Happy Fourth of July everyone!
and what better way to celebrate American independence than to look at the greatest American superhero ever created.
Is there anyone in modern fiction that embodies the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way?
Well, technically that last part isn’t exactly honest. The “American Way” part of the motto wasn’t added until the 1950’s in an attempt to make Superman more politically friendly and “safe” for kids. The original Superman had no problem threatening politicians and destroying homes in the name of justice and fair treatment.
Still, all things aside, Superman’s commitment to fighting for the little guy does make him an important figure in American pop culture. He’s been dissected, discussed, and re interpreted countless time throughout the decades and today I would like to talk about five of the most important and/or interesting Superman stories ever told.
I believe that these five stories focus on a major aspect of Superman’s character and attempt to explain who the Man of Steel is and why he is, and must remain, the way he is. This list is not designed to be an extensive description of the plots of each of these stories and I highly encourage you to check them out on your own.
Note: This list is my opinion and my opinion only. If I left out your favorite Superman story please feel free to let me know in the comments.
5. Superman: Red Son
Writer: Mark Millar
Artists: Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett
Date published: 2003
A huge part of Superman’s personality and character stems from the fact that he grew up on a small farm in the middle of Kanses, the heartland of America.
His parents raised him the best way they could and gave their adopted son Clark the values and moral compass that made him the hero he became.
“Red Son” asks the question: what if Superman hadn’t landed in Kansas? What if he had landed in America’s ideological opponent: the Soviet Union?
Without going into too much detail it’s safe to say it doesn’t end very well for America and instead of being instilled with values that promote freedom and individual liberty the new Soviet Superman becomes something akin to a Big Brother figure, watching over the people of the world as an authority figure rather than a benevolent guardian.
4. What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
Writer: Joe Kelly
Artists: Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo
Date published: 2001
Unlike most titles on the list this is not a stand alone story, rather it’s an arc in the Action Comics title, which is the long running Superman series that started in 1938 and only ended in 2011 (we’ll get to that).
This story is a discussion on one of the biggest questions a lot of readers have about Superman: why doesn’t he just kill his enemies?
Now, some superheroes do kill,
and some superheroes used to kill
but had that part of their character changed due to editorial mandate and the need to keep a running stable of villains.
While Superman has had his fair share of violent streaks, he has remained pretty committed to not killing his enemies for a very long time. Even though he has the power to wipe out entire solar systems
and many people have pointed out that, by letting the bad guys he captures live, they have gone on to cause even more death and destruction.
Seriously, in order for a villain to present a threat to Superman they either have to have enough power to rack up a body count in the billions or wield enough intelligence and influence to control countless numbers of people.
“What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” answered that question and gave a pretty good reason as to why Superman doesn’t just kill his enemies, no matter how much they may deserve it.
The story starts with Superman coming face to face with a group of heroes known as “The Elite”
They are a group of erstwhile heroes who have no qualms about killing the villains they capture, much to the delight of the people of Earth and the dismay of Superman.
Things come to a head and the Elite and Superman wind up fighting each other.
It is very much an ideological battle that asks a whole lot of questions. What is the purpose of a hero? What is the proper use of power? How far should a hero go in order to keep the peace?
All of these questions are answered in a fight that I believe is one of the best fights in comics. Granted, the story can be a little heavy handed and self serving at times, but the story shows why Superman must remain the way he his, why he is still relevant it today’s society, and gives us a glimpse into the terrifying vision of a Superman who has no problem killing people.
3. All Star Superman
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quietly
Publication date: 2011
This is the most modern Superman story to appear on the list and one that answers the OTHER big question about Superman: how can you make a man who is literally invulnerable interesting?
Morrison tackles this question by doing something brilliant: he kills Superman.
Basically, an accident near the sun saturates Superman’s cells with radiation and he only has a short while to live before he disintegrates into energy.
The story is about the last days of Superman on Earth as he says goodbye to Louis Lane.
manages to defeat Lex Luthor one last time,
and comes to grips with his own mortality and several of the stranger bits of the Superman mythos.
This is Superman at his most basic essence. He’s not protecting a cause, he’s not working with any other hero, he’s a God among men and he is doing everything he can to help.
This series is also home to what I consider to be the greatest page in all of comics.
I tear up every time.
2. Action Comics #1
Not only is this the first appearance of the Superman we know and love, it’s the first American superhero comic ever published.
We owe so much to this comic it’s difficult to describe. Everything from the costume,
to his secret identity,
To his strange origins define so much of what it means to be a modern day superhero.
Granted, there were other masked vigilantes around before Superman and yes, there are plenty of heroes who have gone on to eclipse the Man of Steel in popularity but I think it is important to remember that without this,
there would be none of this.
1. Superman and the Clan of the Fiery Cross
This isn’t a comic book, it’s a story that ran as a radio serial between June 16th, 1946 to July 1st, 1946 and I believe it is the single most important Superman story ever created.
Post war America had a problem with a group called the Ku Klux Klan.
For anyone who might not know, the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK for short) is a vile hate group that was formed by white men in the American South in order to protect American societ, just as long as that society was white and Protestant Christian.
Unfortunately they are still around and while they used to campaign against the inclusion of black people into American society
they continue to exist today as a force campaigning against immigration and what they perceive as an invasion of America by foreigners.
So why am I talking about this? Well, in the 1940’s a human rights activist and investigative journalist from Jacksonville Florida named Stetson Kennedy decided to go undercover and investigate the Klan.
He uncovered a whole bunch of the Klan’s secrets from how they ran their meetings, to how they were organized, and even what their secret handshakes looked like.
He actually discovered that beneath the violence and horrific racism the Klan was pretty stupid and after a while he was ready to report his findings to the world.
Unfortunately this was going to be difficult since the Klan was big and Kennedy had no idea if the police of newspaper editors he could share his findings with were members.
So Stetson went to the writes of the popular Superman radio show and together they came up with a 16 part radio drama where Superman fought and defeated “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”.
I won’t talk about the story, you can read a synopsis here and listen to it here if want the original serial complete with ads for Kellog’s Pep, but what I do want to talk about is the real world impact that story had.
The story claimed to expose real Klan codes and practices and in 2005 a book called Freakonomics stated that this single radio serial was the biggest contributor to the decline in Klan membership in the 1940’s.
Whether it’s true or not the fact remains that Superman helped fight and bring down one of the worst and most vile hate groups in American history.
No other hero in popular culture has had that kind of impact on our society and way of life, and that is why this story is the greatest Superman story ever told. It doesn’t matter how many people like Superman or if people thing he’s too powerful or boring. What matters is that he is there for us as an example of pure, unadulterated good in the world and worthy of being the champion for the ideals of truth and justice that America was founded on and strives to live up to.
Happy July 4th everyone.