Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Top Ten Best Superman Villains

One of the most common criticisms of Superman is that his rogues gallery is somewhat lacking. Toyman and Prankster are usually trotted out to back up this point of view, and considering they're essentially just two fat guys, then it's true to say that they don't really compare favourably to the likes of The Joker, Loki or The Green Goblin. But Superman's baddies are far more than two portly gents with bowties and killer pogo sticks. In order to demonstrate that Superman's nemesis's, nemesees, nemesi, whatever, are just as good (or bad) as Batman's or Spidey's, I present to you a list of the Top Ten Greatest Superman villains!

10) Titano

What's better than King Kong? King Kong with deadly Kryptonite vision! This seldom used misunderstood creature has all the tragedy and pathos of King Kong, with the added bonus of green ray beams that shoot out of his eyes. The fact that these ray beams are Kryptonite beams and therefore absolutely useless unless he's fighting Superman just adds to the goofy Silver Age fun. The best thing about Titano was the way he was eventually thwarted. Giant lead glasses!

Essential Storylines

'Titano the Super Ape' Superman #127 (1959)

The great ape's first appearance. Beauty doesn't kill the beast, but she does trick him into getting sucked back in time to a prehistoric age where he can live out his days walloping dinosaurs.

9) Terra-Man

Terra-Man is a space cowboy with alien technology who rides a flying horse. His alien technology includes expanding bullets and killer cigar smoke. Seriously, what's not to love about this guy? Okay granted, he was revamped in the early '90s as a boring eco-terrorist that eventually got ripped in half on live TV by Black Adam, but he was originally envisioned as a space cowboy with alien technology who rides a flying horse, and that's what we should focus on!

Essential Storylines

'The Challenge of Terra Man!' Superman #249 (1972)

Terra-Man's first appearance. Superman has to fight Terra-Man while suffering from hereditary Kryptonian Birthday angst that causes the Man of Steel to fly upside down and use his X-Ray Vision to stare at his own brain. It's just as awesome as it sounds!

8) Doomsday

The unstoppable monster that killed Superman has been somewhat overused in the past ten years. Also, for an unstoppable monster he's started to come across as distinctly stoppable. For example during the 'Our Worlds At War' crossover he was sent up against Imperiex (a Galactus rip off who can crap out smaller versions of himself) and fried within seconds of leaping into combat. This may have made Imperiex look pretty badass, but it was at the cost of seriously undermining Doomsday. Doomsday deserves better. After all, he did kill Superman (spoiler alert: Superman got better). Doomsday is at his best when he's written as he was originally conceived, a relentless, tireless, indestructible, destructive force. He's an uglier version of Hulk without Banner. He's a force of nature, a grey, bony tornado in green cycling shorts. This of course all serves a purpose. If Doomsday comes across as an almost godlike destructive force then the one person who can stop him is bound to come across as pretty damn special too. That person is of course, Superman.

Essential Storylines

'The Death of Superman' (1992)

Doomsday smashes his way across the United States and completely trashes the Justice League in the process. Of course then Superman shows up and eventually stops him but at the cost of his own life. This may be a six part punch up but it's genuinely entertaining. Writer Dan Jurgens focuses just enough on the ordinary people caught up in the destruction to suck us in, but never at the cost of the superhero/monster action.

'Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey' (1994)

A sequel of sorts to the above story. Superman is back from the dead but so is Doomsday. Superman journeys to Apokolips to face him and learns Doomsday's origin in the process. The best thing about this story is that Superman is genuinely terrified at the thought of facing Doomsday again. The fact that he does it anyway highlights the true heroism and courage of the character. Also, Doomsday kicks Darkseid's ass, which is pretty satisfying.

7) Mr Mxyzptlk

He's the imp from the fifth dimension whose sole aim in life is to get on Superman's tits. Less a villain, more of a pain in the arse, Mxyzptlk represents the fun side of Superman comics more than any other Super-baddy. While a lot of the fun comes from his magical pranks, the most fun is to be had from Superman's attempts to trick Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards, the only thing that'll send him back to the fifth dimension. While most villains received some sort of grim and gritty reboot in the eighties and nineties, the tone of most Mxyzptlk stories have remained much the same, which is good news for those of us who like our comics to be daft on occasion.

Essential Storylines

'The Mysterious Mr Mxyztplk' Superman #30 (1944)

This is Mxy's first appearance and his antics are genuinely hilarious. The bit with McGurk the statue is as funny as any Warner Bros. cartoon.

'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?' Superman#423 and Action Comics #583 (1986)

Just before John Byrne's reboot Alan Moore wrote this legendary two parter to close the book on Superman's Silver age adventures. An unknown villain is attacking Superman more ruthlessly than anyone ever has before. Spoiler alert, turns out it's Mxyzptlk. Apparently as an immortal he spent the first two thousand years of his existence doing nothing, then the next being good. All of his antics throughout Superman's career have been part of his two thousand years of mischief and now he's begun two thousand years of evil! This Mxy is as scary as the original is funny but even without Moore's fresh take on our favourite imp, this is one of the greatest Superman stories ever.

6) The Cyborg Superman

Hank Henshaw was an astronaut caught up in a radiation accident that killed his crew mates, including, ultimately, his wife. While Henshaw's body was destroyed he was given the ability to forge new bodies for himself out of any available technology. He eventually got his hands on Kryptonian technology and knowledge of Superman's genetic make up and made himself the body we all love to hate, that of the Cyborg Superman. Of course his ability to abandon and recreate bodies makes him completely un-killable, and thank goodness for that 'cos he's massive fun. Henshaw's biggest success was the destruction of Green Lantern's home town, Coast City while posing as the resurrected Superman. When I was a lad and I first read 'The Return of Superman' storyline as it came out I was totally convinced that the Cyborg was the real deal (I was eleven, give me a break) and the destruction of Coast City blew me away. Henshaw's such a great villain that he's too good to keep to one hero, so he's also a bit of a Green Lantern villain too. During the brilliant Green Lantern story 'The Sinestro Corps War' Geoff Johns developed the character further and changed Henshaw's indestructibility into his greatest weakness. Henshaw's sick of being a Cyborg killing machine and just wants to die, the one thing he'll never be able to do. It's this potential for great character development that continues to be realised, and the fact that he fooled gullible eleven year old me, that justifies Cyborg Superman's presence on this list.

Essential Storylines

'The Limits of Power' Adventures of Superman #466 (1990)

In his first proper appearance (he pops up in a few panels of an earlier issue) Henshaw and his crew get messed up by radiation big time in a twisted homage to the origin of the Fantastic Four.

'The Return of Superman' (1993)

The story where Henshaw first turned up in Cyborg form and made a big mess of Green Lantern's stomping ground. First rate '90s fun.

'The Sinestro Corps War' (2007)

Even if you don't believe me about the greatness of Cyborg Superman, check out this story anyway. The Cyborg is but one awesome baddie among many.

