The Top 5 All-Time Alternative Supermen

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A few years ago I wrote a piece about Superman for Time in which I ruminated about whether Big Blue really had a future as a character. Maybe he’s just too strong and too tough to write good plots around — those big muscles tend to break down any nuanced or believable plot-mechanics. Maybe he’s too morally good to be interesting or relatable. Maybe consumers of pop culture have just gotten too smart to care about a guy like Superman, who really has no internal and precious few external conflicts.

I don’t think DC was thrilled about the piece, and to tell the truth I wasn’t totally happy with it either, though I think it’s basically right. But there’s still a lot of great Superman writing out there at the fringes of the oeuvre: Superman’s over-the-top powers and bold muscular jawline make him a great subject for post-modern alt-universe flights of fancy. The theme isn’t that interesting, but the variations kick ass. Um, if you will.

I was thinking about this while I read All Star Superman on the subway this morning. (Why yes, the ladies were all over that!) So I made a list of my top 5 All-Time Alternative Supermen.

1. Red Superman. What if Superman landed, not in the wholesome bosom of Kansas, but in the cold heart of Stalin’s Soviet Union? That’s the premise of Red Son, and the answer is: he grows up to the perfect worker’s hero, the ultimate KGB agent with super-hearing instead of wiretaps. He wears a hammer-and-sickle on his chest instead of an S and hangs out with Stalin (note that “Stalin” is just a Russian word meaning “man of steel.”) If Supes has a dark side, it’s as a cold authoritarian alien zealot, and Mark Millar blows out this premise all the way, no holds barred, with major-character casualties and a glimpse of the far future…

2. Dead Superman. No, not that dead Superman, this dead Superman. In 1986 supergenius Alan Moore did a death-of-Superman story called Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? It features a great cattle call of old Superman villains, and some pretty shocking violence. Plus Mr. Mxyzptlk asks this burning question: “Did you honestly believe that a 5th Dimensional sorcerer would resemble a funny little man in a derby hat?”

3. Old Superman I didn’t get the point of Secret Identity at first. Then I did and really fell in love with it. It takes place in our world — Superman is a comic book, nobody has superpowers. But there’s this kid named Clark Kent who actually gets Superman’s powers. What would that be like? How would it play out? They did this as a four-book mini-series, with incredibly gorgeous art and a funny, kinda lyrical, kinda wistful tone. In the end he gets old and grey…but he’s still super…

4. All Star Superman. I just reread the first few issues of All Star Superman, which are out now as a hardcover collection. It’s not high-concept. The writer, Grant Morrison, just seems to get what’s fun about Superman: he’s ridiculously powerful, and therefore he just sees and does and has lots of incredibly cool, totally bizarre stuff. Time machines, nanonauts, sun-eaters, a super-dense sphere of black kryptonite from the Underverse. Plus the creepily bandaged Unknown Superman of 4500 AD…

5. Bitter Superman. You don’t really love that guy.

(Yay, 100th post.)