Superman Unchained 1

Scott Snyder has been quite the find for DC. Already raking in money for the company’s vertigo imprint with American Vampire, DC made the wise decision to turn over their flagship title over to the rising star, resulting in The Black Mirror, one of the most acclaimed Batman stories in years. Since then, Snyder has brought multiple writers into the DC mainstream, crafted a Swamp Thing story too unsettling for me to read (sorry Scott), and given Batman his deserved place of honor at the center of the New 52.

No one doubts Snyder’s skills in bringing noir and horror to the page, but now he has a new task: bring that same spark to Superman. With The Man of Steel opening tonight, the pressure is on to encourage new Super-readers. Can DC’s formidable duo of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee make us believe that a man can fly? Let’s find out.

Right from the word go, you’ll get the sense that this is the kind of story that Snyder and Lee are best at, respectively. This one issue takes us from Metropolis to the Indian Ocean to outer space to Hiroshima, 1945. This is a big, double fisted adventure comic, and Lee doesn’t let you forget it, but, of course, Snyder makes the experience an abnormally cerebral one.

Snyder seems to revel in writing Superman. He enjoys playing with his powers, with his inner monologue, but make no mistake, this is work for him. Snyder knows that this has to be a Superman that fans will stand behind and new readers will come back to next month and, to that end, he sets up a rather clever story that subtly introduces Superman’s status quo.

Snyder gives us a classic Superman vs. disaster story, but one that plays with expectations, focusing more on the Big Blue’s eye-based powers and inherent goodness than his strength. The issue that follows sets Superman up for showdowns with one or more genius hackers (as well as/including Lex Luthor) as well as a new threat who may just be a physical match for the Man of Steel. Though Snyder is weirdly literal with some of Superman’s powers*, these points will likely help reluctant readers and wary moviegoers accept that Superman can and will be cool in this series. Here we find Superman surrounded by threats and unsure of who’s responsible. Critics who feel that Superman only solves things with his fists might find themselves wishing they could just speak their names backwards and disappear, when confronted with the inventiveness and heart that Clark displays here.

We also get a great reintroduction to Jimmy Olsen (who benefitted greatly from the reboot, in my opinion). Jimmy gives a great grounding for Clark, finally living up to the Superman’s Pal moniker, instead of seeming more like Superman’s groupie. Jimmy’s visit lets us get a sense of who Clark Kent is as a reporter and makes for some added humor when Clark starts dealing with the Daily Planet staff.

Lois Lane, though hardly a major player this month, gets a respectable showing (Is Lois still just a standard reporter? Can someone with her job actually change the layout?). Lois’ headstrong, never-say-die, style of journalism is on display without having to have her threaten a mobster or walk into a clearly dangerous situation, and we even get a reminder about her status as a military brat. All in all, new readers will find plenty to like and to learn about Clark’s peers, and I’m hopeful that the book will continue to explore these iconic characters.

But while everyone loves Lois Lane, there’s another pair of Ls in Superman’s life. Snyder’s Lex Luthor is a spot on take on the character, backed up by Lee’s delightfully smug rendering. Like many others, I never really appreciated Lex Luthor when I was younger. While I adore Clancy Brown’s work on Superman: The Animated Series, I really didn’t see the full threat of the character whether in his unscrupulous businessman persona or as a flat-out supervillian. But what was always missing for me was the inherent humanity of Luthor. Grant Morrison has said that he sees Lex as embodying the worst of human nature, but what makes him so fascinating is that Luthor also embodies the absolute best. The greatest Luthor stories are the ones where you’re not entirely sure if he undertook his plan to stick it to Superman, for the sake of his own ego, or for the actual betterment of mankind. Lex’s appearance in this issue has elements of all three and leaves the reader itching for more of this charismatic mad genius.

Snyder’s script is clever, exciting, and the perfect entry point for old fans and new readers alike. And we get a great version of Superman himself. Superman Unchained’s take on the Man of Steel highlights exactly why he’s primus inter pares in superhero circles. For all the flying and lifting and heat beam eyes, Superman’s heroism unequivocally comes from the way he trusts and comforts the victims of the attack. For any talk of Superman ‘leading us to the sun,’ it’s clear here that Clark honestly respects and admires those who fight their way through life without his special privileges. Reassurance radiates off the page, even as Clark’s internal monologue reveals that he’s not quite as confident as his words suggest. And, while I’m not yet sure that Clark’s thoughts about Jed Colder’s hay bales will feel relevant when this is over, it makes it clear who Superman is.