5) The Parasite

The Parasite was a janitor who peeked into a batch of radioactive waste and was transformed into an energy sucking, purple monster. Since he can absorb his opponent's powers and life force he's always been able to give Superman a run for his money. Originally named Raymond Maxwell Jensen and then updated to Rudy Jones, the Parasite has always been a credible threat to Supes and a character rife with story potential. There was a great 1994 story where Superman became overloaded with power and had to leave himself open to an attack from the Parasite in order to survive. Another great story development occurred in the mid-'90s when the Parasite absorbed the personality of a scientist named Dr. Torval Freeman. Freeman initially seems to be another tragic victim but gradually emerges as a ruthless, cunning and domineering personality that drives Rudy Jones to further villainy. Recently Geoff Johns has updated Rudy's origin further. In 'Superman: Secret Origin' Johns depicts him as the janitor for the Daily Planet, a fat slob who bums money and sandwiches off Clark Kent. Making Rudy a "parasite" by nature even before his accident seems such an obvious idea I'm amazed it's taken this long for a writer to think of it!

Essential Storylines

'Superman and Spider-Man' Marvel Treasury Edition #28 (1981)

Even though the Parasite is just a glorified henchman to Dr. Doom, it's still a real thrill to see Parasite absorb and duplicate Spidey's powers.

'Til Death Do Us Part' (2001)

The Parasite poses as Lois Lane. He then gives Clark Kent the elbow and has sex with Lex Luthor. That's right, you read that correctly, the Parasite has sex with Lex Luthor!  Eeeww!

4) General Zod

Not only is Zod one of Superman's coolest foes, but check it out, he according to artist Pete Woods he also looks like Ian 'Lovejoy' McShane!

These days Zod is one of Superman's most famous baddies, but originally Zod was just one of the many Kryptonian super-criminals who would periodically escape from the Phantom Zone to menace Superman. In fact out of all the Kryptonian baddies, Jax-Ur usually posed the biggest threat, rather than Zod. That was until 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman' II hit the big screen and Terence Stamp made Zod into into the iconic arch-foe we know today!

In 1988 writer/artist John Byrne gave Zod got one of his most memorable comic book stories. This version of Zod hailed from a "pocket universe" and he and his two Kryptonian chums had killed everyone on their Earth and were threatening to do the same to Superman's Earth. Superman felt he had no choice but to execute them with Kryptonite. This sent Superman crazy with guilt, and he vowed never, ever to take a life again. This particular plot point has been forgotten over the years, but I was very fond of it. It made Superman's famous vow against killing seem all the more meaningful since he had experienced what it was like to take a life. 

In 2009 Zod got some intriguing character development in the pages of 'World of New Krypton'. This version of Zod was a complex character who was undoubtedly a would be conqueror and grade A nutbar with a powerful hatred of Superman, but was also a hero to his people and a man who genuinely cared about the safety of Krypton.

Essential Storylines

'Last Son' (2008)

In this story penned by Geoff Johns and 'Superman: The Movie' director Richard Donner, Zod leads an army of Phantom Zone criminals in an invasion of Metropolis while using his own son as a pawn. The world's only defence? A team comprised of Superman, Lex Luthor, Parasite, Bizarro and Metallo! Seriously, this story kicks ass!

3) Bizarro

All the best stories contain both comedy and tragedy and Bizarro is a character capable of both of these at the the same time. He's like Frankenstein's Monster, if Frankenstein's Monster made a big cube shaped planet to live on and wore a huge stone medallion declaring himself Number One. Bizarro is the imperfect duplicate of Superman who's the character of a thousand uses. Much of the goofy Fifties and Sixties stories depicting Bizarro setting up home on Bizarro World with Bizarro Lois are great fun. On the other hand there are stories such as Bizarro's first appearance in 1958, where he tragically sacrifices himself to cure a girl's blindness, that are proper tear jerkers. There's also the scary side to Bizarro, such as when he murders the Human Bomb during 'Infinite Crisis', pummelling the man with the explosive touch to a bloody pulp just so he can see the "pretty lights". It's this versatility that has made Bizarro such an enduring character and the definite number three on my list.

Essential Storylines

'Bizarro, The Super-Creature of Steel' Superboy #68 (1958)

This is Bizarro's first appearance and he's depicted as a real misunderstood monster here. He wanders around saddened and confused by everyone's terrified reaction to his antics. You're kind of rooting for him, to the extent that Superboy, with his efforts to destroy Bizarro, almost seems like the bad guy.

'Escape From Bizarro World' (2008)

With a Bizarro World orbiting a Blue Sun, complete with Bizarro Lois, Bizarro Jimmy, Bizarro Perry White, Bizarro Luthor, a Bizarro Justice League and a Superman with 'Superman Vision' this is the ultimate Bizarro story. It's not just silliness though. There are some touching moments as Bizarro searches for guidance from Pa Kent and Superman remembers the great influence his Pa has had on his life. As well as a great Bizarro story, with amazing art from 'The Goon' artist Eric Powell, this was one of the last great Pa Kent stories before he kicked the bucket.

2) Brainiac

There are quite a lot of different versions of Brainiac out there, and this can put people off the character. Originally he was a green skinned, computer brained alien but in the early Eighties he was given a scary robot body. Scary robot bodied Brainiac was at his best during the 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' in 1986. There's a really awesome bit where an alternate version of Luthor points out that they don't need two Luthors on their bad guy team. Brainiac coldly and logically agrees with this and blasts alternate Luthor to bits. While Brainiac's coldness as he dispatches alternate Luthor is chilling there's also something quite touching about the way he prefers his universe's Luthor to the alternate Luthor. They are old pals after all.

Later that decade he was revamped again, this time as a disembodied alien consciousness that took over the body of a circus mentalist with real psychic powers. While that era's Superman seemed to come up against psychic foes quite a lot, Brainiac was so charismatically evil he still stood out from the psychic herd and he even gained a villainous goatee beard. Then came the upgraded versions of Brainiac from the future such as Brainiac 8, 12 and 13. In one particularly good story Brainiac 13 upgraded all the technology in Metropolis centuries ahead of its time. The current version of Brainiac (Version 2.5) was hiding in the brain of Luthor's infant daughter and the story ends with Luthor giving little Lena Luthor to Brainiac 13 in exchange for the secrets of the upgraded Metropolis. What a bastard! Eventually all these different versions were revealed to be probes sent out by the original Brainiac, who was so badass that he killed Pa Kent!

There are many different versions of Brainiac floating around but he's not really that complicated. All you need to know is that he's a green-skinned invader from space who has a computer brain and shrinks cities in order to put them in bottles. As if that wasn't awesome enough, sometimes he has a pet monkey.

Essential Storylines

'Panic in the Sky' (1992)

Brainiac has taken over Warworld and is coming to take over Earth. Superman teams up with just about every hero active the DC Universe of the early '90s to take him down.

'Brainiac' (2008)

This is the story where we find out that all the previous versions of Brainiac have been probes sent by the ultimate badass version of Brainiac that we meet for the first time here. Brainiac is built up as huge threat to Superman throughout the story, which makes it all the more satisfying when Superman kicks his ass.

