Sunday, 15 March 2020

Top 20 Best Superman Stories

Everybody, at some point in their life, will experience power over others in some form or another. More often than not, even if our intentions are good, we will misuse or abuse that power, sometimes without even realising it. After all, power corrupts, right?

Superman is a person who will never abuse his power over others. Superman embodies the belief that when given absolute power a man won’t be corrupted by it, but rather he’ll do everything he can to make the world a better place. It’s the belief that maybe we human beings aren’t such a bunch of scumbags after all. Superman is hope for the human race.

On top of all that he can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes. Bullets bounce off him. He's super strong and super fast. His childhood gang live in the 31st Century and his dog has a cape. His wife is the world's greatest reporter and his best mate is Batman.

He's everybody's cool older brother and he's the greatest fictional character of all time. These are my favourite stories about him.

20. 'Strange Visitor' Adventures of Superman #46-48 (2014)
Writer: Joe Keatinge
Pencilers: Ming Doyle, Brent Schoonover, David Williams, Tulay Lotay, Jason Shawn Alexander
Inkers: Ming Doyle, Brent Schoonover, David Williams, Al Gordon, Tulay Lotay, Jason Shawn Alexander

This story is short but truly epic. It spans Superman's whole life, from the 1930s to the literal end of time. It manages to examine Superman, his mission, and his relationship with the human race in a way that's as imaginative as it is moving. The multiple artists and their varying styles help to convey the richness of Superman's long and unpredictable life and the huge variety of stories that can be told with this one character. Through all of his diverse adventures however, Superman remains reassuringly consistent and steadfast in both who he is and what he does. This is emphasised by a thread that runs throughout the story about Superman's one "failure" and the amazing way he eventually overcomes it.

19. 'Ex Machina' Christmas with the Super-Heroes #2 (1988)
Writer: Paul Chadwick
Penciler: Paul Chadwick
Inker: John Nyber

Over the years we've seen a few stories where Superman saves someone who's about to end their own life, but this one is the most well crafted of the lot. This story carries an emotional weight, but it doesn't beat the reader around the head with it. Superman doesn't offer the man the answer to all his problems. Just warmth and hope. As with Paul Chadwick's work on his own character, Concrete, this story is subtle, honest, and beautiful.

18. 'The Last Days of Superman!' Superman #156 (1962)
Writer: Edmond Hamilton
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Klein

Superman is dying from an old Kryptonian virus and so he locks himself in a big fish tank and directs his friends to perform some of the super-feats that he never got around to during his life. Almost all of the fun aspects of the Superman myth are trotted out for this story, including Krypton's past, the Legion of Superheroes, Lori Lemaris, and the miniature Superman Emergency Squad from the Bottle City of Kandor. Superman's final message to the Earth, scorched into the surface of the moon for the whole world to see is lovely. And there are few images in the history of comic books more haunting, iconic, and beautiful than Curt Swan's dying, Christ-like, Superman, carried to his Fortress by a squad of tiny Super-people. 

17. 'Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow?' Superman #423/ Action Comics #583 (1986)
Writer: Alan Moore
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Perez

Just before John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986, Alan Moore wrote this legendary two part tale to close the book on the character's Silver age adventures. The story depicts Superman defending himself and his friends from a final ruthless attack from all his greatest foes. The whole story has a tragic air of finality about it as Superman sees parts of his myth break away one by one like pieces of an iceberg. The fact that it's pencilled by Curt Swan, the man who defined the look of the Silver Age and Bronze Age Superman, adds to the poignancy of the whole thing. This story genuinely feels like the end of an era. Every legend needs an ending. Robin Hood was killed by a treacherous prioress, King Arthur was clobbered over the head by Mordred and Batman has Frank Miller's Dark Knight ReturnsWhatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is a worthy ending to the legend of Superman.