Jim Lee is, as ever, a monolithic presence. Detractors are entitled to their opinions, but it’s hard to deny that he’s defined what a modern comic book is supposed to look like. A high-profile debut like this was bound to be beautiful, but Lee still manages to cram some awe into the book. Admittedly he hasn’t lost his taste for drawing creepy panels of Superman that made much more sense in Hush, but he makes the New 52 Superman feel like the real Man of Steel, and with DC in the state it’s in, that’s important. Superman never looks quite as great as he did in his initial appearance at the end of Justice League #1 (also Lee’s work), but he also seems less like he belongs in the Earth-One line.

Every panel is full of detail, iconic imagery, and lush color thanks to Lee and his colorist, Sal Cipriano. However, while there’s plenty in here that would make an excellent poster (and already is in at least one case), the storytelling is a bit weaker than I would have liked. Especially during the outer space rescue at the book’s start, it can be hard to tell what’s going on. As I said, Snyder’s script is admirable in its subtly, but here it might go too far. Superman fighting off robotic arms might be beautiful to look at, but, the way it’s framed, I might have mistaken it for another shot of Superman breaking the satellite apart, if not for the narration (by the way, isn’t breaking a large piece of space debris into small pieces as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere a slightly risky move, Supes?). Later on, as the disaster comes to a close, Superman reveals how he’s saved the day, but I’m still not entirely sure of where everything was in relation to each other or how the rescue worked.

My guess is that the blame for this lack of clarity is shared; Snyder probably tried to tell the story in fewer panels (possibly for the sake of the issue’s foldout pages) and Lee, by choice or by necessity, didn’t quite sell the moment.

Despite these hiccups, it’s still an entirely understandable issue on the large-scale, and quite an attractive one too (seriously, I’m loving Jimmy Olsen’s fashion sense). The last page of Lee’s art is striking to say the least, and the whole comic admirably incorporates Snyder’s occasionally verbose dialogue without ever sacrificing the visual splendor that the medium is capable of. Jim Lee’s art moves the story forward with a film-like attention to angle and pace. I may have a better comparison come tonight, but it’s not unlike what J.J. Abrams did, visually, for Star Trek. It’s familiar but new, tradition maintained with a shiny (occasionally too shiny) new coat of paint. It’s not the retro-styled strongman revival that Action Comics showed us, nor even the classic look of John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, but a forward thinking return to space age imagination for America’s most enduring alien visitor.

And to top things off, we get a couple of pages from personal favorite Dustin Nguyen. Though his contribution is minor, Nguyen shows us the grandeur of Metropolis and the horror that can still be found on the open seas, even as Snyder hints that it may all tie back to a secret atrocity. Yes, I know that it always seems to tie back to some secret atrocity with Snyder, but this one feels like it could really go somewhere, given the proper support from his fellow writers. After all, the Court of Owls was probably his most outlandish retcon, but it gave us some really good Batman stories and I’m still happily reading Talon every month.

That being said, what do those of you who have read the issue think about the historical revelations that occur here. I think it hints at some extremely interesting stories, but I acknowledge that if it was considered disrespectful for Superman to fight in World War II, this might ruffle a few feathers. What are your thoughts on it?

The last thing to mention is one of those things that I hate discussing, but I’m afraid I must. Despite the appeal of having a panel of Jim Lee Superman the size of your freakin’ torso, the much discussed fold-out pages in this issue are not really all that necessary. Admittedly, without them we’d be dealing with a lot of repetitive panels of Clark making his way to the crew, while we got that exposition out-of-the-way and some of his power and majesty would be lost, but I trust Snyder and Lee, two giants of the industry to have another way to solve those problems. Unfortunately this feels as much like gimmick as it does a novel way to bend the limits of the format. That might have been just a minor trifle with this issue, except for the fact that it sells for a whopping $4.99. That’s the same that DC charges for their annuals, and while the creative team ensures that you’re getting something special for your money, it just seems like the reader is getting a bit short-changed. I should mention that there’s a Q&A with the creators in the back of the book, which is nice, but we’re still looking at a five-dollar price tag for a normal sized issue, a foldout, and a Q&A. This is a strong book, but, especially with a huge movie to back it, I wish DC had gone the route Image went with Saga and took a hit to encourage new readers to jump on. Then again I’m not an economist, so maybe it’s just as well that they’re not taking my financial advice.

Superman Unchained deconstructs the myths surrounding the world oldest superhero** and builds a new world around him. It simultaneously argues that the New 52 is still new, that Scott Snyder is a talent too bright to be pigeonholed, and that Superman is capable of absolute relevance, in the 30s, in 1945, in the 21st century, and beyond. It’s not quite as strong as Snyder’s Batman debut, but it establishes him as a capable writer for any hero. If the price tag doesn’t scare you off or you’re looking for somewhere to place your newfound enthusiasm after viewing Man of Steel, this is a fine comic and one worth a look.

 

 

*That said, the idea that Superman can shoot radiation from his eyes is both awesome and terrifying. It also makes Lex Luthor all the more credible.

**At least in the modern sense.

Advertisements