1) Lex Luthor

There is only one man who can be described as Superman's ultimate foe. The fact that he manages this despite having no superpowers is just one of the reasons why he's so awesome. He's the Batman of super-villains. He walks among other villains who can grow to giant-size, move at the speed of light or live forever, and yet they all defer to him and they all fear him. Why? Because he's Lex Luthor! The greatest and most dangerous criminal mind of this and any another time.

Lex hates Superman and a character completely driven by hate is easy to relate to. He can become President of the United States, clone himself a new body or travel to the planet Lexor and we still understand him because we all know what its like to feel resentment towards someone who is our superior in some way. As far as Lex is concerned, in a world without superheroes men like him would be the heroes. If he can just get rid of Superman then he'll get everything that he's due.

Reading his stories you get the impression that one of the biggest reasons why Lex hates Superman is because Lex believes that everyone, deep down is as selfish and cruel as him. Along comes Superman, exposing Lex's world view as a lie. Superman does what he does because he wants to inspire the best in the people of Earth. In the words of Jor-El "They are a good people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. It is for this reason above all, their capacity for good, that I've sent them you, my only son." Naturally a man like Lex, who displays only the worst humanity has to offer, greed, cruelty, hate, is going to get on Superman's tits. Lex is the one man who refuses to be inspired by Superman and so he exposes Superman's world view as a lie too. That is why Lex is my (and everybody else's) Number One Superman Villain!

Essential Storylines

Pretty much every story he's been in, but here's two....

'The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman' Superman #164 (1963)

Luthor and a powerless Superman, bare chested and duking it out. What more do you need to know? Despite their sweaty punch up though, this story does show the softer side to Luthor as he becomes a hero to the people of another planet.

'The Secret Revealed' Superman #2 (1987)

In this story Luthor tortures Lana Lang, lords it over Superman with a Kryptonite ring and then finds out that Clark Kent is Superman. Of course he's such an arrogant bastard that he refuses to believe that a man with such power would want to pose as as a mere mortal. This story shows Eighties businessman Luthor at his best, or worst depending how you look at it.

So there we have the Top Ten Best Superman Villains Ever. Disagree? Angry at the absence of Metallo, Darkseid, Atomic Skull, K-Man, Mongul, Bloodsport, Conduit, Gog, Live-Wire, Shrapnel, Maxima, Riot, Black Zero, Silver Banshee or Colonel Future? Leave a comment and let us know!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Review: Superman – Earth One, Volume Two

While I enjoyed J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis' Superman - Earth One, Vol. One, I couldn't help but feel that it was something of a wasted opportunity. The Earth One line is free from the constraints of the continuity and canon of the monthly Superman comics and therefore should be able to take risks and show us different and unique takes on familiar characters. I felt that Earth One, Vol. One was a good enough story but, aside from a few changes to the history of his home planet Krypton, it offered us no new insights into the character of Superman. Volume Two, I'm happy to say, is quite different. This book offers us a take on Superman that I genuinely feel couldn't have been offered in the main Superman title. As a result it has some uncomfortable moments, but these moments ultimately serve to make the book all the more rewarding. 

Straczynski's Superman, as in Volume One of this series, is very aware of his alien nature and as a result is quite a lonely, isolated figure. But unlike Volume One the tragedy of his isolation is communicated effectively by some very human moments. Clark Kent thinks back on the death of a childhood pet, and grows ever closer to his attractive new neighbour, Lisa Lasalle. These little identifiable insights into Clark's life and personality are far more than we got in Volume One and they make Clark's self imposed distance from the rest of the human race all the more poignant. His powers enable him to give his pet a unique and wonderful final, resting place and yet prevent him from getting too intimate with his new love interest.

The question of whether Clark is able to get intimate with a human is not the only potentially awkward area covered in this book. Straczynski also seeks to address that old question, “Why doesn't Superman end all war?” Towards the end of the book we see Superman interfering in a big way in the affairs of a foreign nation. In the more mainstream comics Superman has traditionally drawn a clear line for himself between being a friend who's here to support and help the human race and being an alien invader who's here to impose his will. He's careful never to cross this line. But this isn't the mainstream Superman. This version of Superman feels that he can't afford to “work within the system” as he puts it. He sees himself as separate from the human race, and even superior to it, and as a result he feels he has a responsibility to blur that afore mentioned line somewhat. It's a take on the character that's bound to feel uncomfortable for a lot of Superman fans, it certainly did for me. But I also feel that it's an aspect of the character that's worth exploring. Could a person with Superman's powers really completely ignore a lot of the suffering that goes on in the world, even in the name of the bigger picture of non-interference in human destiny? The alternate Universe of Earth One provides a perfect opportunity to look into this darker, more uncomfortable aspect of our hero and I applaud Straczynski for doing so.

The main villain of the story, The Parasite has a somewhat clich├ęd back story. The whole "bad seed who's protective of a younger sibling" trope has been used more effectively elsewhere, notably with the character of Captain Cold during Geoff Johns' run on The Flash, and in the recent DC Animated movie, Superman Vs. The Elite. And I can't help but wonder if the Parasite would have been a more compelling villain if he had been less of an irredeemable psychopath before his transformation.

The Parasite does however look fantastic. The decision to cover the Parasite in transparent green pustules was a brilliant one. He looks truly disgusting, a proper monster. I was less impressed however with other aspects of Shane Davis' art. His women all look the same. Lois Lane, Lisa Lasalle, and Parasite's sister Theresa would be indistinguishable from each other were it not for their hair colour. I was also disappointed with the design of a protective armour worn by Superman. It's certainly in keeping with the established look of Kryptonian technology but it's pretty boring to look at.

While Shane Davis' art wasn't completely to my liking I still feel there's a lot to admire about Superman – Earth One, Volume Two. If you're a hardcore Superman fan with a very fixed view of what is acceptable behaviour for a Man of Steel then you probably won't like it. But if you're interested in seeing an exploration of Superman's role on Earth that goes down some uncomfortable but intriguing avenues then you'll probably enjoy this book as much as I did.

I give Superman – Earth One, Volume Two 3/5.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever! (That aren't Year One or Dark Knight Returns)

