The Geek Beat: Superman Graphic Novels That'll Help You Understand the Roots of 'Man of Steel'

The Geek Beat: Superman Graphic Novels That'll Help You Understand the Roots of 'Man of Steel'

Jun 11, 2013

Since there are already several Man of Steel reviews you can find on the site (like Jeffrey Taylor's or Erik Davis', for instance), I'll take a different approach and recommend a few graphic novels you can read as a primer for the modern characterization of Superman, which this film largely represents. The newest film to feature the world’s most iconic superhero feels very much like a product of the Superman from the comics of the last 25 years, instead of the 1960s-'70s version that was found in the Christopher Reeve films, as well as 2006’s Superman Returns.

Quickly, banish those from your mind. If you go into Man of Steel with a preconceived notion of Superman akin to what you’ve seen before, you’re already making a pretty big mistake. What I will say for the film is that this is a Superman, a Krypton, and truly a DC Universe as you’ve never seen before. The film did an excellent job of building a new world. With that spirit in mind, here are a few graphic novels that will help give you a great perspective on the kind of Superman you’ll be able to enjoy this coming Friday, June 14.


Superman: For Tomorrow

Originally Published in: Superman (vol. 2) #204-215 (2004-2005)

Written by: Brian Azzarello

Pencils by: Jim Lee

How It Ties to Man of Steel: There are two things that made me immediately think of For Tomorrow as I was watching Man of Steel tonight. The first is the blockbuster visuals, which Jim Lee is a master of rendering on the comics page. Man of Steel as a film is truly nonstop and relentless, and a comic book story that is drawn by Jim Lee tends to have a degree of high-concept visuals that make both stories seem on similar scales, though the film does out edge this particular story arc.

The second thing is the tone. While both Man of Steel and For Tomorrow have a degree of humor peppered throughout, both stories make the point of making it exceedingly clear that the stakes are high, and that seriousness tends to permeate both of them. Man of Steel is a bit higher on its points of levity than this arc, but there’s one particular moment in the film that will immediately make you think that it was at least partially inspired by this story if you’ve read it.


The Man of Steel

Originally Published in: The Man of Steel #1-6 (1986)

Written and Penciled by: John Byrne

How It Ties to Man of Steel: The similarities aren’t just in the names of the film and this comic book arc, but in what both stories ultimately aim for. Basically, this 1986 comics story is a reinvention of Superman from the ground up, and the film is similar because it also has intentions rather similar. Both of these stories do a great deal of world building when it comes to Superman, Krypton, Metropolis and Smallville. While the worlds that both stories build are pretty different in the long run, eagle-eyed viewers who have read this version of Superman’s origin will notice more than one passing similarity.

Byrne’s reinvention of Superman for this story, in the wake of the 1985 universe-shattering Crisis on Infinite Earths, was the template for an entire generation of Superman stories that would follow. Indeed, it feels as though the Man of Steel film has similar aims with the scope in which it tells its own story, and the depth it seems to have embedded into its revived version of Superman. If this film is fortunate enough to get a sequel or two, it’d be very hard to do a solid reboot afterward, since, like this comics story, it looks to be building a world that will last.


Superman: Birthright

Originally Published in: Superman: Birthright #1-12 (2003-2004)

Written by: Mark Waid

Penciled by: Leinil Francis Yu

How It Ties to Man of Steel: Birthright was originally conceived by DC as an answer to the previous origin from 1986, but it quickly took on a life of its own as a simply solid take on Superman’s genesis. If the Man of Steel film has much of John Byrne’s 1986 conception of world building, it seems like much of the film’s heart was created in the same spirit as Mark Waid’s Birthright story.

Specifically, the conception of both Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Jonathan’s feelings about how his son should conduct himself in a world full of people who won’t understand him, seems very similar to the notions that Birthright played with. Beyond that, Waid helped to establish very strong characterizations for characters like Lois Lane and Perry White, and the film definitely aims similarly when it comes to the Superman family’s most familiar reporters.

