There have been many great Superman stories in his seventy five plus year history. These stories have been encompassed by a number of media including comic books, cartoons, movies, books, and television. In this list, we are strictly focusing on self-contained stories which were first published in comic book or graphic novel formats. This does not included story arcs such as the introduction of Supergirl as well as the Death of Superman and the subsequent Reign of the Supermen. This list also does not includes mini-series such as Man of Steel, All-Star Superman, Kingdom Come, or Crisis on Infinite Earths. We just want to let you know the parameters of the list in order to spark an informed discussion. As always, if you feel that anything has been left out or needs to be added, please sound off in the comments section below.
10. “The New Team of Superman and Robin” (1955)
This story takes place in World’s Finest #75. Batman has awoken from a night of crime-fighting to discover that he has a broken leg. On the previous evening, the Caped Crusader and Robin had been tracking the Purple Mask Mob. The Purple Mask Mob were still causing havoc in Gotham City. Police Commissioner Gordon raises the Bat-Signal to be greeted by the team of Superman and Robin. The story explains that mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent was on loan to the Gotham Gazette from the Daily Planet. With the help of Batman’s detective skills, the team of Superman and Robin are able to bring in the Purple Mask Mob. Superman explains that Batman’s leg was never broken. Superman fitted Batman with a cast. Batman was poisoned by the Purple Mask Mob and over-exertion would have caused the poison to kill Batman.
There are a few story elements that make this particular comic book stand out. First of all, Superman actually outsmarts Batman with the “broken leg” ruse. Second, we discover that Batman actually has some insecurities about the presence of Superman. Batman is afraid that Robin may discover he likes working with Superman more than Batman. Robin assures Batman that this is not the case. However, the storyline reveals that Superman’s mere presence is cause for Batman to go into some form of self-doubt. This is a welcome change from the usual contrast in the Superman/Batman relationship.
9. “The Jungle Line” (1985)
DC Comics Presents #85 gives an Alan Moore penned story featuring an encounter between Superman and the Swamp Thing. A meteorite with a fungus of Kryptonian origin makes Superman go mad as well as threatening to kill him. Superman suffers from fevers, sweats, as well as dark hallucinations. In desperation, Clark Kent rents a car. He drives south towards Louisiana. The car crashes while Superman is having a hallucination. Superman is discovered by the Swamp Thing. Superman initially attacks the Swamp Thing. The Swamp Thing uses his power to communicate with the fungus and enters the hallucination. Swamp Thing is then able to calm Superman’s mind until the fever breaks.
Despite having very few attempts, Alan Moore was a definitive Superman writer. Moore expertly tackles the question of “What would happen if Superman went insane?”
The story also delivers trippy psychedelic imagery on par with early work for Dr. Strange as well as the 1960’s Spider-Man animated series. “The Jungle Line” also establishes the Swamp Thing as a greater elemental force in the DC Comics Universe. The great contribution of “The Jungle Line” is showing that Superman was a formidable character in mature storylines. If Superman is presented correctly, then a Superman story can have every bit as much weight and gravitas as the best of Batman fiction.
8. “The Lady and the Lion” (1958)
Action Comics #243 presents the story of “The Lady and the Lion.” The basic story is that Superman drinks an alien potion from a being calling herself Circe. Circe gives Superman the choice of marrying her or becoming a beast as a result of the potion. Superman refuses the marriage proposal and mutates into an anthropomorphic lion. Superman returns to Metropolis in his lion-like form. Superman is greeted with fear and hostility. Lois Lane even recoils in fear when approached by Lion Superman. Superman finds a cure during a trip back to the Fortress of Solitude. The potion was Kryptonian in nature allowing Superman to reverse its effects. In the end, Superman is normal again and is accepted back into Metropolis.
The issue stands out for the questions that the story subtly raises about the Superman mythos. What if Superman possessed all of his powers and had a ‘scary alien’ form? Would the world have been so ready to accept a flying lion-man as its protector? This story was written in the 1950’s. What would have happened in the 1950’s if Superman was African-American, Latino, or Asian in appearance? How would the people of Metropolis reacted to Superman in those instances? Perhaps unknowingly, the issue asks the question of whether Superman is love for his powers or whether Superman is loved because he looks like a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
“The Lady and the Lion” also shows Superman as being a capable scientist. The modern Superman has gotten away from Superman being portrayed as super-smart. It is nice to see a Superman capable of mentally as well as physically solving his problems.
