I’m not going to lie, I’m very excited to see MAN OF STEEL tomorrow night. I’m not the sort of geek that expects dissapointment – and I’ll admit, that’s hurt me many times in the past – but for whatever reason, no matter how many times I learn my lesson, if Hollywood decides to throw one of my beloved funny book characters onto the screen, I’m filled with fervor and anticipation. My friends will mock my childish excitement – the movies have been churning out superhero product on a consistent basis for more than a decade now, why get excited for more and more? But frankly, and this may seem obvious, I love superheroes.
I may spend a lot of time and waste a lot of words here at The Pure Mood pseudo-intellectualizing an old Batman comic, but even if you take away the fact that I think there’s something bigger going on in a lot of the stories, I think superhero comics are a hoot. I even love the brass tax stuff. I still, to this day, as a supposed grown man, will sit alone on my couch and just imagine having superpowers. Sometimes I’ll fantasize about being able to fly, or travel through time, or control shadows or have stilt legs or web shooters. It’s endlessly fun to me to just sit and think of the Man-Wolf’s story line in the Marvel Universe – just check out Wikipedia, it’s convoluted and insane and beautiful. But my favourite superhero to think about is the first one – the alien from outer space that has every power and really loves his foster parents.
If we’re talking about the fun, larger than life juvenile joy I get from cape books, nothing can compete with Superman. He’s far from my favourite superhero – he’d have to beat out a million Marvel characters and half of the Legion of Superheroes. But for sheer amount of great stories, and specifically fun stories? No one can hold a candle to him. MAN OF STEEL’s approaching arrival had me re-reading many of my favourite Superman stories, and I thought I’d present a few of what I consider the all time best. Far from a definitive list, this a personal exploration of the Superman comics that meant the most to me.
If Superman has a bad day, who cheers him up? This Eisner award winning issue is mostly remembered for Ennis’ biting remarks on the superhero concept as well as its rabid fanbase, but there’s an actual stunning sincerity to this story. “If a chance is all we can hope for, maybe that ain’t so bad.” That really is what Superman represents – many readers find Superman’s answers when asked why he doesn’t simply solve all of the world’s problems as evasive as a dodgy politicians, but I agree with the idea. Superman can’t be the answer, but he can remind us we do have a chance in this insanely overbearing world.
If there was any doubt that this list wasn’t going to be about self-indulgence, let that fear wash away with this completely unjustifiable choice. It may not reveal the deepest of truths about the character or about who we are as people, but this is one of my favourite Superman stories, certainly of the ’90s. One of my favourite things about all Silver Age comics is that a guest appearance by Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes was likely just around the corner. Characters from the Atom to Batman traveled through time on a frequent basis, learning about history and literature, about the power of myths and heroes throughout civilization. In this story, a battle with time-travelling bounty hunter Linear Man (I am already 100% on board with that concept) has Superman accidentally sucked into a vortex that sends him across time and space, from Etrigan the Demon to Camelot to the end of the world. It’s a complete blast of a story, and if you’ve got a couple dollars and a back issue bin, well worth tracking down!
#13 – KAMANDI THE LAST BOY ON EARTH! #29
Obviously, Kirby was obsessed with myths, and with the unique narrative power comics had. This story is about both of those things – far in a dystopian future, Superman is worshiped as a God by a race of savage animal/human hybrids. His story is revered in tablets inscribed with words and pictures, placed next to each other so as to resemble the inside of a comic book. This makes Superman’s story able to be read by all, and I really do think Kirby believed comics’ accessibility is a large part of where their strength came from. The issue ends on a deeply messianic note, with Kamandi returning Superman’s uniform to it’s worshipers – “The TRUE “Mighty One” shall RETURN for this. He shall appear as his TRUE self.” They wait patiently for their saviour’s return.
#12 – SUPERMAN BEYOND 3D #1-2
The most complicated Superman story of all time, requiring multiple readings and help from expert annotations to get through it. If you do your homework, though, it really is one of the most powerful Superman stories of all time. Morrison explores how a hero that we create is one of endless power, while also further exploring the Superman Red/Blue concept – just what would Superman be capable of if he could be everywhere? A challenging read, but very stimulating and rewarding.
Elliot S! Maggin once wrote these beautiful words –
“Superman loved Lois Lane.
Lois Lane loved Clark Kent and ached in vain
to believe he was Superman.
Clark Kent loved Superman.
No one understood this.”
-perhaps the truest words ever written about the character, and this issue may be the greatest exploration of the unique love triangle between Lois, Clark and Superman. Would Lois love Superman even if he were nothing more than a beast? Clark’s melancholy is felt like a hidden force in the issue – as if he’s desperate to prove to Lois that even Superman isn’t perfect. One of my favourite things about Clark’s love for Lois is his inability to express his greatest fears, which is what real intimacy is, and something Superman is unable to articulate.
