According to Brian Cronin, who seems to know so much about comics that I think we should really just trust him, today is the 75th anniversary of the first Superman comic being published! I just found out about this a couple of weeks before the big day. How could I have missed being aware of this, I wonder?
I was keenly alert to Doctor Who’s upcoming 50th birthday. I was aware when Star Trek: The Next Generation passed by its 25th not long ago. But Superman, who I have been following in one way or the other for longer than either of those franchises, has nearly turned a whopping 75 without me being aware of it at all.
But never mind that, I know now, and have time to write something up. Here we go, 75 things I think are awesome about Superman!
1. He is the most iconic superhero character ever created
Marvel guys will try to tell that this is actually Spider-Man, and others will say Batman. But frankly, that’s nonsense. Superman is basically the first well-known costumed super-powered character. He is the template for the entire genre. Without Superman, there is no Batman, no Spider-Man, no Wonder Woman, no Fantastic Four, no nothing. Now, I’m not saying that if Superman hadn’t been created, that none of those other characters could ever have been invented. Maybe they would have. But someone had to occupy that first role that every other comic book superhero has ever since striven either to imitate or to avoid being like. And as it happens, it was Superman.
I’m also not saying that Superman doesn’t stand on some other shoulders. John Carter, Zorro, Tarzan, the Phantom, and others were all published before Superman. They are part of his creative lineage. But with Superman, the whole category of adventure hero started something new.
2. Jonathan Kent
Superman’s father, and one of my favorite supporting characters in comics. Jonathan Kent has always (or for a long time, anyway) been credited as Superman’s moral guide. Sure, his mother Martha provided the love and the nurturing spirit, but it was his father who in the various incarnations of Superman who showed him the significance of his life. Back before history was “rewritten” in the 1980’s, it was Jonathan Kent who on his deathbed told a young Clark Kent that he always had to use his great powers to help people. After the 1980’s, it was Jonathan Kent who woke his teenaged son out of his selfishness and helped him to realize what his life was really all about. (I haven’t read any of the New-52 Superman yet, so I don’t know what’s happened in the most recent years).
Jonathan Kent was played by Glenn Ford in the 1978 Superman film. He captured what I’m talking about here, summed up in one of the film’s most memorable lines: “One thing I know son is that you are here for a reason.” And John Schneider’s (Bo Duke!) performance as Jonathan Kent was one of the best things about Smallville, where he brought a needed steadiness to the young cast.
3. He’s a corporate property
I know that doesn’t sound good, especially with emotions high over all the lawsuits over whether Superman’s creators were compensated fairly or cheated out of their rightful earnings. I don’t feel qualified to judge that situation so I’m not commenting on it.
But what I mean is this: thanks to DC’s shepherding of the character, he’s been around for 75 years, and there have been a lot of great stories written about and using him, that almost certainly would not have been written if he hadn’t come under their auspices.
At the same time, Superman’s corporate status hasn’t prevented a lot of stories that don’t fit the official image from being told, that are either overtly about him or basically about the archetype he represents. Consider the various Elseworlds tales that he’s featured in, or his role in The Dark Knight Returns and its sequel. Or look at other creator’s “versions” of him that you see in thing like Supreme, Invincible, Irredeemable, Astro City, or even in Marvel’s Squadron Supreme. There are a lot of interesting “Superman” stories out there, and only most of them are published by DC.
4. He can be human and relate-able
Some argue that a Superman who carries any human insecurity is not a “real” Superman. They say Superman shouldn’t be like us, he should be what we strive to be. Sure, I’m all for that. But I’m also interested in stories about the man behind the cape, showing the struggle and challenge associated with being Superman and wielding that level of power. John Byrne brought this to us in a major way in the 1980’s miniseries Man of Steel and the Superman relaunch that followed, and other writers carried this on. This is when I first really fell in love with the comic version of the character.
Some have said this was mainly done by “depowering” Superman – taking him down from his absurdly high strength-levels. That did happen, but the template that was created of really looking at Clark Kent as a man who becomes Superman (rather than the other way around) lasted long after his powers had returned to their previous level.
5. He can do things we can’t even dream of
Conversely, there are many who say that Superman is too powerful to relate to at all, and that he’s hard to write for as a result. But being more powerful than I can even imagine can be amazing, as Grant Morrison proved in All-Star Superman, where Superman invents a universe or where Clark Kent saves multiple lives without anyone every knowing it. And even so, I don’t feel I can’t connect to the character. Because a desire not to fail or to see a deceased loved one is still a relatable emotion, no matter how powerful you are.
6. Those super-powers include super breath, super-ventriloquism and Repair-the-Great-Wall-of-China-Vision!
In the hands of the right writers, any of this can be cool. People who say that Superman is hard to write for should basically not write for Superman
Okay, that last one was only in the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. And we can all live without that.
I just realized this is an image of Superman, Batman and Robin beating up their own secret identities! What in the world is going on in this story?
7. But his real superpower is being good
My wife has commented to my children that if people like Superman were real, it would not be a good thing because nobody could handle that sort of power. That is true, certainly of any normal human being. But Superman can handle it, because that’s who he is – the quintessential hero.
This was brought out in one of his many anniversary stories, Action Comics #500, where writer Martin Pasko pens, “Any man of a dozen, a hundred, a million – but for a trick of fate – could have been placed in a rocket bound for Earth. Any man born on Krypton can gain that power beneath the yellow sun. Nor is it wisdom that makes him Superman. Any man can be wise – if he lives long enough – and keeps his eyes and ears open while he lives. No it is something else that special virtue that is his and his alone: The ability to use all that God-given power and that long-nurtured wisdom in the name of kindness ethics morality – the thing men call “good” to wield that power in the pursuit of justice and, in that pursuit to vanquish evil!”
