Superman has had some great stories by some excellent writers and artists. These are not them. These are not actually about Superman. Sure, some may look like Superman, but closer examination will show that they are a completely different character...but the stories themselves are excellent Superman stories. Just, you know, with someone besides Superman.
The Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures #1: “The Day That Never Was,” written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Cameron Stewart.
Slightly cheating on this first one because nobody has really thought that Captain Marvel was based on Superman since he was very first published and DC sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement. And yet this story from Morrison’s Multiversity series of one-shots/interconnecting stories could easily have starred the Man of Steel, it’s so infused with optimism and light. The fact that it actually stars Captain Marvel is beside the point.
The plot is this: Dr. Sivana, Captain Marvel’s short bald arch-enemy, has developed a scheme with his alternate reality duplicates to create a new day, Sivanaday, in which evil wins. Captain Marvel and the entire Marvel Family fight against him and his own family. It’s as ridiculous and awesome as it sounds.
Astro City: Local Heroes #2: “Shining Armor,” written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Brent Anderson.
I know what you are thinking: what about Samaritan? Don’t worry, he’s on the list. This is about a completely different Superman-esque character in Astro City: Atomicus.
The tale of Atomicus is both very Silver Age and very tragic. The entire issue, actually, is from the point of view of Irene Merryweather, the radio reporter who worked alongside “Adam Peterson,” whom she always suspected to be the atomic powered hero Atomicus.
So really, the issue is a deconstruction of the Silver Age Superman/Lois Lane relationship. Like all of Astro City, it’s a very good story and goes right to the heart of both Superman and Lois Lane.
Supreme #41-56, Supreme: The Return #1-6, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Joe Bennett and many, many others.
So in the ‘90s, Rob Liefeld created his own Superman character called Supreme. It was, like most things Liefeld, awful. Liefeld did do one thing right however: he hired Alan Moore to revamp him.
Alan Moore’s Supreme was the Silver Age Superman thrown into a blender and it was awesome. I’m listing all of the issues because all of the issues are good: the opening issues, “The Supreme Story of the Year,” all about Supreme being ‘rebooted’ and finding the Supremacy, the place outside time where all previous Supremes live, to the issues where Supreme’s villains escape from the “Hell of Mirrors” and the Televillain kills Monica from Friends (literally), to the issue near the end that is a complete homage to all things Jack Kirby. It’s Alan Moore making Silver Age goodness.
Astro City (Vol. 1) #1: “In Dreams,” written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Brent Anderson.
See, there’s Samaritan. The very first story of Kurt Busiek’s awesome Astro City was about the Superman-esque hero the Samaritan and how there is never enough time for him to just enjoy flying.
Samaritan’s story is this: he comes from a dystopian future and was sent back in time to stop the Challenger disaster. The trip through time merged him with something called the “Empyrean Web” which gave him the blue hair and powers. He stopped the Challenger disaster, which also had the effect of erasing his entire history, making him as alone as Superman.
But there’s another tragedy to the Samaritan: he wants to do as much as he can, so he is always on call and flies to whatever disaster site as fast as he can. And as this story shows, the only place where he can really stop and enjoying flying through the air...is in dreams.
(I would also like to recommend the Astro City Special: Samaritan one-shot. It’s from the point of view of Samaritan’s arch-enemy, Infidel and it is quite good.)
Superman: Secret Identity #1-4, written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Stuart Immonen.
I know what you are thinking: that’s Superman so this doesn’t belong on this list, right? Wrong. Because that’s not Superman.
Sure, his name is Clark Kent, but that’s because his parents thought it would be fun to name him after Superman, who is completely fictional. This story actually takes place in our world, the real world.
At first, Clark hates the fact that his name is “Clark Kent” and he keeps on getting Superman-themed presents for his birthday...but then he discovers that he does actually have Superman’s powers.
The entire story is an exploration of what would happen to Superman in the real world, but it’s not a dark or depressing like Watchmen. It is, in fact, incredibly optimistic, especially Clark’s relationship with Lois Chaudhari (yes, they were set up because her name was Lois).
So there you go. Five stories filled with optimism and hope, stories not about Superman, but which are Superman stories nonetheless.