We’ve already gone over the 10 essential Batman comic book stories to either prime you on the character or to thematically get you into the mood for this week’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And while Batman may be the splashier half of this superhero equation — given that this is a brand-new iteration of the character played by a brand-new actor and helmed by a brand-new director — it is actually Superman who remains the more fundamental of the duo. It is his solo film, Man of Steel, after all, that got the entire DC Extended Universe started, and Dawn of Justice, if you’ll recall, began life as a direct sequel to its predecessor.
So now it’s time to fulfill the other half of the bargain and delve into the classic Superman tales that serve, in ways both big and small, direct and oblique, to inform director Zack Snyder’s continued take on the character, his supporting cast, and the city he calls home. This, then, are the 10 Superman Comics to Read Before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
10. Batman and Superman Adventures: World’s Finest
Year published: 1997
Number of issues: one
Format: graphic novel
The comic book adaptation of a three-part story arc in the Superman: The Animated Series television show (which Kids WB originally aired as a telefilm back in October 1997), Batman and Superman Adventures: World’s Finest follows the first meet-up between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight in the DC Animated Universe – a meeting, as you may have guessed, which initially starts in confrontation (with Batman even getting to employ a surprise judo move against Supes, flinging him across the room) and then quickly ends with each discovering the other’s secret identity (Superman, thanks to his x-ray vision; Batman, thanks to a well-placed homing beacon).
The encounter comes as the Joker, flat broke from a recent string of defeats at Batman’s hand, travels to Metropolis with a huge cache of Kryptonite and a proposal for Lex Luthor: pay him a substantial amount of money to kill the Man of Steel for the constantly-thwarted businessman. The partnering of their two worst enemies causes the two superheroes to eventually bury the hatchet, and the day is ultimately saved, in typical team-up fashion.
An unusual plot device, however, can be found in this story, one that distinguishes this particular crossover from all the scores of others and which helps to make Batman and Superman Adventures well worth reading: a love triangle between Lois Lane, Superman, and Bruce Wayne, which has a rather interesting resolution. One wonders (hopes?) if the DC Extended Universe might eventually follow suit on this front.
9. Lex Luthor: Man of Steel
Year published: 2005
Number of issues: five
The (more or less) genesis of the modern incarnation of Lex Luthor – and one of the main inspirations for Zack Snyder’s handling of the character in Batman v Superman – Lex Luthor: Man of Steel places Luthor in the protagonist’s seat and depicts the world as seen through his cold, calculating eyes. In his estimation, Superman may be worshipped by the public as a demigod, but he is, in reality, an extraterrestrial threat, one that must be purged from humanity if it has any hope of a safe and guaranteed future. To this end, Luthor creates his own superhero, fusing his company’s engineering expertise with Wayne Enterprise’s cutting-edge medical research: Hope, a woman who both can fly and possesses superhuman strength. Superman has officially been replaced.
As the public turns its adulation to LexCorp’s sanctioned savior, however, Lex springs his trap: he secretly commands his superhero – who is actually, it transpires, an android – to turn on Superman and one of the most well-known members of his rogues gallery. The plan, in typical fashion, backfires, but it leads to one of the most memorable confrontations between Luthor and Superman in their 76-year history. With BvS’s trailers already revealing that at least part of this story has been lifted for the film – Lex (Jesse Eisenberg) creates the hulking monstrosity known as Doomsday (Robin Atkin Downes) and unleashes him upon both the Son of Krypton and the Bat of Gotham. Here’s to hoping that movie audiences will get to see an adaptation of this final scene, as well.
8. Smallville: Detective
Year published: 2012
Number of issues: four
Format: story arc within the Smallville: Season 11 series
Part of the then-popular trend of continuing various television series with comic book follow-up “seasons” (which started with Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8), Smallville: Season 11 does exactly what its name implies — continuing the adventures of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Oliver Queen, and the other cast of the show – but throwing in a neat surprise, one that was unavailable to the television writers due to a studio mandate: the inclusion of Batman.
This version of Bruce Wayne contains both familiar and new elements. Rather than a Robin, his sidekick in this telling is Nightwing – who just so happens to be Barbara Gordon (better known as Batgirl in our continuity) as opposed to Dick Grayson (the original Robin, who eventually graduates to the new costumed identity). Bats has studied the growing adventures of Superman and, thus, comes prepared for a fight when he’s forced to follow a criminal trail to Metropolis, invoking many homages to both Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman and Superman Adventures: World’s Finest. (In a nice, perhaps influential, touch, Superman never bothered looking into Batman, as he thought the vigilante was just an urban myth.) Batman’s suit looks like something largely out of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which isn’t surprising, given that film’s release that summer. And it is Superman in this tale who plays adult first, proposing to end their hostilities and work together in a partnership, one that promises to last for a long, long time to come.
