Thursday, October 29, 2009

Must-Read Superman Graphic Novels

As promised, here is the list of what I consider to be the best Superman graphic novels of recent times.

- Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

After 'Crisis On Infinite Earths' effectively obliterated the original DC Universe, leaving only one solitary universe behind, it was decided to revamp and reboot the Superman mythos. John Byrne accomplished this in his six-issue 'Man of Steel' miniseries. However, before Byrne launched his new version DC felt it necessary to bid the Superman of the Silver and Bronze Age a fond farewell in a story that deconstructed the character and brought all of his major story and plot points to a close.

The story was written by the legendary Alan Moore (who had already shook the comic book industry to its foundations with 'Watchmen', arguably the best and most important graphic novel ever) and penciled by Curt Swan (who many consider to be the definitive Superman penciller). The story saw a mysterious villain attacking Superman from behind the scenes and making it clear to him that his remaining time on Earth was limited. The story features the popular villains of the time including (a very dated and different version of) Metallo, Bizarro and The Kryptonite Man as well as the heavy hitters, Lex Luthor and Brainiac.


The story isn't quite the masterpiece it is cracked up to be, in my opinion. The writing style is different from Moore's usual fare (probably because it was being marketed to a more mainstream audience) and is dated as a result. Not to mention the reason Superman loses his powers in the end is a bit ridiculous and not entirely true to the character's motivations.

The last page is magnificent though and the perfect ending for this particular iteration of Superman.

- The Death of Superman Trilogy

The Death of (the Steel Age) Superman was one of the factors in the unprecedented comic-book industry boom in the early 90s, that saw particular comics regularly selling in the millions (and made untalented, untrained yuppies like Rob Liefeld rich and famous).

The story of the first part of the saga is simple: Superman encounters a ferocious, unstoppable, mindless, Hulk-like villain named 'Doomsday' and engages the creature in a vicious battle until both fighters die (thus proving that Superman can die in a fight that doesn't involve Kryptonite). While simple, the story is impressive and deals with some of the moral choices Superman has to make. In one particular issue, Superman is forced to grapple with the choice of either saving a family (who previously voiced their hatred of him) who are trapped in a fire or quickly neutralising Doomsday by attacking him off-guard from behind. Guess what he does.

The second part, "World Without a Superman" deals with the world's reaction to Superman's death, as well as showcasing a subplot of various forces trying to steal Superman's corpse in an effort to study it and (hopefully) clone it into a new super-creature. While the funeral scenes are heart-wrenching and there are some great moments of characterisation for Superman's supporting cast, this part of the story is very dragged out and a lot of the sub-plot is unneccessary. It does hold a special place in my heart as being the first graphic novel/trade paperback collection I ever read.

"The Return of Superman" is easily the best part of the saga and probably the most action-packed set of Superman comics I have read, ever. If I had to recommend just one part of the story, it would be this one. The collection of stories obviously revolves around Superman's return from the grave. The specifics of this return involve four new Supermen emerging in Metropolis, all either claiming to be Superman, or just not answering enough questions for anyone to know any differently.

The self-proclaimed 'Last Son of Krypton' believes himself to be Superman 'reborn', with new abilities and a new, darker outlook on justice following his death and resurrection. He has vague memories of his origins and past, but none of the character traits of the original. He sports a darker costume and a visor and shoots energy from his hands, an ability he regularly uses to punish and kill those he considers to be evil.

The 'Man of Steel' is literally a man in a high-tech suit of steel armour that allows him to fly and adds greatly to his strength. Metropolis believes this man to have acquired the 'soul' of Superman.

The 'Young Superman' never actually claims to be Superman, but readily admits that he is a clone of him. He quickly discovers that while his image is based on the man of steel, his DNA is not and his powers are quite different. Throughout the story, he gets angry anytime anyone calls him 'Superboy'.

Finally, there is the 'Cyborg Superman' who claims to be Superman, reborn after being augmented and sustained by cybernetic modifications.

I won't give away the ending, but needless to say, it's full of non-stop, popcorn action. It's pure-nineties, leave-your-brain-at-the-door fun and the ending is great.

The saga was so immensely financially successful, that Warner Bros. spent the better part of the 1990s trying and failing (often hilariously) to make a profitable movie out of it. All kinds of scripts were written (most notably Kevin Smith's 'Superman Lives' script) but it simply wasn't meant to be (maybe this wasn't the worst thing in the world). Eventually, a movie was made based on the storyline, although it was an animated movie, rather than a live-action one.

'Superman Doomsday' is a decent watch and well worth the reasonable price for the DVD. It deviates greatly from the original storyline (none of the 'other' Supermen feature in the story), but the basic themes and spirit are still present. Check it out.

- Superman for all Seasons

A Superman book I would give to aliens if they had never before heard of Superman. This book is nothing short of sensational. It takes the basic, streamlined Steel Age origin of Superman and expands on it, by examining the thoughts and motivations of the supporting characters that feature in the issues, namely Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Lana Lang. The writing and characterisation is utterly superb and makes up for the lack of any major plot. Not to mention the art, which is so beautiful you can gaze upon some of the pages for minutes on end.

- Birthright

Birthright is yet another attempt at retelling Superman's origin and is to date the finest effort. The best way of describing the story and what it does is to think of the movie Batman Begins, only with Superman instead of Batman. As well as the events that lead up to Clark Kent becoming Superman, we are shown the motivations. For the first time, we are truly given a sense of why Clark would decide to don a cape and suit in order to help people.

