Superman Unchained #1
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair
Letters by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Markisan Naso
Rating: 6 (of 10)
When I was five-years-old I loved Superman comics so much that I refused to go to school without a cape. Every morning my Mama would tape a cloth calendar to my back so I could fly out and catch the seven o’clock bus. I believed in the Man of Steel. Whether he was kicking Brainiac through a high-rise or frolicking with eagles, he meant something to me.
But in 1993, sometime after he got punched to death by Doomsday and was replaced by two badly dressed robots, a teen Chippendale and Shaquille O’Neal, I suddenly `grew up a little and lost my enthusiasm for Superman’s monthly adventures.
For the last 20 years now, I’ve occasionally checked in on Big Blue, hoping to rekindle interest in my childhood hero. Every so often a great new yarn has emerged, such as For All Seasons, Red Son, All-Star Superman, Secret Identity and For Tomorrow. But all of those tales were either designed to be finite or they took place in an Elseworlds setting. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an ongoing Superman series for more than 12 issues. In fact, thanks to the kaleidoscopic identity and direction that Superman has taken since the New 52 began I actually started to dislike the character.
This year, however, I’ve felt a renewed sense of hope for Superman. It’s his 75th anniversary. The excellent Superman: The Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon was released in April and I have been eagerly awaiting the new film, Man of Steel (out today) as well as the subject of this review – the new ongoing series, Superman Unchained, by Batman writer Scott Snyder and legendary artist Jim Lee.
Jim Lee is… well, he’s @#$ing Jim Lee. And Snyder’s excellent work on The Bat, first on Detective Comics and now on the main title, has not only reinvigorated everyone’s interest in the monthly Batman series, it’s made the writer a superstar. So it was incredibly exciting when DC announced this powerhouse team would be taking on their most iconic hero at the same time the new movie debuts.
Unfortunately, after reading the first issue twice, I won’t be taping a calendar cape to my back just yet.
Superman Unchained #1 was a slight letdown for me after months of anticipation and my growing faith in Snyder’s craftsmanship. Overall, this debut seems to lack the epic punch and original storytelling its creators are known for. Although “The Leap,” does lead with a bit of bombast – Superman saves some astronauts from a plummeting international space station – it quickly trickles into fairly familiar character interactions and plot setup. By the end I didn’t feel particularly engaged by the supporting cast and simply felt underwhelmed by both the mystery of the eight falling satellites and the adversary reveal at the end – a military superhuman who may have been the Nagasaki bomb in 1945. And whose design suggests he might also be the unwanted result of an affair between Electric Blue Boogaloo Superman and Red Sparklepants Superman in the 90s.
I also found that Superman Unchained isn’t the best entry point for new readers or for comics fans like me who haven’t been keeping up with New 52 Superman. The familiar supporting cast of Lois Lane, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor all make their appearances, but while Snyder does a decent job of defining their distinct personalities, not all their career circumstances are explained. We get some exposition about why Clark Kent has left the Daily Planet to start a news blog, but why is Lex Luthor in police custody? And how is Lois suddenly in a scene from Minority Report manipulating holographic page projections? And more importantly, how does she have the authority to bump paid ads in a dying newspaper industry?
Along with these mysteries, the main mind-boggler of the issue concerns the crashing satellites and who is behind the sabotage (main suspects in this issue include the cyber terrorist group Ascension and Lex Luthor). A mystery like this is a great story idea for Superman because he just so happens to be an ace reporter. But I couldn’t help but notice that this puzzler bears some similarity to the unique Superman run that Jim Lee worked on with writer Brian Azzarello nine years ago. In For Tomorrow, Superman must investigate the more compelling mystery of “The Vanishing,” an instant when over one million people (including Clark’s wife Lois) disappear from Earth, leaving behind only ashen outlines in their wake. In the first issue of For Tomorrow Superman deals with a crisis in space while a mystery unfolds, just like Superman Unchained #1. Both books also feature clandestine military involvement, a superhuman adversary created to take on secret missions and they also both make great efforts to humanize Superman.
The big difference between the first issue of Unchained and issue one of For Tomorrow is that Azzarello was able to ground Superman in a way we had never seen before. After “The Vanishing,” he felt powerless and responsible for what happened to his wife and the 999,999 other souls that disappeared. The event had an immediate and personal impact on Superman, understandably darkening his demeanor and his actions. Although it’s obviously early in Unchained, the malfunctioning satellites don’t place the same kind of weight on Superman’s shoulders or on his conscience.
Despite these issues, Superman Unchained is certainly not without promise. Snyder may not immediately place the same mortal constraints on Superman that For Tomorrow did, but he does demonstrate a snug grasp on the character. Throughout the issue Snyder places us inside Superman’s brain. This internal narration is a highly effective storytelling choice because it shows just how human Superman’s thinking is. In the opening pages, for example, he compares reentering Earth’s atmosphere from space to a silo jump back on the farm. Snyder is also able to reveal what it’s like for Superman to solve problems with his powers in thoughtful, intelligent ways, like when he uses his x-ray vision to fry circuitry on the space station. I also really liked how Superman calls himself “Clark” in his head when he’s working out how to prevent a disaster in the depths of space. It’s a small detail but it goes a long way toward making the character relatable. Later in the issue, when Snyder presents Clark’s reasons for leaving the Daily Planet, he further grounds the character by having him discuss his passion for human interest stories.
Passion is also present in Jim Lee’s artwork for Superman Unchained. He turns in some much stronger material here than on his recent efforts like Justice League. You won’t find any of the art experiments here that Lee has attempted from time to time on books like Deathblow. You get exactly what you’d expect from a Jim Lee comic – powerful, iconic shots of Superman. The character seems to loom larger than life on every page he’s on, especially in the monster foldout that you have to vertically origami out of the comic. The result of your effort is two pages of story, each four times the size of a regular page. The first side is a massive image of the space station being dive-bombed by Superman. On the opposite side you get a gorgeous poster of the Man of Steel ripping through space debris to find the endangered astronauts. Although awkward to release, the foldout is an undeniably impressive display of Jim Lee’s talents. Lee doesn’t bring his A game to every page in this issue, however. In the smaller panels figures often lack detail and sometimes look like weightless blobs. These instances, thankfully, are few and don’t really take away from the majesty of Lee’s images throughout the story.
What does take away from the book is the criminal $4.99 price point. Superman Unchained #1 is 32 pages of content for five bones. Yes, there is the aforementioned foldout, but there’s also a curious two-page epilogue drawn by Dustin Nguyen that deepens the Nagasaki mystery, but probably could have been included in the main tale. The book also contains a five-page interview with Snyder and Lee – the very same interview that’s in the Free Comic Book Day Superman Special. And then there’s the useless two-page Channel 52 Report that shows up in every DC comic. Basically, anyone who picks up this book is paying an extra $1 for previously free or extraneous content. The main story could have easily fit in 22 pages to keep the price point at the standard $3.99. Or Rao forbid, a lower $2.99 introductory price.
I love Superman, but over the years it seems it’s become increasingly harder for writers to find a unique and exciting vision for the character that makes him relatable without jettisoning the core values he represents. Superman Unchained #1 is definitely one of the better debut Superman comics I’ve read in recent years, even though its creators play it safe. Fortunately, my experience with Snyder’s other books tells me the seeds he’s planted in this first issue, though not terribly unique, will likely lead to big payoffs down the road. In time, perhaps this series will live up to the hype.
I’ll keep my cape in the drawer just in case.