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Superman Unchained #1 – Review

SUPERMAN UNCHAINED #1

By: Scott Snyder (story), Jim Lee (pencils), Scott Williams (inks), Alex Sinclair (colors)

The Story: Superman slips up on the fact-checking of his own story.

The Review: Superman is kind of an odd duck in the scheme of comic book icons.  Even though he’s practically the biggest and most important character DC has, his actual popularity—by which I mean the number of people who’d say he’s their favorite superheroes—always seems disproportionately low to his recognizability.*   He and Batman are ostensibly equals, yet the Batman franchise has consistently outpaced Superman’s in a big way.  Why?

My best guess is it has to do with how difficult it is to get a handle on his character.  I don’t think many people appreciate what a bundle of contradictions Superman is: at once human and alien, physically powerful but emotionally vulnerable, mild-mannered at times and bold at others, someone whose mission is to be a shining example when his deepest desire is to fit in.  Getting the right balance of all these qualities is, to say the least, a formidable task.

From Superman’s opening monologue, Snyder clearly understands this balance better than most other writers.  The scene beautifully written, with the kind of rich, precisely chosen detail that reveals Snyder’s literary tradition, but it also displays the appealing contrasts in Superman’s character on both a psychological and physical level.  Here, he propels himself through the vacuum of space towards a freefalling, massive satellite, and all the while, he’s thinking of leaping with his boyhood friends off a farm silo towards a mass of hay.  By reflecting on the sensation of going so fast that the world passes slowly, he’s really pointing out that such contradictions can co-exist—that he can exist despite the wild contradictions in himself.

Sometimes these conflicts in Superman’s character manifest in the old question of who’s the real persona here—Superman or Clark?  Snyder knows the correct answer: both, because they’re one and the same.  There’s no noticeable difference between the voice you hear when Clark’s in action and when he’s just hanging out with Jimmy, and that voice is exactly what you expect from the Man of Steel: warm, affirming, with good sense, values, and humor.  In other words, this Clark has what so many Clarks have been missing before: personality.  How can you not love that he razzes Bruce Wayne behind his back?  Jimmy, recollecting his amazement at seeing Bruce’s gym body, says, “Have you seen the guns on that guy?”

To which Clark shoots back, “He pads his jackets.”

More than getting Clark’s internality right, Snyder brings out the best of all the cast, whether it’s Lex Luthor’s megalomaniacal genius (“A central solar tower a hundred floors high.  The tree’s heliostats will generate nearly six hundred megawatts a day.”) or Lois Lane’s journalistic integrity (spotting and correcting gaps in even Clark’s writing).  Rest assured, Snyder loves these characters and can write them well.

But a great Superman series rests on more than just good character work; it demands action, which requires good plotting.  Satellites being “hurled” from space by some mysterious superpower is a good start, but I can’t say the reveal of some government-controlled nemesis impressed me all that much.  If Doomsday proves anything, you can give a villain strength enough to butt heads with Superman, but he can still be rather flat and silly as a character.

The epilogue to this oversized debut suggests that Snyder has far bigger plans in store for the Man of Steel than some Superman copycat.  Perry White’s reflections on a family pair of binoculars that once saw Armageddon in its oversized vision is deathly sober.  How that connects to a man found in a fishing net, his eyes burned away and pleading for Lois Lane, is an intriguing question.  It’s only a two-page finish, but it’s highly effective, especially with Dustin Nguyen’s slinky art (and John Kalisz’s eerie lighting) on the job.

But it’s Lee who covers the bulk of the art duties for the issue, and he does as well as you’ve come to expect from him.  That foldout page has been much hyped, and as much of a pain in the ass as it is to expose it properly, it’s absolutely worth it for its sense of scale alone.  A splash page, or even a double splash-page, would not have conveyed nearly the gargantuan type of obstacle that Superman can simply fly through, speeding-bullet style.  Of course, the only problem is the following pages can’t capture that same epic size, so it gets a little confusing as to how he actually manages to prevent the massive space station from crushing a military base.  Otherwise, Lee’s details are on point and often fun (e.g., a laptop from Q-Corp, a pennant for the Smallville Crows), and everyone looks younger and hotter.

Conclusion: A very good start to a series that may, as its title suggests, finally allow Superman to break free from the conventions that have kept him grounded for so long.

Grade: B+

- Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Yeah, I know “recognizability” isn’t a word, but don’t you think it should be?

- I do love that Superman cuts off his rescuee’s thanks by telling them, “First, get some medical attention.  Second, go celebrate…by my calculations, you and your partner just broke about seven Guinness records with that fall.”  That’s my kind of Superman.

- Snyder makes some excellent uses of Superman’s power set too: heat vision to trick the space station into activating its reentry shielding, amping up his X-ray vision to “gamma” level to fry the electrical components of a nuclear reactor.

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2 Responses

  1. <<>>

    I didn’t see this line as Clark razzing Bruce, but rather as Clark covering for Bruce. If people suspect Bruce as Batman, Clark is throwing off the scent of comparing physiques.

    As for the issue, Snyder does instill a gravitas that has been missing from the current Superman. After dropping Action and Superman, it feels good to bring a Supes comic back into my monthly reading.

    • That’s a good way of looking at it and it makes perfect sense. I still think Clark probably enjoyed the opportunity to poke at Bruce’s dignity, though.

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