Review: Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

While I'm taking you on a foray into the Marvel Universe with my Hulk reviews, I thought I'd also seek the comfort of the heroes I know and love so well. I turn now to an unofficial series of sorts -- "The Greatest Stories Ever Told," twelve trades profiling seven heroes, two teams, and one villain. These "Greatest Stories Trades," distinguished by gorgeous Alex Ross covers, seek to deliver the most iconic and quintessential tales of these characters -- or at least their pre-New 52 incarnations.

Up first, the one who started it all, Big Blue himself -- Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 1. (Supes and his chum Batman each get two volumes.) As a somewhat arbitrary starting point, this volume has some great stories overall, including John Byrne's 1986 relaunch and Joe Kelly's "What's So Funny . . .?" Where the volume falters, however, is by the inclusion of stories that don't revolve around Superman, instead focusing on other characters or imaginary tales. So while the stories in here are good, not all of them are the greatest Superman stories by virtue of not being Superman stories at all.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this case, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"The Origin of Superman and His Powers" (Superman #1, June 1939): Perhaps an unconventional choice, perhaps not. While this isn't Superman's first appearance, it's the first at-length exposition of his backstory and abilities by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. While both "firsts" have been reprinted many times over, the purist in me can't help but hope they'd saved this for Volume 2 and reprinted the Action Comics #1 account. This is, nevertheless, good stuff, if only for that iconic shot of a smug Superbaby lifting a chest of drawers.

"What If Superman Ended the War?" (Look Magazine, February 1940): Long one of my favorite Superman stories, Superman drags Hitler and Stalin before the League of Nations to be tried for crimes against humanity. A brilliantly simple premise and a wonderful artifact from a simpler time, with Superman at his Golden Age do-gooder best. Even if it's not "in continuity," I'm glad it's reprinted here.

"Three Superman from Krypton!" (Superman #65, July/August 1950): This is a perfectly serviceable Silver Age story, but I'm not convinced it's one of the "greatest." Superman fights three mad Kryptonian scientists who have found their way to Earth with conquest on their minds -- in a way, this is an archetypal Superman story, but the focus here is less on Superman and more on Krypton and the mad scientists. But Al Plastino's artwork is as good as it had ever been, dynamic and confident.

"The Last Days of Superman" (Superman #156, October 1962): Superman is dying, exposed to rare Kryptonian "Virus X!" Michael Uslan's introduction compares this story to "The Death of Superman" (Superman #149, November 1961, most recently reprinted in DC's Greatest Imaginary Stories). There are striking similarities, including the apparent demise of Superman, the mournings of his friends, and the precursors to All-Star Superman, but "Last Days" is a better choice, both because it's not imaginary and because we see Superman do more than just fall for a standard Luthor scheme (ah, the old "reform feint"). And the wrap-up is gimmicky, but delightfully Silver Age. If nothing else, it's worth it for the simplistic way that the story's maudlin pathos gets resolved.

"The Showdown between Luthor and Superman" (Superman #164, October 1963): I'm not sure this counts as a "greatest Superman story" because the focus here is on Lex Luthor as he challenges a powerless Superman to a duel on the planet which will come to be known as Lexor. This is very much a story about what makes Lex Luthor tick, with Superman playing a merely reactionary part. The plot by Edmond Hamilton is great, and we can't complain about Curt Swan's pencils, but this might have been a better fit in the Superman vs. Lex Luthor trade (where it also appears, along with the final Lexor story). [see Paul Levitz's post-Crisis take on this story in Superman/Batman: Worship. -- ed]

"Must There Be a Superman?" (Superman #247, January 1972): Now this is the kind of story for which these "Greatest Stories" trades were made. This legendary Elliot Maggin story finds the Guardians of the Universe leading Superman to question whether his presence is helping or hindering Earth in the long run. While the Guardians' motivation is unclear (are they just indulging in a bit of superdickery?), Superman's reaction is spot-on, equal parts doubtful and distraught while never losing sight of his mission. One complaint, though -- the narrative voice is surprisingly condescending: "You sounded good back there Superman -- but did you really believe all that big talk? . . ."

