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Superman Top Ten Graphic Novels

Updated on November 6, 2015

'until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes reality,I'll never stop fighting. Ever."

The Last Son of Krypton. The Man of Steel. Kal-El. Superman. I do not think there are very many people left in the world that could not recognise Superman. When people think of superheroes, I think Superman comes top every time. In fact, his mythology has become every bit as grand and operatic as the Greek myths of old.

I tend to think of comic books and their characters as modern day mythology anyway, but it has been a process of evolution over time. When Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster back in the 30's it was pure wish fulfillment; two skinny, geeky jewish kids growing up in Ohio projecting their ideals on to their creation. In time, he grew beyond his creators and became the superstar of the 1940s and 1950s, in print and on screen. He survived the near death of superhero comics to bounce back in the 60's and 70's, and though he has had his publishing ups and downs his popularity has never waned. We all wish we could be him, and that is why he will always be popular.

Superman was the very first character I ever read, back in the mid-1970s, and to this day he remains my favorite by a country mile. I can't tell you the happy memories I have as a kid of rushing out to buy that months issue of Superman, of Action Comics, of Worlds Finest Comics, of DC Comics Presents, of the Justice League, and reading them cover to cover...twice. We've both changed a lot since those days, but the affection has only grown stronger.I could have picked a hundred Superman stories on this list, but I've tried to restrict myself to the more iconic, defining storylines that would be of interest to both the rabid fan and new reader. Come take a look....


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10. Superman: Birthright

Writer: Mark Waid Artist: Leinel Yu

Superman:Birthright was essentially Mark Waid's rebooting of John Byrne's previous rebooting of Superman's origin...DC does love a reboot. Originally a 12-issue maxi-series, it has been collected together in this volume, with a sketchbook art section extra, and an introduction from Al Gough / Miles Millar, producers of the 'Smallville' television series, which seems to have been an influence on the book.

Let me start by saying as much as I like this (and I do) I prefer the John Byrne re-boot; I notice in Birthright a few irregularities here and there which point toward a degree of editorial interference, so while we see a very good Superman tale, I suspect we missed out on a great Superman story. It is not the easiest thing to breathe new life into Superman's origin and early life, but Mark Waid does a great job of covering all the traditional bases while adding a little flourish of his own. Rather than replace what we know, he tweaks it. Baby Kal-El still comes from an exploding Krypon, Clark Kent still joins The Daily Planet as a reporter etc. Major innovations are few, the most significant probably being the retcon of the Clark/ Lex relationship, making them friends in high school (obviously the central premise of Smallville). We re-meet all the main players in the Superman mythos, just with subtle differences each time; Lois Lane, Ma and Pa Kent, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lana Lang.

What is especially noticeable is how Waid is updating the origin by throwing in plenty of refences to modern things, such as cell phones, internet, email all things obviously missing from Byrne's mid-80's reboot. It is a good read, when all is said and done. The skeleton of the book was always 'lets update Superman's origin', but Waid adds enough to make it a good read, perfect for people wanting to learn a little about Superman and his beginnings. The artist is not a great favourite of mine, but is ok, and the art seems to suit the book well.

Is it a Bird, is it a Dollar...?

Superman: Birthright
Superman: Birthright

lets see how Kal became Superman...

 

Fantastic Superman sketch.... - Artist: Eddy Barrows

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)
Superman: Secret Origin
Superman: Secret Origin

Another look at Superman's beginnings.

 

9. Absolute Kingdom Come

Writer: Mark Waid Artist: Alex Ross

Make no mistake, Kingdom Come is a Superman story. Yes, it tells the story of a new generation of violent, tougher 'anti-heroes' ousting the older, traditional heroes but it is, at its heart, about Superman, as Superman IS the traditional Superhero. I am recommending the Absolute Edition purely because Alex Ross's artwork is just incredible, and the Absolute Edition comes with the normal extras, such as character bios, sketches and roughs, an artwork gallery, reproduced covers, and new introduction. The normal collection is still a great buy, as the story is all you really need after all.

In the world of Kingdom Come, Superman 'retired', after The Joker killed everyone in The Daily Planet newsroom, leaving the way open for Magog and his generation; they have no moral compass and slaughter villains, destroy buildings, injure civilians as a matter of course. Spectre warns they are causing the Earth to fall to an 'end of days', and Wonder Woman looks to re-form the old Justice League, including the reclusive Superman. Superman returns to his old role as leader of the 'moral' heroes and we see an interesting philosophical story play out. Pretty much everyone in the DC Universe has at least a cameo, but Waid's older, sadder Superman carries the story to its conclusion. Even older, Batman and Superman can't help getting at each other...

