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Superman recently enjoyed an 85th year anniversary of his debut in Action Comics #1 back in 1938, and a lot of people took the opportunity to celebrate the most important fictional character in Western culture. His importance, significance, and influence cannot be understated as Superman completely changed the world of fiction and, of course, the world of comics.
So, considering how significant and important Superman is, it makes sense that his character has been updated, revamped, debated, and analyzed over the years, with a wide variety of results in the process. Some of them have been good and many of them have been awful, so it’s interesting to have a look at the stories that define the character the best.
Mind you, this list is not solely about the comics as we are going to discuss a variety of adaptations that have done a very good job with the character. So, let’s begin!
Superman – The 1978 film
The 1978 Superman movie, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel, was a major milestone in the world of comics. It was the first time that a character was adapted while being taken seriously, and all the people involved were committed to respecting the essence of arguably the most important character in Western fiction.
The movie’s special effects look dated, but that is to be expected when it is over forty years old. However, Reeve is still the definitive Superman on the big screen and knows how to capture the many sides of the character, including the larger-than-life Man of Tomorrow and the humble Clark Kent, while showing all the themes and hopeful optimism that define this man so well.
The film flows very well, and it still has enough strong moments to be enjoyed in this day and age. When it comes to Superman film adaptations, no one has managed to surpass this version and its an eternal classic.
Deconstructing the character of Superman has been a fetish of a wide variety of writers across several mediums, and many of them have failed spectacularly in their attempts to do it while staying true to the character’s ethos and values. However, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come comic, one of the finest stories of all time in the medium, manages to do just that in the best possible manner.
A lot of years have gone by and now Earth is defended by more violent and aggressive heroes, who are not afraid of taking lives to get the job done. Almost every classic superhero has retired, but the need for Superman happens once again, and he decides to put on the cape once more to set things right.
Written in the mid-90s, at a time when the violent antihero was all the rage in comics, Kingdom Come manages to show a more complex and flawed version of Superman without him losing the elements that make him who he is. This is something a lot of writers tend to struggle with: Superman can make mistakes, but he is always striving to make the world a better place and to protect others, which Waid and Ross understand completely.
Plus, Alex Ross’s art is some of the best in the history of sequential art, and it deserves to be read for that alone.
Superman – The Animated Series
Commonly abbreviated as TAS, this is a Superman adaptation that is often forgotten when talking about the character’s best moments. And it is a shame because there are very few adaptations that capture Clark’s greatness the way this series does.
The 1996 animated series manages to capture both the hopeful and campy elements of Superman with the more serious and challenging aspects of the character, offering a mix that is very entertaining and with a lot of substance. Add to this equation that the animation has aged like a fine wine, and there is a series that can be binged over the weekend with ease.
Another example is that animation is not just for kids and a Superman adaptation that deserves all the love in the world.
Superman – Rebirth (2016)
Part of what is often forgotten about the character of Superman is how deeply human he is. While he is very powerful, he is a man that wants to simply enjoy time with his loved ones in peace, and the first couple of stories in the 2016 DC Rebirth initiative, written by Peter Tomassi, are a testament to that.
Now Clark and Lois have a son, Jon Kent, and these stories show the Kents living in the country, enjoying life together, and dealing with both normal and not-so-normal issues as a family. It might not be as epic or as complex as Kingdom Come, but these storylines manage to be quite enjoyable while adding an element of levity to the character.
Superman is not always fighting space gods or evil tyrants. Sometimes he is just a dad that wants to go to the county fair with his family, and Tomassi makes it a very fun experience for the reader.
Superman – For The Man Who Has Everything
Writer Alan Moore is mostly known for his work deconstructing the superhero genre, which is at full display with his most popular work, Watchmen. However, there was a time during the mid-80s when he was able to write some Superman stories, and this one, For The Man Who Has Everything, tackles a very important question: What is Superman’s connection with Krypton?
Clark’s connection to his original planet has been quite complicated over the years: some writers have connected him a lot more with his heritage from Krypton while other authors believe that he is more human than Kryptonian due to him growing up and living all his life on earth. Moore seems to be more on the side of the latter, but this story manages to combine both in a very surprising result.
It is Superman’s birthday, and he is getting a visit from Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman in the Fortress of Solitude. However, they are attacked by an intergalactic tyrant called Mogul, who traps Superman with a plant that makes him dream of a reality where he grew up on Krypton, had a childhood with his parents, and built a family.
It is heartbreaking to see Superman slowly realizing that all these years, this life he had on Krypton, wasn’t real, and it goes to show how much was taken from him by not being able to have that experience. Moore does it with personality and with a lot of respect for the character, which adds to the gravitas of the story.
Superman vs. The Elite – The Animated Movie
Based on the Action Comics storyline What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way? written by Joe Kelly, this film is a great example of the classic questions about whether Superman is an outdated character and if his brand of justice is no longer viable in this day and age. This story tackles that and comes out with a very good answer.
Superman has to deal with a new group of superheroes that are outdoing them in his everyday work as a hero, but Lois discovers a lot of dark facts about this team, leading to a confrontation between both sides. It is a fairly simple story in terms of structure, but it has a major accomplishment which is explaining why modern society needs Superman now more than ever.
It is a story that could be applied here or fifty years down the line and it would still be relevant.
The Man of Steel
By the time DC Comics decided to merge their multiverse and reboot their whole line in the mid-80s through the Crisis on Infinite Earths event, there was a heavy attempt to modernize their top characters, and in comes writer and artist John Byrne, mainly known at the time because of his work at Marvel Comics with the Uncanny X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
Byrne was a longtime Superman fan, and the Man of Steel miniseries served as a way to revamp his origin for modern times. This time around, there was no Krypto the Dog, no childhood as Superboy, and Supergirl was nowhere to be seen. Kal-El was truly the sole survivor of Krypton and grew up as a normal child in Smallville, albeit one with superpowers.
The author made a lot of emphasis on the human side of Superman, rationalizing that, due to his growing up on Earth, he should be more connected to this planet than the Silver Age version was. This in return has led to what a lot of people consider to be the modern version of Superman, and one that there is often referenced the most in several mediums.
There is much to like about this miniseries and the subsequent run, so it is worth your time.
Written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quietly, All-Star Superman is a celebration of everything the character stands for, particularly his Silver Age era, of which Morrison is a huge fan of. There are very few stories in comics that can compare to this masterpiece right here.
Superman has contracted an incurable disease due to years of exposure to the sun’s radiation, which has resulted in him having to deal with his own sense of mortality and impending death. Therefore, he decides to seize what he has left of life to do a lot of actions that can allow him to have a peaceful end.
Sentimental, heartfelt, and with a lot of respect and celebration for everything the character represents, All-Star Superman is the definitive Superman story and it deserves all the praise it has gotten over the years.
There are of course a lot of other great Superman stories, but these were some of the ones that truly represented the character at his best while showing all the different sides that make him who he is.