’ll confess, I didn’t think much of this story when it first came out. Its five meager chapters were released over the span of 18 months, which did nothing for the reading experience and rode roughshod on the continuity of the other Superman titles of that time. Combine that with the fact that Busiek’s brilliant run on Superman ended up being one of my all time favorites, and I just didn’t really give this story, Johns’ first arc on Action, much thought.
Having reread it just a few years ago as a whole, however, it actually reads pretty well. The story is one of the first to use General Zod in a big way since John Byrne had the character killed nearly twenty years prior (more on that later!). There’s also a tinge of nostalgia added to it given that Richard Donner, Johns’ mentor in the entertainment business, co-wrote the book. The theme of the book is family, and one which usually works well with Superman. In this case, Superman’s family member is Chris Kent, a mysterious boy who is confirmed to be Kryptonian, a rare event in the post-Crisis DCU.
What follows is a book that is a mystery, with equal parts action and character moments, typical of Geoff Johns’ effective storytelling. Combine this with the fact that this book was written during Johns’ aforementioned heyday of the mid-2000s, and penciled by the ever capable Adam Kubert, and it’s a winner.
24. “Man of Steel” (Superman: The Man of Steel 1-6) John Byrne, writer/artist
After the monumental shift in the entire DCU that came after “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” DC set out to update and streamline much of its characters and universe. Fresh off several legendary runs for the better part of a decade at Marvel, DC completed a coup by securing the services of writer/artist John Byrne to revamp and reboot the most famous character in their stable. “Man of Steel” was the result.
Although not a conventional Superman story, as this mini covers many eras and periods in Supes’ life, focusing on a different character each issue, it still reads as one cohesive story just fine. And what a story! This book was the beginning of the entire post-Crisis Superman revamp as Byrne introduced readers to a completely different, far more grounded Superman. Gone was the character’s ever having been Superboy, gone was bumbling Clark Kent, and gone were any other surviving Kryptonians. Byrne also grounded the character in a way that hadn’t been done since the Golden Age, depowering him to previously lower levels so as to allow for more conflict in stories. He gave us a new, darker Krypton, a confident Clark, and his usual, tremendous Byrne storytelling.
The story itself is great too, as it also includes introductions of a revamped Luthor and Bizarro, as well as arguably the greatest Lois Lane story of all time. In addition to being a good story in its own right though, the book’s influence was felt for the next 25 or so years, even up to today in some ways! Quite simply, without John Byrne, you don’t have any of the weekly “triangle number” era which came after, the Death/Return, or even the Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV show. His influence on the Man of Steel cannot be overstated.
Thank you, John!
25. “The Supergirl Saga” (Superman (Vol.2) 21-22, Adventures of Superman 444) John Byrne, writer/artist; Jerry Ordway, artist
Right after John Byrne’s first Superman story on this list is, for me, his last. The original Supergirl saga is a solid story in its own right, and the one most people point to when debating about Superman taking life.
In this story Byrne puts Superman in a truly inescapable moral dilemma and asks the question of how he would find a way out of it. The answer may be a shock to some, but I found it to be a very powerful story. Its repercussions (some bizarre) lasted for years, eventually leading to the famous “Exile” storyline.
The execution of this story was very good. The inescapable moral dilemma was mixed in with the first post-Crisis appearance of General Zod, a pocket universe and the introduction of “Matrix” Supergirl, the first Supergirl appearance after her death in Crisis. Two of the issues were drawn by Byrne, and the other by Jerry Ordway, who at this point was well into his run on the Man of Steel as well.
I don’t know what fan reaction was to the story at the time, and would be curious to read more about it today. Without bringing up a certain 2013 superhero movie, since we’ve been over that a million times on the internet, Byrne’s Supergirl saga was the one time I can think of where a story about Superman killing actually worked.
That’s the list! I hope you enjoyed it and would welcome comments in the section below. I’ll post a few follow up thoughts to both lists in a subsequent post, including notable omissions.
Thanks for stopping by!