When The World Needs Superman - Six Classic Tales Starring The Man Of Steel

Mar 1, 2021
Alex Ross Superman

It has been a rough 12 months.

The ongoing Covid pandemic has affected everyone across the globe, some more than others, but no one has escaped its impact, with freedoms and hopes being inevitably (and understandably) restricted as we've lived through a succession of dark days, waiting on that metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel to come into view.

I don't remember who first said it, but it stuck with me ever since I first heard it: Batman represents the American Reality whereas Superman embodies the American Dream. And it's possible to oscillate between them dependent on what's happening in the real world; Batman stories can provide a reflection of what's happening outside our windows while Superman adventures can imagine something better than we are experiencing. They can offer hope. Obviously this is a somewhat reductive way of considering DC's two most iconic characters - they're both generally malleable enough to move between darker or lighter interpretations - but at their core there's a different expectation from each.

And right now it feels more like a time for Superman.

The following six classic Superman tales won't 'save' us, but if you're looking to be inspired, to be lifted up if you're feeling low, or searching for opportunities to (re)discover hope, or maybe you just want that reminder that the best thing to do in any situation is generally the right thing, then the Man of Steel - the original (and best?) superhero - may just be what you need right now.

Superman For All Seasons Tim Sale

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, the renowned writer/artist team behind the likes of Batman: The Long Halloween and Spider-Man: Blue, turned their attention to the Man of Steel in 1998 for this acclaimed four-parter. Heavily stylized and romanticized to evoke nostalgia for the Golden Age, and set across the same period as John Byrne's Man Of Steel (at that point still the canon origin story), each chapter covers a particular season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. There are then four external perspectives on the classic superhero (Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang) relaying how he affects and shapes those closest to him with not only his larger-than-life presence in that iconic costume but also the good-natured earnestness and moral strength of Clark Kent. Sale references the America of Norman Rockwell in his panels, especially with the depiction of Smallville, and there's safety inherent in the countryside that's missing from the crowded urban landscape of Metropolis (Clark makes his home where he feels Superman is most needed). It is sentimental in its depiction of old-fashioned values but there's a inspiring timelessness at its core that underlines why the legendary tale of the Last Son of Krypton persists so prominently in popular culture.

Superman Peace On Earth Alex Ross

The first in a series of treasury-sized one-shots from Paul Dini and Alex Ross, Peace On Earth set the mythic tone that would permeate through the other instalments, thanks to Ross' classical, photorealistic painted artwork. His style always highlights the distinctive, almost godlike qualities of superheroes, and the mythic status they hold, and that's certainly in evidence here, especially with such an evocative visual presentation of the Man of Steel. Dini emphasises the humanity of the character through his script, bringing him down to Earth, so to speak, and making him relatable. It poses one of the age-old questions that the concept attracts: why doesn't Superman uses his powers to feed the hungry of the world? An admirable idea but Clark quickly finds good intentions can't overcome societal distrust, political corruption and the sheer magnitude of global poverty. But if one (super)man can't fix things, the next best thing is to be an inspiration to others to do the right thing ("Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a day..."), and this is where this tale effectively and convincingly taps into the core appeal of the character. It helps of course that it's absolutely beautiful to look at, with Ross completely in his element.

