A Beginner’s Guide to: Superman

One of the reasons I write this column is that I too am still a comics newbie in a lot of ways. Despite being one of the most iconic characters in American fiction, I’ve only recently started to read Superman comics. Unfortunately, the DC Animated Universe was not a part of my childhood, nor were the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Both are a nice introduction to the character – it’s difficult not to love Reeve’s charming take on Supes and Clark Kent, and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is cool, smart, and much more active than the version in last year’s Man of Steel. I didn’t fall as quickly for the Justice League cartoon from the early 00’s, but dang, if you don’t find it endearing how much Clark loves Christmas, I don’t know what to tell you.

Still from DC Animated series Justice League

Clark Kent aka Kal-El aka Superman probably requires no introduction. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Prior to the destruction of his home planet, baby Kal-El was sent to Earth, where he was found and raised by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, who instilled in him a strong sense of right and wrong. He eventually moved to the big city, Metropolis, where he led a double life as a bumbling reporter at the Daily Planet and a superhero.

Superman tends to be dismissed these days for being too archetypal, especially in a culture that celebrates gritty “realism” of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. If Superman feels overpowered and unrelatable, I’d suggest reading Steven T. Seagle’s graphic memoir It’s a Bird. Seagle recounts his experiences trying to cope with Huntington’s (an incurable genetic disease) in his family while trying to decide whether he wants to accept an offer to write Superman. Seagle ended up writing the series for a while, despite initially finding the character outdated and too strong to be relevant to average readers. He changed his mind, maybe he can change yours too.

Art by Leinil Yu

Once you’re convinced that you’d like to start, Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu is a good first step. Birthright is basically a take on Superman’s origin story, setting it in a more contemporary timeframe. It introduces most of Superman’s support cast, like Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Ma and Pa Kent, as well as Lex Luthor and Kal-El’s Kryptonian parents. It doesn’t tell Clark’s history in a perfectly linear fashion, so it doesn’t feel like a retelling of the same old origin story. It opens with Clark getting involved in a political conflict in Africa, before he decides to officially become Superman, looking at his past in flashback sequences. The story explores Clark’s motivation for donning his cape and red underwear, emphasizing his humanity more than his powers or abilities. I may have teared up a bit in the last issue…

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is a great all-encompassing Superman story, retelling a collection of Superman’s greatest hits. It’s like a survey of Supes’ most prominent villains and storylines, so it’s a good introduction for new readers, although I wish I’d read it after reading Birthright so I had that attachment to the character already established. It begins with Superman learning that he’s dying after one of Lex Luthor’s schemes is successful, thus making the best of his limited time left on Earth. Morrison looks at some of Superman’s hugest world-saving battles as well as much more intimate moments, like when he stops a girl from committing suicide. It’s a beautiful story that should encapsulate the character even for inexperienced readers.

Art by Frank Quitely

Beyond that… I’m pretty clueless too! I liked Superman: Last Son, by Geoff Johns, Richard Johns, and Adam Kubert, but anything long-running or involving the whole Justice League still intimidates me. Maybe some readers have some suggestions? If you’ve got a favorite Superman story, feel free to shoot it my way. I’ve slowly come around on the character – Superman always seemed pretty boring to me – so I hope this list can make a few new fans from skeptics out there.

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Allison O'Toole

Part-time superhero, space bounty-hunter and crayon-colour-namer. When not reading everything from the classics to comics, you may find me watching old horror films or looking at pictures of puppies on the Internet.

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