This year marks eight decades since Superman entered the world in the pages of Action Comics #1. And while any time is a good time to revisit the Man of Steel, we're thinking about where he came from particularly often these days thanks to Krypton, the new SYFY series exploring his family's story before their homeworld was destroyed. The history of Superman's family obviously makes you think about the history of Superman, and the history of Superman makes you think about that time-honored tradition of comic book storytelling: Origin stories.
Many of the nuts and bolts of Superman's particular origin story can be found right there in the pages of Action Comics #1, but even for an 80-year-old character, his beginnings have been revisited quite a lot. The image of the doomed planet of Krypton and the rocket carrying baby Kal-El has appeared in dozens of comic books, as well as films, TV shows, and more. After that iconic scene was introduced, various writers and artists just kept building, giving us Smallville, the Kents, Superboy, Krypto, the Legion of Superheroes, teenage Lex Luthor, and much more. It's all been added to, torn down, and rebuilt so many times that it's sometimes difficult to know what's worth reading and what's worth dropping.
So, in an effort to gather the best of the best, we went looking for the essential Superman origin stories from 80 years of his comic book history, from Golden Age shorts to Modern Age epics. This isn't a list of every Superman origin ever — it doesn't include Elseworlds like Red Son or brief summaries like the opening of All-Star Superman, to name just a couple — but it is absolutely packed with classics. If you want to know where Superman came from, who he is, and what he stands for, look no further than these stories spanning the entire history of the original superhero.
Krypton premieres tonight on SYFY.
Krypton Chronicles (1981)
Krypton Chronicles really only ranks at the bottom of this list because... well, it's not technically a Superman origin so much as it's an origin of his family. After Clark Kent is tasked with a story detailing the Man of Steel's complete alien family tree, Superman and Supergirl head off to the Kryptonian city of Kandor to visit the family vault of the House of El. From there, the miniseries traces back thousands of years of El family members, beginning with Kal-El's great-grandfather and moving further and further back through Kryptonian history.
As he delves deeper into his own genealogical past (with a few villainous obstacles, naturally), Superman discovers a lineage of soldiers, scientists, musicians, and more, and gains a deeper understanding of his biological family.
Superman's personal history on Earth isn't explored, but if you want lots of weird Kryptonian sci-fi fun packed into three issues, complete with a glossary of names and a family tree, this Bronze Age treasure is worth tracking down.
Action Comics #977-978: "The New World" (2017)
When The New 52 reboot launched in 2011, Superman never really got an entirely new origin story. Bits of it are scattered throughout the comics of that area, and Grant Morrison's early Action Comics run revisits plenty of things, but there's no single story you can sit down and read that really lays it all out in a comprehensive way. By the time the Rebirth event rolled around, the "Superman Reborn" story further complicated things by revealing the concept of two Supermen representing different aspects of the one true version of the character. Eventually, those aspects merged once again into one official Man of Tomorrow, who is — as of this list — the one flying around the pages of DC Comics.
"The New World" acts not so much as a new origin, but as a kind of catch-up for that version of the character, as Superman visits the Fortress of Solitude to review his own past in an attempt to find out who (or what) is manipulating him behind-the-scenes. If you're a longtime Superman fan, you probably recognize most of the elements at play as Kal-El goes back over his own life, but it still functions as a very nice refresher course. It's also particularly useful and entertaining if you'd like to be brought up to speed on exactly what Superman's origin is right now after years of reboots and retcons, even if you're not completely caught up with his current comic book adventures.
Superman #53: "The Origin of Superman" (1948)
A decade after he was introduced, writer Bill Finger and artist Wayne Boring were tasked with fleshing out Superman's origin story in this anniversary issue, and it remains a wonderful piece of Golden Age history. This version focuses primarily on Superman's four parents, Jor-El and Lara on Krypton and John and Mary (the Earth-Two versions of the Kents) on Earth, as they shape the man he will become. As such, roughly half the tale takes place on a crumbling alien planet and the other follows baby Kal-El as he shows off his incredible strength first at an orphanage and then at home in Smallville. By the final page, he's received his life's mission from John Kent and become the Man of Steel we know and love. It's short and sweet, and while certain elements might not resonate as much with modern readers, it's a wonderful capper to Superman's first 10 years.
Superman for All Seasons (1998)
For a while there, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale were the go-to team if you wanted to capture the essence of a character in a single event book that both seasoned and novice comics readers could enjoy. This four-issue miniseries is their version of that for Superman, and it's a very successful effort. Inspired by both Norman Rockwell Americana and the Superman origins that came before it, For All Seasons is more of a thematic origin story than a literal, chronological one, relating how Clark Kent evolved into Superman through the eyes of Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang.
Loeb is a writer who leans heavily on caption narration in his superhero stories, sometimes to a fault, but here it works perfectly to capture Superman as the mythic being that he is by refracting him through the eyes of the people who know him best. And Sale's art? Well, he's a master on his worst day, and he outdoes even himself with some of the panels in this story. It's a gorgeous, thoughtful volume that could easily be anyone's first Superman comic.
A Trilogy of Golden Age Stories (1938-1939)
We're cheating a little here, as this is technically an entry for three stories instead of one, but Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had to fit origin details in wherever they could in Superman's early days. When the Man of Steel debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, his origins were distilled down to a single page. We got the first appearance of Krypton, the baby escaping in the rocket, the Kents discovering the rocket, and a little bit of explanation for Superman's powers. That's it.