16. 'For the Man Who Has Everything' Superman Annual #11 (1985)
Writer: Alan Moore
Penciler: Dave Gibbons
Inker: Dave Gibbons

Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman turn up at the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate Superman's birthday. Unfortunately Mongul has got there first and ensnared Superman in a Black Mercy, a parasitic plant that grants it's victims a vision of their heart's desire as it drains their life. Moore figures that Superman's heart's desire is to live as an ordinary Joe on Krypton surrounded by family. I love the idea that Superman, the perpetual outsider, the alien super-god, would just want to be a regular normal slob living in a place where he felt he truly belonged. As Superman fights the influence of the killer plant his fantasy world starts to go tits up. Superman's dad, Jor-El is depicted as a crusty old racist who is the laughing stock of Krypton ever since the planet failed to explode as he predicted. Jor-El and his clan are also pretty unpopular due to the protest movement against the Phantom Zone. Moore was probably the first writer to acknowledge that the Zone (an extra-dimensional dumping ground for criminals that was discovered by Jor-El) was pretty cruel and pretty unusual, as punishments go. This was also the first time, at least to my knowledge, that Krypton was depicted as anything other than a scientifically advanced Utopia. Another notable aspect of this story is that we get to see what happens when Superman really loses his rag and cuts loose against a foe who is his equal in strength.

15. 'Kryptonite' Superman Confidential #1-5, 11 (2007-2008)
Writer: Darwyn Cooke
Penciler: Tim Sale
Inker: Tim Sale

This is the story of Superman's first encounter with Kryptonite and so, as you might assume, it's also the story of Superman's first encounter with his own mortality. Even before the infamous, glowing rock shows up Superman suffers a harrowing near-death experience with a volcano. Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale convey Superman's fear and panic so well that the reader is able to empathise quite easily with an invulnerable super being who's drowning in molten lava. Superman's supporting cast are served very well by this story. There are some wonderful moments between Clark and his parents, Jimmy Olsen gets a chance to shine. and Lois Lane demonstrates what makes her such an amazing investigative journalist. We also see Superman realising that while he has a duty to the world, he can't take a woman like Lois for granted. 

14. 'Up, Up and Away' Superman #650-653, Action Comics #837-840 (2006)
Writers: Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek
Pencilers: Pete Woods, Renato Guedes
Inkers: Pete Woods, Renato Guedes

Superman has lost his powers and for the past year has been enjoying life as plain old Clark Kent. But his old enemies are starting to reappear, and Lex Luthor is collecting Kryptonite! For anyone who hasn't read a lot of Superman before and would like a straightforward, fun introduction to the character and his world, this is the story for you! Superman is a powerless and very human Clark Kent for half of this tale. As a result the reader is offered a fantastic insight into who our hero really is and what really makes him so Super. The story also offers a great portrayal of Clark and Lois' relationship and a look at some of the lesser known members of Superman's rogue's gallery as well as the heavy hitters. This is also a great Luthor story, and by the end of the story you'll be left in no doubt as to what Lex really feels about the Man of Steel.

13. 'Day of the Krypton Man' Superman #41-42, The Adventures of Superman #464-465, Action Comics #651-652 (1990)
Writers: Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway
Pencilers: Dan Jurgens, George Perez, Kerry Gammil,  Jerry Ordway
Inkers: Brett Breeding, Art Thibert, Dennis Janke

This story deals with the conflict between alien and human that rages within Superman, and it does so in a hugely entertaining way. Superman falls under the influence of an ancient Kryptonian artifact called the Eradicator. Robbed of his human values he becomes isolated and cold, and Ma and Pa Kent get a real chance to shine as they try to remind their son of his humanity. Superman's inner struggle with his alien nature is mirrored in the outside world as he faces intergalactic menaces such as Lobo, Maxima, and Draaga. This story also marks a significant advancement in the relationship of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, as Clark's uncharacteristic coldness causes Lois to begin to realise just how much he means to her.