Everyone knows that Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Returns are the best Batman stories ever. You don’t need me to tell you that when the whole internet is screaming it at you. But if you’re new to the wonderful world of superhero comics you may be wondering where to go next? Fear not! Here is a list of the Top Ten Best Batman stories that aren’t Year One or DKR.
Firstly, let’s cover a few stories that narrowly missed getting into the Top Ten.
Honourable Mentions
The Untold Legend of The Batman and Batman: Hush seem very different on the surface. The former was a 3 issue re-telling of the origins of Batman and his supporting cast first published in 1980, the latter was a 12 part storyline from 2002 that introduced a new villain, Hush, to Batman’s world. Despite this they both have essentially the same strengths and weaknesses. They’re both beautifully drawn ‘greatest hits’ packages. By this I mean that most of the different aspects of Batman’s world, from supporting characters to villains get some face time. However as stories in their own right they’re a bit flimsy and so they’ve failed to get into my Top Ten.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) is by beardy comics legend Alan Moore and is the ultimate Joker story. Moore explores the idea that Batman and the Joker are not so different from each other while also telling a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime. As brilliant as this story is, it’s really more of a Joker story than a Batman story, and so it hasn’t made the final cut.
Grant Morrison’s recent Batman run (2006-Ongoing in the pages of Batman INC) is absolutely breathtaking in its scope. Morrison set out to return Batman to his 1970s status as “hairy chested love god” or as Batman describes himself during the run, “alpha male plus”. While taking Batman down this path Morrison has had him father a son, face the Ultimate Evil, die, journey through time, return to life and start a worldwide Batman franchise. Morrison has also had former Robin, Dick Grayson take over as Batman and face disturbing new baddies such as Professor Pyg and the Flamingo. Morrison’s run is loads of fun, but it’s also complex and interwoven, with seemingly throw away incidents paying off in a big way several issues later. For a new reader it’s potentially a big job to take on board all at once and the stories are enhanced by at least a familiarity with some older Batman tales. For this reason I’ve kept it out of the Top Ten, but if you want to get started on Morrison’s ongoing (as of this writing) epic then check out Batman Vs. The Black Glove (Deluxe Edition).
So much for the runners-up, let’s start the countdown!

10) Batman: The Cult (1988)

Batman gets kidnapped, tortured and brainwashed by an evil cult led by the charismatic Deacon Blackfire, a man who may or may not be centuries old! If you liked Dark Knight Returns then you’ll probably like this, as writer Jim Starlin does his very best to homage/rip-off Frank Miller’s style on every page. From the hard boiled, first person narration to the TV talking heads to the tank-like Bat-Mobile, this story wears its debt to Miller on its sleeve. But it's more than just Starlin copying Miller. The timeless story of a hero getting broken and then coming back and kicking ass is hugely entertaining and Berni Wrightson’s art is wonderfully grubby and really conveys a nightmare world of torture in the sewers and hallucinations brought on by hunger and drugs.

9) Batman: The Black Mirror (2011)

This is the most recent tale on the list and also one of the most unusual, in that Bruce Wayne doesn’t feature at all. In this 7 part story by Scott Snyder, Dick Grayson has taken over as Batman and just as Gotham City threw twisted reflections of Wayne at the previous Batman, so too does Dick face ghastly, inverted, mirror images of himself. See, Black Mirror, get it? Through these grim opposite numbers (one character in particular actually) we really get a solid idea of who Dick is and why he’s such a different Batman from Bruce. As well as an excellent portrayal of Dick Grayson we get some great insights into Jim Gordon and Barbara Gordon, a chilling look into how the Joker views his relationship with Batman, and some truly spine-chilling moments with the story’s baddie that will stay with you long after you’ve stopped reading.

8 ) Batman: A Death in the Family (1988-89)

Another Jim Starlin tale makes the Top Ten! Once again we have the Miller-esque, hard boiled, first person narration from Batman, and once again it’s brilliant. At one point Batman is confronted by an assassin who’s determined to fight him, even though Batman seeks only to ask her some probing questions about her sex-life. Batman thinks to himself “It’s a lot like being in the Old West. When you’re the best, every jerk and his sister wants a crack at your title.” Absurdly macho but hugely entertaining stuff! But of course, this story is best remembered for the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, murdered by the Joker. Actually the real murderers were the 5,343 fans who phoned in and voted for Jason to die! That’s right, DC had set up a 1-900 number to decide Jason’s fate. Who says DC don’t listen to the fans? Despite the tacky way Jason’s fate was sealed the story handles it really well. Jason is utterly believable and relatable as a kid bubbling over with anger who can’t meet Batman’s rigid expectation of discipline and control. Obviously Batman’s angry when Jason is killed, but in a stroke of genius Batman’s rage is rendered impotent when the Joker is given diplomatic immunity by his new status as a member of the Iranian government! Batman has more reason than ever to want to beat the living crap out of the Joker, but he can’t touch him without causing an international incident! Brilliant.

7) The Laughing Fish (1978)

Earlier I described The Killing Joke as the ultimate Joker story. If that tale has a valid competitor for that title it’s The Laughing Fish. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers give us the Joker we would later see Jack Nicholson portray in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie; “the world’s first homicidal artist.” Each murder has an imaginative flair that makes it unique to the Joker, and each murder is pretty much motiveless, which makes the Joker all the more difficult for Batman to predict and catch, and the story all the more creepy and disturbing. Add to this Batman’s doomed romance with the iconic Silver St Cloud and a sub-plot about a corrupt politician haunted by the ghost of his last victim, Prof. Hugo Strange, and you get a Batman classic.

6) The Demon Lives Again (1972)

When Morrison spoke of Batman as a “hairy chested love god” he was probably thinking of this story. This 3 part tale by Denny O’ Neil, Irv Norick and Neal Adams shows Batman on an epic, globe-trotting quest to rid the world of his immortal arch-foe, Ra’s Al Ghul! Along the way he press gangs some unlikely allies to aid him, but eventually Batman is left facing Al Ghul alone in the desert in a sweaty, bare-chested, sword fight. So many parts of this story became so iconic that almost every single subsequent Ra’s Al Ghul story seems like a rip-off of this tale in some way. But it’s the story’s depiction of “alpha-male-plus” Batman that I find the most entertaining. Batman outclasses Al Ghul in the sword fight but is felled by a scorpion sting. He receives the antidote from Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, who is motivated in her betrayal by her love for Batman. After rising from near-death Batman storms into Al Ghul’s tent, knocks him out and then steals his daughter, and he does all this without a shirt on! What a guy!

5) Batman: Blind Justice (1989)

This story was written by the writer of the 1989 Batman movie, Sam Hamm. It has a pretty packed plot involving a conspiracy within Wayne Enterprises, Bruce Wayne being framed as a spy, some of the men who trained Batman, two new supporting characters and a body swapping villain. But it’s also rather a grim tale about the price Bruce pays for being Batman. Despite the dense plot and grim central theme it’s an easy, engrossing read and it’s repercussions are still being felt today. The story introduced the character of Henri Ducard, an assassin with an awesome ‘tache who appeared in Batman Begins (sort of) and whose son recently appeared in the pages of Batman and Robin.

