Saturday, April 07, 2012

Top 10 Superman Stories

Eric, my one-time supplier, long-time friend, and erstwhile editor at Nerdy Nothings, posed me this question on Facebook:
With all your Superman fan-dom, do you have a top 5/10 Superman stories list, either published or in your brain? I'm trying to come up with mine now, and I'm curious what'd make your cut, since you've read a lot more
Strangely enough, it's not something I think I've blogged about before. So I thought I'd sit down and put together a top ten (because top five was too limiting). Based on the questions, here are the parameters I set for myself:
No Film: Eric said "read," so I omitted the various other-media adaptations. None of the movies, no Animated "Legacy" or "Destroyer" or "Mxyzpixelated."
No "Elseworlds": Nothing explicitly an imaginary story. Superman's fairly unique, I think, in that some of the best stories with the character tend to be the imaginary ones: Red Son, Secret Identity, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, etc. I wanted to focus on the relatively canonical Superman. With one arguable exception.

With that out of the way, here's my list.

Honorable Mentions
  • The Death & Return of Superman: I would love to include this in the list proper. It begins with a huge battle, showcasing Superman's strength and willingness to sacrifice anything for the safety of others. It continues by showing how Superman inspires those around him, from his would-be cousin to his fiancĂ©e to the rest of the superhero community, to four who would try to fill his shoes. It shows, perhaps even more subtly than other stories, what makes Superman who he is and why attempts to modernize him, to make him fit better with passing fads, are problematic at best. It also has some amazing art. But as a Superman story--and specifically, as a Superman story I could give to someone as an example of how great the character is, I think it largely fails. The character is present only through impact for the majority of the saga, but even before that it's mired in the continuity of the early '90s, with the extradimensional shapeshifting clone Supergirl, the clone of Lex Luthor posing as his own son but actually housing the original's brain, the inhabitants of Cadmus, and all that. The main story is a good one, but the peripheral material is all but impenetrable.
  • Action Comics (vol. 2) #1-8: I really enjoyed the story, and I should re-read it soon to get a better impression of the arc as a whole. In time, it may make its way into the list. But especially with that two-issue digression in the middle and the art shifts, I'm not sure I can pop it into the top ten yet.
  • Final Crisis/Superman Beyond: A great story, but as much a Batman story as a Superman one. And as a Superman story, it's a little hard on the brain.
  • Superman (vol. 1) #1: A great introduction to the character, and a look at what Superman was like in the Golden Age. Just not a lot of depth.
  • Hitman #34: A good, introspective Superman story, but one that's mostly just narrated.
  • "Must There Be a Superman" (Superman #247): A good, classic story that examines the continuing question of what Superman's place is in the world, and whether he does more harm than good. It's a story that's been done multiple times since (immediately following "Our Worlds At War," Roberson's "Grounded"), and I think it's a little too short and too pat to really make it into the top 10.
  • "A Hero's Journey" (Action Comics #800): This one only just barely didn't make the top ten. Mostly it's because I kind of wanted to cut down on Year One/Origin stories there. Honestly, though, this should be collected in a TPB along with "Man of Steel" and "For All Seasons" because it fills in and retells parts of those stories, interspersed with stories about how inspirational Superman really is.
  • DC One Million: One of the best crossovers of all time, and a good Superman story besides, but it's really only about Superman on the fringes.
  • Man of Steel: I would have finished this post hours ago, but I had to re-read "Man of Steel" and "Birthright" to be sure. The former is great for its brightness and vibrance, for how it touches on so many different important parts of Superman's history to update them for a modern age, but it dwells more on how Superman's powers work than who he is, and spends so much time reintroducing characters and elements from the past that it doesn't always work as a coherent story. Plus, Magpie?
The Top 10
  1. Emperor Joker: There are a lot of stories that probe what Superman does when stripped of the abilities and status that make him who he is. There are a lot of stories that examine the friendship between Superman and Batman, and what makes it work. There aren't a lot of stories that do it in a way that's as entertaining and heartfelt as this one tends to be. To be honest, though, this #10 spot could go to a lot of stories, and would probably be the one most likely to change depending on my mood.
  2. The Challenge of Luthor (Superman vol. 1 #4): The first appearance of Lex Luthor, where the arch-villain challenges Superman's brawn against his own brains. It's a great showcase of the conflict that has raged ever since, and reading it now makes it clear that it inspired quite a lot of the first Superman/Luthor confrontation in the more recent Action Comics (vol. 2) #2.
  3. Camelot Falls: It's "Must There Be a Superman" writ large, Superman faces the accusation that he is actively harming human progress, and also fights Cthulhu. It doesn't hurt that the art is amazing.
  4. Up, Up, and Away!: The Busiek/Johns story arc from the "One Year Later" event is about as good an introduction to Superman as anyone is likely to get. It's a whirlwind tour through the Man of Steel's friends and foes, along with a great deal of heart and understanding what makes Superman tick.
  5. Miracle Monday: Superman vs. the Devil. While I thought the end was a bit anticlimactic, this story gives insight into Superman's mind and morals better than most, and also shows just what kinds of amazing things both Superman and Lex Luthor should be capable of. I wish more Superman stories would showcase both their intellects as well as this one did.
  6. Superman For All Seasons: I don't think it's hyperbole to call this Jeph Loeb's best work, at least of what I've read. This is Superman at his most earnest, and it makes for a calm, sincere portrayal that ought to be to Superman what "Year One" is to Batman.
  7. For the Man Who Has Everything: A story of what sets Superman apart, even next to the rest of DC's trinity, and what the Man of Steel can do when pushed to his breaking point. One of the true classics.
  8. What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? (Action Comics (vol. 1) #775): People say this one's overrated, but I have a hard time thinking of any other stories in the modern age that better showcase who Superman is, what he can do, and what he never would do, better and more succinctly than this one. Plus, Doug Mahnke is a hell of an artist.
  9. Superman: Birthright: I had been saving this one until I reached it in the "Superman Sunday Origins" series, but that's been on hiatus for awhile (even though I totes have the next post and a half already done). So I finally went back and re-read this series, having grown quite a bit as a person and a Superman fan since 2003, and having shed a lot of the attachment to continuity that impeded my ability to enjoy this series when it came out. And it is great. I don't know that I've ever been so wrong in my opinion of a comic book as I have with this one. What this has over "Man of Steel" is not just a consistent story thread, but a whole lot more characterization and emotion. Everyone here has a complex motivation and a consistent, sympathetic characterization, and it's all wrapped up in an action-packed story about hope and legacy and doing good.
  10. All-Star Superman: I kind of hate All-Star Superman. Not because it's a bad story, but because there's not a whole lot of places to go when you're done with it. Almost anything else is a step down in terms of story and art quality. I don't know that there's ever been a better Superman story, but it gives me hope that there still might be.

A side-note: I'm still reading. There are nearly seventy-five years worth of Superman stories for me to catch up on, and I know there are still classics ("The Luthor Nobody Knew" comes to mind) that I don't remember well enough to include. There's also a shocking and tragic lack of Curt Swan on that list. If you asked me again in a year to come up with another Top 10, I suspect at least a few things would be very different. But this little exercise has inspired me to do a little more revisiting of some stories, and visiting-the-first-time of others, which may filter its way down to additional posting. Hooray!

1 comment:

LJ-90 said...

Superman Peace on Earth it's pretty good, and I know people hated it but I liked New Krypton.