12. 'Must There Be A Superman?' Superman #247 (1972)
Writer: Elliot S! Maggin
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson

A friend of mine once asked me, why doesn't Superman feed the starving of the world, or end all war? This was the first story to provide anything approaching an answer to such questions. Superman walks a fine line between helpful super-powered pal and scary alien invader, hell-bent on imposing his will on the world. In a way, the fact that he's so powerful is his greatest weakness. If he does too much he emasculates the human race and robs them of their drive to help each other achieve a better world. If he's always there to help them, why should they bother? In this story Superman begins to consider this for the first time, paving the way for the more sophisticated superhero stories of the subsequent decades.

11. 'The Death of Superman' Superman #149 (1961)
Writer: Jerry Siegel
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Klein

This is one of the all time greatest Lex Luthor stories and also one of the most famous "imaginary" stories of the sixties. This story imagines what would happen if Luthor pretended to turn good and then zapped Superman with a Kryptonite lamp while his guard was down. For a start, this story is great because it features Luthor's Lair, which is always a treat. It's in an abandoned museum full of waxworks of Al Capone, Atilla the Hun and other famous baddies. You have to shake hands with a statue of Julius Caesar to get in. The other high point of this story is the nastiness of Superman's death. Luthor fries him slowly under the aforementioned lamp and forces Lois, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen to watch. In Luthor's own words, "He wriggled and twisted like a worm on a hook! He sweated and turned green and the last thing he ever saw was my grinning face!" It’s grim stuff, at least by the standards of sixties Superman comics, but also very entertaining.

10. 'The Challenge of Terra Man' Superman #249 (1972)
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson

This fantastically daft Bronze Age tale features Superman suffering from the annual birthday depression that apparently all Kryptonians must endure. As a result our melancholic Man of Steel is woefully unprepared for an attack from Terra-Man, a villainous cowboy who wields expanding, atomic bullets and killer cigar smoke. Superman is having a super freakout and his powers are behaving unpredictably. In one brilliant bit his X Ray vision is reversed and he is forced to stare in horror at his own brain! I don't know about you but Superman fighting a Super-Cowboy with Killer Cigars while he flies upside down and stares at his own brain sounds pretty entertaining to me.

9. 'Superman Smashes the Klan' (2019-2020)
Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Artist: Gurihiru

Adapted from the 1946 Superman radio serial 'The Klan of the Fiery Cross', this story examines Superman as an immigrant probably more successfully than any other story in the character's history. The story unfolds through the eyes of Roberta and Tommy Lee, young Chinese American siblings in 1946 whose family is targeted by a group of hooded, racist fanatics. Alongside this we follow Superman's struggle to come to terms with the fact that he's not from this planet. Writer Gene Luen Yang draws on his experience as an Asian American son of immigrants to give this story an authentic voice. Appropriately, as Superman faces the truth about his alien origins he's never felt more human and easier to identify with. For example, Yang's description of the effects of Kryptonite on the Man of Steel is the most evocative I've read. He even describes the smell of Kryptonite, which I've never seen done before. Gurihuru's clean, clear and fun artwork helps make this an accesible tale for all ages. Also, Superman punches a load of racists, which is always brilliant. 

8. 'Unconventional Warfare/ That Healing Touch/ Ruin Revealed' The Adventures of Superman #625-648 (2004-2005)
Writer: Greg Rucka
Penciler: Various
Inker: Various

During Greg Rucka's run on The Adventures of Superman, our hero is forced to ask himself some pretty hard questions. Lois Lane is shot while reporting in the Middle East and the consequences of rescuing her forces Superman to confront the influence his very presence has on human history. Clark and Lois wonder whether to start a family or not and Mr Mxyzptlk gives them a glimpse of what it might be like to raise a super-child. Wonder Woman is forced to kill a foe to save Superman, and the two heroes (as well as Clark and Lois) debate whether it's ever acceptable to take a life. Throughout it all Superman is being targeted by a ruthless enemy named Ruin who knows his secrets. The brilliant thing about this run is that Rucka deals with these moral quandaries intelligently without allowing Superman to get bogged down by uncharacteristic moping or angst. Superman ultimately provides the answer to these dilemmas the only way he can, by being Superman.