8. He’s a gentleman…
Years of silver-age stories notwithstanding (where Superman seemed to treat Lois in all sorts of strange ways), Superman by and large has been written as someone who is not only good, but also kind and considerate. He opens the door for ladies. He’ll give you his cape to keep you warm. He’ll take time to rescue a cat out of a tree. Have a look at the Christopher Reeve version for an example. These are values I can admire. These are values I feel comfortable passing on to my children.
9. …but you don’t mess with Superman
Again have a look at All-Star Superman, where Superman puts Samson and Atlas in their place (arm wrestling them both at the same time). Or the famous “Burn” panel in Alan Moore’s For the Man who has Everything story. Or any Grant Morrison JLA story that features Superman being used to his fullest. This is Superman, people. Don’t mess with him!
10. He’s a bit of a bully, but he’s our bully
Check out those early Golden Age stories, where Superman would strong-arm crooked businessmen, intimidate corrupt politicians, and give wife beaters a taste of their own medicine. Years before he became an establishment figure, Superman was a people’s hero, a champion of the common man.
I’m talking about the place, not the TV show. Even Superman’s home towns are archetypical: he grew up in Smallville, and as an adult, he moved to Metropolis. Do you get an idea what these places are like based on their names? Years before it became a haven of teen-aged radiation-powered psychopaths, Smallville was a typical town in rural America, with a police chief that everybody knew, a grocery store, outlying farms, and a local high school, which had been abruptly put on the map when everyone learned that it was Superboy’s home town. This is of course where Superman learned many of his values. I don’t know when Smallville was introduced into the Superman mythos, but for decades it’s been an important part of defining the character, almost as much as Krypton is.
The Jimmy Olsen segments are possibly the least interesting aspects of Kirby’s Fourth World saga, but still a worthy addition. And Superman does fit well into that landscape.
Another archetype. Both in and out of comics, we’ll refer to someone’s weakness as their “kryptonite”. And depending on the era in comics history, there is tons of this stuff on earth. It seems that any two-bit thug or mad scientist could lay their hands on a bit of Kryptonite to slow down the Man of Steel. In other eras, Kryptonite was harder to come by. For years, Lex Luthor wore a Kryptonite ring to symbolize how Superman couldn’t touch him. What happened as a result? It gave him cancer, and he lost his hand. Awesome.
13. Red Kryptonite
A story telling catch-all. We want to give him amnesia. Or turn him into two guys. Or give him extra arms. Or make him old. Or make him young. Or make him talk in iambic pentameter. (OK, I’m making that up, but it could have happened). Red Kryptonite gave us some fun and ridiculous stories in the Silver Age of comics, and was used to great effect in Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite, one of my favorite stories from the “post-Crisis” era, in which it was invented by Mxyzptlk. Speaking of which…
14. Mr. Mxyzptlk
Not to be confused with his Golden Age counterpart, Mr. Mxyztplk. Marvel had the Impossible Man and Batman had Bat-Mite. But Mr. Mxyzptlk was the original awesome 5th dimensional imp who loved to torment our hero with also sorts of mad shenanigans. So many good stories, including the one mentioned above and also Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Incidentally, did you know that a 30th century descendant of Mxyzptlk once nearly succeeded in killing the entire Legion of Super-Heroes, while his brother later joined the team?
15. Lana Lang
At first, she was just a teenaged version of Lois Lane for young Clark Kent / Superboy to have his weird love triangle with. Later, she entered adult Clark Kent’s supporting cast and even became his girlfriend (something I only recently became aware of). She’s been played in TV and movies by Annette O’Toole, Stacey Haidjuk, Emily Proctor, and Kristin Kreuk. She’s been portrayed at different times as a high powered fashion designer, a television anchorwoman, a CEO, a divorced mother, a criminal investigator, a control freak, and the recipient of a special space ring that allows its user to turn into half human-half insect hybrids. But I always loved her because of what she became in John Byrne’s run on the series in the 1980’s, which was Clark Kent’s best friend and confidante – the woman who knew his powers and secret, but whom he was never going to marry. I enjoyed that tension, and felt for her as a character. And I thought it was good and right when she slapped Clark after he told her he was engaged to Lois.
16. Curt Swan
Not the first Superman artist, and not my favorite Superman artist, but for decades Curt Swan’s covers and interior art defined Superman. He was part of Superman’s pre-Crisis charm. I always thought that Swan’s flying shots were a bit graceless, but he was miles ahead of many of his Silver Age-contemporaries in terms of rendering emotions through facial expressions.
Silver age Superman could be silly, but it could also be awesome.
17. The S-Shield
Possibly the best superhero logo ever. And certainly the most recognizable. It was like a corporate logo. Even more than Batman’s symbol, if a hero in the DC Universe is wearing that “S”, than you know that they must be Superman-approved.
18. 24 Seasons of Television
Superman (or his teenaged counterpart) has been represented in live action TV far more than any other Marvel or DC Property. Possibly more than all other Marvel and DC properties combined. I haven’t checked that. But he was around for 6 syndicated seasons back in the George Reeves days. There were 4 seasons of Superboy, also syndicated. Then he appeared for another 4 seasons in the network TV series, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. And then most recently and most successfully, for 10 years in Smallville. Those haven’t always been great shows, but man that is some enduring popular culture iconography.
And this doesn’t count two movie serials and five (soon to be six) feature films.
