Comic Book Curious

A Starter's Guide to Superman

September 14, 2021

I get why I was pegged by our editor for a piece like this; I’m the old fart comics history nerd who also, Tourette’s-like and with no provocation, will loudly proclaim - in communal places and on public transport - my immeasurable, bottomless love of the first and still greatest comic book superhero in existence: Superman. But it’s for that same reason I’m probably the worst choice to pen such an article. To whit, Superman means too much to me. For all my generous and self-aware snark regarding the inescapable goofiness of superheroes (one can most effectively mock what one most truly loves), Superman is my kryptonite. Because he is a figure of very personal mythology and meaning to myself, I reserve my strongest judgment for the manner in which Supes is handled by those lucky enough to be granted a caretaker’s role over his never-ending battle for Truth and Justice.

Funny that I find myself such a fierce protector of a character who certainly doesn’t need my help; who is the strongest, most resilient of all. Kal-El of Krypton was created three decades before I was born and will still be around long after I’m gone. Invulnerable, immortal, and, I’m sure to those of you out there who think you’d like to dip an exploratory toe in the super pool, unknowable.

Look, I get it. Eighty-three years of continuity is a daunting prospect for any comic book curious person. Well, that’s why I’m here, to try, despite my own fear of failing the Big Blue Boy Scout, to point you in the direction of a few works that would serve as (several) introduction(s) to this strange visitor from another planet.

But where to start with the guy who started it all? How about the beginning?

cover of Action Comics 1 with Superman lifting car

Credit: DC Comics


In 1934, two teenagers from Cleveland, Ohio - writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster - created a great and original idea for a newspaper comic strip (comic books as we know them weren’t a thing yet). Four years later those tenacious kids sold it to National Periodicals (not yet DC). It was the best, and worst, thing that ever happened to them.

In this, Superman’s first comic book appearance and the unlikely birth of a brand new fictional archetype, Siegel and Shuster’s comic strip goals are evident. The material in Action Comics #1 was simply chopped up and reorganized from several tryout strips. So in his thirteen page debut we’re treated to a brief origin, a daring race against time to free an innocent woman from the electric chair, a brutal dispatching of an abusive husband, and the super-torture of a crooked lobbyist. Oh, also, Clark Kent’s less than successful first date with Lois Lane (and her first meeting with his chief rival for her affections: his red-caped alter ego).

Why go back and read a charming if amateurishly written and drawn kids comic from eight decades ago? Because as fun as it is to see the differences in the Superman we’ve come to know (he can’t fly yet! Where’s the heat vision? What’s with the sandals?), it’s even better to see all that was in place from the very beginning. Sure, he may be a little brusque and cocky here at the start, but his moral compass and his desire to protect and to blend seamlessly with the people of his adopted world have remained unchanged since 1934.

cover of Superman Annual 11 with Superman and alien plant and Mongul

Credit: DC Comics

SUPERMAN ANNUAL #11 “For the Man Who Has Everything…” (1985)

Genius comics writer/practicing wizard Alan Moore was still a year out from his magnum opus Watchmen when he penned this story for the 1985 annual of Superman. This tale, in which Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman arrive at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to celebrate his birthday - only to find that intergalactic villain Mongul has already given the Man of Steel a deadly present, is equal parts superhero story, character study, and “what if” as a parasitic alien plant gives Superman a very real fantasy of what his life would have been like if Krypton had never exploded.

Drawn beautifully by Moore’s Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons, it’s a gut-wrenching tale of a happy family man who has to find the strength and courage to deny the evidence of his heart and fight his way back to a reality that needs him. A great Superman story that focuses on the “man” without the “super.”

cover of Superman WHTTMOT with Superman memorial statue in center

Credit: DC Comics


Alan Moore strikes again! Nineteen eighty-five was a year of huge changes at DC. The maxi-series Crisis On Infinite Earths was the catalyst to streamline and condense the entire DC universe and reboot their properties free of decades of continuity. That meant that the classic DC universe of the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Ages (1940s-1980s) was about to “die.”