7. “Of Thee I Sing” (1999)
Hitman #34 features the super powered hitman Tommy Monaghan meeting with Superman. Superman just wants someone to talk to and chooses Monaghan. Superman had attempted to talk to Batman about the problem. However, Batman did not provide the emotional support that Superman needed at the moment. Superman apologized for bothering Monaghan. Superman had just come back from a mission in space. Superman was able to save most of the astronauts on board, however one of the astronauts died in flames. Superman was distraught over the loss. Monaghan assured Superman that Superman was a worthy hero. Superman thanked Monaghan for listening and signed a magazine for him. As Superman flew away, Monaghan shot and killed a mobster.
The best stories often have no easy answers. Superman could not save the astronaut. Superman also did not save the mobster whom Monaghan was contracted to kill. Monaghan told Superman of his admiration for the good work which Superman did. As much as Monaghan admired Superman’s good work, Monaghan’s work was vastly different. Superman admired Monaghan’s understanding of people as well as Monaghan’s empathy. Neither man could or would ever be anything like each other. However, Monaghan was just the right person for Superman to talk to after a death. This is yet another example of how putting Superman in mature storylines with talented writers will create great literature.
6. “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed” (1938)
Action Comics #1 holds many distinctions in the world of comic books. Action Comics #1 is the first appearance of Superman. Action Comics #1 is the most valuable comic book in the world. Do you know what Action Comics #1 also has going for it? Action Comics #1 is a surprisingly good read. The entire genesis of the Superman mythology is summed up for you in a relatively few short pages. The backstory of the destruction of Krypton is reviewed and the reader is given the source of Superman’s powers. The reader is introduced to Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Perry White. The newspaper is initially the Daily Star. The newspaper would later be called the Daily Planet. Superman and Clark Kent are both put in multiple situations in which their powers as well as judgement are testes. Superman threatens the Governor of the State while supplying new evidence to help a death row inmate. Clark Kent takes Lois Lane on a date. Thugs attack Lois and Clark. Clark has to play a coward and lose the respect of Lois in order to protect the secret of Superman. The next day finds Clark Kent competing with himself for Lois’ affections. The story even ends on a cliffhanger about a Senator in a South American Republic.
The point is that “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed” would be a good Superman story in any era. It is simply more incredible that this is the first ever Superman story to appear in comic books. Jerry Siegel is often credited as being one half of the creative team that gave Superman to the world. Siegel is seemingly often not credited as being a brilliant comic book writer. This perception of Siegel and Shuster as merely being creators and not top talents needs to change. It may be heresy to say but much of Stan Lee’s writing in the 1960s would not hold up to comic book standards today. The same statement is true of a lot of a lot of hallowed creators if you go back and read the actual issues. “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed” does not fall into that category. “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed” has a rightful place as one of the greatest Superman stories of all time.
5. “What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” (2001)
Action Comics #775 presents a battle between Superman and a team of “super-heroes” called the Elite. The Elite are actually a thinly disguised version of the comic book The Authority. The essential conflict of the comic is that the Elite almost always kill the perpetrators in the name of “justice.” Superman does everything that he can in order to preserve life. Superman’s desire to preserve life even extends to the life of the evil doer. It is not only the fight that Superman must win. Superman must win the argument as well. In the end, Superman does defeat the Elite in outer space. Superman also fakes that he has killed all the members of the Elite. This charade is done to convince people that they may not want to see super-heroes killing after all.
“What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” presents us with a Superman who is full of self-doubt. Superman does not actually know if he can defeat the Elite. Superman is not entirely that the world has not moved on from him. The story itself plays out like a beautifully crafted old-fashioned western story. Superman takes the role of a lone Marshall standing up to a gang of evil rustlers. However, the best part of the story is the build up to the inevitable resolution. Superman consults his father as well as Lois Lane before going into battle. Superman questions not only whether he can beat the Elite, but also whether he even should beat the Elite. It touches on themes that were also so beautifully touched on in Kingdom Come. It is worth noting that this comic actually came out before the events of September 11th, 2001. A Superman comic delivered a wonderful treatise on the nature of judgment in America a few scant months before the entire world would be engaging in the same discussion.
4. “The Mighty One” (1975)
Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth was a comic book series by Jack Kirby which ran from 1972-1978. Kamandi lived in a post-apocalyptic world after a “Great Disaster” consumed and destroyed most of human life. The world was ruled by various clans of mutated animals. Issue #29 of Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth tells the story of Kamandi and his friend Ben Boxer running across a tribe of Super Apes. The Super Apes are dedicated to the legend and memory of “The Mighty One.” “The Mighty One” built a land bridge between North America and Europe during the last days of the “Great Disaster.” In honor of his memory, they perform feats associated with The Mighty One’s memory. The feats include being catapulted while yelling “Up, up, and away” as well as moving a giant boulder called “The Daily Planet.” Kamandi’s friend Ben Boxer attempts the feats. The prize for successfully completing the feats is the suit worn by “The Mighty One.” A Super Ape tries to claim the suit for himself. Boxer and Kamandi stop the Super Ape. The suit is the suit of Superman. Boxer and Kamandi leave the suit in the protection of the Super Ape for the day in which “The Mighty One” will come and reclaim it for himself.
