Action Comics No. 1,000 is upon us! Eighty years ago, in June 1938, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster essentially created the superhero genre when National Comics published Action Comics No. 1. Superman was featured on the cover and eventually took over that monthly anthology completely.
National Comics eventually took the name of their other big monthly anthology, Detective Comics, as their official moniker, creating the DC label that is still going strong enough to get to their first issue 1,000. They had to reboot their numbering for this, but regardless, there have now been 1,000 issues of Action Comics. Despite being older, Detective Comics is only at issue 978, and Spider-man is in third place at No. 798.
In these times of partisan insanity and constant social media meltdowns, we need the stalwart strength of Krypton’s last son more than ever. To quote Homer Simpson: “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there please save me Superman!” Maybe these Supes stories can temporarily save you from insanity.
11. Superman: The Man of Steel
This short reboot to Superman was my first encounter with the red cape. This limited series ran in ‘86 after DC’s first bizarre continuity reset, “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” It changed a lot of things about Superman’s origin at the time. He was still from Krypton, but the Kryptonians were reimagined. Instead of dying of a heart attack, his earthly father lived to see him become a full-grown man.
Superman was a star athlete on the football team, but kept his powers in constant check. His relationship to Batman became more adversarial. Most importantly, his powers were considerably toned down, while Lex Luthor’s ability to wreak havoc as a supervillain was pared way up. In other words, John Byrne put a lot of thought into how to revamp the character for a new age.
It’s non-continuity now, but still a good place to start if you want to understand the character and his world.
This is not a Superman story, officially. Mark Millar was so disturbed by the ending of “Man of Steel” (2013) that he felt the need to write something that would heal his soul. Now, “Man of Steel” is supposed to be disturbing. Millar was one of the few people who truly understood that film and how appropriate the ending was to Warner Brothers’ powerful, tragic re-envisioning of Superman, in which his powers had realistic consequences.
Instead of criticizing it, Millar responded artistically. And what a response. “Huck” is one of the most heartwarming stories ever written, and its vision of America and goodness is Superman all the way through.
Huck is an orphan in a small American town. He has unexplained superpowers and tries to do at least one good deed every day. This may sound corny, but as the saga unfolds Huck’s tragic origin is gradually revealed. Not to spoil too much, but it involves the Russians!
9. What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
This great Superman story was a response to something Millar was writing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Authority, a series about a team of superheroes, was a revolutionary new take on the superhero genre that became very popular at the time. DC decided to respond with Superman taking on a similar superhero team in Action Comics No. 775.
This story is most memorable for portraying Superman’s principles as vulnerable. There’s some very moving movements between him and his immediate family. But ultimately the idea that principles need to come before power is always a relevant message. This is essential Superman reading.
8. Superman: Red Son
This is another Millar entry. He is probably my all-time favorite writer of comics, and I’m honestly not sure what his best work is. But this one is definitely in the running for his magnum opus.
I really don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read this amazing Elseworlds tale. But the premise is that instead of baby Kal-El landing in Kansas and being raised by the Kents, he lands in the Soviet Union—hence the name Red Son. If that doesn’t whet your appetite, nothing will.
Lest you think this is Bernie Sanders’ favorite comic, Millar has a long history of slyly (or inadvertently) inserting classical liberal and conservative critiques of socialism into almost all of his stuff. This is no exception. The story is a fantastic journey into an alternative vision of Superman.
The three issues also cover a ridiculous amount of territory. It’s been long rumored that DC’s animated unit would adapt this story into one of their direct-to-video films, but alas, it hasn’t happened yet.
This isn’t just an amazing Superman story, this is one of the greatest superhero stories ever. Absolutely essential for comic book fans.
7. Superman: Braniac
This story arc took place over Action Comics Nos. 866-70. That’s only four issues, but the results were fantastic. The overall impact was to return some of the classic elements of the Superman myth that Byrne removed in the ‘80s. It brought back the silver age Braniac, but made him colder and more sinister; the bizarre bottle city of Kandor; and something else I will not ruin.
It’s very clear that Geoff Johns was trying to return to an older version of Superman, because they had Gary Frank beautifully draw Superman as Christopher Reeve—not just similar, but his exact likeness with the accompanying ’79 super-suit. In at least one frame it’s also very obvious that Frank drew Lois as Margot Kidder.
Thankfully, this story was excellently adapted into the animated film “Superman: Unbound.” There are some pretty big thematic differences between the two versions, however, so they are both worth experiencing. This is only really essential for Superman fans, but as Superman stories go they don’t get much better than this.
6. Kingdom Come
This is the second Elseworlds story on this list. It is basically Superman’s version of “The Dark Knight Returns.” He’s an old man and we get to see him struggle with some epic philosophical and emotional issues as the world around him drastically changes.
The art is by the incomparable Alex Ross. He paints his panels from dressed models so you see every fold and muscle on every character. While he’s done lots of covers over the years, he rarely illustrates full stories. It’s quite a thing to behold.