This allowed Alan Moore the (daunting, I’m sure) opportunity to write an “ending” to the original Superman, which he did over the final two issues of the original run of Action Comics and Superman (the two parter is now easily found in collected form). Making use of the clean, nostalgic art of the great Curt Swan who had been drawing Superman’s adventures since the 1950s, Moore delivered an adventure that leaned heavily on the character’s history and ephemera while still pulling no punches as Superman faces off against his greatest villains for the final time. It’s a story that truly sums up the ridiculous and wonderful world of this childrens’ fantasy character while unironically delivering on very relatable, very adult emotions.

cover of Man of Steel with Superman tearing open his shirt

Credit: DC Comics


From an end to a beginning. Post-Crisis, DC gave the task of reimagining their flagship character to superstar writer-artist of the day John Byrne who left behind Marvel (with legendary runs on X-Men, Hulk and Fantastic Four as highlights) to take the gig.

This six-issue miniseries was Byrne’s big swing at rebooting the world’s most recognizable superhero in a form definitely not beholden to the hero born of the Great Depression and yet still completely recognizable. While anything from the mid-‘80s is now just as prehistoric as, um, me, this series is a great example of how a creator can make big changes (Clark’s kind of a hunk! Lex Luther is now more businessman than mad scientist! Ma and Pa Kent are still alive! Krypton was a cold, very alien world!) and still capture the essence of an immortal character. While Superman had been tweaked and altered all through his historic run, this was the first time anybody had been given free reign to completely overhaul him and it was a big success. This take on Superman was the template for decades to come.

cover of Superman FAS Superman flying at us against blue sky and yellow clouds

Credit: DC Comics


The great writer-artist team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale that brought us Batman: The Long Halloween (and the “colors” graphic novel series - Spider-Man Blue, Hulk Grey, Daredevil Yellow - for Marvel) turned their attention to Last Son of Krypton with this four issue miniseries.

Although set in the early days of his superhero career, this wasn’t another retelling or tweaking of Superman’s origin, instead each of these season-themed issues (each told through a different narrator - Pa Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang) just illustrates the person behind the cape as observed by each supporting character. The deceptively simple line work of Sale is turned into a superhero ode to the classic Americana of Norman Rockwell by the gorgeous coloring of Bjorne Hansen. A beautiful book devoted to the very human core of its alien hero.

cover of Action Comics 775 with dark sad Superman kneeling with American flag

Credit: DC Comics

ACTION COMICS #775 “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”(2001)

A common refrain amongst folks both inside and outside the world of comics goes, “Is Superman still relevant?” A single issue in a popular run by writer Joe Kelly and various artists (this issue featuring an impressive tag-team of Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo) set out to address that very question.

Kelly introduced a very modern group of massively powerful anti-heroes called The Elite who set about taking care of super threats with ruthless violence which disturbingly garners support from a large segment of the public. The Elite’s leader, a punkish Brit named Manchester Black, specifically enjoys showing up the outdated Man of Steel whose ethical code and compassion mark him as a relic too “soft” to serve the cause of Justice in the harsh modern world. The way Kelly has Superman deal with these characters (clear analogues of several cynical, hyper-violent super”heroes” that became massively popular during the ‘90s and early aughts) without compromising all the principles he’s held onto since Day One is the reason this issue was hailed as one of the best Superman stories ever.

cover of Superman Birthright with flying Superman Clark Kent taking off glasses yellow background

Credit: DC Comics


What? Another origin retelling? In defense of creative team of writer Mark Waid and artist Leinil Yu, this was the assignment. DC wanted a modern, 21st century update of Karl-El’s origin to supplant John Byrne’s 1986 go. And you could hardly ask for a better team - specifically writer Waid who may, in fact, be an even bigger Superman fan than yours truly. I mean, the man admits to knowing Clark Kent’s social security number.

This 12 issue series (available in collected form) admirably and engagingly begins by introducing us to a young Clark Kent before the cape and tights, between Smallville and Metropolis, who is making his way through the world, learning of different cultures and the human condition. By the time he makes his way to the big city and a job at the Daily Planet, meeting Lois Lane and reuniting with childhood acquaintance Lex Luthor, we’ve already seen him learn a lot not just about his powers and his Kryptonian heritage, but what he wants to do with them. It’s an inside view of the making of an iconic (yet fallible) hero.

The bitter irony of this awesome new take on the old story is that, due to another universe-shattering event, Infinite Crisis in 2005, this version of Superman’s origin was only “canon” for a couple of years. No matter, as a standalone, this is a worthy addition to the list.

Oh, and that whole idea that the “S” emblem on his chest is a Kryptonian symbol of “hope” that Zack Snyder plopped into his gray and joyless Man of Steel? Yeah, that came from this series.

cover of All-Star Superman with Supes sitting on a cloud looking at us over his shoulder

Credit: DC Comics


The idea of the “All-Star” line from DC was a great one: allow A-list creative teams total freedom to do finite runs with top DC characters with no editorial mandates and free of continuity. Too bad the disastrous critical response and sales numbers of the second title, Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman and Robin sank the whole line. But at least we got this.

