Superman is known across the globe as a comic book icon, pop culture mainstay, and a beacon of courage and hope. After making his first appearance in Action Comics #1 75 years ago in 1938, Superman became a pop culture sensation and remains the archetype for all the heroes that have followed.
With his latest cinematic adventure on the way and in celebration of his 75th birthday, we thought it was the perfect time to take a look at Superman’s most enduring tales. These are the stories that explore Superman — or even the idea, concepts, and philosophies behind Superman — to the fullest.
You’ll notice there’s no placement of stories that star the other members of the Super-family; these are restricted solely to stories about the Man of Steel himself.
As Seen In: Action Comics #866-870
“Your greatest power isn’t being able to fly or see through walls. It’s knowing what the right thing to do is.”
In Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Brainiac storyline, the creators mined the Silver Age for kooky concepts and turned them into a focal point of the Superman mythology. Here, we learn that despite all of Superman’s battles with Brainiac in the past, he’s never come face-to-face with the one, true being that is Brainiac, rather just incarnations of him. More importantly, this arc re-introduces the bottled city of Kandor to the Superman lore, which leads to the primary exploration of this tale: Superman rediscovering the culture of his home planet, but possibly at the expense of his humanity.
Johns and Frank develop a bond between Superman and his recently returned cousin, Supergirl, juxtaposed with a focus on his upbringing from the Kents. Johns angles the Brainiac story as a cycle of death and rebirth, as the story concludes with the double whammy of the re-emergence of Kandor – which would pave the way for the New Krypton saga – and the poignant death of Jonathan Kent.
As Seen In: Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth #29
“Like the ‘Golden Fleece’ of ages past, the suit of ‘Mighty One’ awaits… waits for the return of its original owner.”
Jack Kirby’s seminal Kamandi series is fondly remembered for many things, but this tale of Superman as legend in the far future has to be one of the best. The first entry on this list that focuses on Superman as an idea rather than a character, Kamandi #29 found our titular hero and his companion Ben Boxer discovering a tribe of advanced apes who worshipped a legend they called, you guessed it, the Mighty One.
This is of course Superman, who never appears in the story save for comics-within-comics style drawings from the ape culture and the presence of his suit. What Kirby explores here is the mythical aspect of Superman, suggesting that, like our own cultural myths, the Man of Steel would be an inspiration even in the far future, only to be reinterpreted for new cultures and new civilizations.
As Seen In: Action Comics  #9
“That’s it. The dotted line. You won’t regret this.”
The most recent Superman story to appear on this list, Grant Morrison and Gene Ha’s Action Comics #9 departed from Morrison’s regularly scheduled Superman tale in DC’s New 52 reboot and spun a surprisingly accusatory metaphor for the corporatization of the Superman ideal and the harsh treatment of his creators.
In this story, we’re taken to Earth 23 where President Superman meets a group of dimension hoppers that inform him of how the Superman idea they’d created was co-opted by an evil corporation and watered down in order to have cross-market appeal. But Morrison doesn’t portray just DC’s history in a negative light, he also makes it perfectly clear that this problem comes from the fandom as well.
The Curse of Superman is a metaphor for how diluted the message of Superman can become when held up against the struggle of sales and industry trends. Certainly not the most optimistic tale on this list, but an important one nonetheless.
As Seen In: Superman: Speeding Bullets
“You can’t right wrongs with a fist or a sword, Bruce. It just doesn’t work that way.”
One of the best Elseworlds tales of the 90s, J.M. DeMatteis and Eduardo Barreto asked the question, “What if Kal-El’s rocket had landed in Gotham City and was found by the Waynes?” Here, Thomas and Martha Wayne raise a young Kal-El as Bruce Wayne, until Joe Chill takes their life one fateful evening in Crime Alley. Except this time, the murder of the Waynes is what sparks the appearance of Kal-El’s powers, incinerating Chill accidentally with his heat vision.
Speeding Bullets manages to blend together many different elements of the Superman and Batman mythologies, but it ultimately remains a tale about the Man of Steel and his purity as a symbol. Even when faced with these great tragedies in Gotham City, Kal-El ultimately finds his way to being a symbol of hope. Though Superman is “the Batman” for a majority of this story, Speeding Bullets teaches us the strength of Superman’s inherent moral compass and integrity.
As Seen In: Action Comics #844-846, 851, Action Comics Annual #11
“Someone you’re not meeting until you’re sixteen.”
“Who’s Wonder Woman?”
“Someone you’re not meeting until you’re eighteen.”
In 2006, Geoff Johns took over Action Comics alongside his longtime mentor and the man responsible for many of our mutual childhood memories of the Man of Steel, director Richard Donner. Along with artist Adam Kubert, the duo reintroduced General Zod in a way fans of Superman: The Movie would certainly appreciate.
More importantly, Last Son challenges Superman with the arrival of a Kryptonian boy that crashes on Earth with mysterious origins, essentially putting Clark in the position that his parents found themselves in so many years previous. Except this time, the boy’s arrival is public knowledge and is subjected to all manners of tests before Superman has to make the choice between what is right and what is legal, more or less kidnapping the boy from the clutches of the American government.
Though light-hearted in its first half, Last Son later explores the despair of the Phantom Zone (in a very creative 3D chapter) as well as the sad truth that no matter how much Lois and Clark might wish it, they’ll never be able to procreate and have a family. Last Son is a sobering portrayal of Superman’s eternal struggle to fit in as a human being despite knowing it will never be possible.