Mark Waid’s writing is set to match. This story is fantastic, and I would say essential reading for everybody. Books like this are proof that comics truly are art. It’s biblical in scope and truly unforgettable.
5. All-Star Superman
Most people think these 12 issues should be at number one. They aren’t wrong. The rankings of this list were determined by the sharpest of margins. All these stories are fantastic. What sets “All-Star Superman” apart from the rest is its amazing combination of cleverness and sentimentality all within a completely ridiculous retro veneer.
As he always does, Grant Morrison dug deep into the bizarre psyche of comics to create this wonderful series. And Frank Quietly’s amazing pencils capture all this with a soft but profound grace. This book is almost like a “scripture” for how to write great comics. That’s why fans treat it with hallowedness.
An infamous meme was created as a response to “Man of Steel” that came from these pages.
This book is essential for comic hounds, but deserving of religious devotion from Superman fans.
4. For the Man Who Has Everything
Superman Annual No. 11 published in 1985. It is so perfect that it has been adapted twice—once on the Justice League cartoon and recently in the excellent “Supergirl” live-action CW show. The idea is that Superman receives a present for his birthday from an unknown source. He opens the box and inside there is a wacky-looking plant. It attaches itself to his chest and puts him into a coma.
This telepathic plant is called the Black Mercy. Once attached, it gives you your deepest desires but only in dream form. So Superman hallucinates that Krypton never exploded and he’s still living out his life there with this parents.
Alan Moore is some kind of genius. He consistently came up with these sorts of brilliant ideas for stories. It’s only one issue, but it should blow you away.
3. Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Another Moore story, this was advertised as the end of Superman forever! The first part began in Superman No. 423 and the finale was in Action Comics No. 583. Of course, this was not actually the end of Superman but they advertised it as the last issues to ever be printed.
Comics got dark in the ‘80s, in no small measure thanks to Moore. Instead, this story recapitulates everything that had come before. It brought back the weird ‘60s sci-fi stuff that had been missing for a while, all while being heartwarming. In many ways, this story explains what makes Superman great. It brings together all the elements in a fun yet tragic story. It’s a beautiful love letter to the man of tomorrow.
2. Must There Be a Superman?
The idea of Superman is troubling. WB’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” proved this with their very mixed reception among fans. He is a kind of alien god, and could end all of us if he wanted. Or he could infantilize us by helping too much.
Superman No. 247 posed this question to Superman himself. And the answer is, well, what it always is. It depends entirely on Superman’s character. Most of the Supes stories before the 1980s haven’t aged well (virtually no comics have), and I can’t recommend this one for its “quality.” But it deserves this high a placement for its importance in honestly tackling this question from a very conservative perspective.
It boils down to these words majestically delivered by Marlon Brando seven years after this story was published: “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.”
1. Superman for All Seasons
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are the most emotionally charged duo in comics. Together they synthesize like an orchestra. Most will tell you that “Batman: The Long Halloween” is their best work. But that is incorrect. Their magnum opus is “Superman for All Seasons.”
This is not only the best Superman story ever, but it might be the single greatest piece of comic literature, period. That is fitting, because while we Batman fans may protest with Frank Miller, Scott Snyder, Denny O’Neil, Bill Finger and a seemingly infinite list of the greatest writers and stories, the truth is that Superman was here first. Without him, there probably is no Batman.
It took me many years to finally enjoy this wonderful story. It looked boring, so I avoided it. One day, while browsing Barnes and Noble I decided to finally take a look, see what all the fuss was about. I stood in the same spot for an hour. I read the entire thing standing in that aisle. I’ve never done that before or since.
It’s a retelling of Superman’s early days within the timeframe and setting of Byrne’s “Man of Steel” reboot, and each of the four issues is themed around one of the four seasons. Each issue also has a different narrator. His father gets spring, his true love gets summer, his greatest nemesis is fall, and his first love (Lana Lang) gets winter.
Like all great characters from Hamlet to Tiny Tim, these characters are not great because of superpowers. They’re great because of what’s under the superpowers. The scarred heart of humanity that breathes life into all fiction is what makes Superman truly great. And in many ways his story is the story of America.
For this reason, Tim Sale’s amazing pencils imitated Norman Rockwell and Bjarne Hansen inked it to look like watercolor paintings. The end result is a dream vision of America built around Superman. The pages feel illuminated. There’s a hopefulness about the whole thing that is based in heartache and maturity, not naive optimism. As luck would have it, this year is its 20th anniversary. In September 1998, SFAS No. 1 hit stores. It’s just as powerful today as it was then.
None of these wonderful stories would be possible if two Jewish boys from Ohio hadn’t pitched the first Superman story 80 years ago. Ever since then, Kal-El, the Superman, has been an icon of truth, justice, and the American way.
I’ll end this with Russell Crowe’s fantastic speech from “Man of Steel” that beautifully sums up what Superman represents: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”