19. An issue every week!
For a while in the 80’s and 90’s we had what we call the “Triangle Years”. This was a period when DC was publishing Superman (which was still quite a young title), Adventures of Superman (which had previously been Superman, but was given a new name so that high numbering could be retained while still giving them a new Superman #1), and Action Comics. Eventually, they added a fourth title, Superman: The Man of Steel. Then they added an irregular quarterly to fill in the four “gap” weeks in the monthly publishing schedule, called Superman: The Man of Tomorrow. So there was an issue featuring Superman published every week. And even more importantly, they maintained a single narrative continuity between them. So basically, you had a weekly Superman comic, which meant that you could pack a lot of story into Superman’s world. His supporting cast became one of the most expansive ones out there.
It in the lead up to this period that I really connected with Superman. John Byrne had gotten the ball rolling with Man of Steel and the first couple of years of stories, but then the torch was passed to a lot of other talented creators that became more important for me in Superman’s development: Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Jackson Guice, Art Thibert, and others became favorites of mine during this period.
20. “Hold it right there, buster!”
A classic line from #2 of Man of Steel, the start of the revamp to Superman that began in the 1980’s. It comes after Superman’s first undisputed public appearance, but before he has his costume or identity. An unglassessed Clark Kent rescues a new plane from crashing, in full view of hundreds of people. The first person to reach him after this monumental event is a beautiful and determined reporter, who freezes him in his tracks with that line. And the rest is history.
Or it was, up until the new-52.
This scene, by the way, was sort of dramatized in the pilot episode of Lois and Clark, in which the danger to the plane was attributed to a bomb. Superman makes his first public appearance, in costume, to Lois only as he flies to the plane, pushes past her to grab the bomb, and then…eats it. And from that moment on, that show never failed to disappoint me.
The coolest and most important Superman villain to have never appeared in a movie. Although this is no surprise since after five films, the only comic book villains to appear have been General Zod and Lex Luthor (although Ursa and Zod later became comic book villains). Brainaic stole whole cities and put them in bottles! That’s amazing. And he’s been part of some great stories, including Marv Wolfman & Gil Kane’s revamping of the character in the 1980’s, and Geoff John’s New Krypton prologue story in the 2000’s
I don’t know anything about this story but I love this image.
22. The Legion of Super-Heroes
My favorite comic series ever would never have happened if Superman hadn’t been so successful back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and hadn’t spawned an entire franchise full of all sorts of zany and outrageous science fiction concepts. So at the time, a trio of super-powered teenagers from the future who want Superboy to join their team wasn’t really even a blip on the radar, but a few sequels later they got their own series, and the rest is (convoluted, over complicated, over-rewritten) history.
Another little bit of Superman lore that eventually grew to have it’s own feature, Bizarro was an imperfect duplicate of Superman (or Superboy) who caused all manner of difficulties for Kal-El. Alternatively villainous, tragic, and comical, he has been used to help tell all sorts of stories and even had his own “Bizarro World” series for a period of time.
24. The Glasses
Martin Pasko wrote a story in the 70’s or 80’s in which it turned out that Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent was really maintained by the fact that he was unknowingly using super-hypnosis on everyone to make him appear less attractive as Clark (a fact aided by the Kryptonian lenses on his glasses). This was a game attempt to explain things, but was wisely disregarded afterwards. The real reason? There isn’t any, really. He’s just Superman. Maybe he has a special “make glasses a really effective disguise” power that nobody knows about. Of course it’s ludicrous, but it’s iconic part of the character. Clark Kent is an effective disguise because nobody can imagine that someone like Superman would need a secret identity.
Now, this doesn’t work if you have everyone going on about his secret identity and trying to figure it out all the time, as was the case for much of Superman’s history. But it does becomes super cool when it’s written that it doesn’t even cross people’s minds to imagine that Superman has a double life. This was the case back in the 80’s, again. Superman hides in plain sight as Clark Kent, because no one is looking for Superman to be dressed up as a normal guy in the office next to you.
25. No Mask
Related to the above point, you may say it’d make more sense if Superman wore a mask, but that would really rob the character, in my opinion. Part of his strength is that he’s there without a mask, completely open and transparent to people. In some versions, it’s been said that Superman does this because he knows it’s the only way people will trust him. It’s Clark Kent, on the other hand, that wears a mask.
26. He’s the Last Son of Krypton
Or so he was in the original continuity, for a while. I’m not sure when the second survivor of Krypton was introduced, but eventually he was, and then we had Supergirl, the bottle city of Kandor, the Phantom Zone villains, Krypto, and more. Then, when Man of Steel hit in the 1980’s, he was returned once again to being Krypton’s last survivor. The series slowly started re-introducing those prior elements, but they were always changed so that they weren’t from Krypton, or at least not from our universe’s Krypton, etc. So we had a Supergirl who was actually blob of animated protoplasm with shape changing powers (hmm, it was cool at the time), a Krypto who was just an ordinary dog, Phantom Zone villains from an alternate universe, etc.
It wasn’t until years later that DC decided enough of this – it’s time to bring back Supergirl, Superman’s cousin. And a “real” Phantom Zone. And Kandor. And lots of Kryptonian survivors.
So, Superman the last survivor of Krypton. And Superman the survivor from Kryptonian who has most successfully integrated into earth values and society. I’ve enjoyed both versions.
I haven’t read this either, but it looks like huge fun.
27. Lori Lemaris
You know, as if Superman’s history wasn’t full of enough crazy already, back in college he fell in love with woman who turned out to be a mermaid. Lori continued to turn up in Superman’s life, helping him from time to time as only a beautiful telepathic mermaid can. She died tragically in Crisis on Infinite Earths, was eulogized beautifully in John Byrne’s run on the book, but then turned alive to cause romantic complications in Clark’s life for years afterward.