It is a great book that is just a shade below the true masterpieces in comics (like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns) but still essential reading. Alex Ross draws DC like no one, and probably the best Superman out there. Although technically an 'Elseworlds' out of continuity story, DC have for years been hinting it is actually continuity, as Magog has been in the 'normal' DC universe, as has KC Superman.

Highly, highly recommended.

Absolute Kingdom Come
Absolute Kingdom Come

One of the best graphic novels ever...

 

Kingdom Come Superman is one angry man...

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

Why the 'S'?...now you know!

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)
Superman: Earth One
Superman: Earth One

A slightly different take on Superman's origin...

 

8. The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told

Writer: Various Artist: Various

There are several collections with this title floating around online retailers these days, and to be honest it doesn't matter. None of them are really the 'greatest' Superman stories ever told, as it is completely a subjective choice; plus DC has a habit of omitting really good stories that it plans to include in other collections.

I think books like this are very important as 'samplers', giving the reader a chance to read stories from all different eras they may never have seen or possibly would ever have seen. You get the chance to read some major storylines that still affect Superman today. The fact different collections shuffle the stories around isn't so important as the fact they still keep a good cross section of Superman's history in there. The edition I'll briefly discuss here is the one in print, but seek out any of the volumes with these titles, there is a good variety of story-lines within.

This edition specifically reprints SUPERMAN issue 1, SUPERMAN issue 65, SUPERMAN issue 156, SUPERMAN issue 247, SUPERMAN issue 400, MAN OF STEEL issue 1, SUPERMAN issue 18 (Vol 2) and ACTION COMICS issue 775. Its as decent a cross section as any, and gives a flavor of some major events in Superman's history. Worth a read.

Dollars away...

A fan-made 'Best Of' Superman stories...very similar to my choices.

7. Superman In The Seventies

Writer: Various Artist: Various

This is probably the most personal choice on here, as the late 70's was when I started to read Superman religiously, and I have a huge amount of affection for 70's Superman. Yes, the stories are often quite unsophisticated by today's standards, and sometimes the editors struggled to give Superman challenges, but there was always a huge sense of fun. Also, it was this status quo that drove creators to try a few different things. It was an interesting era in the U.S, and even Superman's comics reflect that.

I could grumble with one or two omissions, but what is in here is a pretty good flavor of seventies Superman; clocking in at 224 pages (with a foreword by Christopher Reeve) we get reprints of

Superman (Vol. 1) issues 233, 247, 248, 249, 270, 271, 276, 286, 287, Action Comics issue 484, DC Comics Presents issue14, Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane issue 106, and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen issue 133. To newer fans, this Superman may be a bit unfamiliar; Ma and Pa Kent are both dead, Clark Kent works as a tv news anchor at WGBS, Morgan Edge and Steve Lombard get as much page time as Lois, Jimmy and Perry White. Oh, and Lex Luthor is not a big business mogul who owns most of Metropolis but just a crazy scientist (albeit a good one).

This collection is nicely laid out into sections, such as 'super-villains', or 'epic fights', 'Supermans friends' etc.

For me, the two best stories are "Make Way for Captain Thunder", with Superman fighting a Captain Marvel-esque Captain Thunder, and the classic "Must There be a Superman?", though there's lots to enjoy. A strange inclusion for me was "I am Curious (Black)" in which Lois Lane experiences what it is like to be a black woman in the 70's...I suppose it is reflective of the 70's.

Reading these stories takes me back to my early years reading Superman, and for that such a collection will always be in my top ten.

Fantastic Neal Adams Superman Cover...

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)
Superman in the Eighties
Superman in the Eighties

a more modern Superman!

 

6. The Man Of Steel

Writer/ Artist: John Byrne

It is so easy to forget that the 6 issue Man of Steel mini-series was groundbreaking on its release in 1986; not only did it re-boot and re-imagine Superman, it was the launch title for a whole new, revamped DC Universe. John Byrne was given free reign on the title, him being an industry superstar at the time, and he certainly put that creative freedom to good use. Byrne used the 6 issues from the original mini as six stand alone looks at early Superman, so we jump along several years between start and finish, so as a single volume it reads ok, but doesn't really flow as a single story.