Something I find immensely powerful about the Silver Age is that they focused on telling parables more than they told episodic soap opera chapters, as we’re used to today. This issue again explores that never ending problem when it comes to Superman – why doesn’t he just fix everything? Split into two separate ‘selves’, Superman finally has the time to save the world and have a real personal life. I think we’ve all thought about what we could do ‘if we just had the time’, but of course, we’re only human. And, as with all great Superman stories, at the end of this one, Kal-El has to remember that, too.
There have been a lot of stories that explore how Lex Luthor could be an example of the peak of humanity if he could only let go of his petty resentment for Superman, but this is probably my favourite. Scott McCloud tells us the story of a lower-class young boy obsessed with his two biggest heroes – Superman and Lex Luthor. When Luthor takes the boy under his wing and tries to convert him to his anti-Superman ways, the boy discovers how petiness and jealousy can eat away at everything that makes a man great. It’s one of the definitive Luthor stories of all time, one of many great stories in a fantastic series.
Does there have to be a Superman? Kal-El encounters the Oa, who have doubts about Superman’s benefit to humanity. Though Superman has no intention of agreeing with them, he leaves with the question echoing in his mind. A perfect example of what made Bronze Age stories so great – they still had the epic imagination and moral quandaries of the SA stories, but they brought in a human realism and moral shadiness that brought superhero stories to higher heights of maturity.
I consider this comic required reading for any superhero fan born into a post-Watchmen world of comics. A bleak and cynical writer finds himself tapped to write a Superman story, a character he’d always hated. Reading the old stories in an attempt to understand Superman, he ends up learning a lot about himself, and a lot about the juvenile futility of cynicism. A very moving and articulate response to the (seemingly never-ending) Dark Age of superhero comics.
Clark Kent awakes one day to find he is no longer Superman. Except he knows at this heart that he is – he has all memories of his fantastic adventures, he remembers meeting the Legion of Superheroes or working with his friend Batman. Regardless, he no longer has his powers, and a Superman separate from Clark Kent continues to save people in need. Not only a fascinating exploration of the fragility or reality and how easily our worlds can be turned completely upside down, but also a look into the constant fear of fraudulence that plagues are modern age. Also retold in a lovely issue of SUPERMAN ADVENTURES by Mark Millar.
#5 – SUPERMAN #156
Oddly, I actually don’t think this one is as good as many people remember it. It’s mostly about the tension of Superman waiting for Supergirl, and then trying to cover up his secret identity. Of course, it also contains possibly the most moving panel in Superman’s history, and that’s why it’s on this list.
A possible inspiration for IT’S A BIRD… this issue features a story in which Superman must convince a young blind girl that he is indeed Superman. She refuses to believe in the ridiculous nature of his powers, and of his stories of Krypton and yellow sun rays. The story has great emotional weight to modern superhero readers, many of whom preach what the blind girl says as reasons for why Superman doesn’t work as a character. It’s a fun issue that explores the emptiness of cynicism, and our ability to believe.
#3 – ACTION COMICS #270
This is, quite possibly, the saddest superhero comic of all time. Superman is trapped in the future, an old man stripped of his powers, whom nobody in Metropolis recognizes. Supergirl has succeeded his post as protector of the city, and his amazing feats were quickly forgotten. Featuring some of the most a heartbreaking scenes in Superman’s history, including one in which Kal-El wanders the streets, begging for recognition. another where he must witness the death of his pet Krypto, and his sad realization that he never loved Lois completely, and now he’s too depressed and alone to do anything about it. A depressing and almost nihilistic story, but one that strikes at that most base human fear – is there a point to any of it? Are we going to die alone? Unforgettable.
#2 – ACTION COMICS #9
Why do I keep reading superhero comics? I know better. I know it’s just one small part of a huge corporation’s money-making IP, IP’s that were acquired by treating human beings, incredibly talented artists of human beings no less, without any respect or sense of humanity. If it’s all just about the paper plates and birthday cakes and pajamas and movies and cartoons, why am I still reading them? Who do I think I am to read comics about people being heroes, stories that I claim are teaching me about being human…when they’re published by a corporation, the complete opposite of humanity? ACTION COMICS #9 explores these kinds of questions. One can’t imagine anyone but Grant Morrison getting away with publishing this kind of comic, specifically in the modern offices of DC where Batman never sits, but really putting this out from a mainstream publisher in any era would be astounding. In another world, an evil corporation steals the world’s greatest hero from a couple of kids, and turns it into a force for evil. Can we seperate what we want superhero comics to mean and what they actually are? Can I ignore the ads for electric Spider-man tooth brushes on the backs of comics I’m trying to convince myself mean something? Should I just shut up and accept that I’m a fanboy, a part of the system, eating up product that will be forgotten in a matter of weeks, if not days? Tough questions to answer, and to even ask, and Morrison did it all in a comic I sometimes think I’d have been better off not having read. A very difficult but incredible story.
It couldn’t have been anything else.
Enjoy MAN OF STEEL everybody! Be here on Friday for my review, and tomorrow for the PULL LIST as I review Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s SUPERMAN UNCHAINED, and many other comics as well.