28. Superman’s Song
Superman is well known enough to have invaded all sorts of aspects of popular culture. One of my favorite is Superman’s Song by the Crash Test Dummies. The words go, “Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job, even though he could have crashed into any bank in the United States. He had the strength, but he did not. Folks said his family was all dead – planet crumbled but Superman he forced himself to carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going. Superman never made any money, saving the world from Solomon Grundy. Sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.” It actually captures a lot of what I like about the character.
29. The Fleischer Studios cartoons
Superman’s first appearance in a visual medium outside of comics was in a series of brilliant cartoons by Max and Dave Fleischer back in the 1940’s. Full of intense action, high concepts (Superman fights a dinosaur, Superman fights an army of thieving robots, Superman stops a death ray, etc.) and minimal dialog, these shorts continue to be amongst the best action-based cartoons ever.
30. All the Well known iconic phraseology
The man of steel! Faster than a speeding bullet! Able to bend mighty rivers! Mild-mannered reporter. The last son of Krypton. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look, up in the sky! Up, up, and away! It tickles.
31. The Origin Story
Superman has one of the most famous and classic superhero origins ever. From the DC Comics website, “Rocketed to Earth from the dying planet Krypton, baby Kal-El was found by a farming couple who named the boy Clark Kent and raised him as their own. Discovering his enormous powers, they instilled in him strong moral values—and inspired him to become a hero.” With all of the reboots, revamps, and re-imaginings, this has basically not changed in 75 years. There have been some great depictions of this story in comics and other media, including…
32. Superman, the Movie
Some people decry the film as taking too long to get to the fun bit – Superman flying around doing amazing things. But I disagree. Taking the time to show Krypton and then Smallville and then the Fortress of Solitude, making this film a story of a young man discovering who he is and his own unique destiny, taps into the mythic elements of Superman and makes the movie something special.
33. The Cumulative Pre-Crisis Version
I don’t know what the best rendition of this would be, but before the 1980’s Man of Steel miniseries, there was nearly 50 years of Superman material that cumulatively added up to his origin story, with extensive material on Krypton (including Superman’s entire family tree), Smallville, his life as Superboy, Clark Kent’s college years, his early days at the Daily Planet, and more. There’s really nothing to rival it for the shear amount of material available to piece together an extensive biography of a fictional character.
34. Man of Steel
This John Byrne written and illustrated reboot in the 1980’s was my gateway into the world of Superman. It was this story that really made Superman into a human being in every important way aside from biology, and gave every writer that came afterwards a new emotional framework from which to tell stories about the Last Son of Krypton.
35. Superman for All Seasons
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale managed to tell a stand-alone story that took place in between the pages of Man of Steel also depicting Superman’s early career. It was a strong character piece with beautiful art.
36. Superman: Birthright
Mark Waid reconstructed a lot of the Silver Age Superman tropes in this miniseries, such as Lex Luthor spending his youth in Smallville. But he also combined that with a modernized understanding of the world as Clark Kent travels through a war and injustice-filled African nation in his growth as a reporter and a human being.
Plus, he once fought Muhammad Ali for the fate of the earth. I’ve never read this, but come on, man!
37. Superman: Earth One
J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis rewrote Superman in this original hardcover graphic novel, taking familiar Superman elements and mixing them in with new takes. One of my favorite parts of this story is that at its outset, Clark is in Metropolis trying to figure out what sort of job he will get, and everyone he interviews with wants him there – as they have never seen anyone so athletic, brilliant, talented, or quick to learn. It’s only the middle of the story, when he realizes his need for a double life and first puts on the glasses, that we see the familiar mild-mannered reporter suddenly emerging.
38. The Radio Version
Superman’s radio career is as impressive as anything else. His show ran for an unimaginable 2068 episodes! They are pretty easy to find online. I have only heard a small sampling, and they are as you can imagine a mixed bag. One of the funniest and strangest parts of the series is the origin story. Baby rocketed from a dying planet by desperate scientist father? All there, no problem. But then, the rocket lands on earth, many years later, and Superman emerges from the rocket, fully grown. He proceeds to rescue an out of control trolley car, and then to decide to take on a human identity, whose name and profession is suggested to him by the first two people he rescues (who of course promise to keep a secret). Really, really odd
39. A dying planet
Speaking of origins, a key part of it is the distant, doomed world of Krypton. It’s been shown in lots of different ways over the years, from the scientific utopia of the silver age, to the technological dystopia of the 1980’s. In any case, where Smallville provides the human connection for Superman, Krypton is there to remind us of his alien heritage.
40. The Daily Planet
Another classic part of Superman mythology, with the iconic image of the building with the big globe on top having been represented lots of times. Apparently, the Planet is a tough paper to break into, as Clark may have only gotten a job there because he was able to get the exclusive scoop on Superman, and years later Ron Troupe had to do the same thing with the Cyborg Superman to secure his position.
41. The Interview
Speaking of the above, in many of the comic book versions of Superman’s early days, Clark Kent gets a job at the Daily Planet because he secures the first interview with Superman. But in Superman Earth One, J. Michael Straczynski actually gave us that interview to read. And it’s pretty cool.
42. Rooftop Conversation
Equally iconic is the image of Superman sitting with someone – usually Lois – on the rooftop of the Daily Planet, or even the globe itself, having a private and personal chat. I guess there’s something about being with Superman that makes you confident to sit just about anywhere.