7. Superman/Batman: The Supergirl from Krypton
Year published: 2004
Number of issues: 6
Format: story arc within the Superman/Batman series
Superman/Batman, as the name might imply, follows the tag-team adventures of DC’s two greatest heroes (think of it as a modern-day continuation of the long-running World’s Finest series, which had ended some 18 years prior), with the various storylines not only serving up different baddies and other assorted obstacles for the duo to overcome, but also proving to test or otherwise improve their relationship with one another.
This is certainly the case with “The Supergirl from Krypton,” which reintroduces the character of Supergirl (yes, yet again) after a previous company-wide event wrote her out of the continuity. In this telling, she returns to being Superman’s biological cousin who escaped Krypton at the same time as him. But, rather than making a direct bee-line to Earth, ends up being encased in a large Kryptonite meteorite, thereby forcing her into a suspended state of animation. Once she arrives at long last on Earth, she instantly becomes a target for a wide swath of the DC Universe, who wishes to use her for one particular end or another; Wonder Woman wants to train her as an Amazonian, while perennial villain Darkseid wishes her to be the leader of an elite special forces team unflinchingly loyal to him.
While the end of the arc would have her officially established to the world at large (and to herself) as Supergirl, the real development of note has to do with the two leads, who find their relationship to be a changing dynamic of trust, suspicion, and planning for the worst. Such elements are bound to show up, to one degree or another, in Batman v Superman, but of course.
6. Kingdom Come
Year published: 1996
Number of issues: four
One of the most legendary and influential Elseworlds (read: alternate reality) stories in DC’s history, Kingdom Come is set in a future where the traditional, now-elderly pantheon of superheroes has found itself on the outs, being replaced by a new generation of heroes who fight with a remarkable degree of amorality and disregard for life, superpowered or otherwise. Even with the presence of Lex Luthor as the series’s villain, the main antagonists are actually the two different sides of the superheroic spectrum, which are inexorably barreling towards an apocalyptic showdown.
Having turned his back on the deteriorating scene a decade earlier, Superman is coaxed into coming back to yet again save the day when the newer generation accidentally nukes the Midwest and cripples the country’s ability to feed itself. Supes instantly reforms the Justice League, with the notable exception of Batman, who has spent the past ten years attempting to maintain some sort of tenuous balance on the world stage and who answers the development with the (re) creation of his own team, the Outsiders.
When the war is over and the dust settles, the vast majority of the superhuman community is dead, and Superman does something that he rarely ever does in the comics: he loses control. He at first threatens to take control of the globe from that silly, chaotic rabble known as humanity, but he quickly regains his composure and instead moves to a guidance role, helping to advise the world leaders instead of subjugating them.
In the end, the Man of Steel comes full circle, returning to the Midwest to restore America’s farmlands. His donning of a pair of glasses means that he’s now more Clark Kent, a human citizen, than Superman, a superpowered protector. Such a denouement seems to already have had a large influence on Man of Steel and will, presumably, continue to have one as the DCEU officially gets up and rolling.
5. All-Star Superman
Year published: 2005-2008
Number of issues: 12
Meant to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s Ultimate Universe – a modern-day retelling of the company’s entire continuity – All-Star Superman not only offers a suitably alternate-reality story, it also manages to hit a number of different emotional notes and character beats as the Man of Tomorrow has to face one of his greatest obstacles: death.
In the series’s first issue, Superman saves the crew aboard a spacecraft that has been sent to study the sun. In the process, however, he drinks in massive amounts of solar radiation, which overwhelms his cells and results in his body slowly but surely shutting down. It will finally give out, the medical experts tell him, in one year.
The bulk of All-Star Superman, then, shows how the world’s most powerful being behaves when confronted with his own morality. He rounds up some villains – most notably Lex Luthor, whom he finally manages to convict for crimes against humanity – reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane and offers to live the last of his days with her, and otherwise engages in a series of projects that will leave humanity far better served once he shuffles off this mortal coil.
It turns out in the end, however, that Clark Kent’s fate isn’t necessarily as cut-and-dry as being alive or dead, and his final moments before his final act of self-sacrifice are even more interesting than his ultimate (metaphysical) ending place. Such developments lead All-Star Superman to place one foot in the character’s long (and, perhaps in DC Extended Universe terms, quaint) history while looking ahead to a more nuanced future. It’s a lovely balance to see for the character, and it’s one that we can only hope will be attained at some point within the DCEU’s lifespan.
4. The Death of Superman
Year published: 1992-1993
Number of issues: seven
Format: story arc within the Superman, Adventures of Superman, Action Comics, Superman: Man of Steel, and Justice League America series
This is it – the Superman equivalent to Batman’s Knightfall saga, a line-wide crossover that united all the Superman titles into one long, epic tale the likes of which had never been seen before.
The mysterious and virtually unstoppable creature known as Doomsday, who manages to break free of his eons-long imprisonment in a cell buried deep within the Earth, begins to cut a near-total swath of destruction through the countryside. After the Justice League International team attempts to take the alien on and loses – badly – Superman arrives on the scene to save the day… except that he can’t. Doomsday throws him about like a ragdoll and continues on his way to (where else?) Metropolis, where the Man of Steel is finally able to stop the monster in his tracks. The only catch is the cost: his life.
