Review: Superman Unchained deluxe hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 12, 2015

To the question of how largely-Batman-scribe Scott Snyder might do writing a Superman story, the answer is quite stupendously. I worried about Superman Unchained mainly because of the back-and-forth as to whether the book was a series or miniseries, fearing the final product might lack cohesiveness or resolution, but those concerned were all unfounded.

As DC Comics's representative Superman special in honor of Superman's 75th birthday, Snyder tells a story that takes into account Superman's 75 years without being bogged down by them. Indeed Snyder's story is nicely subversive, even, in the way it pulls apart the intentions for the Superman character when he was created in 1938, where he's come since, and what today's Superman might mean instead. Further, Snyder writes an intelligent, capable, but still young New 52 Superman, and also writes one of the best Lois Lanes in a while -- equally intelligent, equally capable. Superman's familiar supporting characters are all here -- Lois, Perry, Jimmy, Lex -- such to make this book plenty accessible even to a casual comics fan.

Jim Lee's art is solid throughout, and the story gives Lee plenty of one- and two-page spreads on which to shine. Dustin Nguyen does equally well in a handful of backup and flashback sequences; the painterly effect by colorist John Kalisz in the flashbacks reminds of Lee's Hush, and contributes to the epic, "special" feel of the title. This is one I think is worth getting in the deluxe oversized format, and I wouldn't be surprised of Superman Unchained made its way to Absolute one day, too.

[Review contains spoilers]

Unchained boils down to a conflict between Superman and Wraith, an alien strongman who's been working in secret for the US government since ... you guessed it, 1938; Unchained is a team-up between the New 52 and the Golden Age Supermen, if the latter had been working in secret for the past 75 years. Snyder imagines Wraith as the Golden Age, World War II-era, dictator-toppling Superman 75 years later, who believes the New 52 Superman's refusal to pledge fealty to one country puts him in an unsustainable "limbo," doomed to be taken out by one side or the other. Not surprisingly, Wraith's ally is Superman's most jingoistic of foes, General Sam Lane, whose role as a symbol of US imperialism is most clear in the scene where Lane blasts heavy metal music as he bombs Superman's fortress in a moment reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.

That Snyder's New 52 Superman, in contrast, thinks himself a citizen of the world, or at one point chooses to save the whole world from nuclear annihilation instead of just America, is not so revolutionary; "truth, justice, and the American way" had ceased to fully describe Superman well before the David Goyer/Action Comics #900 brouhaha. Rather what I liked most about Snyder's presentation of Superman is that from the start, Snyder details Superman's thought processes in a crisis -- his assessment of what challenges face him, who he has to save, and how Superman strategizes and re-strategizes as the problem develops. In deference to his New 52 youth, this is not a Superman who has all the answers -- he tries solutions that fail quite often -- but one who's smart and creative nonetheless, and thinks through his problems as he goes.

Lex Luthor plays a welcome but tertiary (if obligatory) role in Unchained, and Snyder uses him as a Greek chorus, delivering Snyder's final treatise on Superman (presented by Lex as negative attributes, though the audience recognizes them as positive). In his study of Superman, Lex says, he was surprised to recognize how often Superman failed, or learned his lessons by trial and error. "He's just a man, stumbling through life," Lex says, as if this was a bad thing. "... You look at him, and you see a light leading the way, but instead, he is a light lost in the darkness." Lex concludes that rather than being a symbol of what man can achieve (the thesis of Superman Returns, among others), instead Superman is a symbol of a man struggling to do better. Inasmuch as I like All-Star Superman, what Snyder offers is a pleasant counterpoint to that all-knowing, almost godlike Man of Steel, one who's still admirable but fits cleanly into the New 52 aesthetic.

From the moment Snyder's Lois completes a water landing for a crashing plane, it's clear Lois fans are in for a treat. Verily for the number of times we've seen Superman save a plane with Lois on board, the fact that she saves her own plane is a symbol in itself. Lois fights her way out of trouble a couple times, and once or twice even saves Superman and the world itself, which Superman acknowledges. There's also a moment when Superman explains to Lois that he's about to sacrifice himself because "it's what [she herself] would do, too." There's a sense here that Lois does, figuratively, everything Superman can do, but does so without dint of super-powers. I wouldn't say Lois has been portrayed poorly in the New 52 -- better, even, without having to moon over Superman -- but Snyder's is probably her best recent portrayal so far.

It's readily apparent in Superman Unchained that Scott Snyder and Jim Lee are each comfortable with and in control of their subject matter. Batman plays a significant role in the story (also, to a lesser extent, Wonder Woman), and even despite that this is a Superman story, Lee still gets the Hush-esque opportunity to draw a sprawling Batcave and pitch the Batmobiles from a variety of eras at Wraith. There's also some great visual gags, like Jimmy Olsen's drones and Alfred taking Clark's coat when he leaves Wayne Manor so he can transform into Superman. All of it makes for a really enjoyable, really smart, and visually sharp Superman story. I rather wish DC would call a mini-series a mini-series these days, but Unchained was worth it, whatever the form.

[Includes original/variant covers, Director's Cut script and Jim Lee layouts]

Later this week ... a return to the Green Lantern titles.
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!


  1. I really wanted to love this book but reading it in the singles was a massive pain. I'm not just talking about the crippling delays between issues. No, those are all gone with this beautiful trade release.

    No, what annoyed me as how all over the place and haphazard this story felt.

