Last week, I had to buy a recent comic from an online store, due to the fact that I hadn’t got out to an Actual Shop in time to snatch a copy of Batman Inc #9 upon its release. When the issue arrived – promptly and at a reasonable price, thanks very much Books ‘n’ Comics - there was a little promo bookmark from DC chucked in. This promotional item exhorted readers to “get ready for” The Man of Steel by buying six graphic novels/collections of stories about the character.
The thing is, with one notable exception, I don’t think the recommendations were actually very good. It’s partly that they’re largely comics that I didn’t really like – but more significantly that if you’re specifically pitching at people who want to see what all the fuss over Superman might be about in advance of a huge movie in which they’re supposed to care about him, then I really don’t think that the chosen books do the job.
What’s more, I’ve already seen people online who say they don’t really “get” the character, but are keen or at least curious to learn, asking which Superman stories they should read in order to try and get a handle on him. So for each of DC’s five recommendations (two of the six were in the same series of books, so I’m counting them as one), I’ve come up with one of my own that I think better gives a good impression of why the character is the greatest and most enduring of superheroes. And I’ve even shown you where you can buy them, just to prove that I’m not entirely opposed to the principle of DC hawking these books as a movie tie-in.
So, let’s get started with the totally unsurprising turn of events that is Alternate Cover recommending that you shouldn’t buy a JMS book…
DC’s recommendation: Superman: Earth One vols. 1 & 2
What is it? The first (and so far only) two in a series of standalone OGNs written by J. Michael Straczynski with art by Shane Davis. Free from the regular Superman continuity, Earth One is a fresh, stripped-back, movie-esque take on the Superman origin, designed to appeal to people who might want to read a modern-day Superman story without being bogged down in years of previous stories.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: Because it’s not a Superman story. Straczynski either woefully misunderstands the character on a fundamental level, or (being a pretty intelligent man, let’s face it) understands him perfectly but just plain doesn’t like him. So this, like almost every other time he’s written the character, is a Superman comic for people who don’t like Superman. Rather than being an inspirational hero who sees the best in everyone and has a determination to do right, this version of Clark is unpleasant and moody, and is only spurred into action upon the arrival of alien criminal Tyrell, who it turns out was responsible for the destruction of the planet Krypton. It’s a huge and pretty unforgivable twist to the mythos if Superman’s story becomes one of anger and revenge rather than optimism born out of accidental tragedy, no? Earth One has its fans, certainly, but if you’re going into Man of Steel wondering why you should be bothered about Superman, it isn’t going to tell you.
Why you should buy that: Because it’s a fresh, stripped-back, movie-esque take on the Superman origin that actually perfectly hits on what Superman is all about. Written by Mark Waid with art by the superb Leinil Francis Yu, Birthright was a 12-issue miniseries published in 2004 that at the time was supposed to stand as the “official” Superman origin story, bringing the timeline much closer to the present (a 25-year-old Clark, prior to taking on the Superman identity, emails his mother while travelling the world) as well as incorporating elements of the then-popular Smallville. It was subsequently mostly retconned by the events of Infinite Crisis and Geoff Johns’ own Secret Origin miniseries a few years later, but these days it still stands as an excellent, self-contained graphic novel about the character’s journey from birth on Krypton to fully-accepted Metropolis hero. Waid has a perfect handle on what the character means, too – that lovely bit in the Man of Steel trailer about the “S” shield being the Kryptonian symbol for “hope”? That comes from this book.
DC’s recommendation: Superman: Last Son of Krypton
What is it? Geoff Johns teamed up with Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner and artist Adam Kubert for this five-part storyline about General Zod escaping from the Phantom Zone and Superman reconnecting with his Kryptonian heritage. The collected edition of this story also includes another Johns story from a short while later, Brainiac, with art by Gary Frank.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: Plagued by delays during its original publication, the story is just a bit of a mess. It’s by no means terrible, but despite the name value of having Donner involved in plotting, it really isn’t one of the standout Superman stories of the era. And giving Clark and Lois a child, even an adopted one (Chris Kent is actually the Kryptonian son of General Zod and Ursa), is as bad an idea here was it was in Superman Returns. Brainiac is a bit better, with superb art by Frank (his Christopher Reeve likeness on Superman is something to behold), but a little excessively dry.