4) Batman: Prey (1990-1991)

Batman: Year One has had many sequels. The overrated Long Halloween and Dark Victory follow the continuing exploits of characters featured in Year One. Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder purports to show the “same” Batman we see in Year One and DKR (that’s right, Miller has arrogantly claimed a Bat-Universe of his very own). And of course there’s Batman: Year Two and Year Three. But for me there’s only one true sequel to Year One, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s Prey. While Year One depicts the origin of Batman’s close relationship with Jim Gordon, Prey shows how he won over the rest of the police force. The main antagonist is Prof. Hugo Strange, brilliantly revamped from a mad scientist to an even madder, fame-hungry psychoanalyst. Strange asks the questions of Miller’s Batman that we as fans are too scared to ask; isn’t Batman just a deranged fascistic bully acting out some childish revenge fantasy. Moench then shows us that this isn’t the case by having Batman posses the inner strength to overcome Strange’s mental manipulations, and also by giving us a vigilante character who really is a fascist bully (the Night Scourge) to contrast with Batman. Year One is brilliant but the Batman that Miller depicts in that story needs Prey. Without Prey, Batman ends up as an unpleasant and deranged character, hmmm, kinda like in All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

3) Batman: Venom (1991)

Another entry for legendary Batman writer Denny O’ Neil, Venom actually has a lot in common with Starlin’s The Cult, in that it depicts Batman hitting rock bottom before picking himself up again and triumphing over evil! This is a story about a young Batman at the start of his career and it’s one of the few stories of that sort (other than Year One) that depicts him as a character with a lot to learn who still makes mistakes. And boy, what a mistake! After failing to save a little girl because of his inability to move a heavy rock, Batman gets addicted to an experimental strength enhancing drug. Of course Batman eventually realises the error of his ways and wreaks vengeance on the makers of the drug. The great thing about this story is that even though Batman inevitably kicks the habit the story doesn’t cop out by depicting Batman’s withdrawal as anything other than a horrific ordeal. Also, Batman fights a shark!!! That sentence alone should convince you to read this story!

2) Batman: Gothic (1990)

Once again this is a story from the early days of Batman’s career. This story chronicles Batman’s first encounter with the supernatural. He battles Mr Whisper, a three hundred year old monk who made a pact with the devil. The twist? The monk also happens to have been Bruce Wayne’s old headmaster! This story is genuinely spine tingling. The flashbacks to Whisper’s crimes at Bruce Wayne’s school are chilling and Batman seems temporarily out of his depth as his familiar world of gangsters and criminals is overrun with the inexplicable. The dark, scratchy art of Klaus Janson adds to the general spookiness. Writer Grant Morrison gives lots of nods to Batman’s “real” first encounter with a supernatural foe, 1939′s Batman vs. The Vampire, such as Batman’s use of his Bat-Gyro. This isn’t a tale with any lasting repercussions for the Bat-Universe, but it will stay with you. It’s a testament to how versatile a character Batman is that he can fit so perfectly into a supernatural, horror story as good as this one.

1) John Wagner, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s run on Detective Comics (1988-1990)
(Detective Comics #583-594; 601-621)

Okay, this is a bit of a cop-out as I’ve failed to pick one storyline out of this run, but you know what? I don’t care. Seriously, this is the most perfect version of Batman ever. Wagner and Grant’s Batman is the gritty, damaged Miller version, merged with Morrison’s “love god”, merged with the father figure who raises and nurtures Robins, merged with the super-hero from the pages of Justice League. He’s every Batman, it’s all in him!
Breyfogle is the perfect artist for this most versatile of Batmen. He can draw a Batman flushed with pride at his new Robin, a Batman reflecting in quiet sadness at the plight of homeless children or a Batman pumped full of Scarecrow fear toxins and crapping his pants, all within pages of each other. One of the things that I feel sums up Breyfogle’s versatility as an artist is the way he draws Batman’s utility belt. Now this may seem like a minor detail but when I first encountered Breyfogle’s work as a child it was the first time I had ever seen Batman’s belt drawn as if it could conceivably hold Batman’s entire arsenal. It’s bright yellow and chunky with capsules and pouches hanging off it, a proper superhero gadget belt. And yet in the very next panel the belt is only barely glimpsed as Batman fades into the shadows and the gadget loving superhero becomes a dark creature of the night. I would go as far as to say that Breyfogle is the best Batman artist ever.
But this isn’t just about the art. Wagner and Grant are British writers famous for their work on 2000AD (in fact Wagner co-created Judge Dredd) and 2000AD’s dark creativity is apparent on every page of their Batman stories. They created a vast array of villains that straddled the line between the ridiculous and the terrifying and enriched the Bat-Universe. These villains included The Corrosive Man, The Ventriloquist and Scarface, The Ratcatcher, Anarky, The Obeah Man and Cornelius Stirk. They were also equally adept at handling established villains. One memorable story involved a team comprising of every version of Clayface while another involved Batman teaming up with and then battling Jack Kirby’s Demon.
Creativity and versatility are two words that are inextricably linked with all the best Batman stories and I would argue that Wagner, Grant and Breyfogle’s ‘Tec run embodied these qualities more than any other story or run in Batman’s long history. It really is that good! These stories are slightly harder to get hold of than the others on this list because they’ve inexplicably never been collected together in a trade paperback or hardcover. They’re usually cheap on ebay or in second hand shops and if you’re a Bat-fan or a fan of good comics, they’re well worth tracking down!
So there’s the list. The Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever (that aren’t Year One or Dark Knight Returns). What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Does anything not belong there? Leave a comment and let us know!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Meanwhile...Before Watchmen

I was recently reading issue 2 of Superman: The Secret Years (1985) when I stumbled across something that struck me as rather interesting and worth sharing. Meanwhile... was a column that ran in the back of DC Comics for a while in the '80s. It was written by the then Vice President and Editor of DC Comics, Dick Giordano (a true comic book legend). In the Meanwhile... column that ran in DC's comics dated March, 1985 Dick discussed two upcoming projects that he was very excited about. One was an idea pitched by Alan Moore based on the newly acquired Charlton heroes tentatively titled Watchmen. The other was a project by Frank Miller that involved "one of the most popular super-heroes ever." I think we can safely assume he is referring to what would become Dark Knight Returns. 

Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns are usually (and quite rightly) hailed as two of the greatest comics series ever made. The influence of these two series is still felt in the world of super-hero comics to this day. Indeed, DC are currently releasing a series of prequels to Watchmen and many of Miller's ideas (i.e. his depiction of Jim Gordon and his depiction of the Waynes' murder) have become iconic and enduring aspects of the Batman legend.  These two series are such a part of the language that we use to discuss super-hero comics that I find it fascinating to read something from a time when they were just upcoming projects. Many of you have probably come across this particular Meanwhile... column before but I just found it so interesting that I thought I'd share it here.

Here's a close up of the part where Dick discusses Watchmen and DKR....

...and here's the whole thing,

By the way, Superman: The Secret Years is a great mini series written by Bob Rozakis with art by Curt Swan. It's about Superman's college years and has some brilliant covers by none other than Frank Miller. It seems to have been forgotten as it was wiped out of continuity by the Crisis on Infinite Earths almost as soon as it was released, but it's worth a read if you ever see it on ebay or in a second hand shop.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Is Superman Boring? A response to Will Leitch's "The Most Mundane Man in Metropolis"

Superman: Not boring

The Wall Street Journal has recently published a review of  Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero entitled 'The Most Mundane Man in Metropolis'. During the course of the review Will Leitch argues that despite his enduring popularity Superman is fundamentally a "pretty darned boring" character. Mr. Leitch isn't the first person to make this assessment of the character but it is an assessment that constantly leaves me baffled.