The story's other most important aspect is to portray how a 'Super-Man' would exist and function in the cynical, paranoid, media-saturated society of the 2000s. Unlike other versions of Superman's origin, people don't necessarily respond positively to him straight away. Lex Luthor (still a businessman, but re-imagined as more of an alien conspiracy theorist) is obviously at the forefront of all of this and the guts of the story revolves around Superman trying to convince the world that he is indeed there to help, in spite of the image Luthor is trying to convey of him. Writer Mark Waid is basically making the point that no matter how cynical the world can ever be, if you are true, honest, strong and good enough, no amount of deception or deceit can destroy you. And really, that's the essence of Superman.

It's a pity that this story wasn't properly incorporated into mainstream continuity, but I'm not even entirely sure that it would work as anything other than what it is. That being said, I would definitely enjoy a standalone sequel (or a series of sequels) to this story.

- Red Son

Red Son is a flawless, perfect, masterpiece of Superman literature. The fact that it involves Kal-El landing in Soviet Russia has no bearing on how true it is to the Superman legend and the character, not to mention exploring the inherent flaws involved with an all-powerful being landing on Earth and saving us from all the little problems we create for ourselves.

The story starts at the beginning of the Soviet Superman's career and spans hundreds of years, showcasing Superman's rivalry with Luthor (who is an American capitalist in the story, thus allegorically portraying the real-life animosity between the two states) and the eventual end of both men.

I really can't recommend this story enough. I'm still really annoyed that Mark Millar (the story's writer) wasn't allowed to write a new Superman movie, as he seemed to be taking the time-delayed approach this story took (except, obviously that the movie would be set in America, instead of Russia).

- All-Star Superman

In spite of its press, All-Star Superman isn't actually the greatest Superman storyline ever, but it is still extremely good. There's no real point to the story other than to bring Superman to the point of destruction in a story that examines him, his effect on the world and all of his supporting characters, in a traditionally fun and enjoyable way. It achieves this wonderfully and has a magical ability to fill you with the wonderment and excitement of a ten-year old reading his first ever comic book.

Superman is definitely closest to his Bronze Age incarnation in these stories, as he is immensely, impossibly powerful (probably more so than he has ever been) and is technically shown as being a God in one of the later issues, but he still can't save everyone as evidenced in one of the issues.

My favourite part of All-Star is the artwork and the environments created by the two-man team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Quitely's unconventional artwork is so bizarre that you can't help but stare at it until you realise how curiously beautiful it is. The world is closer to the kind of candy-floss fantasy lands you would find it in a Roald Dahl novel (indeed, Superman's eccentric-scientist-ally Leo Quintum might as well be Willy Wonka's brother in every respect) and this crosses over into Grant Morrison's writing as well. For example, in the very first issue, while Superman is battling to save Earth's Sun, the staff of the Daily Planet aren't trembling in panic, Lois Lane is already writing the headline "Superman saves Sun from destruction." For the first time, the supporting characters are (quite humourously) shown as being complacent in the face of grave danger because they know that Superman will save them as he always does.

An excellent series that won't soon be forgotten. It is the perfect blend of serious, thought-provoking characterisation and good old-fashioned superhero fun (which can often be an impossible balance to strike). I can't wait for the rumoured one-shot specials.

- Last Son

The most recent story on the list and one that is unfairly dwarfed by the immense success of the previously listed story.

This tale sees the Modern Age Superman (whose origin is only now being released in monthly format) meeting the villainous General Zod of Krypton for the first time and doing battle with him and his army of Kryptonian Phantom Zone criminals, all for the sake of protecting a young, Kryptonian boy who Lois and Clark adopt and name 'Chris Kent'.

If the story sounds an awful lot like the Superman II and Superman Returns movies, it's because it is. Richard Donner (the man responsible for the original movie and much of the second) is listed as the co-writer of the story and many of the visual choices of the movies are translated into the comic (including Donner's version of The Fortress of Solitude and the S-shield buckle on Superman's belt).

The story is one of the most genuinely enjoyable, action-packed Superman tales of recent times and would make for an excellent movie, if most of the story elements hadn't already been utilised by the previously mentioned films. In fact, 'Last Son' often seems like an attempt at fixing what those movies got wrong. Nevertheless, it's a whole bunch of fun finally getting to read Superman comics in a style that's familiar to me, as someone who grew up watching the classic Christopher Reeve movies.

- Kingdom Come

Another, earlier story written by Mark Waid and probably his crown jewel and indeed one of the finest superhero novels to come out of DC Comics in recent times.

The story deals with an overload of super 'heroes' creating all manner of havoc and chaos due to their careless disregard for humanity in the madness of their constant battling. Superman has ceased action because he has lost faith in a people who would prefer him to be a murderer. Finally, he springs back into action after a period of over ten years and recruits several other heroes to create a new Justice League sworn to bringing discipline and sensibility to this new breed of senseless, violent heroes.

The story is another excellent study on the effect superheroes would probably have on the real world as well as the difficulties someone like Superman would face. It deals with very similar themes to Watchmen, albeit with far more superpowers and a very different, more mythic style of artwork by Alex Ross (whose style is so deeply rich and profoundly personal that it would be a gross underestimation to refer to him as a 'comic book artist').

So there you go! If ever you felt it hard to find anything interesting about the Man of Steel, please read one of these comic books and I guarantee your opinion will be changed. I'll definitely be posting some more of my favourite graphic novels, so check back soon.

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