Byrne's major innovations included bringing back Ma and Pa Kent as alive and well, making Lex Luthor a cunning business man rather than crazy scientist, de-powering Superman, and de-nerding Clark Kent. Friendly, progressive Krypton is replaced by cold, clinical Krypton. For me, most changes work, though not all of them. I find John Byrne's plots are better than his final scripts, and sometimes his dialogue is a little simplistic. His Superman seems to almost ignore his Kryptonian heritage in favor of just being an all-American hero, but I suppose Byrne was just channelling that mid 80's Reagan vibe. Byrne seems to stress at every opportunity as well that Clark/ Superman is fallible, full of self doubt, unsure of himself....human, even. All Clark, no Kal. Great for character development I suppose, but bad for trying to ignore a huge chunk of Superman mythology, his Kryptonian background, the influence on Kryptonian culture and history on him.

All that being said, this is a good read. Byrne is the master of traditional superhero fare, and he does that well here. He draws a great Superman, and Superman up to that point had rarely looked better. At story's end, we know what the new status quo is, we know what the new relationships are, we know the new timeline. It has dated a little now, especially some of the 80's patriotic undertone, but still stands up as a very worthwhile collection and is certainly something every Superman and DC fan should read at least once.

John Byrne's Man of Steel...

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

5. Superman:Secret Identity

Writer: Kurt Busiek Artist: Stuart Immonen

Oh no, not another re-boot we cried, not another look at the early years of Clark Kent....in fact, no, it wasn't. Kurt Busiek wanted to write a book in which he could examine what makes Superman who he is, and did so in an unusual way....originally told in a 2004 4 issue mini-series, each issue focused on a particular time in Clarks's life, told chronologically.

This Clark Kent from Kansas lives in the 'real world', where there are no superheroes, and in fact he gets ribbed for having the name Clark Kent. Then one day, he wakes up with superpowers and, naturally enough, decided to become a hero and fight bad guys with them. He soon realised that, in the real world, things are a bit more complicated, and so decides to perform good deeds, but in secret, so nobody even knows of his existence. Unfortunately, governments have a way of detecting things they want to exploit...

It is a great story, looking at the philosophy of super-heroics rather than fisticuffs; what would you do with powers? do we feel obligated to do good? would we just hide? it is thought provoking stuff. We get to see the choices Clark makes, from when he is very young through to older age. Kurt Busiek writes a thoughtful, intelligent story, always with his eye on how the real world would be with a superhero, and Stuart Immonen's art is a revelation, certainly the best of his career. Some of the splash pages are a visual feast. It is a perfect pairing.

Even though it is not 'our' Superman, we can see that he still shares all the values and beliefs ours does, he just has to show them in different ways. He is a Superman in a world that doesn't know it has one, but our Clark or this Clark were never in it for the adulation anyway.

Essential reading.

Superman: Secret Identity
Superman: Secret Identity

fantastic, unique insight to Superman

 
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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

The artist I most enjoyed working on Superman was...

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A classic Silver Age Cover...

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

4. Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow

Writer: Alan Moore Artist: Various

Alan Moore only got to write Superman a handful of times, but every one was a classic. He has written that the Silver Age Superman was his all time favorite character, and that as far as he is concerned, that Superman 'died' when John Byrne rebooted the character. Alan Moore, fortunately for him (and us) got to write a very personal farewell story, which we'll get to in a minute.

This collection 'Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow', collects together the three Superman stories Alan Moore wrote, and is a slim volume at just 128 pages but, boy, is it good. The first story is the 2 part 'Whatever Happened..' which is essentially a love letter from Alan Moore to the Silver Age. The story is engaging, yet deliberately simple in that Silver Age style, as we see ten years into the future after Superman disappeared; what happened to his friends? his villains? we get a roll call of his best friends and foes, Krypto, the Fortress of Solitude, the Legion of Super-Heroes...and it ends with a wink. The story is drawn by the only person that could draw it, Curt Swan, who is saying his own personal farewell to 'his' Superman as well.The perfect ending.

Story number two is 'The Jungle Line', a team up with Alan Moore's baby at the time, Swamp Thing, which I bought at the time and just blew me away. While it has lost some impact with the passing of time it is still an amazing read, and the artwork by Rick Veitch captures the perfect mood for the story. It is one of the oddest team ups you'll probably ever read too, more a psychological study of Kal-El than anything else. Very sophisticated reading for 1985.

We close out with 'For The Man Who Has Everything', for which he teamed up (pre-Watchmen) with Dave Gibbons. Superman has been put into a coma by Mongul, in which he is hallucinating of the life he could have led back on Krypton; we see him happily married, a father, all the things he wished he could have. In the real world Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman have come to see him at the Fortress of Solitude as it is his birthday, and try to defeat Mongul.

It is a great collection, and a reminder that Alan Moore was always an elite talent. Must read.

Caesars Ghost, what bargains...!

Curt Swan's farewell to Superman...