    Ascension is built up as this big threat early on and then...they don't really do anything after their vague plan kind of ends half way through.

    Lex Luthor is seemingly building up for some insane plan of epic proportions and then he...kind of just says "Hey superman! You should totally die killing those random space people!" They don't even show what happens to Lex after this. Not even a throwaway line about it really.

    Wraith's mystery is built up for a wonderfully long stretch and then his race is some vaguely defined thing that kind of there at the end and looks beautiful with Jim Lee's art but doesn't really add up.

    Oh, and I don't care how much they try to justify it, starting this book with the freaking Hiroshima nuclear bomb being perpetrated by Wraith is just creepy and wrong on so many levels. Millions of people of died in Hiroshima and they didn't die so Snyder and Lee would have a splashy shocking opener for their Superman book.

    I agree that it's great how much Lois got to do especially considering how sidelined she's been in recent years. To be fair though, even Scott Snyder is kind of trapped by the silly Wonder Woman romance. Look at how painfully stiff her talk with Superman is just before the climax. Snyder is dying to have them simply say "I love you" but is trapped by editorial.

    Pre-release, Snyder and Lee were boldly aiming for All-Star Superman status with this. Not so much in quality but more in terms of making a stunning and definitive Superman story that could stand among the greats. While I think they suceeded in making an entertaining and often very pretty book, I think this'll achieve Batman Hush status in later years. Namely, it'll be a book often sighted as one for newbies and feature lovely art but not be particularly respected by the more hardcore fanbase.

    But including the seemingly endless and often hilarious variant covers in this book was absolutely amazing on DC's part. I bought this trade almost purely to have all those beautiful works of art.

    1. Possibly it was reading the book all together that mitigated for me some of what you mentioned. With Ascension, for instance, they had their plan and the reveal of their motives to Lois, and I guess I was OK with them stepping back at that point; Lex was teased throughout the book and it made sense to me that that "thread" should come to fruition in the end (though I noted, as you did, that we never quite found out what happened to Lex).

      As for the Lois/Superman "romance," I thought Snyder did well suggesting deep, perhaps romantic, feelings between these two people who, being worlds apart, can't act on them. I liked that it could be read as romantic, but also could be read as two friends who care deeply about one another (I rather like Lois and Clark as "best friends" in the New 52, as well).

      I don't disagree with you that the use of Hiroshima is touchy, but I'm not sure we can limit authors from using historical events, even difficult ones, in their works. Would we remove, for instance, any mention of the Holocaust from Magneto's origins, or bar the thoughtful fiction that examined the aftermath of September 11? Perhaps you felt Snyder was being unnecessarily exploitative, but it seemed fair to me (and certainly not without precedent).

      In all however I think your points are well-founded and I appreciate your comment. You didn't mention the part where Superman seemingly went to commit genocide against an alien race -- that's what I have the biggest difficulty reconciling in this story.

    2. Thanks for the reply! I'm a long time reader here and have recently worked up the courage to comment.

      Superman being willing to commit genocide is a little disturbing but I probably don't give it much thought because so much was kind of haphazardly thrown together at the end. But it is incredibly out of character to have Superman just kind of nod and go "Oh well, guess I'll go sacrifice myself to kill the face aliens now". For what's it worth, I think it helps immensely that in the very same chapter, Snyder has flashback Clark totally lose it when he thinks he may have inadvertently killed that old guy. Superman should never even consider genocide, but at least Snyder understands that he does value life above all else.

      I'm not opposed to using real life horror in comic book fiction, so long as it has a point. Magneto's holocaust background colors his paranoia of Mutants being hunted into extinction. The use of the Vietnam war in Watchman is used to portray the tipping points of Comedian's insanity and Dr Manhattan's disconnection from humanity. Here, Hiroshima is just kind of thrown in because the dates lined up well and having Wraith wiping out a city no doubt was just the kind of splashy opening they wanted to get people's attention.

      Using Wraith as a warped version of Superman was a really cool idea. Having him exist in their world for 75 years was a great touch when the first issues came out during Superman's own real life 75th birthday. I just wish Wraith was a little more fleshed out.

      You mention in your opening your concern over the initial confusion as to whether Unchained was meant to be a limited series or an ongoing. I'm inclined to think (though I have no proof) that Unchained was initially meant to be an ongoing and then got turned into a mini (no doubt due to Jim Lee's long art time, Snyder's crazy schedule and the over-saturation of superman comics. Scoring Greg Pak and Geoff Johns on Superman titles also probably meant there was less need to have Scott Snyder on board long term).

      Assuming that Unchained was initially an ongoing does potentially explain why Lex Luthor and Ascension play such heavy roles in the first half and then kind of draw back to focus on the Wraith story.

    3. Spot-on that Superman potentially killing all the aliens is mitigated by the flashback of resuscitating the farmer. The message, I think you'll agree, isn't entirely clear, given that Superman does seem willing to kill the aliens and the aliens do end up dead (or highly disabled) if not specifically by Superman's hand, but obviously there's a "killing is the last resort" undertone to it all.

      Thanks for the support and glad you decided to comment. Don't be a stranger 'round here.

  2. How did the trade handle the four page foldout from the first issue?

    1. It doesn't fold-out in the deluxe but rather it's two-page spreads.

  3. I enjoyed reading this series in a complete format. The overall package and price point was pretty good too; with all the variant covers included in the book, it made for a thick collection. I only wish they could have included the fold-out spread in the collected edition. But I suspect that would have upped the price point. :)