Today’s Super Comic — Action Comics #775 (2001)

At last, here we are. May 17, 2016, I started writing one quick, positive comic book review a day, with the goal of doing so for a full year. It was part writing exercise (get the words down fast and move on), part analytical exercise (if a book works, why does it work?), and an opportunity to focus on the positive and thank the writers and artists who have given me countless hours of enjoyment over the course of many years.

So let’s finish with one of the best single-issue Superman stories ever written. Action Comics #775 shows us why Superman will never go out of style and should never go out of style.

A new team of powerful superhumans appears. They call themselves the Elite, and to get the job done, they’ll kill the bad guys and any innocent bystanders who happen to be within range, so long as the larger threat is eliminated, permanently.

Superman’s not having that. As the public begins to wonder if maybe there’s some validity to the Elite’s approach, Superman realizes it’s up to him to show the world there’s a better way.

What makes Superman cool isn’t his powers; it’s how he uses them. He doesn’t force his will on others or try to seize more power for himself, and he leads by example, with physical force being the last resort. He always operates within clearly set parameters. It would be too easy for him to cross any number of lines, so he doesn’t. Most others would give into the temptation, but he’s strong enough to control himself.

In this issue, he’s not only trying to stop the Elite from killing people, but he’s also standing up for ideals—and he’s standing up to people who are seemingly more powerful than even he is.

“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear… until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share — I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”

Ladies and gentlemen—Superman! There’s a reason he’s the greatest superhero ever created. He’s a role model for kids and adults alike, and he demonstrates values that should never go out of style, no matter how times change.

Writer: Joe Kelly

Penciler: Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo

Cover: Tim Bradstreet

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Action Comics #890 (2010)

After many decades of fighting Superman, Lex Luthor finally won a victory of sorts—he got to take over one of Superman’s series. Luthor became the protagonist of Action Comics as of issue #890, and for nearly a year he showed how a villain can carry a book.

The story begins in the aftermath of a big DC crossover, Blackest Night, which was primarily a Green Lantern event. During that story, Luthor got to wield an orange version of a power ring, which was fueled by avarice (whereas will fuels the green power rings). Having experienced such power, and feeling greedier than ever, Lex embarks on a quest to acquire any and all power rings.

It’s a solid approach from writer Paul Cornell. It’s an opportunity to view a classic villain in action when he’s not directly confronting superheroes, though he obviously still can’t succeed. The typical comic book makes us wonder how the hero will prevail over major obstacles, but this book takes the mirror image to that approach, making us wonder how exactly the villain will fail to achieve his aims. This first issue sets up Lex’s heightened greed as a major flaw, and we also see a lack of self-awareness, as Lex truly believes himself to be in the right.

Another nice (though creepy) touch is the inclusion of a Lois Lane robot. To ensure he has someone around who will challenge him and offer alternative perspectives, Lex keeps the company of a robot modeled after Lois. On one hand, it shows how highly he thinks of her, but on the other, more dominant hand…that’s an incredibly disrespectful thing to do. And it adds layers to Luthor’s character.

Every good villain should be able to function as a protagonist, and Luthor shows he’s up to that task here.

Writer: Paul Cornell

Artist: Pete Woods

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Superman: The Black Ring vol. 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Action Comics #866 (2008)

Superman’s greatest enemy is no doubt Lex Luthor. But his second greatest enemy is easily Braniac (even if the movies have failed to make use of him thus far).

Braniac receives a modern reintroduction in Action Comics #866, which begins what might just be his strongest story arc to date. Writer Geoff Johns amps up Braniac’s creepiness and alien nature while retaining his classic shtick of miniaturizing cities, bottling them up, and maintaining a collection of perfectly preserved samples of alien civilizations. Here, he actually comes across as a frightening, dangerous figure (maybe a bit too frightening for younger children) and definitely a worthy foe for the Man of Steel.

Even as the story modernizes elements of the Superman mythos, it pays homage to the past. Artist Gary Frank’s rendition of Superman/Clark Kent resembles Christopher Reeve more than a little, and this first part spends some time with the classic Daily Planet staff, with Clark playing his role as the guileless nice guy without any over-the-top bumbling around.

It’s a strong part one, and yet it all gets better from here on out.

Writer: Geoff Johns

Penciler: Gary Frank

Inker: Jon Sibal

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Superman: Braniac (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Superman #423 & Action Comics #583 (1986)

There’s no such thing as a final Superman story.

But Superman #423 and Action Comics #584 pretended there was, and it’s a fitting conclusion to the never-ending battle.

DC Comics was saying good-bye to its Silver Age continuity and rebooting Superman for the modern era, but they gave the old-school Man of Steel one last hurrah in a two-parter called “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” The story featured top talent that bridged the gap between eras: writer Alan Moore, who had been bringing a new maturity to the medium, and classic Superman artist Curt Swan.

