This special Break from Batman is made up entirely of reviews for current and classic Superman comics and graphic novels.
You’re a lifelong Batman fan who has never questioned loyalty to your favorite superhero. You might have even made fun of Superman fans from time to time saying that the character is boring or dated or over-powered…but now you see these Man of Steel trailers and TV spots and all of these confusing feelings are bubbling to the surface. If you’re starting to feel a little curious about whether or not you might actually enjoy a Superman comic, this is the list for you.
Before writing this list the most Superman I ever read was All-Star Superman, Kingdom Come, and the first 6 or 7 issues of the New 52 Action Comics. I had only seen about half of the Animated Series and found all of the live action films to just be okay. But I finally decided I needed to give Superman a serious chance. I needed to really look at the character and see what it is that has made him endure for 75 years. I rewatched some of the films, read essays by fans online who spoke of why it is that Superman is truly the greatest of heroes, and I thought long and hard about what it is that makes him so different from Batman, the character I still care for most. One of the top things I noticed is that when you’re reading a great Batman story it’s all about watching the hero come to the most logical or intimidating conclusion when faced with a problem but with Superman it’s always about performing the most morally right act. Batman has also had an easier time reshaping himself to fit the time he lives in while Superman almost always feels too much like an anachronism. Superman’s a harder character for writers to crack and that’s what makes the best of his books so damn rewarding.
Here’s an extra long list of Superman books I read over the past two weeks. Some are good, some are bad, and a few are worth being called a masterpiece. If you’re at all interested in reading tales of the Man of Steel, I hope this helps. And I hope that more interested Superman fans than I step forward in the comments section to recommend even more Superman titles for those who want to learn more about Metropolis’ guardian.
Current Superman Comics & Graphic Novels
Adventures of Superman #1
By Parker, Lemire, Jordan, Samnee, and Rossmo
Like Legends of the Dark Knight , Adventures of Superman is a digital-first series that comes out at the end of every month in traditional print format. The stories that this comic collects all take place outside of canon and each and every one is written and illustrated by a different creative team looking to play with Superman and his mythos. Every issue promises something new and the innagural issue was a real treat to read. It featured three stories: Violent Minds by Jeff Parker and Chris Samnee, Fortress written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire with colors by Jose Villarrubia, and Bizarro’s Worst Day by Justin Jordan and Riley Rossmo.
Violent Minds is a really simple narrative about Superman doing his usual thing of rescuing folks caught in the destructive path of a baddie, but it’s the artwork by Chris Samnee that made the short story sing. It has a nice silver age tone and it really shows off how heroic Superman is as he does whatever it takes to not resort to violence.
Fortress is a really heartwarming piece that shows two young boys having a make-believe battle of Superman vs. his assorted rogues gallery as the kids argue over which villain they should pretend to be and who exactly gets to be Superman today and whether or not that’s fair. It’s funny and charming, but I didn’t think that the jagged, sketchy style of Lemire looked good on Superman at all and it brought down an otherwise great story. I did like the colors by Villarrubia and how they would shift to watercolors when showing the real-world narrative of the boys at play.
Bizarro’s Worst Day was another amusing story that emphasized the confusion that can come from conversing with Bizarro. Bizarro’s such a fun, quirky character that’s oddly loveable and I wish he would be in the movies some day. The pencils in this story are also quite a bit more cartoonish but it’s exactly what this particular tale needed. There seemed to be some confusion as to how to spell Bizarro’s name, though. The title of the story is “Bizzaro’s Worst Day” but it’s actually spelled with 1 Z and 2 Rs…or at least I think so. (Someone should really update that wikipedia article on the character because the spelling of his name shifts throughout the entire page.) I highly recommend picking up this comic and hopping aboard this series if you’re a casual Superman fan who doesn’t want to get bogged down with all the confusing continuity of the mainstream books. With a variety of stories in each issue by ambitious creators you’re sure to get a lot of bang for your buck.
