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Superman Unchained #3 – Review

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

The Story: Traveling halfway across Utah is bad enough; doing it as a result of a drop-kick is worse.

The Review: Superman-analogue villains are nothing new, even to the Man of Steel himself: Zod, Cyborg-Superman, and most recently, H’el.  Each of these antagonists is intended to parallel and contrast with Superman, to reveal his virtues by their own lacking of the same.  In a sense, these characters give a glimpse into how Superman could have turned out with a different upbringing than he had in Smallville.

Wraith is no exception to this trend.  Unlike Superman, he was sent to Earth not by circumstance but by design.  He describes himself as an answer to someone’s prayers, that someone being the U.S. military during a time of war.  Despite arriving looking fully grown, he refers to one General Rudolph as “the first father I knew,” meaning he was raised with all the efficiency, pragmatism, and discipline America’s finest can provide.  He’s an older, more experienced Superman with the attitude of a military brat, purposely isolated from society at large—a threatening combination.

Nothing could suit General Lane’s aims more.  While Superman definitely has more dangerous antagonists, Wraith included, Lane is the one that really grabs your attention, demanding your respectful hatred.  Few mortal men have the chutzpah to confront DC’s biggest so brazenly, but Lane’s unflappability gives even Luthor’s a run for its money.  When Superman states he just wants to talk, Lane replies shortly, “Well, you do it from your knees, son.”

Obviously, the man enjoys a good power trip, which explains his obvious relish in how well America’s been able to use Wraith to assert their dominance over the world.  Sure, the world seems to have become a safer place since America put Wraith to work, but the secrecy of the whole thing reeks of less-than-noble conduct.  Lane doesn’t see it that way, of course, and in brilliant fashion manages to turn Superman’s self-righteousness into self-doubt:

“You want to make the world better.  Well, we do.  And every minute you don’t, you’re deciding to let people live their lives in misery, and die suffering.  You’re killing them.  Painfully.”

Between this speech and the existence of Wraith, Snyder reframes Lane’s animosity towards our hero in a very important way.  It’s not about Superman’s alienage or his power levels, but his self-imposed limitations.  Lane attributes this to a need for praise and attention, but what he’s really taking issue with is the absurdity of Superman saving cats from trees while allowing genocidal dictators to operate freely.  We’ve seen this tension many times before in Superman stories past; let’s see if Snyder will find some way to resolve it instead of punting, as so many others have done.

Although Lane is the best example of it in this issue, Snyder demonstrates complex character work with pretty much every member of the primary cast.  Superman’s aggressive reactions to Wraith and Lane reveal not only his youthful brashness, but also the pride and stubbornness of a man who grew up in the rural Midwest.  He’s lost his jolliness, but he’s a much more exciting character for it.  Excitement doesn’t even begin to describe the life of Lois Lane.  It’s important, at this early juncture, that Lois shows she can take care of herself without her boyfriend hovering nearby, even when she’s forced to pilot a doomed plane through mountain ranges, power lines, and freezing water.  And then there’s Luthor, dismissively commanding his unconscious body to act (“That’s it, old shell.  Move.  Hup to.”), proving that even disembodied, he’s got nothing to worry about so long as he has his brain.

Lee often has a tendency to let his thin, supple linework slip over time, as if they can’t support the weight of their own imagery.  At this point, though, he keeps everything looking nice and tight, resulting in some of the most tasteful work of his purely mainstream career.  His art here radiates attitude, which is in perfect keeping with the series’ tone.  The action is fierce enough, but even during moments of calm, the characters seem alert, engaged, ready to spring back into the fray at the drop of a dime.  Don’t you almost tingle, seeing Superman crack his knuckles in his palm a moment before he enters battle?

Given how intimately the Jimmy Olsen back-up ties into the story at large, you have to question the purpose of separating it from the main narrative at all.  It’s not as if Dustin Nguyen’s art (with John Kalisz on colors) is worth the two pages.

Conclusion: Powering through its slight flaws, the issue continues its locomotive momentum, declaring, in both words and art, that Superman’s ready to make some noise.

Grade: A-

- Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: - Snyder keeps his historical twisting to a minimum, but the one he does throw in is a doozy, revealing how close the U.S. came to getting its atomic bluff called, had Wraith not showed up to fill their hand.

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4 Responses

  1. I really would like to love this book as much as it deserves. I think anything from Snyder and Lee is worth reading, but Superman Unchained hasn’t quite speeded up in my opinion yet. In the moment, we have three storylines, featuring Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Superman, that don’t seen to be at least interconnected.

    • I don’t mind if storylines are disconnected in the early issues so long as each has enough integrity in itself. You do have to give the writer a chance to weave them together over the allotted time. On the other hand, I’ll definitely be singing a different tune if in fact we get to the end and the stories never connect.

  2. I was actually pretty pleased by Wraith, who looked like some kind of Doomsday-ish character, only to be subverted with his presentation as a rather polite and professional character. It’s that kind of mix between looking brutish and dumb while being actually diplomatic in certain circumstances that makes him enjoyable. I just hope he won’t solely be used as an anti-Superman symbolism and will actually be a three-dimensional character.

    • Wraith definitely has echoes of Bane around him, especially the Bane of the Secret Six era. It would actually be kind of nice if he didn’t have to turn out to be pure antagonist and somehow part with Superman on good terms–that would actually be a surprise.

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