With the city buzzing over the Dallas Theater Center’s production of It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, I thought it would be a good time to retreat to my Fortress of Solitude and inventory some of my favorite Superman comics.
The character was nearly 50 years old when I first gave a hoot about him in 1986. That’s when John Byrne was given carte blanche to rewrite those five decades of history. Byrne was an established star at Marvel Comics, most notably for a lengthy run writing and drawing Fantastic Four, but DC Comics lured him away. I was a Marvel zombie back then, when that term described a loyal customer as opposed to a flesh-eating superhero. But if Byrne was making the leap to DC, then so was I.
Byrne’s first work on the character was The Man of Steel, a six-issue series in which he updated Superman for the modern era. The first major change was that Kal-El was truly the last son of Krypton. Over the years, many other survivors of that doomed world popped up on Earth, including Superman’s cousin Supergirl and an entire menagerie of superpets, including Krypto the dog, Comet the horse, and Beppo the monkey. (Seriously.)
Besides erasing all those characters, Byrne also eliminated the concept of Superboy, decreeing that Clark Kent didn’t don his famous costume until he was an adult; established Lex Luthor as an unscrupulous businessman instead of an evil scientist; and set up Superman’s relationship with Batman as more of a rivalry than a friendship.
Much of Byrne’s new canon would be undone by other writers and editors over the years. The next major attempt to clean up the continuity came in 2003, with the publication of Superman: Birthright. In this 12-issue series, writer Mark Waid and artist Leinil Francis Yu updated the character to the 21st century. How updated? Well, when young Clark travels the world in his pre-Superman days, he communicates with Ma Kent via e-mail.
Whereas Byrne put Superman’s Kryptonian background on the backburner, Waid brought it front and center, turning it into his raison d’être. Rather than Byrne’s version of a sterile, emotionless world, Waid’s Krypton was a planet of passionate explorers and warriors, and the S on Superman’s chest adorned the Kryptonian flag. Superman no longer denied his heritage; he embraced it.
Before moving on from Byrne, I have to mention Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. When the character’s first major reboot was imminent, acclaimed writer Alan Moore was given the opportunity to pen the last story of Superman’s established continuity. Longtime editor Julius Schwartz told Moore to pretend Superman and Action Comics were being canceled. How should the world’s first superhero story end?
Told in flashback by a future version of Lois Lane, and drawn by longtime Superman illustrator Curt Swan, the story recounts the Man of Steel’s final battle with Luthor and Brainiac, in which he sacrifices himself to save his loved ones. It’s a fine tale, but it’s not my favorite Superman story by Moore. That would be “For the Man Who Has Everything,” in which Moore and his Watchmen artist, Dave Gibbons, give us a glimpse of what Kal-El’s life would have been like if Krypton never exploded.
All of these stories feature quality art, especially that of Byrne and Yu. But for something truly breathtaking, hunt down a copy of Superman: Peace on Earth. This oversized volume, which is out of print, is more of a picture book than a comic. It features no word balloons or caption boxes. Instead, Superman’s first-person narration is printed on the margins of Alex Ross’s stunning paintings, which bleed to the edge of the page rather than being constrained in panels.
Ross and writer Paul Dini tell a story grounded in the real world. (Rather than fighting gaudy villains, Superman attempts to tackle the problem of world hunger.) But for a story that’s actually set in the real world, check out Superman: Secret Identity.
Kurt Busiek’s page-turner, which is illustrated by Stuart Immonen, is about a boy named Clark Kent from a small town in Kansas. He’s not particularly fond of comic books, probably because he’s constantly tormented at school over his famous name. Suddenly, young Clark starts exhibiting his namesake’s powers. He is the superhero that everyone always teased him about. But he can’t tell anyone, for fear of how their reaction would change his and his family’s lives.
It’s a beautiful and strange story, detailing how Clark handles his secret abilities from boyhood through marriage and fatherhood. And I’ll admit that I never read it until I started preparing to write this post. But it turned out to be my favorite Superman tale of all.
TODAY’S NOTABLE RELEASES
The Life and Times of Martha Washington in The Twenty-First Century: I got an advance copy of this doorstop of a book, but I’ve not yet plowed through all 600 pages. Check back next week for a review.