Building A Better Best-Of: How To Fix DC’s ‘Superman: A Celebration Of 75 Years’
Last week, I took a hard look at DC's recent Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years hardcover, and to say I found it lacking is putting it mildly. Despite reprinting some very, very good stories, the tone of the collection was overwhelmingly, oppressively grim at best, and felt like the publisher was embarrassed by the very character they were claiming to celebrate at worst. It was more than a little disheartening, because it didn't have to be that way. It's not an accurate look at Superman's past, and really, it's a narrative that you'd have to go out of your way to create.
But let it never be said that I complain about things without offering a viable solution -- even though I do that pretty much all the time. With the same amount of space and the same division of eras in Superman, you can create a sequence of stories with the same resonance and the same level of quality that shows Superman at his best, triumphing over evil and making the world a better place.
And here's the thing: It's not actually that hard, even if you don't use my ideal "Best of Superman" formula, which is just reprinting that one story where he's cursed to have a lion head, Elliot S! Maggin's 1980 novel Miracle Monday, in which Superman and the Devil face off in a battle for the fate of the world that no one will ever know took place, and two or three pages of @ck1blogs tweets tacked on the end. I'll admit right up front that this kind of armchair editing isn't even really fair, because when you get right down to it, most of the stories in this book already are some of the best Superman has to offer. Half the work is already done for me.
The Golden Age section of the book, for instance, doesn't need to be changed at all. I said as much last week. Action #1 and the Look Magazine story where Superman gives Hitler and Stalin the business (including the panel where Superman threatens Hitler with "a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw") are pretty well-covered ground; they're downright mandatory. "War In San Monte" (1938), in which Superman ends a South American civil war by essentially kidnapping the generals and telling them to fight it out themselves in order to expose the true culprit, a war profiteering arms dealer, is a great one to have in there too, showing that original spirit of standing up to the powerful and dealing with the same kind of "real world" problems later writers would claim he's so ineffective at. And really, I may have thrown some shade at "The Origin of Superman" for kicking off the book's trend of Sad Superman stories, but it's a well-constructed, historically important story that also has the benefit of spotlighting Bill Finger's role in the Golden Age.
The first Silver Age offering, the origin of the Batman-Superman partnership in 1952's "The Mightiest Team In The World" can stay, too. I'm actually really surprised that one got in in the first place, since they so often get hung up on Batman and Superman growling and punching each other rather than being best friends, but it's exactly the kind of story that you don't see much of these days that does a great job capturing the spirit of the era.
It's that next story, "The Super Duel In Space," where we run into problems, so that's the first one to be swapped out. The main contribution here is the introduction of Brainiac and the Bottle City of Kandor, so to balance it out, we'd need something that would show a similar contribution to the Mythos. Easy enough. My pick would be Jerry Coleman and Wayne Boring's "The Super-Key To Fort Superman" (1958).
It's a pretty obvious choice as one of the more or less arbitrary points marking the true beginning of Silver Age Superman -- it's the first story in the indispensible Showcase Presents: Superman, after all -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing when you're looking back at the highlights of the character. I'd argue that the Fortress of Solitude (while lifted pretty much wholesale from Doc Savage, right down to the name and location) was as big a deal as Kandor, but that might be because they both appeared together so frequently over the years. Still, I think it works -- and we'll be coming back to Kandor later in the book.
The one big problem is that pairing it up with "The Mightiest Team" gives you two Batman stories back to back, but I don't think that's really a huge deal either. The official version includes two Batman appearances, and to be honest, a story where Superman outwits the World's Greatest Detective at a friendly mystery game that ends with the characters laughing together and having a good time is a heck of a lot more appropriate for a celebration of Superman than one where Batman has to shoot Superman with a Kryptonite bullet to stop him from destroying a city.
Next up is "The Girl in Superman's Past," and listen, folks, you will not find a bigger fan than me of the idea that Superman used to date a mermaid. That is fantastic, and puts all other college experimentation to shame. But let's be honest, here, there is no reason for Lori Lemaris to be in this book. Lana Lang is barely in this book -- heck, Lois is barely in here, but she got her own hardcover, so that's excusable -- and this is one that feels like they were mining explicitly for a "major" Silver Age story where Superman was sad. So let's kick it to the curb and replace it with something that's way more important:
Otto Binder and the recently deceased Al Plastino's "The Supergirl From Krypton" (1959), available in the Showcase Presents: Supergirl collection, fits in nicely. Like I said, I like Lori Lemaris just fine, but Kara Zor-El is more important to Superman's history than Lori and Kandor put together. The biggest problem is that it's a short story (eight pages compared to the Lori Lemaris story's three-part saga), but in exchange, it has one of the all-time greatest moments of the natural progression of a story conflicting with the rules of the Silver Age and the necessity of Superman's bachelor status, thus resulting in what looks today like a truly hilarious dick move:
"Can I come live with you since literally everyone else I know is dead?"
"Hm. No! Let's go find you a nice orphanage."
