REVIEW: “Superman: The Ultimate Guide to the Man of Steel” book

Superman: The Ultimate Guide to the Man of Steel book (Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 2006 Updated Edition)
Scott Beatty
Illustrations: Roger Stewart (and archival material by original artists)

The “coffee-table-sized” Superman: The Ultimate Guide to the Man of Steel looks like a wonderful book. Boasting an incredible cover and mostly fantastic illustrations throughout, The Ultimate Guide was a lot of fun to flip through.

So happy I was initially with this book that I even picked up a copy of the updated DC Comics Encyclopedia, also from DK, based solely on The Ultimate Guide’s visual merits.

Then, with much anticipation, I read The Ultimate Guide. The love-affair with this book pretty much fell apart from there.

It starts out promisingly enough, with a section called “Birth of a Superman,” which goes into details about Krypton, Smallville, the Kents, Superman’s powers, weaknesses, and even his “super style” – a phrase I thought I coined but apparently not.

The other modern sections of the rest of the book cover Metropolis (and its associated characters), “Secrets of the Man of Steel” (including the Fortress, Godfall, and the Eradicator), and supervillains (Luthor, Metallo, Brainiac, etc.).

The text in these sections is dry and jumpy. The worst part is that it is often painfully obvious where the 2006 updates are (the original edition was 2002), as they are tacked on at the end of most entries while the opening text of the entries are not correspondingly updated.

So you read all of this dry material about a character’s role in the comics and then get to the end where a final paragraph says something to the effect of: “Oh yeah, by the way, so-and-so later died in a tragic accident, came back as a supervillain seeking revenge, died again, and his remaining life-force became a super robot, later dismantled by Superman, but stolen by Lex Luthor.” And that’s a parody, by the way. Not a real character, so no need to check wiki.

The Superman history student in me had hopes for a strong finish, though, as the concluding section (“Superman’s Career”) examines the pre-CoIE comics as well, including a timeline. For whatever reason, the JLA and “Birthright” are tacked into this section as well.

The “Birthright” section is particularly interesting, as it pretty much tells you to forget what you already read in the earlier part of the book. Why not simply update the earlier part of the book appropriately? What a tangled web the DC Universe can weave, so I don’t fully blame author Beatty for this part.

The overviews of the Golden Age and Silver Age of Superman comics are pretty good, while the timeline, which covers all eras, is disappointing. As a kid, I used to re-read the timeline/issue review presented in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (the last pre-CoIE Superman issue) over and over. It was captivating. Presented here, a similar timeline is a sleepy step through apparent highlights.

The worst parts of the timeline are in “The Steel Age” (post-CoIE to the present, though I’ve never encountered this designation for it until now). And by that, I don’t necessarily mean the actual comic stories but just the writing of the timeline itself. Incidentally, the timeline and, presumably, the rest of the book cover Superman through the beginning of the recent Infinite Crisis series.

Beatty tries to instill some action by peppering the timeline with plenty of exclamation marks. “In this issue, Jimmy eats breakfast!” or “In this issue, Superman brushes his teeth!” But it just doesn’t help.

In the end, The Ultimate Guide to the Man of Steel was a chore to read.

Overall Experience: 4 (out of 10)
Recommended: Only if you want to look at the pretty pictures