Mr. Leitch begins his review by stating that:
"Since 1938, (Superman) has worn the same outfit. He has worked the same job. He has hung out with the same people. He has even kept the same haircut, except for a month or two in the 1990s, when a few strands poked out a bit behind the ears, an offense for which Superman can be forgiven, considering that he had recently died."
A fair point perhaps, but this is a charge that can be levelled at most mainstream superheroes (with some exceptions) and is not something that is particular to Superman. It's the nature of such characters that they'll never age or change in any significant way. If Mr. Leitch is looking for this in his fiction then fair enough, but he won't find it in mainstream superhero comics. You may think this is a problem (I don't) but it's not a problem that is unique to Superman.

To be fair, Mr. Leitch does go on to acknowledge that there are other characters in popular culture that have found themselves in a similar frozen state in regards to development. Strangely however, Mr. Leitch is okay with them. 
"Superman is a fictional character who, by his very nature, cannot change, which would be fine were he a supervillain bent on global domination, a tortured ad man facing dramatic cultural change at the end of the 1960s or simply a wisecracking rabbit. But Superman can't change in a specific, creatively crippling way: He must be absolutely perfect at all times. He cannot lie, he cannot kill, he cannot pirate music. He cannot be anything other than the ideal beacon for us all to aspire to be, to admire from below."
I don't see Superman's "perfect" nature as particularly "creatively crippling". Superman can still face adversity and temptation. He can still find himself in situations where lying, killing or even pirating music seem like the only options open to him. In fact in 1988 John Byrne actually wrote a story where, faced with no alternative, Superman is forced to kill. But Byrne's story is the exception. For the most part I find that the entertainment in a Superman story comes not from seeing Superman questioning his values and forced to compromise everything he holds dear, but from seeing how Superman holds true to his beliefs and finds an alternative to lying or killing. Greg Rucka gave us a perfect example of this during his 2004-2005 run on Adventures of Superman. Wonder Woman finds herself in a situation where she has to kill in order to save more lives. Superman is left wondering what he would do in that situation. What would be the right thing to do? Of course Superman eventually finds himself in this situation and, in an immensely satisfying moment, he finds another way!

You could argue that, Byrne's story not withstanding, of course he's going to find another way, he's Superman, so where's the entertainment? That's true but we also know that Batman's going to escape every death trap he's caught in. We know that Sherlock Holmes is going to catch the criminal. Does that make these stories boring? Well they might very well seem boring to Mr. Leitch, and fair enough, but once again it's not something that's unique to Superman.

Mr. Leitch continues;
Superman is always saying that he is a shining example of what humans can be, but we humans know better: He is the embodiment of what we are not and never were. He is a lack of frailty personified. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we can't relate to that. A vigilante like Batman, who wants to put a fist through some creep's face, that we can understand.
I would argue that Superman represents what we could be a lot more than he represents what we are not. We're never going to leap tall buildings but we're all going to find ourselves in a situation where lying, cheating or even putting "a fist through some creep's face" is the easiest thing to do. We're never going to be as powerful as Superman but we're all likely to find ourselves in situations where we have power over someone or something. Superman is the depiction of a person who consistently strives to find an alternative to lying, cheating or killing. A person who will never abuse his power over others. And we're all capable of following his example, we don't need his powers to be that person! I find that truly inspiring and quite frankly, not the least bit boring.

Leitch ends his review by stating;
 As is the case with Mr. Tye's book, Superman is a black hole at the center of every story. Because he is invincible, because he can do everything better than anyone else can do anything, you run out of things to do with him.
So let's get this straight. He's invincible. He can go anywhere. He can fight any foe, from bank robbers to gods. And Mr. Leitch thinks that there is only a certain amount of things to be done with this character? Don't get me wrong, Superman has certainly been in the hands of writers who have failed to take advantage of the character's potential. But we're talking about a character who lives in the North Pole in a cave with an intergalactic Zoo. A character who's childhood friends live in the 31st Century. A character who owns a dog who wears a cape and chases asteroids! In the past ten years alone Superman has rescued a million of Earth's inhabitants from the Phantom Zone, fought the zombie version of an older version of himself from a parallel universe, adopted a super-powered son, battled a sentient, tyrant sun, journeyed to the cube shaped Bizarro World and fought a Bizarro Justice League, saved the Earth in the 31st Century without the use of his powers, seen his home planet restored and then destroyed again, and saved the Universe by singing.

And Mr. Leitch is bitching because Superman's not allowed to tell lies or punch baddies in the face!?

Now that's boring.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Top Ten Best Superman Origins!


This month has seen the release of Action Comics #8, the last chapter in the most recent re-telling of the origin of Superman. An appropriate time then, to revisit some of the best versions of that legendary story from the past 74 years! Fellow comics blogger Duy Tano and I put our heads together and compiled a list of what we agreed were the best, most iconic, and most influential interpretations of the Superman origin ever. Obviously not every version made the cut (apologies to all fans of Lois and Clark, Kirk Alyn's movie serials, Super-Friends and Superman:Earth One!) but we feel we've got a pretty definitive list here. As for the order of the list? Well, that's where Duy and I may vary. Check out Duy Tano's Comics Cube for his Top Ten Best Superman Origins. In the meantime, let's have a look at my list.....

10) Smallville (TV)

Of the list Duy and I compiled, this origin is my least favourite. I'll be honest, despite my love of Superman I'm not much of a Smallville fan. I watched the first series as it was originally broadcast and I got tired of the formulaic, monster of the week plots. I gave up after that but I've been told by many different people that it gets better so I may check it out again one day. But this isn't the reason it's my least favourite origin on this list. Smallville may not be my cup of tea but I've got a lot of respect for it. It brought many wonderful aspects of the DCU to a much wider audience; Green Arrow, Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg, the Justice Society and of course, the wonderful legend of Superman itself. It also featured Michael Rosenbaum, one of the best Lex Luthors ever seen in movies or TV.

So why then is Smallville at the bottom of my origin list? It's all because of the way the origin itself is depicted. I really dislike the fact that Clark's rocketship brings a meteor show to Earth with it which kills Lana's parents. I understand why this decision was made; in the DVD commentary of Smallville Season One, Al Gough, Miles Millar and David Nutter explain that the meteor shower helped forge the bond between Lana, Clark and Lex as they are all left without one or both parents as a result of it. But I hate the idea that Superman's arrival on Earth caused people to die. For me Krypton's destruction is the tragic part of the origin, Superman's arrival is Jor-El's gift to the world, it shouldn't cause more death.

Having said that, this is just a personal gripe, Smallville is a perfectly valid and immensely popular interpretation of the legend and it deserves a place on any definitive list of iconic and influential Superman origins.

9) All Star Superman (Comics)

In 2004, comics writer Joe Casey argued the following;
"DC has icons. Marvel has characters. And there's a huge difference. You can tell pretty much any story you want with a character. An icon basically has one story... their origin story. An icon allows for a myth. The best myths have beginnings, middles and endings. The only story that Superman really works in is his origin story: Alien baby sent to Earth. Raised by pure-hearted farmers. Discovers his true heritage. Moves to the big city. Becomes Superman (in other words, embraces his true heritage and puts that knowledge into action). As far as I'm concerned, once he puts on the cape and the tights, we've got our happy ending and the story is over. The myth is complete. Sure, you could throw in a few battles with his greatest enemies, but that stuff is just icing on the cake."