43. The Phantom Zone
I’m not sure when this idea was first developed but it’s featured in pretty much every iteration of Superman that has come along since. The Phantom Zone is a shadow dimension discovered (or even invented?) by Jor-El as a means of humanely imprisoning Krypton’s criminals. The practical result is that these scum of Krypton ended up surviving their planet’s destruction, and they are ironically seriously mad at Jor-El for sticking them there. What can they do about it? Take it out on his son, of course! The best version ever of the Phantom Zone was the two-dimensional sheet of glass that we saw in Superman, the Movie and it’s sequel.
44. Marlon Brando
Not only did the weight of his name help to get the first Christopher Reeve Superman film funded, not only did he bring weight and gravitas to the part of Jor-El that you can hardly imagine anyone else carrying, but now with DVD’s we get to hear all sorts of wacky Brando-related behind the scenes stories that went into getting him involved. Apparently, he suggested to Richard Donner that Jor-El be played by a suitcase, or a blob of glowy goo, or something like that. ???!
45. Terence Stamp
And while we’re at it, let’s talk about Terence Stamp’s General Zod, one of the most memorable performances of a super villain ever. At once chilling and cheesy, he’s got a number of iconic moments – “Join me, Jor-El!” “You will bow down before me, Jor-El. I swear it! No matter that it takes an eternity, you will bow down before me! Both you, and then one day, your heirs!” and most memorably, “Kneel before Zod.”
To add to things, Stamp also lended his voice to a bunch of episodes of Smallville where he played none other than Jor-El.
46. Superman is central to the DC Universe
Not only is the character Superman the starting point for every other superhero template that has followed, but the fictional Superman is the basis of comparison for every other superhero in the fictional DC Universe as well. When Kurt Busiek and George Perez did the mammoth JLA / Avengers cross over a few years ago, there is a cover (for #4) that shows the most iconic aspects of both teams (and thus, both universes) merged together. For Marvel and the Avengers, it’s Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield. For DC and JLA? It’s just Superman. No Green Lantern ring or Bat-cowl or JLA satellite. Just Superman, holding the hammer and the shield, in an image that distills all that makes both teams awesome.
Possibly the best of these races was actually in the pages of Flash: Rebirth, but that’s really a comment to be saved for when I talk about all the awesome things about “The Flash”.
47. He pals around with Batman
Batman and Superman have had such a partnership that they’ve had two (soon to be three) different comic series just built around their team ups. For the last 25 years or so, they haven’t always been buddies, but there has been a clear internal acknowledgement that these two very different characters are the de facto leaders of the entire DC universe of heroes. So whether they are friendly or a bit antagonistic, they relate to each other, sometimes with Wonder Woman thrown into the mix, as true peers.
48. He and Batman know each other’s identities
This isn’t always such a big deal, as sometimes the DC Universe superheroes are treated as a big community that seems to get together regularly for garden parties trading stories about battles, sidekicks, and the rest. But shortly after the Man of Steel reboot in the mid 1980’s, there was a bit where Superman asked Batman, with whom he had a guarded and not always friendly relationship, to figure out who had stolen a scrapbook that his parents had kept of his pre-costumed heroic exploits. Batman is not able to come up with much except for the important deduction that Superman is really Clark Kent, a fact he announces with a certain amount of superiority, while meeting with Superman on a rooftop. Moments later, as they are leaving each other, Superman calls him by his real name, causing Batman to almost fall off his bat rope in surprise. Batman grumbles to himself about all the trouble he went to line his cowl with lead – of course there were probably a hundred ways Superman could figure out his identity…all while standing on the rooftop carrying out a conversation!
49. He knows he could be dangerous
Following on the above, there was a classic scene in a Superman comic not long after, when Superman gave Batman a piece of Kryptonite, because he needed the one that thing that could stop him if he ever went wrong to be the hands of a man he could trust. That scene has entered into Superman mythology as well, and was recently replayed at the conclusion of the DC original animation feature Doom.
50. Jack Kirby
The King of Comics never really wrote Superman properly, and he didn’t really draw him either thanks to the fact that the editors would have other people redraw his face in Kirby comics, but Superman ended up figuring quite strongly in his aborted Fourth World epic thanks to the inclusion of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen in the cycle, as well as guest appearances in Forever People. It left a mark on Superman, especially as a lot of the elements from that run made its way into later, post-Man of Steel stories. The Guardian, the Newsboy Legion, Dubbilex, the Hairies, and others were a big part of the Superman comics that I read for a long time.
51. Panic in the Sky
This was an episode of the 1950’s Adventures of Superman, where Superman loses his memory stopping a giant asteroid that is heading toward the earth. The earth remains in danger, as a confused Clark Kent sits around his apartment wondering what he can do. This classic plot was remade into an issue of World’s Finest, an episode of Superboy, and an episode of Lois and Clark.
52. Panic in the Sky!
The title of the old TV episode was also used as a name of a crossover in the Superman titles in the 1990’s, in which Superman gathers a whole bunch of superheroes to forestall an invasion of Brainiac, who had at the time taken over Warworld.
This reminds us that there are a lot of great Superman stories that don’t involve his origin…
53. Exile / Superman in Space
Prior to the above story, there was arc that ran through the then 2 titles that were being published in which Superman had had a psychotic break following his execution of three Phantom Zone villains from an ersatz pre-Crisis alternate universe. Once he realized this, he chose to exile himself into space, fearing he was too dangerous to stay on earth, and in a quest to find some peace (A Quest for Peace! Ha!) This was when Superman was still at quite a “de-powered” state, so traveling in space for extended times required a simple breathing apparatus. This arc led to some great stories, and climaxed in a confrontation with Mongul on Warworld. Action Comics was not being published during this period, and it was brought back to coincide with Superman’s return to earth at the arc’s conclusion.
