Today (April 18) marks the 80th birthday of Superman, with the publication of Action Comics #1 in 1938. It also, by happy coincidence (or, rather, well-engineered circumstance) is the day that issue #1,000 of Action is being published. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Comixology’s latest massive DC sale ties into this, with over 100 Superman (and Superman family-related) trade collections available at knockdown prices.
But with so many books in the sale, it can be hard to know where to start, especially since – and I say this as an enormous fan of Superman – a lot of Superman comics down the years haven’t exactly been the best. So in a revival of an old feature we used to do more often, here’s a run through my picks of what’s worth picking up…
The greatest superhero comic of the 21st century? Very possibly. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s masterpiece should already be well known to you now, but if not, then get it picked up – a 12-issue epic that tells the story of the last days of an ur version of Superman drawn from all across seven decades of myth. Quitely is at the peak of his visual storytelling powers, while Morrison is having a ball with a character and a legend he adores.
Still for my money the best retelling of Superman’s origin story, and one that should be the template for a movie some day. Mark Waid and Leinil Yu revamp Superman for a post-Smallville age, shifting his timeline upwards by a couple of decades but retaining everything that’s good about the character, and making you want to spend as much time with Clark Kent as you do the guy in the tights. Where Batman v Superman told a story about the world mistrusting Kal-El and somewhat fumbled it, this book absolutely nails it. And it’s where the “S stands for Hope” thing comes from.
The origin story that predates (and was reteconned by) Birthright, it’s hard to overstate just how significant John Byrne’s full-scale revamp was back in 1987, when such things just didn’t happen (as opposed to now, when we’ve had… well, several of the things for Superman alone). Although plenty of elements of it have dated now (and parts of it were a little over-Byrne-ish even then), this is still the defining template for the modern interpretation of Superman, thirty years on. Volume 1 of this series of Man of Steel volumes collects the original six-issue miniseries…
… and the remaining volumes collect pretty much every issue from Byrne’s run on Superman and Action Comics, as well as Adventures of Superman by Marv Wolfman (later Byrne) and Jerry Ordway. Taken as a run, the whole thing is worth reading (if patchy in places), and you likely won’t find a better deal on it then £36 for the lot; but if you don’t want to spend that much, then specifically you could check out any or all of volume 2 (the first part of the Superman run, including the wonderful Lex-centred issue #2, “The Secret Revealed”), volume 4 (which has the confusing but entertaining attempt to tie up the Superboy/Legion of Super-Heroes continuity problem), volume 5 (where it all goes a bit weird with the Superman/Big Barda “sex tape” story, but also a good Mr Mxyzptlk reintroduction and an excellent short Lex Luthor story) and volume 9 (which rounds off Byrne’s run with the introduction of Supergirl and the infamous “Kryptonian criminals” story).
It’s rare that we say this, so let’s shout it: this is an actually really great Jeph Loeb comic. Just as on his earlier Batman work The Long Halloween, he clicks best when working with artist Tim Sale, who brings a lovely old-school feel to this take on Superman’s early days. And like many writers, Loeb manages to shine when getting inside the head of Lex Luthor. A fine companion piece to Man of Steel.
Might actually be the best ever Superman story, despite not actually featuring the character of Kal-El (except on a few pieces of merchandise featured throughout). Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s timeless classic is all about a Kansas kid with the unfortunate name of Clark Kent, who after growing up with Superman-related taunts, wakes up one day to find he actually has super-powers. To say too much more about what happens next would ruin it, but it’s a wonderful and deeply human story, with plenty to say about what the idea of Superman can mean to people. If you were only going to get one thing on this list, then even ahead of All-Star I’d say make it this one.
Okay, so you could just pick one of the individual chapters of the Great 1990s Superman Epic, but why would you deny yourself the opportunity to read the rest when it costs just £16? Exactly. In Death of Superman, Superman takes on the brutal new threat of the monster known as Doomsday, and you can probably guess how it ends (watch out for the clever stylistic trick of reducing the number of panels per page as each issue gets closer to the end). In Funeral for a Friend, the DC Universe mourns Superman and Supergirl tries to step up to take his place in Metropolis. In Reign of the Supermen, four new characters appear, each with some kind of claim to being the “real” Superman. And in Return of Superman, the big guy… well, again, come on, do you need to guess? It’s all great (although Reign is the best bit) and once you’ve read it all, you can listen to our podcast on it!