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

3. The Death And Return of Superman Omnibus

Writer: Various Artist: Various

I hope you like your books big, as this weighs in at 1124 pages long! As the title suggests, it collects together the entire 'death of..'. and 'return of..' storylines that made history back in the early 1990s, and this special edition has been released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Superman's death. You can buy this storyline in two cheaper editions, but this one contains all previous content plus 40 pages of extras, plus sections of 'World without Superman', so a much more complete package.

Here you get...MAN OF STEEL issues 17-26, SUPERMAN issues 73-82, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN issues 496-505, ACTION COMICS issues 683-692, JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA issue 69,THE LEGACY OF SUPERMAN SPECIAL 1, and GREEN LANTERN issue 46. It is as definitive as you will ever get.

I assume we all know the story of the alien killing machine called Doomsday that takes down everyone in his path until stopped by Superman, at the cost of his life. We then follow the storyline of how his friends and colleagues cope with the loss ('Funeral for a Friend'), followed by the 'Reign of the Superman', when four people show up claiming to be Superman. It is truly epic in scope, taking in almost the entire DC Universe, and every hero and villain. Again, essential reading for any Superman or DC fan. You will not be disappointed.

Did I mention this is a great edition.

The day a Superman died....

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

The Origin of Superman...

2. Superman For All Seasons

Writer: Jeph Loeb Art: Tim Sale

The best way I can describe this is sort of a Superman Year One, although it is not exactly the same style as other DC 'Year One' books. What it is, is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale at the absolute top mof their game. For me, it is nearly the perfect Superman book.

The book, originally released in 4 parts follows the course of the seasons; not the seasons of a single year, but the seasons of Clarks life as he grows from boy to man, and we see why and how a small town boy from Kansas becomes the world's greatest hero. Each season is narrated by friends and family.

'Spring' is narrated by Pa Kent, 'Summer' by Lois Lane, 'Fall/ Autumn' by Lex Luthor, and 'Winter' by Lana Lang. It is magical stuff, written in a very classic/ simple style, inspired by the optimism of the late 40's and 50's, and drawn by Tim Sale in a very classic Golden Age style. We see Clark grow up. the same way we all did, with the same trials and tribulations, he just happens to have powers; we see the boy become a man, his solid midwestern values leading him to become the hero he becomes, rather than his Kryptonian background.

Superman inspires such affection from creators that it often fills the work they do, and this is no different here. This is a love letter to those simpler comics, to a modern hero who's roots and values stem firmly from the 40's and 50's; his goodness is not blandness, it is a strength. He is what we would all be if we had powers...and solid values.

I can't tell you how many times I have read this. One of the best interpretations out there of what makes Superman tick, and why he became the man he is. Superb writing and art. Must read.

Spend some silver (age) dollars...

Superman for All Seasons
Superman for All Seasons

Classic early Superman

 

Why Superman is who he is...

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

1. Absolute All-Star Superman

Writer: Grant Morrison Artist: Frank Quitely

This, to these cynical 4o something eyes, is an absolute gem, a visual thing of beauty. Grant Morrison always set out to capture the 'magic' of Superman, and he managed that and a lot more. I read this cover to cover with a huge smile on my face; THAT is my Superman! As always, I recommend the Absolute Edition as Quitely's art shines incredibly, plus you get good value for money with the extras. Morrison and Quitely provide a good amount of background, sketches, and general text to round out the volume; you can, as always, buy the softcover which is a lot cheaper.

Writers often complain that scripting Superman is tough because he is just too perfect, too powerful; well, Morrison takes those qualities as a strength, and builds his story from that. His Superman is a blend of all the Supermen published over the last 70 odd years, his characters likewise a blend of all those qualities, and this gives All-Star a timeless quality. Morrison combines the wackiness and goofiness of the best of the Golden and Silver Ages, yet marries them to myth and modern sensibilities. At its heart, the story tells us that Superman was always meant to inspire mankind, to encourage us, yet we were always meant to surpass him. Superman is dying, yet mankind can now breed a human/kryptonian hybrid that is better than him anyway. On an Earth that has no Superman, mankind (in the form of Siegel and Schuster!) still feels the need to create him.

It is both one of the greatest Superman stories ever, and yet not about Superman at all; it is about mankind. Superman is along for the ride. All the familiar faces are in there, and Morrison manages to bring his own spin on people and events while staying pretty consistent to the legend. What is old is new again. As I said before, Frank Quitely's art is simply stunning; this was definitely a labor of love, no question. From both creators.

Books like these are why I still read comics. It is, quite simply, one of the best ever.

All Star Superman...just awesome!

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Images are used under Fair Use (Comic Single Panels)

Great Superman piece by Mark Grambau

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