Earlier this week, DC Entertainment issued a list of six Superman trade paperbacks that were "must-read" stories before fans make their way to the theaters to see Man of Steel in June.
Their list was perfectly fine, although it omitted quite a lot. Understandably, we suppose, since you don't want to overwhelm potential new readers and you want to be sure that things like the newly-released Superman Earth One Volume 2 get a plug. Still, there were some things that we absolutely would have added to any list claiming to be an ideal Superman reading list.
We could have gone on, but we decided that by stopping at nine, it made a nice, round number when combined with DC's list (15!) while still keeping it manageable(ish).
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?/For the Man Who Has Everything
One of the great "final chapters" of all time, Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow one is arguably one of the most understandable to be left off of the list. Why? Well, it comes with a good deal of information that readers are expected to know and in the world of the New 52, much of it isn't true anymore anyway. Add that to the fact that lists like the one DC made are meant for new readers interested in getting a basic primer before the movie and you have a pretty obvious reason to leave it off the list.
So why would we put it back on? well, put bluntly, it's not only one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, but one of the great superhero stories ever told, period. It informs Geoff Johns's recent, brilliant conclusion to his Green Lantern run and while it may ask a lot of its readers, you can go in, take a few things for granted ("...okay, so he has a super-dog."), and enjoy it almost as much. Certainly those last few pages, key to the story's narrative power, don't require an advanced degree in comics continuity to love them.
As a reader pointed out on our Facebook page, the Alan Moore-written "For the Man Who Has Everything" is arguably just as vital, and provides a great look into Superman's psyche. It's not collected in a stand-alone book but can be found in a number of collections, including DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, which contains both of his major Superman works.
While elements of this story seem to have been thrown out in favor of the more modern Birthright version of Superman's origin, this is certainly the first serious attempt to bring Superman's backstory to the then-modern era, including the concept of Kryptonians as all but asexual and explanations for things like where the "Superman" name came from and "how does the Man of Steel shave?".
The Death and Return of Superman
After taking criticism for being too thoughtful and not physically challenging Superman enough, the four creative teams gathered together to bring fans Doomsday!, the story in which a giant, spiky monster attacked Superman and the two fought until they both dropped dead. The year-long odyssey that followed brought fans some enduring new characters and changed the DC Universe in ways that even the relaunched timeline of the New 52 hasn't shaken off.
One of a number of "alternate timeline" stories that appear on this list, Kingdom Come happens in a future where Superman's abrupt retirement has created a metahuman community without a moral compass, who cause more damage than they fix in the name of being "heroes."
A look at what Superman's role is in culture and in the context of the larger DC Universe, Kingdom Come is frequently cited as one of the best depictions of the character ever done.
The story that gave Man of Steel much of its imagery, Birthright is arguably best read as a stand-alone story (not unlike a movie, or Superman Earth One), since it didn't really jive with the prevailing mythology of Superman at the time of its writing and then was retconned out shortly after it was published. It remains in print, though, a popular and thoughtful look at Clark Kent's youthful years spent searching for purpose.
Superman For All Seasons
One of a number of Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale collaborations done at the time, Superman For All Seasons was loved by critics and fans, painting a picture of Superman and his origin that felt timeless and accessible in a way that many in-continuity comics cannot be.
Superman: Red Son
Mark Millar may not seem like the ideal candidate to write Superman, but he's done so a number of times in his life. Often, it's not in the DC Universe proper but rather in side projects like Red Son, which explored the nature-versus-nurture debate and how much of his eventual fate could be attributed to Jonathan and Martha Kent.
This one's a single issue story--making it all the more impressive, but a bit harder to find just by Googling the title. It's available in the trade collection Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 1. It's also been adapted to film as the movie Superman vs. The Elite, which we thought was pretty good.
In any event, this story (like the old "Must There Be a Superman?" story from the '70s, which inspired some elements of Kingdom Come and which is reprinted in that same "Greatest Stories" volume) explores Superman's role in the world, not just as "guy who fights bad guys," but as something larger--the guy who has to be the moral compass for the other heroes of the world. Superman is so vastly powerful, he could do serious damage to villains--and the rest of the planet--if he wasn't such a supremely decent person. For that reason, he's often underestimated as soft, weak or (in the case of readers) uninteresting. This story sees him let loose--if briefly--to illustrate why he can't do so more often.
Superman: Secret Origin
In what in hindsight almost feels like a swan song to the Richard Donner era of Superman movies, superstar creators Geoff Johns and Gary Frank got together a few years ago to tell an in-continuity, canonical version of Superman's origin story that incorporated pre- and post-Crisis elements as well as material from the movies and TV series, in the way Johns had managed to do with Hawkman shortly before.