If you want a bit more ‘90s Superman in your diet, then while there aren’t any more trades of that era’s main Super-books in this sale, you can pick up the two volumes that cover Dan Jurgens’ run as writer/artist on Justice League – which ran concurrently with part of his Superman run (Death of happens partway through) and saw Superman as the only A-list member of a team cobbled together out of leftovers from the Giffen/deMatteis run. It dials down the humour significantly from that iteration, although still focuses on the group’s attempts to function as a team despite major personality clashes. It’s not essential material, but is a good snapshot of the early/mid-90s DCU.
A standalone reimagining of Superman that could be likened to an Ultimate-style reboot – but which actually isn’t really about Superman at all (he doesn’t even don the costume until towards the end), but instead about Clark Kent growing up and coming to terms with his powers and his place in the world. It’s written by Max Landis (which may put you off for all kinds of entirely understandable reasons), but is really surprisingly good – and the array of artists (a different one for each issue, with the stories tailored to their strengths) is phenomenal. Honestly one of the best new Superman comics I’ve read in a good long while.
Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s farewell to the Silver Age incarnation of Superman (just prior to John Byrne’s reboot) is an absolute masterpiece, one of the best things DC have ever published, and you absolutely should read it. But it’s a recommendation that comes with a couple of caveats: firstly, don’t go into it if you don’t have any familiarity with Superman and his mythos, because so much of what makes it work is wrapped up in its history. And secondly, even in a half-price sale, this is a quite overpriced collection – Whatever Happened is a two-part story whose individual issues can be got for £1.49 each (in fact, at the time of writing, the second part is only 69p due to a separate Action Comics sale). It does also include the Superman Annual #11 story For The Man Who Has Everything (with Dave Gibbons), but that too is available individually, and also often shows up in sales. So basically, I’m not saying don’t get this, I’m just saying that there are much better value things in this particular sale.
Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ four-part saga, set in a possible future (which DC, of course, later then decided to make a probable future) where the world has rejected old-fashioned superheroes like Superman in favour of grim and gritty ‘90s style vigilantes. A nuclear disaster brings Superman out of retirement, but in the process puts him on a collision course with… well, pretty much everybody, with near-apocalyptic consequences. There’s a lot going on in this, and again it’s maybe a little bit impenetrable if you’re not coming to it with a deep-rooted love and knowledge of DC, but it has a lot to say about the clashing ideologies of superheroes, and the art sees Ross at the peak of his powers and popularity.
I often call this “the favourite Superman comic of people who don’t like Superman”, since it’s often widely cited as one of his best ever, but the problem is that it’s not really about the same character at all. But while it’s not the best “what if Kal-El’s rocket landed elsewhere” story (step up J.M. deMatteis and Eduardo Barretto’s Speeding Bullets), it is a lot of fun all the same, even as it suffers from some of the more glaring of Mark Millar’s flaws.
The early part of the Peter Tomasi/Patrick Gleason/Doug Mahnke run on Rebirth-era Superman is some of the best material the character has had for years – although it starts off in the somewhat unusual place of Superman being the pre-New 52 version, emerging publicly after the death of the New 52 version, alongside whom he’d secretly lived for a while. Superman Reborn is the crossover with Action Comics in which all of that is straightened out (the two versions get merged, basically) but before that, Son of Superman and Trials of the Super Sons are the first two volumes, and very entertaining, arcs that centre largely around Clark and Lois’ son Jon Kent and his burgeoning friendship with Damian Wayne (Robin).
And finally, I haven’t generally gone into any of the extended Super-family stuff in the sale, largely because most of the Superboy/Supergirl stuff is pretty forgettable. But a word for Super-Sons, the spinoff series featuring the aforementioned Jon and Damian, whose first volume in particular is an awful lot of fun. So if you like what you read in those Superman volumes, grab this as well as an accompaniment.