Superman is drawing huge crowds as Man of Steel takes off in theaters and people argue about whether or not they liked it. Some, meanwhile, just want to get into Superman comics and aren’t sure where to start. Never fear: We’ve got the best Superman comics for you to read, to get a sense of the Big Blue Boy Scout.
First we should preface this by saying that quite a few Superman comics are available on Comixology and on Kindle, but that you should really find your local comics shop and buy books there, not least because they’ll point you towards other books you might like. But, if all else fails, we’ve included links where appropriate. Starting with…
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This isn’t the comic that the movie is based on. Well, arguably. Instead, this is the 1980s retelling of Superman’s origin that defined Superman for new readers. DC chose to step away from the old, goofy comic book universe they’d developed for a more adult setting with one of the first comics events, Crisis on Infinite Earths. Basically they wanted to stop writing the kinds of plotlines that showed up in Superdickery, and tell something adults would read.
As a result, Luthor was now a respected businessman, Lois was no longer a doormat, and Superman himself is a bit more dapper and intelligent. It’s one of the key books of the 1980s, and largely defined Superman for years to come. And as a companion piece…
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Widely seen as the last “Silver Age” comic, this book was created by the Superman dream team of Alan Moore and Curt Swan. Curt Swan, for decades, drew Superman before being brutally and summarily ditched by DC in favor of, well, The Man Of Steel and John Byrne’s reboot. It’s something some fans are still angry over, and something that broke the heart of Swan himself.
The net result, a story told in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583, is essentially what happens when all those silly villains and assorted brightly colored nutjobs Superman fought for thirty years finally get it together and ruthlessly go after him.
The results are best defined as… ugly, and with this and Man Of Steel, much of the groundwork was laid for a new, more mature style of comics storytelling. Along with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, it’s one of the books that changed how comics were read and seen by both fans and the public.
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Another question about Superman that’s rarely asked… exactly how relevant is Superman to the modern era? Do truth and justice matter in a world where both are for sale and sneered at?
Joe Kelly answered that question in Action Comics #775, a story about a new supergroup called the Elite. Bloody-minded, cruel, and violent, the Elite call out Superman and dare him to stand up to their idea of “justice.”
It’s a story about what happens when you push a decent man too far, and also one about principles. In of itself, it’s a memorable read, but put into a larger context, it’s a compelling look at how hard it can be to be moral when there’s the constant temptation not to be.
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What does Superman want? Sure, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, but what about what he wants as a person? It’s a question that comes up every Christmas for the Justice League, that everyone has a different answer for, but in Alan Moore’s story, the definitive answer is that Superman, more than anything else, doesn’t want to be Superman.
What follows is a psychological exploration of what drives Superman, and what he might have become if Krypton had never exploded. It was, and remains, a poignant look at why superheroes do what they do… and why they may not be able to choose their own fates.
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, after all that, actually went in a completely different direction with this series. Essentially, Morrison took the book back to its somewhat campy roots, taking ideas from the 50s and 60s and demonstrating that it’s character that anchors these books. Morrison gives what should be absurd cheese a warmth and heart that makes this twelve-issue series some of the best Superman comics for both new readers and old fans alike.
These aren’t the only Superman stories, of course, but they’re a good start. Got some ideas about what books should have made the cut? Let us know in the comments!