The following year Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Casey was talking out of his arse by getting the origin out of the way in one page and then proceeding to give us All Star Superman, twelve issues worth of arguably one of greatest Superman stories of all time. In your face Casey!

I don't believe this is, as some have argued, the greatest depiction of the origin ever. If you'd been living in a cave all your life and had never heard of Superman then this origin would tell you very little about the character, and certainly wouldn't convey the tragedy and the wonder of the full story. In the context of All Star Superman however it works a treat, and it certainly deserves a place on this list.

8) Birthright (Comics)

In 2003 Mark Waid wrote what should have been one of the all time greatest Superman origins ever. No matter what kind of Superman fan you are, Birthright's got something for everyone. Interesting Silver Age elements are placed back in continuity, elements from John Byrne's '80s Superman reboot are retained and new additions to the myth are added as well. The first chapter depicts Clark Kent travelling around the world, earning his journalism qualifications and learning about himself and his place in the world in the process. Clark meets and is inspired by a West African activist named Kobe Asuru, who at one point delivers a speech to Clark that may as well be Superman's official creed;
"I'm no hero Clark, I simply want to make a difference. If I do perhaps others will as well. Perhaps we'll all leave our mark. There's nothing more wonderful to hope for....If you wish to be part of the human race you have to get in the game. Otherwise you're simply sitting in the bleachers feeling like you don't fit in. We all have our roles and the world never changed for a man too timid to play his to the absolute limit."
Much of the story focuses on Clark's desire to find his role and his place in the world. He does indeed wish "to be part of the human race."  Waid uses this as a way to explore the similarities and the differences between Superman and Lex Luthor. The two characters are drawn to each other as teenagers, their special skills making both of them outsiders. Later, of course Clark finds his place in society while Lex seeks to set himself above it. Waid successfully adds an intriguing layer to Clark and Lex's relationship that has never really been explored elsewhere, other than in Smallville. 

So, why isn't this tale number one on my list? Two reasons! Firstly, as brilliant as this origin is, it never seemed to take in the way that previous origins had. This, I believe was down to the lack of appropriate advertising. When the first issue came out it seemed to come out of nowhere. DC dropped Birthright on us without commenting on whether it was "official canon" or not. This was later confirmed by Waid nine months after the first issue came out. Secondly, it was Lenil F. Yu's art that prevented me from completely warming to the series. While Yu is a perfectly good artist I feel his style is inappropriate for Superman. It's too dark in tone and lacks that iconic, timeless feel that a Superman origin needs. This is no more evident than on the cover of the first issue, where Superman is drawn without pupils in his eyes. This happens a lot with Yu's Superman, it pops up once again on the cover of the trade paperback. While removing the pupils from Superman's eyes can be a most effective image when drawing angry Superman, generally speaking he has lovely big blues that radiate kindness. Batman is the guy with eerie white slits. So while Birthright is a fantastic version of the origin, these two factors means it only reaches the number eight spot on my list.

7) Secret Origin (Comics)

Like Birthright, Geoff Johns' and Gary Frank's Secret Origin involves a lot of what's great about the origin from the past 70 years, but for me there are two things that make it stand out as one of my favourites. The first is its depiction of Lois Lane. In Secret Origin, Lois sees right through Clark's meek and clumsy act straight away. Okay, she doesn't quite figure out he's Superman, but she understands that he's not a man to be underestimated and she's fascinated by his efforts to make everyone do just that. Johns gives us an interesting new twist on Clark and Lois' relationship. Clark is meek and mild but Lois doesn't just dismiss him out of hand as she did in the Silver Age comics or the Donner movie. This Lois is clever enough to see that there's more to Clark than meets the eye and it's easy to believe that her curiousity will one day turn to admiration and then love.

My other favourite thing about Secret Origin is the city of Metropolis. Johns' Metropolis is a grubby, cynical place before Superman shows up. It's as if Lex Luthor has poisoned the city from within. Of course Superman changes all that just by being Superman. His presence inspires Metropolis to reject Luthor and become the greatest city on Earth once again. Johns understands that Superman's greatest power is his ability to inspire. He can't save the world by ending all poverty and overthrowing dictatorships. If he heads down that path he's just an alien imposing his will on mankind. Through his example Superman inspires people to change the world for the better themselves. For me, this is what Superman's all about. The following speech that Superman gives in the final issue sums it all up for me;

Gary Frank's art is clean and clear and very easy on the eye, but it's main flaw is that it relies too heavily on imagery from Richard Donner's 1978 movie. Frank even draws Superman to resemble Christopher Reeve. Don't get me wrong, I love Reeve's Superman and I love the movie, but this story would have featured much higher on the list if it had brought more brand new iconic images and concepts to the Superman legend.

6) Man of Steel (Comics)

Man of Steel was a 1986 mini-series by John Byrne that set out to revamp Superman for a new generation. It focused less on the lonely alien aspect of Superman's character and more on his human side. In Man of Steel, what Clark Kent had gained from his upbringing by the Kents was a much more important part of what made him Superman than his Kryptonian heritage. Indeed, unlike with previous versions of the character, Ma and Pa Kent were still alive and still an active influence in Superman's life. Superman was now an Earthman first and a Kryptonian second. As Superman himself put it in Man of Steel #6 "It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me Human!"

I've used this blog before to discuss in great detail why I love Man of Steel so much. It played a huge part in getting me into the character. But why does it deserve a place on this list?

I would argue that it earned it's place here by sheer virtue of it's courage! Unlike Birthright or Secret Origin, Man of Steel was radically different from anything that came before it. The survival of the Kents wasn't the only new twist to the Superman myth. For example, Krypton was depicted as a bit of a crap, boring place to live, as opposed to the wondrous sci-fi Utopia it had always appeared to be in the past. It's also worth remembering that Byrne's first issue of his ongoing Superman series, set straight after Man of Steel, sees Superman getting the absolute living crap beaten out of him by Metallo, and then getting rescued by Lex Luthor! Remember, this was back when Superman getting knocked on his arse wasn't just the first scene in your average episode of Justice League Unlimited. Just a year previously Superman had been juggling planets, and now he was lying bleeding in a pile of rubble!

And yet, Byrne's Superman is still recognisably Superman. The coldness of Byrne's Krypton didn't make the destruction of the planet any less tragic. The survival of the Kents didn't make their wisdom any less relevant to Superman's life. His new-found vulnerability didn't make Superman any less of a hero. If anything, all of these things were emphasised by the new status-quo. The ability to be new and exciting without throwing the Super-baby out with the bath water is what earns Man of Steel a place on this list.

