What (and Why) I’m Reading Before ‘Man of Steel’

Image(Crossposted from my Tumblr.)
There’s a ton of fanboy buzz, but no need to take it at face value: Warner Bros Pictures is so confident that Man of Steel will make a splash—$100-million-in-three-days worth of splash—that the studio’s already ordered a sequel with the same writer and director. It’s a good thing for the Superman franchise, which last made it to the big screen in 2006 with Superman Returns, an underwhelming talky in tights that also disappointed financially. Fans should be excited, too: This is the original superhero, an inspirational figure of nearly mythic proportions that sorely deserves a new chance on the silver screen.

Of course, it seems unlikely that a movie should everperfectly capture the essence of a comic book—and that’s neither a slight against film adaptations nor a neck-beardy exaltation of floppy newsprint. Perhaps the best (and sometimes, I’ll grant, the overcomplicated worst) thing about big-time superhero comic books is their inherent mythology: The idea that decades of stories formed the basis of the book in your hands makes conflicts more dramatic, settings richer, and characters more substantial.  The fact of the matter is that movies can’t quite pull upon that mythology in the same way. In the best cases (e.g. The Dark Knight), the best portions of comic book lore are used to lend gravitas to a film or otherwise inform key portions of plot, but the constrictions of Hollywood (a two-hour structure with carefully arranged action sequences, obvious villains and time for yuks) mean that they cannot do much else. It’s part of the reason why director Zack Snyder’s big screen adaptation of Watchmen was so reviled.

(The unique aesthetic qualities you get in a comic book are, of course, another reason why a movie won’t ever quite nail it, but that’s a thought for another time.)

All of this to say: I am very excited for Man of Steel, but I’m enjoying even more my pre-viewing reading material. I have a hunger for Superman comics that’s been absent for some time, and that’s great. It occurs to me that others might, too, and so I wanted to write about the books I’m reading this week to get geared up: Love or hate Man of Steel (and indeed it seems that critics are split), these are wonderful stories that very much deserve to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, especially if we’re all riding the high of Supermania anyway.

Here’s my list:

  • Action Comics #1 (1938)—Available for 99 cents on comiXology: Because what better place to start is there? A fascinating historical document and, actually, a disarmingly different take on the character than we’re used to. I don’t have a lot to say about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original take that hasn’t been said by far more qualified writers than myself, but I can, at least, encourage you to see and digest for yourself.
  • Superman: Birthright—12 issues available for $2.99 each on comiXology, or as apaperback collection for about $16 on Amazon: I just recently finished reading this for my first time and was pretty much blown away. We’re all no doubt familiar with Superman’s origin story, just as we’re almost definitely bored to tears by every other “Year One” superhero story we’ve been subjected to in recent years, and that’s why writer Mark Waid’s take on Clark Kent’s ascent is so worthy of praise. It’s modern, different, but reverent—exactly what a re-imagining of this icon should be. What this story handles best is the notion that Superman is a hero for all mankind, alien origin or not, which also means he’s subject to human flaws. Indeed, though Lex Luthor comes off as maniacally unhinged in this story, it’s not until Superman allows himself to judge the bald outcast that he turns truly evil. These human moments define this book, and all of the main players are handled lovingly and granted realistic depth in Waid’s capable hands. This is a true modern classic.
  • Action Comics (2011)—Issues available for $0.99 to $2.99 each on comiXology, or in collections on Amazon: Mark Waid’s Superman may be a hero for all mankind, but the Superman depicted here as part of the recent “New 52” reboot of the comic book universe is a warrior for the underdog and, notably, a truly judgmental wiener who sasses cops and pummels abusive husbands and crooked real estate developers. Writer Grant Morrison recreated the character with his 1938 origins in mind, which means a very different (rougher) hero than we’re used to. All told, the run hasn’t been amazing, but the earliest issues are worth checking out at least for their novelty factor, especially viewed in contrast to the stories above. The ninth issue is also, to me, an instant classic: a ballsy story about an alternate universe Superman modeled after Barack Obama who comes to the aid of inter-dimensional travelers (by way of “meta-machine”) who fight desperately against an evil corporation intent on turning the Superman “brand” into a depraved “cross-spectrum” “global marketing icon.”
  • Superman: Brainiac—Issues available for $1.99 each on comiXology, or as a collection for about $12 on Amazon: This one’s pretty straightforward, but it’s a simple favorite of mine. Brainiac’s a classic villain given new life here by writer Geoff Johns, and though this story doesn’t break much new ground, it functions perfectly as a good-vs.-evil drama from which no one emerges unscathed. (That’s probably why it was recently made into an animated film.) This is a nice next-step read after Birthright, especially given how Pa Kent is handled in each.
  • Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?—Issues available for $1.99 each on comiXology, or as a collection for about $12 on Amazon: Very possibly the best Superman story ever written, which comes as little surprise given its writer is Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, Promethea, and on and on and on). A capstone to the Silver Age, this is also intended as a sort of “final” Superman story—the character’s history was rebooted in this era during the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline—and it pays tribute in all the ways you might expect. It’s also, to me, a fairly unsettling story: There’s bloodshed, suicide, and horror across dimensions to such an extent that the whole thing feels like kind of a bad trip. But it all serves to reinforce why Superman and his associated cast are so beloved and remind us, in some way, of what the character stands for.
  • All-Star Superman—Issues available for $1.99 each on comiXology, or as acollection for about $20 on Amazon: One of Grant Morrison’s very best. I suppose you could take this as a sort of metafictionyou are reminded constantly of the story’s comic book nature and there are endless allusions to Superman’s sprawling history—but aside from more ambiguous (or academic) interpretations, this is pretty simply a Herculean epic told in 12 perfect, mind-warping parts. It deserves a place on any fiction lover’s shelf.

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