While Superman does not actually appear in this story, it is one of the best examinations of the enduring influence that Superman has on society. The legend that Superman will one day return lives at the end of the story. The story also examines the Christ-like implications of Superman. The suit appears as a symbol much like the Shroud of Turin. Superman is seen as a savior who existed many centuries ago. The feats take on a religious significance in trying to walk in the way of the Mighty One. Many of these themes were also touched upon in Bryan Singer’s film Superman Returns. “The Mighty One” is not only a creative way to a Superman story but also a thoughtful examination of the messianic implications of a Superman.
3. “For The Man Who Has Everything” (1985)
Alan Moore returns to the list with “For the Man Who Has Everything” from Superman Annual #11. Its Superman’s birthday and Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman go to the Fortress of Solitude. They find Superman trapped by a strange alien plant life. There is also an intergalactic warlord named Mongul challenging the trio to a fight. The alien plant life is known as the “Black Mercy” and traps wearer in a dreamlike state of their fondest wish. Batman succeeds in pulling the plant off of Superman. Once free, Superman is able to fight Mongul. Eventually the Jason Todd Robin assists in getting the plant off of Batman. The plant is then placed onto Mongul. Mongul collapses in a dream state. Mongul’s dream involves killing all the heroes and establishing a war world on the planet Earth.
The real mastery here is that Alan Moore demonstrates how similar Superman and Batman really are. We tend to point out their differences as well as how they would do in battle against each other. However, when in a dreamlike state, all each man really wants is a normal life in which their parents are alive. Superman dreams of a life on Krypton with a wife, son, and daughter. It’s a rather profound statement that men like Superman and Batman really just long for a normal life. They long for the life that would have been had they not become superheroes. What does the man who already has everything want? They want the things that most people already have. That statement may be one of the most powerful commentaries on the life of superhero ever put to words.
2. “Steel” (1993)
Superman: The Man of Steel #22 tells the story of John Henry Irons titled “Steel.” Irons recounts how Superman once saved him while falling from a construction site. When Irons thanked Superman, Superman responded that Irons should “live a life worth saving.” After Superman’s battle with Doomsday, Irons laments that he was not able to assist Superman in the battle. This event inspires Irons to build a suit of armor to fight crime. The armor can fly as well as granting Irons super-strength while operating the suit. Towards the end of the issue, Irons sees that gangs are using a modified version of a gun called the “Toastmaster” which Irons designed. Irons sets out to discover why the guns are now being used by gangs on the streets.
“Steel” demonstrates the effect that Superman could have on a relatively normal person. Irons is a genius. Irons is also a master engineer. However, Irons feels that every day after the fall is a gift. Irons feels like he is required to give something back for that gift of life. Irons also feels a responsibility for the “Toastmaster” guns and takes responsibility for clearing them off of the streets. “Steel” shows that Superman’s works can give other lives purpose especially after Superman was gone. In turn, each of those lives could make a difference in other lives. Superman only appears in a flashback in this comic. However, the essence of what it means to be Superman is examined throughout the issue.
1. “The Death of Superman” (1961)
This is not the popular Death of Superman Saga from the early to mid-1990s. Superman #149 was actually classified as an “imaginary story” in the early 1960s. The story was later re-classified to have taken place in an alternate universe or elseworld. In this universe, Lex Luthor works on an ‘Element X’ from prison to develop a cure for cancer. With Superman’s help, cancer is eradicated and Lex Luthor is allowed out of prison on parole. Subsequently, Lex Luthor and Superman develop something of a friendship. The two men are even able to joke about old times. In order to protect Lex from death threats, Superman helps Lex establish a laboratory in outer space. While Superman is visiting his ‘friend’ in outer space, Luthor captures Superman and kills Superman with Kryptonite rays. It is up to Supergirl to take Superman’s place in the world after Superman’s death.
One of the main problems with the major storylines involving Superman and Batman in the 1990s is that the villains were created simply for the event. Bane and Doomsday were simply plot devices. Both of the villains were only fleshed out as actual characters at a later point. Neither Doomsday nor Bane were really intended for use beyond those specific plots. The Silver Age “Death of Superman” story allows the storyline to be the fruition of the long standing rivalry between a super hero and his greatest nemesis. “The Death of Superman” is also the essence of what a great comic book story is supposed to be about. The writers went out and told a great story about Superman. With the “imaginary” caveat, they were allowed to tell a great story about Superman the next month. The release from continuity or a long existing story arc allowed the best story to be told.