The most familiar aspect that I think you can apply from Birthright to the film, though, was Krypton and Superman’s biological parents. There’s a great deal of heart in this book when it comes to making the reader understand the difficulty of sending their only son to a strange place, and the movie has a bit of a similar perspective. Not identical, but as a fan it was fun to notice what might be an inspirational parallel.


Superman: Secret Origin

Originally Published in: Superman: Secret Origin #1-6 (2009-2010)

Written by: Geoff Johns

Penciled by: Gary Frank

How It Ties to Man of Steel: If Birthright could have inspired much of the character and feel of Jor-El, Lara and Krypton at large, then Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Secret Origin could definitely have inspired Clark’s boyhood, his adoptive parents, and the town of Smallville. One of the most heartwrenching moments between Clark and his adoptive father in the film was taken practically verbatim from the pages of Secret Origin, and the film is better for it.

Gary Frank’s pencils give a very naturalistic and Andrew Wyeth-like feel to Clark’s hometown, and there are times when the film’s sequences in Smallville, particularly during Clark’s youth, feel very similarly timeless. While Mark Waid in Birthright helped to establish a fear that Jonathan Kent has for the world rejecting his son’s differences, Johns’ characterization of the man shows more loving concern and no-matter-what acceptance and love for everything that his son is, and could become. This is only intensified by the beautiful and highly emotive pencils of Gary Frank.

While there some major differences, the stance of the military in Secret Origin feels a bit familiar when watching the film, and I was really pleased to see that this was a dynamic at play in Man of Steel since they’d likely have something to say about an ultrapowerful alien making his presence felt on Earth. It also brings the demeanor and confidence that Superman largely has in the film, and is just pretty damned fun to read.


Now, keep in mind: none of these books are going to be completely representative of what you’ll see in the film this week, but ultimately you’ll get a great idea of the type of storytelling the modern Superman is capable of, and really demands.

Honorable mentions include two works by Grant Morrison. The first is he and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, which I feel is a hybrid of practically every best element of Superman across multiple generations, from the golden and silver ages of comics on up through the modern age. The second is Morrison and Rags Morales’ Superman: Action Comics Vol. 1 – Superman and the Men of Steel, which shows the very beginning of Superman’s career in the relaunched, New 52 iteration of the DC Universe (which Henry Cavill himself compared to what he and Zack Snyder have done for the new film).

These stories should help give you some insight into some works that may have helped to inspire elements of the film, but at the very least, it’s simply great reading material!


My Pick This Week at the Comic Shop (Releasing 6/12)

It’s all about the Man of Steel this week, and at his publishing home, it’s no exception. From the blockbuster creative team of Scott Snyder (American VampireBatman: The Court of Owls) and Jim Lee (Batman: HushJustice League: Origin), we see the launch of a new, ongoing series in Superman Unchained #1. The series seems to be aiming for a bit of a mystery, while also promising a great deal of action that a man like Jim Lee always delivers on. Snyder, who’s made a name for himself by writing the critically and commercially successful ongoing Batman series in the company’s New 52 initiative, is taking his first ongoing crack at the Man of Steel in this title.

Solicitation notes have already called for the inclusion of Lex Luthor in the story, who hasn’t featured particularly prominently in the New 52 thus far. There may also be a mysterious new superhero in the pages of the book, since 13 satellites have fallen from the sky, and Superman only saved 12. Who saved the last one?

Be sure to look for Superman Unchained #1 and any of the listed graphic novels at your local comic shop, or digitally via ComiXology! Thanks for checking in on the Geek Beat, be sure to be back here in seven days for the next installment, and don’t forget to check out’s extensive coverage on Man of Steel.

Did I miss any stories you feel would prime people for Man of Steel? Sound off!

Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.comThe Huffington and You can find his weekly piece The Geek Beat every Tuesday right here at Check out his blog and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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