Many of comics' most popular heroes have been around for decades, and in the case of the big names from the publisher now known as DC Comics, some have been around for a sizable chunk of a century. As these characters passed through the different historical eras known in comics as the Golden Age (the late 1930s through the early 1950s), the Silver Age (the mid 1950s through the late 1960s), the Bronze Age (the early 1970s through the mid 1980s) and on into modern times, they have experienced considerable changes in tone and portrayal that reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
With this new feature we'll help you navigate the very best stories of DC Comics' most beloved characters decade by decade. This week, we're taking a look at Superman.
1930s-40s: “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”
It might seem like a bit of a cop-out to list Superman's first appearance from 1938 as the best story from this whole twelve-year period, but the fact is, while some of the other stories listed in the honorable mention section below might be more sophisticated on a technical level, if you actually read the Superman story from Action #1 (or the extended version from Superman #1), it's pretty easy to see how it spawned an entirely new genre.
The story is exciting, the pacing is intense with a literal clock set in-panel, counting down to doom, and this bounding madman in circus pajamas is unlike anything before set on the page. Further, this story helps set the tone of Superman as the defender of the underprivileged that he would be until the outbreak of World War II; we see him rescuing the falsely accused, beating down slumlords, and throwing wife-beaters in the river.
Best of the rest: “Superman and the Dam” (Action Comics vol 1 #5), “The Origin of Superman!” (Superman vol 1 #53), “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk!” (Superman vol 1 #30), “Case of the Funny Paper Crimes” (Superman vol 1 #19), “The Challenge of Luthor” (Superman vol 1 #4)
1950s: “The Lady and the Lion”
In my estimation, it is pretty hard to dispute that the definitive writer of Superman's Silver Age period is Otto Binder. Within the span of a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he introduced such concepts and characters as Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Brainiac, the bottle city of Kandor, Krypto the Superdog, and tons more.
Silver Age Superman stories are frequently less about the Man of Steel battling powerful foes and more about anxiety: fear of having his secret identity exposed, of Lois Lane constantly trying to trick him into marrying her, and, of course, bizarre transformations. These transformations are often due to exposure to red kryptonite, but in the case of this story, perhaps the most famous transformation of all, Superman is changed into a lion by the mythological sorceress Circe. If Silver Age Superman stories are characterized by a strange creativity and fun, it's hard to top “The Lady and the Lion.”
Best of the rest: “The Mightiest Team in the World” (Superman vol 1 #76), “The Girl in Superman’s Past” (Superman vol 1 #129), “The Battle with Bizarro!” (Action Comics vol 1 #254), “The Supergirl from Krypton!” (Action Comics vol 1 #252), “It” (Action Comics vol 1 #162), “The Super-Duel in Space” (Action Comics vol 1 #242), “Superman's New Power” (Superman vol 1 #125)
1960s: “The Last Days of Superman!”
In this classic story by science fiction author Edmond Hamilton and all-time definitive Superman artist Curt Swan, Superman contracts a mysterious space virus that begins to slowly kill him. As he feels the life ebbing from him, we see what Superman is really all about: he gathers all of his friends and resources together — Supergirl, Krypto, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Lori Lemaris, and more — to do as much as he can to help the world on a long term basis in his last days (spoiler: he survives).
An argument could be made here for the similarly themed “Death of Superman” by Swan and Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, which is definitely one of the all-time great Lex Luthor stories, but 'Last Days' gets the nod for two reasons: one, it's not an "imaginary story" (a series of intentionally non-canon experimental stories common in the Silver Age), so the stakes are as real as the Silver Age gets, and two, it features literally the best Superman panel of all time.
Best of the rest: “The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman!” (Superman vol 1 #164), “The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue!” (Superman vol 1 #162), “Return to Krypton” (Superman vol 1 #141), “Superman’s Race With the Flash!” (Superman vol 1 #199), “The Death of Superman” (Superman vol 1 #149), “Superman Under the Red Sun!” (Action Comics vol 1 #300)
1970s: “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali”
A jaded modern audience might turn up their noses at the idea of a crossover with a real-life celebrity being the best story of the decade, but the fact is that, in terms of art and story, this one-shot oversized special by the definitive DC creative team of the 1970s is head and shoulders above any of the other contenders.
If you're really aching to see something that had long-term consequences on Superman continuity, check out “Kryptonite Nevermore,” also written by O'Neil, with art by Curt Swan. But if you're looking for a beautiful book with a killer story and a real emotional core, only one book can be The Greatest.
Best of the rest: “Kryptonite Nevermore!” (Superman vol 1 #233-238, 240-242), “Must There Be a Superman?” (Superman vol 1 #247), “Mighty One” (Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth #29), “The Man from Transilvane!” (Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #142-143)
1980s: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”/"Man of Steel"
Superman vol 1 #423/Action Comics vol 1 #583 by Alan Moore and Curt Swan
Man of Steel #1-6 by John Byrne
Is it cheating for me to pick two stories as the best of the decade? Yep. Do I care? Nope. Write your own article if you're going to be a stickler for rules.
These two stories serve as sort of reverse bookends, with “Whatever Happened” closing out everything that came before, and Man of Steel opening a new book that would influence everything that came after. (What came in between was Crisis on Infinite Earths, which we don't need to talk about.) “Whatever Happened” features the most respected comics writer of the 1980s (and beyond) and the best ever Superman artist phasing out the elements that had come to define the Silver and Bronze Ages and ending with a wink, while “Man of Steel” has one of the most influential writer/artists of the decade re-imagining a bold new vision of Superman for the fast-paced, modern world of the 1980s.
Best of the rest: “The Living Legends of Superman” (Superman vol 1 #400), “If Superman Didn’t Exist…” (Action Comics vol 1 #554), “The Jungle Line” (DC Comics Presents #85), “The Secret is Revealed!” (Superman vol 2 #2), “For the Man Who has Everything” (Superman Annual #11), “Half a Superman” (Action Comics vol 1 #534-541)
1990s: “Reign of the Supermen”
Action Comics vol 1#687-691, Adventures of Superman vol 1 #500-505, Green Lantern Volume 3, #46, Superman vol 2 #78-82 and Superman: The Man of Steel #22-26, by various
Even though 'Death of Superman', which features a gray man in bicycle shorts from space punching Superman until they both die, is one of the best-selling comics of all time, what came after is where it got really interesting. 'Reign of the Supermen' (called 'Return of Superman' in collected editions) features four new characters claiming (to various degrees) to be the resurrected Superman and ends with the real Superman actually returning and showing (some of) the pretenders that there's no substitute for the real thing. It's the product of many issues by various creators, including Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, Louis Simonson, Jon Bogdanove, and many others, telling stories that expanded the Superman mythos in ways that can still be seen today in characters such as Cyborg Superman, Conner Kent, and John Henry Irons.
Even though the 2000s were a strong decade for great Superman stories, in the end, there was really only one choice for best. All-Star Superman takes the basic theme of “Last Days of Superman” — Superman trying to do as much good as he can after being afflicted with a terminal illness — and turns it into a twelve-issue opus that consolidates everything that is great about Superman from the previous seven decades.
Each issue explores a different element of the Superman mythos — Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen, Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Bizarro World, the Phantom Zone — and distills it to its iconic form and finds the emotional core in each one. This story is not only the best Superman story of the 2000s; it's probably the best Superman story of all time.
And that's it for the decades we've experienced so far! The 2010s are halfway over; we'll have to see who comes out on top in five years! (Good luck, anyone who wants to beat “The Fiend from Dimension 5”!)