Superman Unchained #1
By Scott Snyder and Jim Lee
This one had a lot of hype due to the creative force behind it and how DC had timed its release to the very same week as the Man of Steel film. There were multiple variant covers AND the one page folded out into a large poster. So, having totally drowned myself in Superman stories over the past week, how did I like Superman Unchained? It was alright, but nothing special. Just from the standpoint of the consumer, it would be a lot easier to recommend this book if it wasn’t only 20 pages long. I don’t care that it has a poster, a comic that’s only 20 pages long shouldn’t be $5 bucks. This should’ve been $2.99 at the most. And the gimmick of the poster was more of a nuisance. I felt like Superman myself trying to unfold the thing without ripping it in half! Once I finally did unfold it, none of the imagery was all that stunning to make it worth being put on a poster and both sides were coated in sticky glue from it being tucked into the comic. I really hope that DC doesn’t try this sort of thing again. I loved the gatefold covers and the upcoming 3D covers sound cool, but no more fold-out-poster pages, please.
The story of Superman Unchained #1 is that there are some satellites falling to Earth and it’s up to our hero to catch them all and save a few astronauts. This leads to an even greater mystery about who caused the disaster in the first place. Scott Snyder does a good job of taking us inside Superman’s head and Jim Lee draws Superman in some very heroic poses, but nothing here struck me as all that impressive. It appeared to me to be the usual Superman heroics. However, there is one really big element that might upset one of the greatest aspects of the Superman mythology hinted at near the end and, just like in his most recent Batman #21, Scott Snyder pushed gadgetry a bit too far! One scene shows Lois Lane working at the Daily Planet and she’s tampering with the ad space on the upcoming issue of the paper. Sounds fine, right? Well, she’s not using a typical computer but is instead working with several holographic monitors that she swipes with her hands. I’m cool with Batman having a computer like this in the Batcave or Tony Stark having something like this or S.H.I.E.L.D. or A.R.G.U.S. but for the Daily Planet to own something of this magnitude? I really pulled me out of the story to see Lois Lane pulling a Minority Report for such a simple task. I know we need to update Superman for a 21st century audience but there’s better ways of doing it than that.
Before writing this piece, I Googled around to see if any of the other reviews had noticed it (those other reviews are way more positive than mine, by the way so I’m apparently I’m in the minority about Unchained, so keep that in mind) but none had. Superman Unchained appears to be (at least to me judging by how I read the story and the design of the villain) a re-purposing of Scott Snyder’s main character from The 13th Egg, the short story that got him noticed by the comics industry in the first place.
Superman, Vol. 2: Secrets and Lies
By Jurgens, Merino, and Giffen
At first I was impressed by the cover. Kenneth Rocafort is amazing and his move from Red Hood and the Outlaws was Jason Todd’s loss and Clark Kent’s gain… or at least I assume because Kenneth Rocafort doesn’t actually draw any of the interiors of this book! So that was disappointing. The artwork you do see in this book ranges from lackluster to just plain average, but so does the writing. In fact, I found the book so boring that I barely made it through two chapters before I gave up completely. There just didn’t seem to be any passion in it whatsoever. As if either nobody involved with the book’s creation knew what to do with these characters or perhaps they merely didn’t care! The only amusing thing about this book is that one of the blurbs selected for the dust jacket by USA Today praises Perez’s brilliant job of capturing the character of Superman– Well, guess what! Perez didn’t write a single word of this book. He left after Volume 1, which I’ve heard is equally terrible and suffered greatly from editorial interference. Secrets and Lies failed to give me any reason to care about it. Superman boxes a boring looking robot with a tail, then we go to the Himalayas where Superman meets an ancient alien named Helspont (terrible name) who, wouldn’t you know it, wants to take over the world for some reason. To tell a really good Superman story you need to either make it character driven with lots of heart or you need to come up with a way more creative threat than this– the best Superman stories are capable of doing both these things.
Action Comics, Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel
By Grant Morrison, Rags Morales, Andy Kubert, and various other artists (it’s a long list)
It’s somewhat baffling that this was written by the same man who brought us All-Star Superman, but I suppose you have to salute Grant Morrison for not merely trying to repeat the same beats from that story. Whereas DC is only now showing us the first year of Batman’s career with Batman #21 and Zero Year, Action Comics #1 opened immediately with a young Superman leaping onto the scene for the first time. He has toned down powers, much like he did in his first ever appearance back in the thirties. It’s all about leaping, not flying. He’s also much younger and much angrier than we’ve seen him in other origin stories. Ma and Pa Kent are already dead, Clark doesn’t work for the Daily Planet, and Superman wears a t-shirt and jeans (I liked this look, but I bet it’s going to lead to a lot of lazy cosplay at conventions) for more than 3/4 of the book instead of that classic uniform.