Superman Secret Identity

Mr & Mrs Kent of Picketsville, Kansas, name their son Clark, perhaps not really considering how the joke will quickly wearing thin for the youngster thanks to the constant ribbing he receives growing up. But what if he starts to manifest powers eerily similar to his fictional namesake? And how would that impact on the choices he makes at every stage throughout his life? The concept of having a superhero in the 'real world' isn't new, but the twist here of making it a recognisable superhero is surprisingly effective thanks to writer Kurt Busiek's smart morphing of many of the elements of the Superman mythos (he recently took a similar approach to the Dark Knight in Batman: Creature Of The Night). Busiek has always been highly adept at utilising first-person narrative, and giving his central character such a strong voice helps ground the whole enterprise in a believable reality: this Clark's motivations and responses to the changes he's experiencing - whether it's outwitting government agents or pondering the possibility of starting a family - feel truthful and authentic. Stuart Immonen's emotionally astute artwork helps bring the characterisation firmly down to Earth but, by the same token, he harnesses the euphoria and elation of being able to perform superhuman feats, demonstrated perfectly via several luscious double-page splashes of a figure streaking across vividly rendered landscapes. It's a touching, insightful and life-affirming read, a glorious reminder of the power of the archetype, even if it isn't exactly the Clark Kent that exists so prominently in popular culture.

All-Star Superman

Grant Morrison is renowned for his cerebral and often iconoclastic takes on various superheroic icons and although he brings a high level of intelligence to this celebrated out-of-continuity take on the Man of Steel, there's a clear reverence and love for the Silver Age (and beyond) in evidence throughout its twelve chapters, particularly some of the more outlandish/off-the-wall concepts that Superman comics through that era had to contend with. Tricked by Luthor, an overexposure of solar energy has triggered cell death in Superman, the supposedly immortal strange visitor from another planet suddenly finding that his days are numbered. Morrison can often be as infuriating as he brilliant, but the decision to keep away from continuity (essentially cherry-picking what he wants from the mythos) works in his favour: his Clark Kent is recognisable but distinctive, and this extends to the rest of the cast (his 'science villain' Lex Luthor is especially memorable) - they are somewhat unique iterations but absolutely true to the characters. What elevates it higher in status than it perhaps may not have reached otherwise is the exquisitely rendered artistry of frequent Morrison collaborator Frank Quitely. Realism and flat-out bizarreness mesh perfectly in his panels, and often what your eyes are not immediately drawn to is as important as what they are. A gorgeous depiction of Superman, full of warmth and alive with possibility.

Superman Kryptonite

When you find yourself in a situation where the sorely missed Darwyn Cooke is on scripting duties only, and his substantive illustrative talents are not available, then Tim Sale makes a more than worthy substitute, one of perhaps only a handful of artists who wouldn't have you constantly thinking what it might have looked like if Cooke had drawn it (although Sale nods more towards the writer's style than simply rehashing what he did with Superman For All Seasons). This was Cooke's only singular take on the Superman mythos (the character of course had a prominent role in the ensemble cast of The New Frontier), and he finds an entry point by exploring the character's vulnerability; this is set in the very early days after Clark donned the iconic costume, and the full extent of his powers are not quite known to him - while he is aware there will be limits, he's yet to discover quite what they are. This opens the door for a certain green mineral of alien origins to enter his world. Cooke effectively captures Clark's fear and uncertainty as he comes to terms with his mortality, a realisation that reaffirms his humanity; the powers make him super but it's that humanity that makes him a hero.

Superman Up In The Sky

Why does Superman do what Superman does? Because he's Superman. That might seem like a non-answer initially but when you consider the character and his moral make-up, it becomes the most obvious, intrinsic answer. This tale - originally appearing in the Walmart-exclusive Superman Giant series in 2018 before being issued as a monthly book to the direct market followed by a collected edition - attempts to explore what makes the man super and, overall, it succeeds exceptionally well. Divided into 12 relatively short chapters, each one delivers a punchy summation on various aspects of Kal-El's personality as he travels across the universe in search of an abducted girl; we see his resilience, his determination, but also his less visible anxieties (particularly in the chapter he imagines Lois getting into all kinds of scrapes without him being able to intervene), fleshing him out into three dimensions, revealing a figure of inspiration derived though perseverance and empathy. The stalwart Andy Kubert brings intergalactic dynamism to the page but sprinkles in plenty of affecting moments, and by the end you may not be able to fully articulate why Superman does what Superman does, but deep down in your bones you'll know the answer. Because he's Superman.


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