54. For the Man Who Has Everything
Speaking of Mongul, he had previously been the lead villain in one of the most acclaimed Superman stories ever, Alan Moore’s done-in-one tale of the warlord crashing Superman’s birthday party in the Fortress of Solitude and attempting to trap him in a fantasy of a Krypton that never exploded. Guest starring Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin (Jason Todd, back when he was a nice guy), and featuring art by Dave Gibbons, the story remains a classic.
55. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
And speaking of Alan Moore, we can hardly forget his two part epic which served as a conclusion to the pre-crisis Superman. Technically an “imaginary story” (set outside of normal continuity), the tale featured a married Lois Lane in the future recounting the final days of Superman’s heroic career as he faced off with his greatest enemy. At once a deconstruction and a tribute to the Silver Age, the tale continues to be regarded as one of the best Superman tales ever. For me, the most poignant line is actually not part of the narrative at all, but a subtitle that’s included with the credits, which read, “This is an Imaginary Story… Aren’t they all?”
56. Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite
A four part cross over building up to Superman #50, in which Mxyzptlk provides Luthor with Red Kryptonite (making its first appearance in the post-Crisis continuity) which causes Superman to lose his powers. It’s a well paced story that is a lot of fun. But most significantly, it culminates in a moment that helped us to realize that the post-Crisis Superman wasn’t going to be playing by the same rules as his pre-Crisis counterpart: Clark proposes to Lois.
57. Crisis on Infinite Earths
I have mentioned this so many times, it’s time for it to get it’s own entry. Crisis was technically more of a DC Universe story than just Superman, but the Man of Steel did play a major role in it – both the Earth 1 (mainstream continuity) and Earth 2 (where the Golden Age, 1930’s-1940’s Superman was relegated) versions. The Earth 1 Superman lost Supergirl in this story in one of the most touching and tender superhero deaths ever depicted in a comic. And the Earth 2 Superman got to win the final victory, putting the Anti-Monitor down for the count in an awesome bit of action. Then he got to be reunited with his wife and to head off to an idyllic paradise forever. Or at least for 20 years, when the regrettable Infinite Crisis came out.
58. Kingdom Come
Another “not just Superman” story, this one is still really built around Kal-El. The story is about Superman having withdrawn from society after a series of tragedies prove to him that the world no longer wants his type of heroism. Increasingly desperate circumstances bring him out of retirement and create situation in which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman must ultimately learn to walk with humanity rather than above them. The writer, Mark Waid, worked on a so-so sequel called The Kingdom a few years later. The artist, Alex Ross, collaborated with Geoff Johns years after that on a better follow up called Thy Kingdom Come, which featured the Kingdom Come version of Superman (at that point, identified as being from Earth 22) even more prominently.
Not the deepest story, but one of the most monumental, as Superman dies defeating the monstrous Doomsday and saving Metropolis. It was six issues long, plus a tie-in to the JLA, that was surrounded by lots of media hype, and featured some nice touches such as the last four issues each being made up pages with the same number of panels – 4, then 3, then 2, and then finally 1 – as a sort of countdown.
60. Funeral for a Friend
The immediate follow-up to Doomsday. Instead of the usual cutting away after the death of a hero to the funeral several days later, we were treated to a moment by moment depiction of what went on following Superman’s fall. The story featured a moment with Lana Lang which I appreciated so much that I wrote a letter which actually got published in a later issue. My fifteen minutes of fame (before this blog, anyway).
61. Reign of the Supermen
The follow-up to Doomsday and Funeral for a Friend, which featured the debut of four new mystery-Supermen with the accompanying question of which one could be the real Man of Steel. I’ve reread this stuff a while ago and it’s not quite as good as I remember it, but back in the day, consuming it as each issue came out from week to week, it was the most highly anticipated and enjoyable stories I had encountered in a long time – paying off years of Superman reading as we discovered the true identities of the Last Son of Krypton and the Cyborg Superman. It also featured a much more subtle return of the actual Superman than any of us could have guessed at the time.
This was an interesting little follow-up to the “Doomsday” story, that took the whole “Death and Rebirth of Superman” saga to task for not looking as closely at how those events impacted the “ordinary” citizens of Metropolis. All the more notable as it was done by Dan Jurgens, who was one of the original’s chief architects. It has a bit of an open ending, which I’m unaware of being followed up at any point, so that’s a bit unsatisfying.
62. Superman II
The more exciting, more fun, and yet somehow inferior sequel to the 1978 original film. Filled with a strange production history, the movie is nonetheless an effective “second half” of the epic, featuring Superman’s battle with three Phantom Zone villains. The effects and action are dated by today’s standards, but hey, at least Superman got to hit someone. With his fists.
63. Superman II – the Richard Donner cut
OK, this is where truth is stranger than any fictional history. Director Richard Donner was hired by the producers of Superman to film two movies side by side. When things went over budget, it was decided to just finish the first film, and see how things went, with the idea apparently being that they’d finish the rest of the sequel (of which 70% was shot, we hear) later. But instead, Donner ended up being fired, with another director (Richard Lester) being brought in, who for whatever reason decided to reshoot the majority of the sequel. Some of Donner’s footage remains, especially everything with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who refused to return, it seems. Anyway, many have subsequently said this is why Superman II isn’t as good as the original, and why it contains so much slapstick humor.