Why you should buy that: The Superman storyline that almost immediately preceded Last Son, this was also the first story published following DC’s “One Year Later” continuity jump in 2006. As Clark is temporarily de-powered after the events of Infinite Crisis, the gradual re-emergence of his powers is the perfect opportunity to provide a fresh jumping-on point for the character. Writer Kurt Busiek is another with an innate understanding of the character, and this is quite simply a healthy dose of breezy, old-fashioned superheroics with a lively and modern twist. Great art by Pete Woods and Renato Guedes, too – although it’s a shame cover artists Terry and Rachel Dodson weren’t also on interiors…
DC’s recommendation: Superman: For Tomorrow
What is it? Following the spectacular success of Jim Lee’s 12-issue stint drawing Batman in Hush, DC moved quickly to get him on a similar 12-issue run on Superman. Writer Brian Azzarello took on the unenviable task of trying to make people care about the words.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: It’s boring. Really, really boring. A bunch of people disappear, including Lois Lane, and then Superman does something… and then the thing… and… oh, I don’t know. It’s got very pretty art, of course, and if you want to see Jim Lee at the height of his powers drawing Superman for 12 issues (wonky interpretation of the S-shield and all), then go nuts. But if you want a coherent and interesting story, just don’t. Hell, if you want Jim Lee’s version of Superman, I’d even recommend the bits of Hush the character appears in over this.
Why you should buy that: It manages to be one of the best explorations of what it means to be Superman ever published in comics, without actually technically featuring the character of Superman in it. Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen tell the story of an ordinary kid in “our” world named Clark Kent, who spends his childhood suffering the obvious jokes before discovering as an adolescent that he suddenly has the powers of Superman. It’s an inventive, touching and deeply human tale, and while its Clark is a distinct and different character from the “fictional” Superman, he reflects a lot of the best of the character, and what he shows us about what we ourselves can be.
DC’s recommendation: Action Comics vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel
What is it? The first volume of Superman stories following DC’s “New 52″ continuity scrub. No longer the product of decades’ worth of stories (although, to be fair, DC had last done a full reboot of their universe as recently as 1986 anyway), this is a reinvention of Superman that starts approximately “five years ago”, with him as a brash young working-class-vigilante finding his way in the world.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: It’s not easy for me to say “don’t buy a Grant Morrison comic”, and boy did I want this to work, but… it just doesn’t. Maybe it’s that Morrison had already exhausted everything he had to say about the character. Maybe it’s that the quite interesting “jeans and t-shirt, champion of the people” take on the character wasn’t given enough time to breathe before the “proper” New 52 version had to take over, or that Morrison’s fifth-dimensional story was pretty incomprehensible, or that he and Rags Morales simply never clicked in the way he has done with other artists. But some standout moments aside, it’s largely pretty forgettable stuff.
Why you should buy that: A product of the aforementioned 1986 reboot, writer/artist John Byrne’s six-issue miniseries was the biggest shake-up the character had ever had (at that point), and while most of its continuity has been overwritten several times since, and many elements of the story are incredibly of their time, on the whole it stands up remarkably well. So much of what the modern character and his world entail has its origin in this book – most notably, the then-novel idea that there was a third spoke to the Clark/Superman dichotomy, and that the relaxed, glasses-free version of Clark we see interact with his parents is in fact the “true” personality (take that, Tarantino). Then, of course, there’s Lex Luthor, cast for the first time as a sinister captain of industry rather than a one-dimensional mad scientist. Visually, meanwhile, there’s rarely been a better take on the character than Byrne working in tandem with inker Dick Giordano, expressing his combination of grace and power with confident elegance. All of this, plus a Batman team-up in issue #3.
DC’s recommendation: All-Star Superman
What is it? Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s twelve-issue, continuity-free take on the Superman mythos, heavily rooted in the Silver Age aesthetic, tells the story of what happens when the Man of Steel discovers he has a year left to live.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: If you’re blind, or otherwise unable to read comics.
Why you should buy that: It’s one of the greatest comics published in the last decade, and possibly longer. It’s certainly one of the best ever comics published about Superman – some would say the best. It’s a stirring, glorious, uplifting, mythology-drenched, awe-inspiring masterpiece, with art by the single finest storyteller currently working in mainstream comics. I’ve babbled at further length about its wonderfulness before, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but basically, if you want to know just how magnificent Superman can be, All-Star will show you.
“You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race and stumble, and fall and crawl… and curse… and finally… they will join you in the sun, Kal-El.”