Oh, that Superman. But to be honest, I'd rather see him being a stickler for adoption laws than crying.
It's also pretty light on the action -- no fights, no villains, not even much in the way of powers at all other than Supergirl herself surviving a rocket wreck. Then again, "The Girl In Superman's Past" isn't exactly a thrill ride, even if they do fight an octopus that runs away when Lori thinks at it. I'm pretty sure we can get by, but if we can't, you could throw in another short Supergirl/Superman team-up story, like Action Comics #195's underrated "Fury of the Kryptonian Killer" or "The World's Greatest Heroine," where she makes her public debut by battling something called "The Infinite Monster." It's as good as it sounds.
Next up in the original Celebration is "Superman's Return To Krypton," a story that is nothing but Superman being sad. This was one of the more frustrating stories, because of how completely anti-heroic it is in a lot of respects. Superman doesn't even try to warn the people of Krypton about their impending doom until about halfway through the story, and even at the end, he only gets back to his own time by accident. It's "poignant," I suppose, but only in an academic sense -- it's a good story, but not a great one.
So why not replace it with what is probably the best Superman story of the entire Silver Age, Ed Hamilton and Curt Swan's "The Last Days of Superman" (1962), currently available along side "Return to Krypton" in the great Superman in the Sixties collection:
I consider this one to be the single greatest Superman story ever written, regardless of era, and I'm kind of mystified by why they didn't include it. It hits so many of the notes that they wanted to, but does them perfectly, without being an "Imaginary Story." Spoiler Warning: It is, however, a hoax.
The premise is beautiful, simple and would have a pretty direct influence on Morrison and Quitely's All Star Superman 45 years later: What does Superman do when he finds out he only has 30 days to live? The answer is simple: He says goodbye to his friends and then spends his remaining days trying to make sure that the world is as protected as it can be without him, and, in my favorite Superman panel of all time, he leaves one final, inspirational message:
As you might expect, Superman doesn't die at the end -- there's a twist to the story that involves how he contracted "Virus X" by saving Jimmy Olsen -- but the idea that he'd fight for a better world all the way to the end, and even that he'd be willing to sacrifice his own life to save his pal, is so great. It's uplifting in a way that no other story in Celebration comes close to.
Next, we have the Silver Age "Death of Superman" story, and I initially thought about dropping this one, too, but it really is legitimately one of the best stories of its time. I'd worry about having two stories about Superman dying so close together, but the more I think about it, the more I think it works to have them contrast with each other. Besides, the only other "Imaginary Story" that comes close to it in terms of importance is 1963's "The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue," which would fill the same role and is every bit as well-known as "Death," but "Death" is honestly the better story.
Moving into the Bronze Age, Celebration kicks things off with "Must There Be a Superman," and like I said last week, that's G.O.A.T. material. It stays, but because of what I've already changed, it's no longer the latest in a series of mopey stories full of self-doubt and tragedy. Instead, it shows the progression from the relentless optimism of a story like "Last Days" or "The Supergirl From Krypton," where even a lone survivor of a doomed planet wasn't alone in the universe, to the '70s and a desire to question and examine these heroes.
The next story, "Rebirth" has to go. Without the context of the continuing story, it's just Superman getting beaten up with some pretty art. Replacing it, however, is probably the easiest swap on the list: Denny O'Neil and Curt Swan's "Superman Breaks Loose" (1971), which kicks off the brief but interesting Kryptonite Nevermore period:
In addition to the ballerest move of Superman's career, seen above, where he schools a crook who hasn't heard about how all Kryptonite on Earth has been made inert, this story represents a pretty big shift for Superman. Like "Must There Be a Superman" and "Rebirth," it was part of the trend of updating Superman for a more modern time, taking away a weakness that was considered to be more of a plot hole for lazy stories than anything else, while at the same time reducing his power level. It didn't last, of course -- the "power reduction" that would come in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths would stick a little better -- but it's fun to see a Superman who realizes in the middle of a rescue that he can't do something, and watch him change his tactics in mid-stream.
Moore and Gibbons' "For The Man Who Has Everything" can stay right where it is, too, for the same reasons that it's not necessary to swap out "Must There Be a Superman." Removed from the endless string of Sad Sack stories it was dropped into before, it doesn't seem like such a grind to get through.
For the "Man of Steel" era, switching out stories is as easy as it could possibly be: John Byrne's "The Name Game" gets booted out and replaced with John Byrne's "The Secret Revealed" (1987):
It's an absolutely great story, both for Luthor's swaggering arrogance when he waves Kryptonite in Superman's face -- at the time, Superman's "first" encounter with Kryptonite, adding a nice level of drama and smugness to Luthor's advantage -- and for the level of hubris that dwarfs it when he finds out Superman's identity and then dismisses it because he thinks he understands power. That Luthor cannot even comprehend altruism, and that this is his fatal flaw, was beautifully set up in those issues.
