By: Mark Cormier
Here is the long overdue finale of The Top 25 Superman Graphic Novels of All Time. Here are the Final 4:
4) SUPERMAN: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW?
Writer: Alan Moore Artists: Dave Gibbons, Curt Swan, George Perez
“This is an imaginary story … Aren’t they all?” –Alan Moore
Alan Moore has often been described as the best graphic novel writer in history. While he is primarily well-known for his original works such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, he also worked on big name characters from DC Comics such as Batman (Batman: The Killing Joke) and … of course … Superman. Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is a compilation of all of Moore’s works featuring the Man of Steel.
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (which collects Superman #423 and Action Comics #583) depicts the final adventure of the silver-age Superman, before he would eventually be rebooted in John Byrne’s “Superman: The Man of Steel”. Moore honors the long history of Superman’s mythology and brings his story to a fitting and bittersweet end. The story was also drawn by long-time artist Curt Swan, in his final major contribution to the Superman titles. The story recounts the public revelation of Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent, a final confrontation against many of his greatest foes, a number of deaths of those closest to him, and the last known appearance of Superman.
“For The Man Who Has Everything” (which collects Superman Annual #11) has Alan Moore collaborating with Dave Gibbons. This is the same legendary duo who brought us Watchmen, arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time. In this tale, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman travel to the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate Superman’s birthday, only to find him under the thrall of the Black Mercy, courtesy of Mongul. The Black Mercy is a parasitic plant that feeds its victim an extremely realistic dream state based on his heart’s desires. We learn that Superman’s dream is to live a normal life on his long-destroyed home world of Krypton, happily married with children. While the other heroes struggle against Mongul, Superman struggles to accept that the dream he is experiencing isn’t real.
3) SUPERMAN: RED SON
Writer: Mark Millar Artists: Dave Johnson & Kilian Plunkett
“The Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact!” –Josef Stalin
Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son is easily one of the best “Elseworlds” ever published, even if it doesn’t officially brandish the “Elseworlds” logo. It asks perhaps the most innovative “what if” question of all: What if Superman had been raised in Soviet Russia instead of the United States? The result is not only an ironic take on an otherwise iconic American super-hero, but also a compelling perspective in the history of the Cold War.
The Superman of this universe was raised in a Ukrainian collective farm in Communist Russia. Over the intervening years, Superman becomes a member of Joseph Stalin’s inner circle and is used as a propaganda machine to bolster the Soviet regime. When Stalin passes away, Superman reluctantly assumes political power for a society that is too quick to accept a totalitarian dictatorship. Superman’s Global Soviet Union has eliminated war, poverty, disease, crime, and unemployment. His utopia, however, comes at the cost of increased infringement on individual liberties, and people are no longer in control of their own destinies.
Lex Luthor is a brilliant scientist Hell-bent on destroying Superman; however, because the United States have hired him to neutralize the Man of Steel (via CIA agent Jimmy Olsen), that makes him an American hero. He creates Bizarro, U.S. government-funded attempt to duplicate Superman. He also creates a vast array of super-powered villains (Metallo, Parasite, even Doomsday) who in this universe are American-made super weapons fighting for the American cause. Make no mistake, however. Luthor is still a cold-blooded egomaniac, regardless of which universe he resides in.
The Russian Man of Steel is a living metaphor of the Orwellian “Big Brother” who can see through walls and overhear private conversations across the globe. He also functions as an allegory for the arms race; with Superman championing as on the side of Soviet Russia, the Cold War escalates to a metahuman armed race, as the United States struggle to establish super-powered figures of their own to counter the potential threat Superman poses.
The best way I can describe Red Son is as a historical or geo-political Bizarro World. By making Superman Russian, Millar not only shows us a Superman from another country, but offers us a chance to look at what the world itself would have been like had Russia dominated the Cold War.
2) KINGDOM COME
Writer: Mark Waid Artist: Alex Ross
“And the third part of the trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up, and the sun and the air were darkened. Fear God and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgment is come.” –Norman McKay
Mark Waid and Alex Ross reinvent the DC Universe in their unforgettable grand opus Kingdom Come, in which the Man of Steel himself plays a pivotal role. Mark Waid’s writing abilities are at their apex in this book, bringing his encyclopedic knowledge of the DC Universe to the forefront. Alex Ross’s artwork is as always utterly sublime, re-envisioning iconic characters in ways that have never been imagined before.