Summoning every last ounce of solar energy that he has on reserve, Superman gives Doomsday one last, extremely powerful punch, which manages to slay the beast (or so everyone believes) – at exactly the same moment that Doomsday returns the favor, fatally injuring Kal-El. He collapses in front of the Daily Planet building and only dies in Lois Lane’s arms once she confirms that he has, indeed, stopped the creature.
The massive amounts of action and damage to Metropolis have both already been seen in Man of Steel, and Doomsday is set to make his grand debut on the big screen with Batman v Superman. The only thing yet to be determined is whether Warner Bros. will opt to follow up with the rest of the storyline, which not only sees the character’s death, but also, of course, his eventual resurrection and return to form.
3. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Year published: 1986
Number of issues: two
Format: story arc within the Superman and Action Comics series
In the year 1986, DC Comics was in the midst of finishing up its continuity-cleaning Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries and gearing up for a line-wide reboot (the first of many that would occur over the course of the next 30 years, sadly). In order to say goodbye to the character (or, at least, the version of the character) that he had been the steward of for so many years, editor Julie Schwartz wanted to give Supes a grand send-off. His concept? Actually do the last Superman story.
Hiring writer Alan Moore – the author of Watchmen and largely regarded as one of, if not the, best scribes in comics history – to write the two-part farewell, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” It tells the tale of Superman’s last days on the planet, before he mysteriously disappears, presumably to die in the arctic wilderness outside his Fortress of Solitude. With no regard for any future continuity, Schwartz and Moore truly take the story in fearless directions, killing off a huge swath of characters – including Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, Brainiac, and Lex Luthor – publicly unmasking Clark Kent as Superman, and…well, the ending is so good, we couldn’t possibly give it away here. Suffice to say that there’s a reason why, three decades later, this storyline still ranks amongst the very best Superman tales ever told and why we wouldn’t mind at all if the DCEU eventually ends up resolving Clark’s character arc in a similar way.
(A special side-note is relevant here: in order to save both himself and his closest [remaining] friends, Superman is forced to kill his superpowered attacker. The resulting utilitarian effect on the deontological Clark Kent is not only beautiful to behold, it also stands in stark – and telling – contrast with a similar scene in Man of Steel’s climax.)
2. Superman for All Seasons
Year published: 1998
Number of issues: four
Written by Jeph Loeb, a noted comic book author and the current head of Marvel’s television division, Superman for All Seasons took as its central conceit the passage of seasons, a continuation of his work on the equally influential Batman: The Long Halloween, which used the passage of holidays as its main narrative device (and which ultimately came to largely inform the bulk of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy). Each of the series’ four issues, as such, is devoted to one season, starting with spring and ending with winter, and each is narrated by a different supporting character (Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang), providing a different context for each phase of Superman’s early life.
In spring, we see Clark Kent graduate from Smallville High School and face the great unknown question of what to do with his life – and, perhaps more importantly, with his powers. In summer, Clark struggles both with being Superman in Metropolis and with Smallville’s inexorable changing with the times. Fall sees Superman not being able to save everyone in his new city, a development which makes him return home. And winter brings with it the revelation that even Superman has limits to what he can do and who he can be – a revelation which allows Clark to fly proudly as Superman once again.
What’s so refreshing about Superman for All Seasons – beyond its artwork, which is absolutely gorgeous – is its simplistic, character-driven story. Yes, Luthor is the plotting, manipulative nemesis that he so often is, but such machinations take a back seat to Superman’s internal journey. And, interestingly enough, the miniseries has already informed Man of Steel to great (albeit relatively minor) effect, from Pa Kent’s tribulations over his son’s uncertain future to Superman having to speak to a pastor to help clear his head about the best way to proceed.
Year published: 2003-2004
Number of issues: 12
On the surface, Man of Steel and Birthright share many similarities. Both are an updating of the Superman origin story, specifically, but also a reinvention of the entire mythology to better fit within a modern context. Both show a wayward, and at least somewhat adrift, Clark Kent in his youth (though Birthright has him in his early 20s, whereas Snyder’s film pegs him at the symbolic age of 33), struggling to define his existence before settling down at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. And both have a Clark who (after joyously playing around with his power of flight, specifically in the savannah) studies his spacecraft for answers, using a Kryptonian tablet to access his planet’s hidden history (although, yes, in the movie, it’s more like a thumb drive).
That, however, is where the similarities end. Birthright, despite its post-modern leanings, is a decidedly traditional celebration of the character, his past, and his future. Man of Steel features a Superman who is paralyzed by fear and lives in a much more somber, much darker (both visually and tonally) world. It’s not too much of a stretch to call them the night and day versions of the same basic story and narrative drive – and it’s not too much of a stretch to hope that Snyder and his filmmaking crew will continue to draw at Birthright’s well for future installments, bringing more of its atmosphere along with plot specifics for the cinematic ride.
Did we miss your favorite comic storyline? Do you think there’s a far more worthwhile number one on the list? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.
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