5) DC Animated Universe (TV/Comics)

From 1996 to 2000 Warner Bros. gave us an animated Superman series in the style of their earlier successful Batman series. There's a lot to admire about this particular series of animated Superman adventures, particularly in its depiction of the origin. From a design point of view the animated Krypton is notable in that it successfully combines elements of the Silver Age Krypton with the John Byrne Man of Steel Krypton. This gives the animated Krypton its very own distinctive look that still doesn't seem dated twelve years after the last episode was made. But the most notable thing about the animated origin is that it turns the events leading up to Krypton's destruction into an adventure in its own right. Before this version of Jor-El can go down the well trodden path of rocketing his son off to Earth he must first battle a Kryptonian monster to gain the data he needs to confirm his theories, and then evade the Kryptonian police, who have been tricked into trying to arrest him! Why are the police after Jor-El? Because of Brainiac!

In a stroke of genius the makers of the Superman Animated Series made Brainiac into Krypton's very own computer servant. The people of Krypton had become far too reliant on Brainiac, and so they were victims of their own complacency when Brainiac decided that it would be far easier for him to just collect all the information on Krypton and bugger off, rather than warn the people about their impending doom. Only Jor-El saw what Brainiac was up to and so he was able to rescue his only son!  Not only did this new twist help turn Superman's animated origin into a compelling adventure, but it also forged a new relationship between Superman and one of his most popular enemies.

4) Superman #146 'The Story of Superman's Life! (Comics)

This particular take on the Superman origin from 1961 has everything. Everything! All the various and disparate elements that had been added to the Superman myth since 1938 are collected and explained in this one 13 page story, and that makes it loads of fun! Kryptonian society, Krypto, Supergirl, Superboy, Superman's robots, Ma and Pa Kent, Superman's costume, Kryptonite and the Daily Planet all receive their place in this origin story. Even Clark Kent's glasses get an explanation! But it's not just a list of cool stuff. All the elements that make the origin story so compelling are here too; the complacency of Kryptonian society, the wisdom of Jor-El, the massive role played by the Kents in making Superman the man he is, the story of a boy becoming a man, it's all here. Okay, so it's very much of it's time and it spends three panels chronicling the baking of a giant cake and only one panel in the Daily Planet, but it's still one of the most jam-packed, and one of the most fun versions of the origin ever!

3) Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Comics/Newspaper Strip)

In Action Comics #1 (1938) Siegel and Shuster gave us the very first version of Superman's origin. Krypton is "a distant planet killed by old age" and the Kents don't even get a mention but it was more than enough to set the character off on his path to legendom (is that even a word?). Siegel and Shuster were able to expand on this one page origin over the next few years. In Superman #1 (1939) Krypton and the Kents get named and in the 1939 newspaper strip we see a great deal more of Jor-El and Lara, or Jor-L and Lora as they were known then. Then in 1945 we saw much more of both Krypton and Smallville, as Siegel and Shuster brought us the first adventure of Superboy!

It's worth remembering that everything else on this list, whether it came from the comic, the radio, the TV or the big screen, is just icing on the metaphorical cake baked by two kids from Cleveland. Two kids who hastily cobbled together their newspaper strips into a 13 page comic book story and created one of the best things in the history of the world ever!

2) Superman: The Movie (Movies)

For his role of Jor-El in the 1978 Superman movie, Marlon Brando got paid $16,000,000, and he's on screen for about 15 minutes. This is clear evidence that everyone involved in the making of this movie realised that if you're going to tell the story of Superman you have to get the origin right. And let's face it, they absolutely nailed it!

The first two-thirds of this film cover the destruction of Krypton and Clark Kent's upbringing in Smallville and both aspects of the origin are treated by the film-makers with the utmost seriousness, like they're telling a tale from the Bible. As a result, when the film cuts loose a bit upon Superman's arrival in Metropolis and becomes a bit more tounge-in-cheek, it totally works because the film has spent the past hour giving the character of Superman a thoroughly solid foundation. We know exactly who our lead character is and we totally believe in him and so we're able to completely buy into his fairytale romance with Lois and Lex Luthor's barmy schemes!

The iconography and concepts introduced in this movie have influenced countless interpretations of the character ever since. The crystals, the glowing white suits, the domes, the spinning square of the Phantom Zone. If you stopped an average person in the street and asked them to describe the planet Krypton, chances are they'd be drawing on images from this movie in their description. Assuming of course they didn't look at you funny and walk swiftly away.

It's not just adults with fond memories of the old movies who recognise and relate to these iconic images. Children are discovering and falling in love with these movies all the time. I once worked with a teacher whose four year old son watched Superman II non-stop and would randomly shout out "Luthor, you poisonous snake!" in super-markets. This vision of Krypton was also used recently in both Smallville and Superman Returns. This vision of Superman's origin endures, even 34 years later and nothing so far has been powerful enough to shake it from the public conciousness. Zack Snyder, the ball's in your court.

1) Adventures of Superman Radio Serial/ Fleischer Studios Superman/ Aventures of Superman TV Show (Radio/ TV)

The Mighty George Reeves!

"Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."

Look! Up in the sky! 
It's a bird!
It's a plane!
It's Superman!

"Yes, it's Superman--strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, race a speeding bullet to its target, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice."

This neat summary of who Superman is, what he can do, and where he came from is one of the most iconic things associated with the character. If you started reciting it to a kid on the street today they'd probably be able to figure out who you were talking about even before you exclaimed "It's Superman!" At the very least the kid would have figured it out before their parent or legal guardian had began to usher them away from the lunatic shouting about Superman in the middle of the street.

Variations on this summary have appeared as part of countless interpretations and parodies of the character over the years. It's part of the language with which we discuss Superman and super-heroes in general. But it was made famous by three interpretations in particular; The Adventures of Superman Radio Serial (1940-1951), the Fleischer/Famous Studios Animated shorts (1941-1943) and The Adventures of Superman TV Show (1952-1958). Each of these had their own slight variations on this summary, but they were pretty much the same.

Of course, both the radio serial and the TV show had different interpretations of the minor details of his origin. For example, according to the radio serial, Superman spent a few decades travelling in space and emerged fully grown from his rocket!  According to the TV show, Jor-El could build a rocket in his living room but needed a flip-chart to explain the imminent destruction of Krypton to "white bearded Roseanne" and the Kryptonian Council. (Yeah, I know it's probably not spelt 'Roseanne' but it made me chuckle.)

But details and intricacies aside, all three of these interpretations stuck to the version of Superman presented in that short summary. And y'know what, so has, pretty much every single interpretation of Superman ever! And that includes every single re-telling of the origin listed in this blog post! Whether Superman is in comic book, animated or movie form, whether he's a more human character or a more alien character, whether he's a street-wise champion of the oppressed or an avuncular defender of the status quo, some things will never change.

He'll always be a strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He'll always be disguised as Clark Kent. He'll always fight a never-ending battle for truth and justice. He'll always be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He'll always be Superman.

And that's the only origin you'll ever really need! Everything else is open to interpretation depending on audience and era.

So, what do you think? What, if anything, should Duy and I have featured on this list? Let us know. And come back soon for my thoughts on Grant Morrison's Superman and the Men of Steel, the most recent interpretation of the origin, as featured in Action Comics #1-8 (2011-2012).