With Superman #1 a year later, Siegel and Shuster expanded the story a bit, rehashing the journey of baby Clark Kent and then offering up a little more information on his early journalistic career. The real masterpiece of the era, though, might be the origin story retold in the Superman newspaper strip in 1939. In those first dailies, Siegel and Shuster lay out a better picture of the dying planet Krypton and of Jor-El and Lara's desperate attempts to save their son by evacuating him to Earth. Even when you combine all three tales, they don't add up to the length of one issue of modern comics, but it's remarkable to look back on these stories now. They're pieces of pop culture history, of course, but there's something more here. Siegel and Shuster didn't know it at the time, but the way we look at superhero origin stories now was invented in these pages, with a level of detail you might find surprising.
Superman #146: "The Story of Superman's Life" (1961)
Much of Superman #146 is a re-told version of Superman #53, but this Silver Age version of the tale greatly expands on certain elements, making it both longer and stranger. Unlike many versions of the origin, which depict Kal-El as an infant, the Superman who leaves Krypton bound for Earth in this story is a toddler who can even speak a little by the time his parents send him away. Because of his advanced age, the Kents can't simply pass him off as their own baby in this one, so they drop him off at an orphanage and then, after the boy begins displaying some strange powers, come back to adopt him as their own. Plus, we get to see how the costume came to be, why he started to wear glasses, the arrival of Krypto on Earth and even Superboy's secret basement hideaway in Smallville. There's even a Superboy robot. It's a gem of a story scripted by one of the greatest Superman writers of all time, Otto Binder.
Secret Origin (2009-2010)
During his long tenure at DC Comics, Geoff Johns has made a habit out of revamping characters for a new generation of readers. He's done it with Green Lantern, The Flash, and even Hawkman. Secret Origin, released in the wake of the Infinite Crisis event, is his take on the definitive Superman origin story, replacing Superman: Birthright as the official canonical version.
Johns' knack for incorporating various elements from throughout comics history into a single cohesive story is on full display here, as he delivers everything from teenage Lex Luthor to the Legion of Superheroes to the origin of the supervillains Parasite and Metallo. Gary Frank's art does the rest, delivering spectacular Silver Age costumes, sci-fi wonders and a Superman design that perfectly captures the strong-jawed optimism of Christopher Reeve. This is the most recent attempt by DC to tell a single cohesive version of the Superman story, and it's one of the most successful.
Action Comics #500: "The Life Story of Superman" (1979)
There's a lot happening in Action Comics #500. A lot. Built around a simple framing device in which Superman is taking guests on a tour of a pavilion dedicated to his life story (which naturally turns out to be part of a supervillain plot), this landmark issue basically attempts to pack every major element of the Superman mythos up to that point — from Krypton to all of his major enemies — into one comic. As a story, it comes off as a bit clunky because any actual plot is shoehorned in as an excuse to basically just let Superman explain his entire Silver Age history to you. As a primer on what Superman was like at the time, though, it's both a fascinating relic and a really fun ride. Sure, big chunks of it aren't necessarily canonical anymore (back in these days, the Kents tended to pass away rather early in Superman origin tales), but that doesn't matter when things get this entertaining this fast. Plus, it's drawn by the Superman artist, the legendary Curt Swan.
The Man of Steel (1986)
Even fans with only a passing interest in the history of DC Comics know the story, or at least the short version of it: By the mid-1980s, DC had introduced so many different versions of their classic characters that it was time to streamline. As a result, we got Crisis on Infinite Earths, and a chance for various creators to deliver new takes on old favorites. In the wake of the reality-altering Crisis, writer/artist John Byrne was handed the keys to Superman, and we got The Man of Steel, a classic miniseries that remains one of the great Superman masterpieces.
In re-imagining the Man of Tomorrow for a new era, Byrne tightened the reins on Kal-El's powers, streamlined various aspects of his origin (Lex Luthor, for example, no longer grows up alongside Clark Kent and is portrayed as a titan of industry rather than a mad scientist), and revamped Krypton's look and society to make it a more sterile, unforgiving place. The Man of Steel hasn't been official Superman canon for some time now, but it remains hugely influential (see Krypton in the DC Extended Universe onscreen, as just one example), and reading it now you can still see why.
While certain aspects of the origin are glossed over in favor of heavier focus on others, Byrne's central point echoes throughout: His alien origins may give him his powers, but it's Clark Kent's humanity that makes him Superman. That message, combined with the phenomenal art, makes it an indispensable piece of Superman reading more than three decades after its publication.
For a very large contingent of Superman fans, origin stories will never get any better than what John Byrne did with The Man of Steel. For others, Secret Origin wins out. For the rest of us (or at least, a lot of the rest of us), there's Birthright, the 12-issue miniseries by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu that dethroned Man of Steel as the canonical Superman origin story until it, too, was retconned by Infinite Crisis just two years later.
You will be hard-pressed to find anyone, anywhere, who knows more about Superman than Mark Waid, and you'll also be hard-pressed to find a writer better suited to taking numerous pesky continuity threads that otherwise form a tangled mess and weaving them into a perfect tapestry. Birthright isn't perfect, but for a comic that packs as much as it does into just a year's worth of monthly releasing, it's damn close. Beginning with Clark Kent's early days as a journalist freelancing in Africa and journeying through to Superman's first major clash with Lex Luthor, Birthright touches on everything from Clark Kent's place in the world to Kryptonian history to the complicated relationships formed between Clark and everyone from Jonathan Kent to Lois Lane. It almost feels like too much to work as a single story, but Waid's keen grasp on each character creates a synergy that feels cohesive at its worst and like superhero magic its best.
If Man of Steel is a brilliant streamlining of Superman's origin and Secret Origin is a brilliant synthesis of various bits of comic book history, Birthright is the acrobatic tale walking the line between the two. It may not have lasted long as an official piece of canon, but as an introduction to the essence of Superman, it's still brilliant 15 years after it began publication.