"The Exile at the Edge of Eternity" (Superman #400, October 1984): This Jim Steranko piece is a real head-scratcher for many reasons. Superman never appears in the story, which is a dense and allegorical apocalyptic parable about the future of Superman's legacy, both ideologically and genetically. Additionally, it's more prose with illustration than comics proper, which may rile some readers. This may be the weakest piece in the book, simply because it goes off in its own direction despite what should be a clear thematic focus in this volume. Steranko may be a legend, but this one's a stinker.

"The Man of Steel" (Man of Steel #1, June 1986): If you haven't read this story, your rocketship may not have landed yet. (But seriously, what's wrong with you?) The first chapter of John Byrne's 1986 reboot gives us a sterile Krypton, a loving Ma and Pa (rest in peace, New 52 Kents), and instant It Girl Lois Lane. Despite Superman's origin being retold several times since, Byrne's was always the gold standard, and it's appropriate that it's reprinted here because it hasn't lost its edge (and so far, it's edging out Grant Morrison's soft reboot in the new Action Comics). Truly one of the greatest. Nuff said.

"Return to Krypton" (Superman #18, June 1988): Another headscratcher. Combining the best of the "How is this greatest?" stories, this tale is both imaginary and mostly Superman-less. A trip to the ruins of Krypton, courtesy of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, finds Superman hallucinating about an Earth overtaken by Kryptonians. While I'm a big fan of Mike Mignola, if only for creating much less working extensively on Hellboy, this story (also by Byrne) ends up fairly disappointing by the time we reach the end.

"What's So Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way?" (Action Comics #775, March 2001): Fortunately the volume finishes strong with Joe Kelly's instant classic reexamining the place of Superman in a world which prefers speedy and violent justice. It's an obvious indictment of The Authority and other ruthless superpowered types, but more importantly it's a story about why Superman hasn't changed in seventy years -- and why we desperately need him not to. Ironically, the story redefines Superman by pointing out that he's never needed redefinition; Superman is the best and purest force for good, no matter what. While the shift in art between Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo can be a bit distracting (I would have preferred Mahnke solo on this one), the story is so compelling that it merits the "Greatest" label perhaps more than any other story in here. Fantastic note on which to close.

Overall, Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 1 is a good read and a must-have for Superman fans, provided they don't mind a few detours that the title of the volume might not suggest. There are enough gems in here, though, to merit picking up.

In the next review in this series, we journey from Metropolis to Gotham City for Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 1. Stay tuned!
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3 comments:

  1. This is a two-star collection at best, especially compared to the late-80s Greatest Superman stories collection. That older release had its share of head-scratchers and the gap between the early 70s and mid-80 was a bit odd, especially with things like "Let My People Grow" to choose from), but any book that closes out with Moore/Gibbons' "For The Man Who Has Everything" and the Byrne story where Lex Luthor learns Superman's secret identity and doesn't believe it has a lot going for it. In contrast, this collection seemed intent on picking either the most over-rated ("Must There Be A Superman") or the most esoteric ("The Exile at the Edge of Eternity"). There's probably an interesting collection to be shaped out of such things, but calling it "the greatest" is ridiculous.

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  2. Don, the Lex Luthor story turns up in Volume 2, so stay tuned!

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  3. Well, to each their own, obviously, but "The Exile at The Edge of Eternity" is one of my favorite Superman stories ever. It might not be a conventional comic book story, and it might not feature more than a shot of Superman per se, but it enthusiastically embraces the silver age potential of the character and takes it to the stratosphere. In just a few pages, it builds a post-Superman world in which the essence of his character basically spreads across the universe (and beyond!). It is, in my mind, the perfect epilogue for the story of Superman.

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