Writer Grant Morrison (like Alan Moore, a Brit with a medium-stretching imagination and an absolute love of the American superhero that, unlike Moore, he seems to have retained) and frequent artistic collaborator Frank Quitely turned out this twelve issue maxi series that, instead of eschewing all the wackiest bits of Superman’s long continuity, embraced every ludicrous bit of it while keeping the entire story accessible (weird, wild, but accessible) to any newcomer.

The basic story has Superman discover he’s dying and spends his remaining time carrying out “the Twelve Labors of Superman” - his last gargantuan acts to improve life for all of Humanity before he goes - and sharing all his secrets with the love of his life, Lois Lane. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor’s quest for power succeeds beyond his wildest dreams and sets the stage for the Man of Steel’s final sacrifice.

It’s a crazy tale (as most of Morrison’s are) but anchored by beautiful emotional beats and perhaps the most expansive celebration/tribute to the very concept of Superman that we’re likely to ever see.

yellow book cover of Superman STK

Credit: DC Comics


One of the smartest things DC Comics has done in recent years is allow for certain creators to do passion projects involving the DC characters free from the demands of month-to-month continuity. We often benefit from this by receiving self-contained stories with a very unique voice. Like this!

The writer-artist of the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese Gene Luen Yang wrote this three-issue series based on a famous plot from the long-running Superman radio show and artist Gurihiru supplies the vibrant, cartoon/animation style visuals.

Ostensibly created for younger readers, Superman Smashes The Klan is a surprisingly deft and moving tale set in 1947 as the Lee family - especially the kids Tommy and Roberta - experience the threat of a group of masked bigots (the oddly familiar “Klan of the Fiery Kross”) looking to drive them from their Metropolis neighborhood. The Chinese American family are aided by a rookie Superman who’s still learning about his powers and just how much of an outsider he, too, is.

Despite its retro setting, this story couldn’t be timelier and its delightful characterizations of not just Superman but his entire extended cast (Lois and Jimmy all day long!) make this one of the best hassle-free starting points for any Super-curious reader.


poster with Superman and multiethnic kids

Credit: DC Comics


Speaking of timeliness, this PSA was virally resurrected and made the rounds on social media during the last few troubled and contentious years. Another simple humanitarian message that provides a summation of this character I love.


Just as 1992’s Batman the Animated Series proved to be the best possible adaptation of the entirety of the world of the Dark Knight, condensing and refining every aspect of a character just a year younger than his Kryptonian pal, Warner Bros. Animation (and the same creators) did it again with this series.

Lighter and brighter as befits its main character, Superman the Animated Series gave us the purest, most faithful version of Superman in a non-comics media nailing the tone, the look, the character and the core of the Man of Steel while offering the scope of his adventures that live action has never had the budget for.

Available to stream on HBOMax and soon to be getting the digital-remastered blu ray box set it deserves (finally).

And lastly…


Look past the dated trappings, the finely aged SFX, the painful spoken word “Can You Read My Mind” section, and the idea that a criminal genius Lex Luthor would suffer two bungling boobs like Otis and Miss Teschmacher, and revel in the perfect casting, perfect score, and this fifteen second exchange which sums up Superman better than all of the millions of words that have been dedicated to analyzing him:

LOIS: Wait! Who are you?

SUPERMAN: A friend.

Okay, I did it! While there are so many more issues/storylines/runs that I could have included - some of which are just as good, some of which are even more exciting or emotional or fun, than those listed here - I think any of these would be great starting places to get to know the big guy. Once you’ve been properly introduced, I think you’ll like him. Heck, even love him. He’s the first, he’s the greatest and not for the reasons a comics fan might expect. He’s the greatest because he only wants to help.

This is one of the problems many people have with the character - or any “goody-good guy.” Pure, unadulterated altruism seems nerdy at best and suspect at worst. But it certainly isn’t cool.

No, Superman’s not cool. But he’s beyond that kind of classification. In the end, it’s never been the powers that make Superman a hero worth getting to know (and, in my case, follow for life), it’s what he chooses to do with those abilities. The content of this character’s character. Our protector, our friend, who can fly but has never put himself above us.

Don't forget to check out John Campbell's "Starter Guide: Batman."

©2021, The Groovy Projects. All rights reserved. |