7. 'Superman and the Men of Steel/ Bulletproof/ At the End of Days' Action Comics (vol. 2) #0-18 (2011-2013)
Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Rags Morales & Various
Inker: Rick Bryant & Various

The mind-bending, cosmic concepts of writer Grant Morrison done in the style of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's fast paced, two-fisted 1930s Superman strips! This run is split into several different stories of the Man of Steel, including his origin, his early years in Metropolis as a champion of the oppressed, his first encounter with Brainiac, his rescue of Krypto the Super-dog from the Phantom Zone, and his battles against the Anti-Superman Army with the Legion of Superheroes. There's even a detour into a parallel universe where an African American Superman is President. But together all these tales depict an attack on Superman from the 5th dimension, fought at different points in his life from Superman's perspective but all at the same time from the perspective of his foe! At the heart of all the multi-dimensional, meta-conceptual brain melting is a Superman for whom nothing is impossible, with no time for bullies!

6. 'Superman under the Red Sun' Action Comics #300 (1963)
Writer: Edmond Hamilton
Penciler: Al Plastino
Inker: Al Plastino

This is a surprisingly grim Silver Age tale of Superman trapped in a post-apocalyptic future. Robbed of his powers, Superman takes a long walk across a dried up ocean in order to reach his Fortress and find a way home. He encounters a variety of bizarre, mutated creatures along the way and is accompanied by a robotic duplicate of his boss, Perry White. The final panel of the story features a brooding Superman looking out over Metropolis and hoping that he will never again find himself the last man on Earth. Considering most stories from this period ended with Lois Lane getting annoyed while Superman winked at the reader, this rather dark ending really stands out.

5. 'Reign of the Supermen'  
Action Comics #687
Superman: Man of Steel #22
Superman #78
Adventures of Superman #501
Action Comics #688
Superman: Man of Steel #23
Superman #79
Adventures of Superman #502
Action Comics #689
Superman: Man of Steel #24
Superman #80
Adventures of Superman #503
Action Comics #690
Superman: Man of Steel #25
Superman (Volume 2) #81
Adventures of Superman #504
Action Comics #691
Superman: Man of Steel #26
Green Lantern #46
Superman #82
Adventures of Superman #505 
Writers: Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Karl Kesel
Pencilers: Dan Jurgens, Jon Bogdanove, Jackson Guice, Tom Grummett
Inkers: Denis Rodier, Dennis Janke, Brett Breeding, Doug Hazlewood

While Superman's death (not the one that appears at #11 in this list) is the most famous Super-story of the nineties, it doesn't amount to much more than a big cross country punch up. Superman's resurrection was far more interesting. Following the death of the Man of Steel four Super-pretenders turn up. A Cyborg, a grim vigilante, a super-teen and a man in super-armour. How nineties is that!? Neither the armoured guy (Steel) nor the teen (Superboy) were really claiming to be the real deal but the other two were strong contenders. At the time I was convinced that I had figured out which of them was the real Superman. Boy, did I back the wrong horse! This was the first time I'd ever read a comic and thought "Did they just do that!?" The story gave us two strong characters that have become important parts of the DC Universe, John Henry (Steel) Irons and Conner (Superboy) Kent. This almost makes up for the fact that this story was also the first appearance of Superman's short lived nineties mullet.

4. 'Exile' Adventures of Superman #451-456, Superman #28-30, Superman #32-33, Action Comics Annual #2, Action Comics #643 (1989)
Writers: Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, George Perez
Pencilers: Dan Jurgens, Kerry Gammil, Mike Mignola, Curt Swan, Jerry Ordway, George Perez
Inkers: Brett Breeding, Art Thibert, Dennis Janke, John Statema, George Perez