In this world, it has been nearly a decade since Superman’s self-imposed exile, disillusioned by the new generation of super-powered Metahumans who show a reckless disregard for human life. He is coaxed back into action following a terrible tragedy that destroys much of Kansas, determined to reunite the Justice League of old and rein in the Metahumans. Between these two groups is Batman and his assembled Outsiders, who attempt to contain the escalating disaster, foil the machinations of Lex Luthor’s so-called Mankind Liberation Front, and prevent Armageddon. It is a mythic tale of old verses new, youth versus experience, tradition versus change.
Kingdom Come is essentially a comic book interpretation of Revelations, with its central plot being predicated on Superman’s proverbial second coming. His rival Magog, a super-powered vigilante with no reservations against killing criminals, is a proverbial false idol complete with a ram’s horns; in fact, Ross intentionally designed Magog as a representation of everything he thought was wrong with super-heroes at the time.
Despite the abundance of super-heroes and super-villains fighting an epic final battle, what really ties this story together is the perspective and narration of Norman McCay. A disillusioned pastor whose loss of faith mirrors Superman’s. Effectively chosen by God to bare witness to the impending apocalypse, McCay offers a sophisticated layman’s perspective for the reader to follow the story. Furthermore, it’s rather heartwarming to consider the fact that Norman McCay is visually based on Alex Ross’s own father, Minister Clark Norman Ross.
What The Dark Knight Returns did for Batman, Kingdom Come did for Superman. As alternative interpretations to the Man of Steel go, this Superman is by far one of the greatest. Super-heroes are certainly figures you can look up to when you’re younger. As you grow older, though, it might be more and more difficult to keep your head up, especially once it looks like you’ve surpassed their age. You might ask yourself “Will I still be able to take Superman seriously once I’m older?” That’s one of the many reasons why Kingdom Come is so special, because we are given an older, wiser, and more seasoned character, whose faith in the world is deeply shaken by past experiences.
1) ALL-STAR SUPERMAN
Writer: Grant Morrison Artist: Frank Quitely
“You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.” –Superman
Dr. Leo Quintum and his team from P.R.O.J.E.C.T. undertake the first manned mission to the sun, when it is sabotaged by Lex Luthor. Superman saves the day. In doing so, however, his cells have become over-saturated with solar radiation, and he has one year left to live. True to his nature, Superman spends his last days in service to humanity and completing his last will and testament, all the while facing a series of threats that include an Ultra-Sphinx with an unanswerable question, a time-eating monster, an entire planet full of Bizarro’s, a living solar computer, and even a super-powered Lex Luthor.
All-Star Superman is widely considered as one of the greatest Superman comic books ever published, and for very good reasons. Morrison and Quitely spin a tale that doubles as a love letter to Superman’s mythos, especially the Silver Age. Elements such as Krypto the Super-Dog, the golden key to the Fortress of Solitude, Super-Robots, and even Jimmy Olsen gaining super-powers all enter into the mix, reintroducing them in ways that at once make them seem perfectly rational as well as celebrate their irreverence. This book actually implements the most entertaining use of Bizarro’s backwards language that I’ve ever read.
The story itself is ripe with mythological allegories. Dr. Leo Quintum’s mission to the sun mirrors the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods of Mount Olympus. Superman’s encounter with the Ultra-Sphinx and his unanswerable question is an obvious reference to the sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus. Superman even meets with two mythological figures Samson and Atlas, who allude to twelve super-feats Superman must accomplish before he dies, much like the twelve labours of Hercules. Even Superman’s impending departure itself has mythological significance, which will usher in a new Age of Man.
Throughout All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely presents to us Superman at his absolute best, as an all-powerful benefactor who is calm, cheerful and optimistic even in the worst of times. The nature of his character is to do good, to serve humanity even in his last moments, to give his own life meaning down to his final breath, and to leave this world a far better place than before.
Ultimately, All-Star Superman celebrates what Superman represents. In the end, it’s not about what you’re capable of. Rather, it’s about what you do with those capabilities. Even with his alien origins god-like abilities, Superman remains the most human super-hero of all because he does good for its own sake. That is how Superman inspires us. Not through his abilities, but through his example.