So after many years of speculation and commentary, someone found all the footage Donner had directed and re-edited it in with Lester’s film, as well as a screen test that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder did, as well as a tiny bit of new footage, to create some simulation of what Superman II would have looked like if Donner had made his film. It all came out on DVD and the result is…underwhelming. But that may be because it has exactly the same ending as Superman, the Movie. The stunt with Superman spinning the earth around to make it go back in time was originally intended for the conclusion of Superman II, and then moved when the first film was being completed. So certainly, if Donner had finished Superman II, he would not have used that trick again. There are other problems as well – some key shots and sequences were never done, and the score is roughly edited. So in the end, an actual picture of what Donner’s film would have looked like is impossible.
But what’s cool about all this is the fact that someone went to all that bother of trying to give us a glimpse of what Donner had in his mind in the first place, and a chance to see all that alternate footage that he shot integrated into a complete story. I can’t think of any other film that exists in two such wildly different versions.
64. Superman III
OK, this film is not all that great, and is really where we find most of the comical farce that Richard Lester’s Superman II is accused of. But it does feature Superman freezing a lake with his super-breath and dropping it on a chemical fire. And an absolutely awesome battle between a deranged, mind-altered Superman and a mild-mannered but increasingly heroic Clark Kent doppelganger in a junk yard. And it also features a sweet romance between Clark and Lana Lang, played by Annette O’Toole (Smallville’s Martha Kent). O’Toole’s Lana is a bit of a prototype for the character as she was depicted in Man of Steel, except without the confidante aspect.
65. Superman Returns
Another not great movie featuring a random contrivance of Superman coming back after looking for Krypton that serves no story purpose except to justify the title. It also features a lot of strange story choices from director Bryan Singer, who really should know better. The most notable of these was Superman’s illegitimate child from a relationship that Lois doesn’t even remember happening (because of the events in Superman II, it seems. It appears that when Clark got his powers back in that film, the unborn baby in Lois’ womb got his powers back as well).
But this movie makes this list because it managed to make certain action scenes with Superman and make them positively majestic. Superman floating above the earth, the bullet bouncing off of his eye, young Clark Kent hopping through the wheat fields…that stuff was amazing. It’s too bad the movie couldn’t come up with a story to support it.
66. Up, Up and Away
Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek return Superman to super-powered greatness after all the angst of Infinite Crisis and the “year of no powers” that followed with Fifty-Two. I can’t remember the details of the story all that well, as it’s been a while since I read it, but I remember someone commenting that they wished that Superman Returns had used more elements of the plot, and me agreeing that that would have been better than what we actually got.
Here, I’m referring to the Geoff Johns / Gary Frank tale from the mid-2000’s. I wrote about this story previously, but basically it’s an excellent, tightly paced, strongly characterized, straightforward tale of Brainiac’s coming to earth to cause all sorts of havoc that resulted in massive implications for Superman and the DC Universe (see below), including, most personally, the death of Jonathan Kent.
An animated movie based on this called Superman Unbound is coming out later this year. It looks pretty good.
68. New Krypton
Another not perfect story arc (which I haven’t quite finished reading), but worth mentioning because of the shear grandness of the scope and the vision. It follows on Geoff John’s excellent Brainiac story which ended with the Bottled City of Kandor being bottled no more! How does everyone respond to 100,000 Kryptonians suddenly making their home on earth? It’s a massive story, not just in length, but in its implications.
Actually calling it an “arc” or even a “story” is a bit misleading. It might be better to use Denny O’Neil’s term, “megaseries”, as this narrative spanned a year’s worth of issues of at least four different monthly series, and then some. It has been conveniently packaged for easy reading in 15 handy trade paperbacks.
69. All-Star Superman
We were talking about origins before, right? Well, this is sort of the opposite – a tale of Superman’s final days. I wrote a bit about this one as well recently, but Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely deliver an enthralling series of connected stories featuring Lex Luthor finally succeeding in his life long dream to kill Superman, and how the Man of Steel responds to that. It’s amazing.
My favorite bit? Superman getting to say goodbye to his father.
Spoiler: it ends with Superman fixing the sun, from inside of it.
70. DC: One Million
This came out years before All-Star Superman but actually serves as a sequel to it. It was a DC crossover event, also written by Grant Morrison, which purported to show the DC universe, I kid you not, a million months (or nearly) in the future. Huge villainous machinations are afoot that the heroes of two eras must defeat. What’s it all about? An attempt by immortal villain Vandal Savage and Solaris, the evil sentient sun (really!) to use a Kryptonite bullet to assassinate Superman as he emerges from the heart of the earth’s sun (see the Spoiler, above), his work finally complete.
The Adventures of Superman when he was a boy! Even though stories about Superboy were being published as early as 1940, they were eventually used as a dividing line between the Earth 2 and Earth 1 versions of Superman, with Superboy being limited to a purely Earth 1 concept (even though other stories set on Earth 1, generally speaking, didn’t begin to be published until much later. Superboy was a fun expansion to the Superman story, and a lot of key elements of Superman mythology were actually introduced in Superboy stories, such as Bizarro and the Legion of Super-Hereos.
However, Superboy also robs a bit of the coolness of Superman himself, especially the origin stories. Even if he regretted it later, I think it was a good thing that John Byrne removed “Superboy” from Superman’s narrative – it allowed us to tell a more relatable story about Clark Kent coming of age (it’s no surprise that most of the great origin stories on this list don’t include Superboy). Recently, they have struck upon a happier medium, with Superboy really being an identity that Clark used when he traveled to the future with the Legion, while the world at large didn’t discover him until he grew up.
72. Lex Luthor
Mad scientist. Insanely jealous boy genius. Corrupt business tycoon. Spoiled rich boy trying to figure out how he fits in. Power-suit wearing supervillain. A megalomaniac living in an underground luxury apartment. Convict on the run. Australian-accented long-bearded clone. Land-obsessed swindler. Self-appointed defender of humanity. The President of the United States.