When the New 52 first began I tried to get on board with Action Comics. It was my first time reading a monthly Superman series and I stayed with it for about 7 issues (this book collects the first 8). I was intrigued by the changes to the mythology and the new characterization of a youthful Superman who appeared to be here more to kick Metropolis in the ass rather than inspire it. Over the course of the first arc, which deals with Luthor and Brainiac he gradually became the Superman we’re all more accustomed to, but when that arc was over Grant Morrison dove into some bizarre time-travel stuff loaded with references to characters I had never heard of before and it became a very unfriendly book to new readers like myself who were checking in on Superman for the first time.
Now that I’ve had time to read even more Superman books and gain a greater appreciation for all of his different origins and some of the best tales about his personal life– I don’t much care for this new depiction of Superman. The novelty of Superman being going after the corrupt in Batman-esque style wears off fast. Volume 1: The Men of Steel does a fine job of capturing the voice of Luthor, Lois, Jimmy, and others but Clark didn’t feel like Clark. It’s a pretty hit-or-miss book for me and the artwork is surprisingly bad for such a major title. Fill-in artists are constantly having to help Rags Morales finish a chapter and it makes for a very inconsistent looking book.
I think New 52 Action Comics is really going to divide Superman fans young and old. It’s not a very powerful story at all, the first chapter is far and away the best but the quality declines from there. Most of the discussion this graphic novel sparks will come from whether or not you liked or hated various changes to the mythos.
Superman Beyond, Vol. 1: Man of Tomorrow
By J.T. Krul and Howard Porter
Are you a fan of Superman AND the Batman Beyond universe? Then you owe it to yourself to pick this book up. This series has managed to fly under the radar because it’s included in the Batman Beyond Unlimited line of digital-first comics and Batman and the Justice League are the two series in the collection that hog all the attention. Volume 1 collects the first story arc from the new series as well as issue #0 that came out a few years ago by Tom Defalco and Ron Frenz and Superman/Batman Annual #1 by Paul Levitz and Renato Guedes. In short: you get a lot of comic book for your money and it’s something completely different than you’ll find in any of the other ongoing Superman titles.
While it’s really well illustrated for a digital-first title, it doesn’t hold its own with the other books on this list. Well, it’s at least as good as Superman Vol. 2 and some of the Action Comics chapters. And another downside is that the concept of Beyond Superman’s powers conflict with everything I know about Superman. For whatever reason, the Beyond universe’s Superman actually grows weaker with age just like the rest of us earthlings. I don’t like that. I feel that Superman should be getting more and more powerful as time goes on. I also don’t care for the black and white uniform. I want to see my Superman with some color. But other than those rather minor complaints, once you accept the restrictions of elderly Beyond Supes, I think you’re really going to enjoy this book.
There are so many great insights into the Beyond universe and getting Superman’s perspective on a world that has passed him by is really fascinating. He’s also facing a very good threat in this book in the form of a police department that wears robotic suits giving them powers equal to Superman, Solomon Grundy (who hasn’t aged a day), and then there’s also the matter of Lex Luthor’s illegitimate daughter who is getting lessons in villainy from a hologram of her ol’ pappy.
It’s fun, it’s different, and it’s available at a very affordable price.
Highly Regarded Superman Graphic Novels
About a month ago I asked my followers on twitter for the names of some Superman books that they’ve always heard of and were curious to try. I’m happy to say I was able to read all of the most-requested pre-New 52 books except for Mark Waid’s Birthright, which is unfortunately one of the novels I was most looking forward to reading. Other books that were praised highly by fans, but I wasn’t able to write a review for are Up Up And Away, Brainiac, The Death of Superman, For Tomorrow, Secret Identity, and Secret Origin.
By Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
I honestly don’t think I will ever read a better Superman story. Of all the superhero stories that Grant Morrison has ever written, I believe that All-Star Superman will go down as his crowning achievement. Out of all the books on this list, All-Star Superman was the only one I had read before and I happily read it again when it became the most requested book on my twitter poll by a ridiculously wide margin.
The premise is that Lex Luthor has finally done it. He’s found a way to kill Superman. The Man of Steel has been poisoned by the very sun that powers him. Every cell in his body is over-saturated with yellow star power and, while he is growing more powerful every day as a result, he’s dying. Superman, the man of tomorrow, only has weeks to live. But in true Superman fashion, he’s not going down without a fight. Over 12 chapters we see Superman try to achieve as much good in this world as he can before he passes on.
Each chapter is its own adventure beautifully illustrated by Frank Quitely who delivers some of the best work of his career. So many of the books I reviewed on this list did a fine job of capturing only one or two aspects of Superman, but All-Star does it all. It doesn’t pick and choose whether to be a Superman story or a Clark Kent story. It’s everything! Morrison and Quitely capture the action, the heart, and the awe of a man that can fly. The imagination put into this work is boundless and it’s the perfect example of quality science fiction and fantasy. When you finish the book, Google around the net for all of the fascinating essays and fan theories written about this tale. You can lose hours discussing a book this good.
Of all the ways that the Superman legend could end, All-Star Superman is by far the best I’ve seen. It’s not overly nostalgic nor does it waste time on retreading the same origin and themes we’ve heard a thousand times before. This is modern Superman at his finest.
Superman: For All Seasons
By Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, and Bjarne Hansen
For All Seasons is probably the most relaxing super hero graphic novel I’ve ever read. It has a slow pace and it’s not concerned with making itself more relevant to modern times. This is retro Superman, the Superman that immediately comes to most folks minds when they think of the character and why he is frequently viewed as dated. Rather than try and move past that, Jeph Loeb embraces this idea and gives us a Mayberry-esque small town and a Metropolis that feels closer to the 1950’s than today.
It’s all not terribly exciting, but that’s not the kind of story that For All Seasons is trying to be. No, this isn’t about mind-bending science fiction or edge-of-your-seat fight sequences. It’s more about Clark Kent than Superman and more about Smallville than Metropolis. It’s a quiet story that emphasizes Clark’s relationship with friends and family and the struggle he goes through to forsake the simple life he wants for the world-on-his-shoulders responsibility of being Superman. Clark isn’t a man who sought greatness. He’s shown as a man who wanted nothing more than to maybe work the land and start a family with Lana. An honest day’s work, a Kansas sunset, and a meal with family before going to bed tired so he can wake up the next day to do it all over again, that’s the sort of life the Kent’s taught him would be the most ideal. Instead he’s living with the fact that he has all the power to stop every bit of misery in the world but it would cost him any chance of achieving his own sense of peace. This is the book that shows you what a decent and incredibly likeable guy Superman is and while there are a few action scenes peppered in, it’s the personal stuff that will stick in my memory.