The next story was one that I had a really hard time with: "Doomsday" from Superman #75. It's very, very easy to argue for its inclusion since it's one of the best-selling and most well-known comics of its era, but it just doesn't sit right to have a comic where Superman and a bone monster beat each other to death in a book called Celebration. But if you swap it out, what else is there to replace it with? The entire "Death of Superman" story is too long to include if you're sticking to single issues, and the mid '90s were marked by long-form storytelling. I think we can all agree that the less we see of Superman's mullet, the better, but unless you're willing to go to something like Hitman #34 and Garth Ennis and John McCrea's surprisingly moving take on Superman and what he means to the world (which might seem out of place but which would be an excellent addition to the book), there's a pretty big gap.
If, however, you can skip from 1992 to 1999, there's one that could replace "Doomsday" pretty easily. Another Lex Luthor story that I'd put in my top five, Mark Millar and Aluir Amancio's "How Much Can One Man Hate," from Superman Adventures:
Even though it was the animated series tie-in, I have no idea why Millar's run on this series hasn't been reprinted in its entirety, although fortunately for readers, it is available digitally. I mean, not only is it Mark Millar writing Superman, something that you'd think would have some pretty huge name recognition now that he's a dude responsible for wildly popular (and wildly terrible) comics, but they're easily the best work he did at DC, and this is his best issue.
It's another Luthor story, but since Luthor's his arch-enemy, I think it's fair to have him represented a couple of times -- Celebration as it is only has one Luthor story in the whole thing -- if only for being one of the most concise and insightful stories of their relationship and Luthor's motivation. All that, plus Metallo, plus some dudes in exo-suits. It's a great one.
Following that is "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way," and again, I'm fine with leaving that one in place. As much as I might not like the story, it's probably the highlight of the era in the main titles, and it is rooted in the optimism that should make Superman work.
Kidd and Ross's "The Trust" is superfluous and Goyer and Sepulveda's "The Incident" is 1,000% hot garbage, so out they go. To replace them, I'd go with a team that I'm surprised didn't make the cut the first time around: Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, with "Brainiac: Finale" (2008):
I've had a lot of problems with the way Johns has written Superman in Justice League, but his run on Action Comics (and Superman: Secret Origin) with Gary Frank is probably the best stuff he's done in superhero comics, period. It's genuinely great stuff with absolutely beautiful art from Frank, and the Brainiac story in particular was a highlight. It might've been overlooked because all of their stories were done as multi-part arcs, but read on its own, the final chapter of "Brainiac" works really well -- a lot better than "Doomsday," in fact. It's easy to read it as a story that just begins in medias res with Brainiac having bottled both Kandor and Metropolis and overpowered Superman.
I love how elegant the page above is, with Brainiac's simple, reductionist view of Superman as a brute met with Superman's acknowledgment that he can uppercut the heck out of somebody when people are in danger. He gets the job done. All that, plus a great scene with Supergirl where she pulls off an amazing super-feat, and even one of those "the true price of heroism" type moments that they're so keen on at the end. The whole story's good, but this issue in particular is almost perfect for a collection like this.
And with that, my revisions are pretty much done. Action Comics #0 can stay where it is and the book comes to a close with what I think is a much more complete and uplifting look at Superman. Obviously, this article isn't going to change anything about what's actually in Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years. That thing's already on shelves, and if I had the power to change the content of existing comics just by writing articles about them, I can assure you that there'd be a whole lot more Lion-Head Superman in this world of ours. The reason I did all this wasn't to change something, it was to show that it could have been done differently -- that over the past 75 years, there have been enough great Superman stories that it's entirely possible to do a collection of highlights from every era without the dour narrative running through it.
Obviously, I like all of the stories that I've presented here, but I like a lot of the stories in Celebration, too. I like a lot of Superman stories, and some of my favorites were ones that I wouldn't put in a book designed to celebrate a character. One that I struggled to fit somewhere in here -- one that I considered swapping "What's So Funny" out for, in fact -- was "The Superman/Olsen War" from Morrison and Quitely's All Star Superman. I love that comic, and I think it has a great message, and it's far and away the best Doomsday fight of all time. But at the end of the day, that's still a story where Superman acts like a jerk and gets beat up for it, and even when the message of that story is that acting like a jerk is the opposite of what Superman does, a story where Superman's friendship is shown to be as noble as it can be, the kind of thing that inspires people to take risks and step in when Superman can't, that's not the kind of story that works on its own as a celebration. Superman gets beat up at the end, so weigh that against what you're showing to people who want to buy this thing to celebrate a character. That's an important part of the process, I think: recognizing that stories can be good and celebratory, well-told and inspirational, unabashedly heroic without having to worry about whether or not being unabashedly heroic is corny.
Good stories -- especially good Superman stories -- don't have to be about sadness and loss. They can be, sure, but there's a balance there that you have to strike with the triumph over evil and the inspiration to do the right thing. That's what Superman's about, and if those elements aren't there, everything else falls apart.