A sense of foreboding permeates these issues. Old foes are returning more dangerous than ever, with former pests turning into killers while the worst of the worst are waiting in the wings. An unknown menace is striking at Superman through his friends, so he gathers them in the Fortress of Solitude—Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, and Perry White and wife Alice…the whole classic gang. Even Krypto the Super-Dog returns after a long absence.

In the story’s most touching scene, Superman unexpectedly comes face-to-face with his dead cousin. The Legion of Superheroes visits from the 30th century (which Superman and Supergirl were frequent visitors to), and they bring along a very young, very optimistic Supergirl who has no idea how short her life is going to be. It’s both sad and ominous in just a few pages.

But where the book achieves perfection is in the climax. At what point does Superman stop being Superman?

The answer presented here is exactly right.

Writer: Alan Moore

Penciler: Curt Swan

Inkers: George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Action Comics #26-29 (2014)

Action Comics_Cv26I confess, I haven’t been a fan of DC’s New 52 reboot. But for all its disappointments, I’ve found some gems along the way. And one of my favorites is Greg Pak’s excellent run on Action Comics, and its MVP isn’t Superman…it’s Lana Lang.

Recent depictions of Superman (the Zack Snyder movies in particular) have portrayed him as far too god-like and terrifying, which really misses the point. But Pak found the perfect way to humanize the New 52 Superman—have him reconnect with a childhood friend.

This storyline shows the correct way to reboot a character. By making her an electrical engineer, Pak gives Lana a professional life and useful skills she had always lacked. But he retains the essence that made the character work previously—Lana is one of very few people who sees right through the big red S because she knew him when. If he’s in costume but no one else is around, she’ll call him “Clark,” because why wouldn’t she? And on top of all that, she’s downright likeable.

Pak also succeeds with Superman’s characterization, presenting him as a guy who befriends monsters because he takes the time to figure out which ones aren’t actually monsters. That’s a very Superman thing to do.

All in all, this is an enjoyable tale of two old friends reconnecting…in an exotic subterranean landscape filled with dangerous creatures.

Definitely a standout among recent Superman stories.

Writer: Greg Pak

Penciler: Aaron Kuder

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Action Comics vol. 5: What Lies Beneath (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Superman #650-653 and Action Comics #837-840 (2006)

Superman_v.1_650About a decade ago (oh, dear … where did that decade go?), DC Comics launched a gimmick that actually led to a bunch of interesting and/or great stories. Gimmicks, on account of being gimmicky, tend not to always do that. But “One Year Later,” in which every DC Universe title jumped ahead one year in their shared continuity, opened up many story possibilities that aren’t always possible in ongoing comic book series.

Such as this terrific Superman story. At the start, the world hasn’t seen Superman in a full year. He’s lost his powers and is living as plain old Clark Kent—and enjoying the change of pace and the chance to be the best reporter he can be, relying on only his human skills.

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. Show us a world that’s been missing its Superman for a while, and show us how special and grand it is when he returns. And it is all special and grand, because it’s Superman done right.

This is how you do the world’s original superhero. Skip the recent movies and read this instead.

Writers: Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns

Artists: Pete Woods and Renato Guedes

Publishers: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Superman: Up, Up, and Away (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic: Action Comics #761 (2000)

Action761Superman and Wonder Woman meet Thor! Okay, not Marvel’s Thor, but Norse mythology happens to lie within the public domain, so they can get transported to Valhalla and meet a different interpretation of Thor.

But that’s actually the least of what makes this single-issue story so fantastic. It opens amid an ongoing subplot at the time in which the public suspects there might be a “Mrs. Superman” and is speculating about who this lucky lady might be. Lois—his actual wife at this stage of continuity and keeper of his secret identity—teases Clark about the whole thing and tries to get him to name someone whom Superman the icon would marry, hypothetically. Clark insists there couldn’t possibly be anyone other than Lois. And then Wonder Woman drops by.

But when Wonder Woman gets sucked into a centuries-long war among gods in another dimension and Superman is dragged along, he demonstrates what an exceptionally decent hero he is, and writer Joe Kelly expertly delineates Clark’s relationship with Lois and his friendship with Diana. He’ll fight by Wonder Woman’s side until the end of time if needed, because she’s his friend, and even after centuries of seemingly endless war, he’ll remain faithful to Lois, because she’s his love. (And he also vows never to take a life during this whole thing, because he’s also that kind of hero.)

A complete, epic tale of love and friendship spanning centuries—in a mere 22 pages. Fantastic stuff.

Writer: Joe Kelly

Penciler: German Garcia

Inker: Joe Rubinstein

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up