Although For All Seasons certainly feels like an origin story, if you stand back and look at the whole thing it’s clear that you’re bringing a lot of your own knowledge about Superman into the story with you. Krypton, Jor-El, red sun/yellow sun explanation, the sexual tension with Lois, and even his reasons for working at a newspaper are never addressed. So it can’t really be held up as a definitive origin story because I don’t think anyone who’s never heard or seen anything Superman related would fully understand what’s all going on here. Lois Lane is actually rather annoying and while Clark’s desire to be a reporter never made much sense to me anyway, it’s even less clear in this book. Why wouldn’t he just stay in Smallville, the place he loves, and fly to Metropolis anytime he heard trouble? These, of course, are nitpicky things that likely won’t get in the way of your enjoyment as long as you don’t treat it like an origin and view it as a loveletter to Superman’s honest and incredibly wholesome upbringing. What might be a turn off to some people, however, is that while the art is overall quite gorgeous (Tim Sale also illustrated the stunning Batman: The Long Halloween, which was also written by Loeb), Superman himself can sometimes look somewhat thumb-like. And his enormous size, while iconic and fitting to the nostalgic tone of the story, makes the “How does nobody recognize Superman and Clark are the same guy?” argument even more ridiculous. It’s actually played for laughs in this story and that took me out of the moment. But other than the occasional “Maybe Superman looks a little too big” problem, the artwork is truly gorgeous and the colors by Bjarne Hansen are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
Superman: For All Seasons is a charming story for Superman fans of all ages. It doesn’t offer much that you’ve never seen before, but the love for the Superman mythology is undeniable and you’ll close the book with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Superman: Red Son
By Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett
Whereas For All Seasons was a rather tranquil read that emphasized the humanity of Superman, Red Son goes the other direction and gives us a war-torn book that focuses more on Superman’s otherness. It’s not as well illustrated as For All Seasons either, nor does it have anywhere near the same level of heart, but I think it makes up for all of that by being unpredictable and fun. Red Son is probably the best Elseworlds story DC Comics has ever printed and that’s saying something. The premise is perfectly executed and the idea of a Soviet Superman is fully realized in three jaw-dropping chapters. Imagine that the rocket that carried Superman as a child had landed some place other than Smallville, that Batman were born Russian, that Jimmy Olsen were a federal agent, and that those changes to the DC universe played out in the decades following WWII to forge a story that’s absolutely epic in scope. That’s Red Son. It’s one of the most bad ass superhero stories I’ve read and I review Batman comics.
It starts off in one of the most exciting ways possible by showing us a USA in panic. The origin of Superman is always shown to be such a glorious moment in history, but it’s not really been seen (at least to my knowledge) from the perspective of any other country watching events unfold. Seeing that a foreign nation now has an unkillable man who can fly, see through walls, and hear your conversation from miles and miles away would be absolutely terrifying. And when it happens at the onset of the Cold War between two super powers that hate each other? Well, let’s just say that destruction is no longer mutually assured when the other side has a guy who can catch all of your nukes. Chapter one illustrates a Metropolis and a United States that’s preparing not just for a war, but a new world order.
Superman is still a decent guy raised by farmers who instill really noble values on him, but you can’t expect him to land in a Ukrainian collective under Stalin rule and still grow up to be exactly the same Superman we all know and love. Truth, Justice, and the American Way are no longer his motto. He’s “The champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.” But even with these new motivations he never sets out to conquer the world. He wants to be a symbol for the country he was brought up to love, use his powers to do as much good in this world as he can, and hopefully that will inspire other nations to willingly join the USSR and together they can create a perfect, peaceful world. Of course, as the war wages on we see this Superman evolve from the Stalinist ideal into a full-fledged Stalinist dictator.
Not everyone rushes to join the comrade of steel. The US hires the genius Lex Luthor to turn the arms race into something else entirely and over the decades we watch him attempt time and time again to kill Superman; many of these plots give us new incarnations of some of the Superman’s most famous rogues. Even in Russia we see that not all of Superman’s people accept the rule of an alien. A terrorist organization under the banner of the Batman begins to disrupt Superman’s perfect order and I think that’s something that the Batman fans who visit this site will really enjoy.
It’s a story that crosses great stretches of time in the Superman empire and in that span we get all kinds of great easter eggs and cameos from the rest of the DC Universe and how they turned out in the new timeline. I won’t give all of them away though because spotting them is half the fun. I felt that all the characters were well written and the story itself was anything but predictable. In fact, I really want to say more about this graphic novel, but I’m afraid of giving too much away. It’s a brilliant book and one of the most easily accessible reads for those who are merely curious about getting into Superman comics. I think die-hard Man of Steel fans will enjoy something like For All Seasons more and casual fans will fall for Red Son much harder. For me, it’s definitely one of those bad-ass reads I’ll finish and then immediately force my friends to read.
Big thanks to DC Comics for sending me so many great Superman titles for this article. And sorry to my readers if I made too many spelling mistakes or I trailed off into gibberish at any point. With only a week to read all of these books and write about them and having a horrible case of the flu I did the very best I could and I sincerely hope I was able to convince at least one or two Batman fans to finally give Clark Kent a chance. Up, up, and away.