Writer/artist John Byrne's Supergirl Saga - the story in which Superman is forced to execute General Zod and his gang -  gets discussed a lot among Superman fans. Aside from the controversial ending and the introduction of a new Supergirl, the story is actually pretty subpar and forgettable. But we must thank god it exists, because 'Exile', the story that dealt with the consequences of the Supergirl Saga is one of the greatest Superman stories ever. Superman is traumatised by his actions and exiles himself into space, believing himself to be a danger to the Earth. During his journey through space he avenges the deaths of an entire Earth town, teleports inside a gigantic space blob, learns the bloody history of Krypton, and fights and wins in an alien gladiatorial arena (years before a certain green, gamma-irradiated Marvel monster did the same thing), Exile is the story of a lost Man of Steel gradually remembering who he is. That realisation comes with nine defiant words: "MY NAME, TYRANT, IS SUPERMAN AND I DON'T KILL!"

3. 'Superman and the Legion of Superheroes' Action Comics #858-863 (2007)
Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciler: Gary Frank
Inker: Jon Sibal

Superman goes back to the 31st Century to reunite his old teenage gang, the Legion of Superheroes. While there he battles super-powered, alien-hating human supremacists. This story is very accessible, despite the fact that it draws on decades of continuity to return the Legion to their roots. The getting-the-band-back-together plot and the array of colourful characters would make this a perfect basis for a Superman movie. This story is absolutely littered with moments so cool that I literally punched the air with joy while reading them. The best thing about the tale is that Superman is without his powers for most of it but you hardly notice because he's such a badass. Towards the end a powerless Superman pushes the main baddy, Earth Man through the window of a space station in order to battle him while plummeting through the atmosphere. Balls. Of. Steel.

2. 'The Man of Steel' (1986)
Writer: John Byrne
Penciler: John Byrne
Inker: Dick Giordano

This is the story that got me, at age eleven, into Superman. I'd read Superman comics before but I'd always viewed Superman as a bit stuffy and po-faced and I had always preferred Batman. That was until I read Man of Steel. Byrne took an approach to the character that had never been done before. He made Superman a bit less powerful and a bit more vulnerable, he could no longer move planets but he could be hurt. Byrne emphasised this vulnerability by having Superman's cape get visibly torn whenever he found himself in a particularly challenging battle. This effective little artistic trend continues to this day. But Byrne did much more than make Superman physically weaker. He strengthened Superman's ties to Earth. As a man who was born in England and yet spent most of his life in the United States, Byrne felt that Superman would be proud of his Kryptonian roots but wouldn't constantly pine for his lost world in the way the Silver and Bronze Age versions of the character had. Byrne also figured that as Superman never wore a mask, then people would have no reason to suspect that he had a secret identity. This gave Clark Kent the freedom to shed his meek, mild mannered image and live his life without holding back his courage and charm. To Byrne, Superman was the disguise and Clark Kent was very much the real person. This made for a character that was very easy for the eleven year old me to relate to. After all, this Superman was much more human than Batman, the aloof billionaire. Byrne's very human Superman was my gateway into the wider world of the Superman myth, and it's for this reason that I've placed this story at number two.

1. 'All Star Superman' (2005-2008)
Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciler: Frank Quitely
Inker: Jamie Grant

This is it. The ultimate Superman story. It's written by Grant Morrison, one of the best writers in comics today and it features everything that's good about Superman, and I mean EVERYTHING! Despite this it's not just a greatest hits package. Every aspect of the Superman myth is taken to its next logical extreme. This is Superman Plus!

The plot revolves around a dying Superman's attempts to perform twelve Herculean super-feats before he passes away. Like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow it serves as an effective and poignant ending to the legend of Superman. But it's not all doom and gloom. All Star Superman is fun! It features, among other things, Superman and Lois kissing on the Moon, a version of Jimmy Olsen inspired by Nathan Barleyan arm wrestling contest with Samson and Atlas, a bizarro duplicate of Bizarro, an infant Universe created by Superman that in turn creates him, and Lex Luthor dressing an ape called Leopold in a Superman suit.

What do you think? What was left out? Does anything not belong there? Leave a comment and let us know!

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