Comics Then: Superman Adventures #36
Ask anyone what their favorite Superman story is and you're bound to get several different answers, but I guarantee you that one story will pop up more often than not: All-Star Superman. Rightfully considered the greatest Superman story of all time, and one of the greatest comics besides, All-Star Superman summarizes everything that's great about the Man of Steel. In twelve epic issues we see him accomplish amazing feats, face his greatest foes, and still manage to be the "simple Kansas farmboy" that he was raised to be. If you want someone to "get" Superman, then give them All-Star.
As great as that story is, it's not the only great Superman story out there. Not by a long shot. While I still hold Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's magnum opus in the highest regard and agree that it is the best Superman story, there's another one that follows at a very close second: Superman Adventures #36. Appropriately titled "This Is a Job For Superman," the story is part of the comic series based on the Superman: The Animated Series cartoon from the Nineties. Besides this issue, the series had some truly great Superman stories that could stack up against main continuity comics without a sweat, including an issue that had 22 short stories (one per page) and "How Much Can One Man Hate?", what I consider to be the greatest Lex Luthor story of all time. The series is currently being reprinted with four volumes currently available, so track them down. It's worth it.
As great as the series is, issue #36 is on a different level altogether. Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Aluir Amancio, inked by Terry Austin, colored by Marie Severin, with separations by Xylonol and letters from Phil Felix, "This Is a Job For Superman" follows Superman through a day of adventures. There isn't any sort of world-ending threat looming in the sky, or really any established villains wreaking havoc through Metropolis. It's simply a story showing all the good Superman does by helping people, and it's just about perfect.
For while the threats that arise in the story aren't uncommon to everyday life, Superman never looks down on them. He never acts like he's too important or too powerful to assist, even with the smallest of problems. Millar remembers that Superman helps because he can, and that's what makes this story so great.
In the course of the day, Superman is called upon to help with a number problems around Metropolis. He stops a group of high-tech bank robbers. He takes a wrecked ambulance to the hospital so a new mother can deliver her baby, goes from there to save a crashing airplane, and then delivers a heart meant for transplant that was being transported on that very flight. He rescues a group of teenagers from a cave, prevents an innocent man from being executed, and saves the crew of a space station. "All in a day's work" for the Man of Steel, to be sure.
These are all fantastic deeds, without question, but what makes the issue so great is Superman's demeanor. He's friendly and comforting as the situation calls for it, yet he mourns when a life is lost and isn't afraid to call out somebody for a tasteless remark. One scene sees him arrive too late to prevent a man from committing suicide, and he laments that he couldn't have gotten there a few minutes earlier. One of the officers on the scene brushes it off, stating that the man was in and out of jail so often that "some of us talked about giving him a key," and Superman shuts him down quick:
"A human being just died here, officer. Regardless of his past, this is one occasion where the man deserves a little respect."
To Superman, he wasn't a criminal; no, he was a life that needed saving. End of story. If that's not a Superman attitude, then I don't know what is, and this issue is replete with scenarios that show just how great Superman can be.
Where Morrison and Quitely explored Superman in the realm of the fantastic, Millar and Amancio keep their story fairly well grounded. All-Star Superman saw Superman fight a giant robot, had him team up with other versions of himself to defeat a creature that literally eats time, and he even punched a living star that's also a sentient computer. Nothing that occurs in "This Is a Job For Superman" is beyond the realm of possibility of happening in real life. That doesn't make one approach superior to the other, either; if anything, it allows both stories to be companion pieces to one another, showing how well Superman works in a variety of situations. From the fantastic to the mundane, Superman is there to help no matter what.
To drive that point home, the story in Superman Adventures #36 is framed by scenes with a young boy who has lost his dog. The issue opens with the boy's plea to Superman that, if he's listening, he would find his missing dog Patch. A fairly mundane problem compared to some of the other things Superman takes care of, but it's important to this kid. The boy recognizes that Superman is busy helping other people and probably has "more important" things to do, but if he could, he'd like his help.
And help he does.
This could have easily come across as corny, but it fits the theme of the story perfectly. After all, somebody needed help, didn't they? That sounds like a job for Superman.