This month marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. The Last Son of Krypton has remained in continuous publication ever since, not to mention appearing on radio, television, and the movies. Speaking of movies, Superman also returns to the big screen this summer in Man of Steel. Since I’ve always been a Superman fan, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of my favorite Superman stories from the comics. This isn’t a ‘best of’ or ‘greatest stories ever told’ list. It’s a purely subjective look at some of my favorites, so if your favorite story isn’t on my list, feel free to add it in the comments.
1. Must There Be A Superman? (Superman #247, Jan 1972) Superman is a god-like figure, a secular messiah, and for most of his history, writers never questioned whether or not Superman’s presence on Earth was good for humanity. However, Elliot S! Maggin did just that in ‘Must There Be A Superman?’ In the story, The Guardians of the Universe (and founders of the Green Lantern Corps) confront Superman with the possibility that he is holding back humanity’s progress. They argue that humans have become too reliant on Superman and have failed to solve their own problems. Superman takes this idea to heart (at least for the duration of the issue) and experiments with a more hands-off approach. The details of the adventure are less important to me than the question it raises. If a god-like being did intervene in our world in seemingly beneficial ways, would that be an unqualified good? Nietzsche, who originally coined the term ‘superman’ (Übermensch), certainly didn’t think so.
2. For the Man Who Has Everything (Superman Annual #11, 1985) Alan Moore penned this classic story in which Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman visit the Fortress of Solitude for the Man of Steel’s birthday (or ‘firstday’, as they say on Krypton). However, when they arrive, they find him under the spell of a parasitic hallucinogenic plant, called the Black Mercy, that feeds its victims fantasies in exchange for feeding on their bio-aura. In Superman’s delusional state, he experiences his life on Krypton as it would have been if the planet had never been destroyed. As Batman and Robin try to free him from the Black Mercy, and Wonder Woman fights the villainous Mongul, fractures begin to appear in Superman’s fantasy and his idyllic dream becomes a nightmare as he resists the Black Mercy’s power. Philosophically speaking, the Black Mercy is a good stand-in for Nozick’s Experience Machine. Superman would rather live in reality than a pleasant fantasy. Nozick agrees and argues that in such a scenario, we should prefer reality to an artificial, albeit pleasurable, existence. Incidentally, ‘For the Man Who Has Everything’ was adapted for the animated series Justice League Unlimited. It’s an excellent episode in an excellent series!
3. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (Action Comics #423 and Superman #583, Sept 1986) Another Alan Moore story, this is a brilliant send-off to the Silver Age. Although it’s an ‘imaginary story’ (non-canonical) it’s become the more or less official end of Superman’s Silver Age career. The story is told from the perspective of Lois Lane (now Lois Elliot) ten years after Superman has disappeared, presumed dead. This story takes a darker look at many of the admittedly silly aspects of Superman’s Silver Age continuity. The result is an emotional and ultimately tragic resolution for many favorite Superman characters. This entry in the Superman mythology is also noteworthy for asking ‘Must there be a Superman?’ As one of the characters comments in retrospect: “Superman? He was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get along without him.” In this way, Moore tacitly broaches the Superman-as-Savior motif that informed much of the character’s history to that point.
4. Red Son (Elseworlds, 2003) What would have happened if Superman’s rocket had landed in the Soviet Union instead of the American heartland? That’s the question that Mark Millar asks in Superman: Red Son. I like parallel universe stories and this is a great one. Superman has always stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, so it’s very interesting to see him standing for a completely different ideology. Nevertheless, Red Son is morally complex. It doesn’t degenerate into patriotic jingoism. Superman always believes he’s doing the right thing. Even Lex Luthor, the American scientist trying to assassinate Superman, is not a black and white hero or villain. I’m getting into spoiler territory here, but the way Luthor ‘defeats’ Superman with a piece of his home planet (no, not kryptonite) is brilliant. It’s a great read and there’s plenty of fodder for philosophical reflection.
5. All-Star Superman (All-Star Superman, #1 — 12 Nov 2005 — Oct 2008) I should begin with a confession: I’m not a big Grant Morrison fan. Within continuity, his work has a tendency to become a muddled mess, but when his imagination is given free reign, the result is arguably one of the best Superman stories in the character’s long history. All-Star is in the same spirit as Moore’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.’ It proposes a hypothetical conclusion to the Superman saga, one that not only brilliantly situates Superman within his own mythology, but within mythology more generally. It is a Joseph Campbell-esque tale of the trajectory of a hero. The story is full of imagination and manages to pay homage to the character’s past while simultaneously bringing a fresh perspective (something that comic books and pop culture in general doesn’t do very often). It also manages to be both a good introduction to the character for new readers and a rewarding experience for long-time fans.
Superman for All Seasons
Peace on Earth
Well, there you have it. I have many more favorites, of course, but those are at the top of the list. Did I get it right? What’s your favorite Superman story?