Luthor has been all of this and more. But he’s always been Superman’s arch enemy, the one who keeps coming back again and again. Unfortunately, to the point where he’s become a bit tiresome. So I don’t mind if he’s given a rest for a bit. But I also wouldn’t want him to be away forever. He’s a key part of the Superman story.
He was played with relish by Gene Hackman in the Christopher Reeve films. Hackman didn’t come back when Richard Lester wanted to reshoot most of Superman II, but he did come back for the odious Superman IV, unfortunately. Hackman’s performance was more or less imitated years later by Kevin Spacey. He’s also been played by Michael Rosenbaum, Clancy Brown, John Shea, Lyle Talbot, and more.
In comics, he was memorably re-created post-Crisis by John Byrne and Marv Wolfman as a corrupt businessman who was so proud he couldn’t even imagine that someone like Superman would ever stoop to pretending to be a “normal person” like Clark Kent. In the years that followed, he was really elevated from being just a villain to being a major part of Superman’s supporting cast. Some decry this, but I thought it was excellent, and helped to give that feeling of following every moment of Superman’s life that came with the “triangle years”. Luthor was just one of those things that he was always dealing with.
73. The Supporting Cast
Because of the wealth of Superman stories published, Superman’s supporting cast is one of the most expansive assembled: Perry White. Ron Troupe. Steve Lombard. Lucy Lane. Morgan Edge. Jonathan & Martha Kent. Lana Lang. Keith White. Alice White. Emil Hamilton. Colin Thornton. William Henderson. Maggie Sawyer. Dr. Happersen. Dan Turpin. Dirk Armstrong. Allie. Pete Ross. Sam Lane. Chief Parker. Kitty Faulkner. Franklin Stern. Bibbo. Myra Allen. Van-Zee. Josh Coyle. Jenet Klyburn. Cat Grant. Adam Grant. Professor Potter. Frank Berkowitz. Kelex. Mercy. Krypto. Beppo, the Super-Monkey.
Jimmy Olsen deserves special mention. I’ve never been a fan of the guy, but the guy has been a huge part of the Superman universe, had his own hotline to Superman himself, and occasionally turned into a giant grunting turtle. He also headlined what I think must be the most successful comic to star a (normally) non-powered supporting character. I enjoyed his depiction in Superman Earth One where he was shown to be incredibly heroic, but my favorite portrayal is probably from Darwin Cooke and Tim Sale’s Superman: Kryptonite, where he was shown as a short, street wise, kid.
Superman is one of those few characters who really sits on top of a “family” – a slew of other characters who can support their own comics, stories, and even transmedia franchises. One of the most popular is Supergirl, Superman’s cousin who first landed on earth back in the 1950’s. She had her own feature for quite a long time, before falling out of editorial favor and being tragically and touchingly killed off during Crisis on Infinite Earths. She was missed, though, and eventually brought back after a fashion as a living blob of protoplasm from an alternate universe. I know, I know that sounds terrible, but actually it worked pretty well, and that Supergirl was a good character who worked well for a while. But eventually she was brought back properly, as Superman’s cousin, and has gone on to have her own title both before and since the New 52, and to play a major role in stories such as Brainiac and New Krypton.
I like Supergirl. At least up until recently, she was really the girl version of Superman in terms of values and ethos. As a father of young daughters myself, I am comfortable showing them classic Supergirl comics as a source of fun as well a positive role model. I teared up when she died (I still do – it’s not so much because I was so enamored with the character, but rather because her death was so well written), although I respected the decision to make Superman Krypton’s sole survivor again. But I haven’t got a problem with her being back either, although I wish they’d give her more sensible clothes.
75. Lois Lane
I save her for last on this list not because she’s the coolest thing about Superman, or the least cool either. Nor is she necessarily my favorite. She’s just, simply, the most important and iconic aspect of the Superman story aside from the Man of Steel himself. Just as Superman is the hero by which every hero since is measured against, Lois is the same thing for every hero’s supporting characters and love interests.
Lois, of course, has been around for only panels less than Superman himself. This is her 75th anniversary as well. She’s been shown to be hard as nails, tough, insensitive, silly, love-sick, reckless, caring, and also strong, mature, and committed. Not surprisingly, I enjoy those latter portrayals more.
Watching the evolution of her relationship with Clark in the John Byrne-initiated reboot of the 1980’s was a particular highlight for me (though it was more later writers like Stern, Ordway, Jurgens, Louise Simonson, and Karl Kesel that really developed the character during this period). It was my favorite era of Superman comics, and it felt exciting and meaningful to see Lois fall in love with Clark, agree to marry him, discover his secret, and decide to remain committed nonetheless. I got to watch them get married and become true partners in the business of super-heroing. One highlight that I remember from that period was Lois helping Clark to realize how manipulative Luthor’s “son” was being regarding an “embarrassing” video tape.
So far, none of Lois Lane’s live action portrayals have completely done it for me. Some of have been fun in the role, like Margot Kidder, but it’s never been really clear why Superman was so drawn to this woman. I’m hoping that Amy Adams in the upcoming Man of Steel will reverse this trend.
So there you have it – 75 things I like about Superman! And there’s still a lot I have not mentioned or remembered, or even seen or read or remembered, including of course 2013’s Man of Steel and Superman Unbound. That’s one of the great things about such a prolific character – there’s always a lot more to discover.
To conclude my tribute to Superman, I will be posting a new short film tomorrow, that I could never have made if Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s influential creation hadn’t made his debut in Action Comics #1 75 years ago today!