As of last week, Superman celebrated his 80th year as the world’s most recognizable superhero. Tons of conversations have been happening about favorite stories and moments in the Kal-El canon, and it’s worth thinking about the ones that came out since dawn of the new millennium.
Superman’s been in near-constant publication in comics and other media since 1938. The vast majority of those stories have been churned out to feed a corporate machine’s deadlines, but some of them have stood out for their insight into DC’s flagship character. There are influential stories that lots of people can name-check like 1973’s “Superman 2001,” or Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” from the late 1980s. The last 18 years have seen major additions to the canon of must-read Superman stories, too, and some of them are worthy to be counted amongst the best of all time.
What follows are some of my picks for favorite Super-stories published after the year 2000. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive ranked list, so feel free to add your own favorites in the comments below.
Grant Morrison’s iconic work is an astonishing feat of revisitation. It simultaneously sums up the melodramatic and subtextual approaches that preceded them and pushes Superman into a space of highly burnished scifi symbolism. All-Star Superman delivers a Kal-El for a new age: the prime manifestation of Superman as a modern myth, someone who moves through all of humanity’s highs and lows, eventually leaving this plane of existence in an act of celestial sacrifice.
It’s practically a cliché to include 2003's Red Son in lists like these. But Mark Millar’s book has become a latter-day favorite because its dead-simple premise of ideological reversal—baby Kal’s rocket lands in Stalinist Russia—is grounded in fetchingly twisted takes on mainstay characters. Batman, Lex Luthor, and Jimmy Olsen are all tethered to Cold War political ideologies and that fusion invigorates their familiar quirks and textures. Best of all, its twist ending is a wry joke about how the constant reinventions of Superman seemingly ensure that he’ll always be around.
Running in Action Comics #858-863, Geoff Johns’ time travel story reunites Superman with his superpowered friends 1,000 years in the future in an adventure that revolves around reactionary revisionist history. An isolationist faction led by a dope named Earth-Man wants all aliens off our planet, pushing a fake history that says Superman was native to Earth as propaganda. Johns uses the Man of Steel’s status as a symbol as the main anchor for the story’s concerns and gives us a great panel for the ages that has Superman stating exactly what he stands for.
Superman’s origins have been reimagined dozens of times over the decades, but Mark Waid’s Birthright, written in 2005, stands out because of the care it takes to sketch out Clark Kent’s early years. Both of his sets of parents get portrayed as more psychologically complex than usual, and Pa Kent in particular struggles with how Clark’s alien origins may pull his son away from him. Waid offers a unique angle on why Superman seeks to preserve life, grounding the fact that his powers makes living things look uniquely beautiful to him. Lex Luthor’s relationship to the Man of Tomorrow gets a great twist, too, as his evil super-science gives Kal-El the chance to say goodbye to his parents in one of the most poignant Superman scenes ever written.
A kid named Clark Kent gets relentlessly teased for being nothing like the comic-book hero he shares a name with. Then one day, he starts demonstrating the same powers of his namesake, pairing them with a heart that leads him to help others where he can. Written by the legendary Kurt Busiek, 2004's Secret Identity soars because of how grounded it is. The meta-abilities and alien heritage that get focused on elsewhere aren’t the main dish here. Instead, it’s the well-thought details of how a super-man might be perceived, along with writing that lets us into the character’s head, that make this such a good read.
American Alien concerns itself with how Clark flies up and away from the close-knit Kansas farm town he grew up in. Lots of genre conventions and continuity staples get thrown out the window; his powers manifest earlier than in some origin stories and seemingly all of Smallville knows about what he can do. But the reason American Alien weaves its own history is to shape a Superman attuned to today—a bro who hangs out and wrestles with self-doubt and responsibility—while holding on to the essence of the character. It’s a journey that shows Clark assembling the pieces that he’ll use to craft a superhero identity, and a very fun one to boot.
So #775 may be a special number, but it’s a bit of an outlier. Significant, yes, but not round and smooth like 700 or 800. It’s fitting that the instant-classic 2001 story by Joe Kelly in Action Comics #775 has such sharp edges, then. In it, Superman squares off against the Elite, a group of metahumans who use extreme force and kill in the name of the greater good. Public favor shifts toward the “heroes” who are edgy, dark, and willing to kill, until Superman shows them how terrifying he would be if he allowed himself the same freedom. “What’s So Funny” is a great in-universe response to the idea that Superman is an out-of-date character, showing that how he uses his powers matters much more than how “cool” he is.
Three years ago, a series of editorial dominoes culminated in a rebooted version of Superman losing his most of his powers. The fact that he no longer had heat vision anymore did nothing to stop his determination to tackle mega-powerful threats and events clearly real-world frictions. Even though this type of story has happened before, writers Greg Pak and Gene Luen Yang infused this much more vulnerable Superman with appealing psychological depth and a zest for life in this Action Comics arc. And, yeah, he was a jerk for a lot of it but at least we could understand why.
Compare-and-contrast stories between the Dark Knight and Superman are a hallowed tradition that goes back decades. This very recent entry from the Batman comic series is an excellent example of the form because it fuses the old-school idea of Clark and Bruce being friends with the latter-day wariness that often puts them at odds. “Super Friends” revolves around Batman’s recent engagement to Catwoman, showing Clark and Lois and Bruce and Selina debating over which hero should be the one to broach the subject. While they each talk about the other’s background, the two characters’ philosophical differences gets communicated in their divergent tics and affects. Rivalry, trust, admiration are all there in “Super Friends,” which makes a great case as to why Superman and Batman need each other.
The Man of Steel in this standalone alt-reality story is, in many ways, the polar opposite Superman of the one we know. The rocket carrying a Kryptonian baby landed in Nazi Germany and the child who became Overman was raised by Hitler himself, eventually leading the Third Reich’s armies to total global domination. But, as his empire starts to crumble around him, it becomes apparent that the whole point of this exercise is to show that the center of this metatextual conceit cannot hold: Overman can’t be Superman if he’s Lawful Evil. Superman’s endured because he’s shown us the best of humanity. If he embodies the worst of it, he’s going to fall from the sky.
This two-part story from Superman: The Animated Series just managed to get squeak onto this list thanks to a premiere in February of 2000. It also revolves around the Metropolis Marvel working as a force of evil, but this time it’s scaled up to galactic proportions. Superman’s in the thrall of Darkseid, who captured the hero and brainwashed him into thinking he was raised on the planet Apokolips. The evil archvillain sends Superman back to Earth, where he terrorizes the friends and family who’ve been worried about his mysterious absence. Kal-El gets his own mind back and confronts Darkseid on Apokolips in a brutal fight, ending in a chilling scene where we’re reminded why the cosmic tyrant is so dangerous.