Superman Unchained #1
Writer: Scott Snyder
Pencils: Jim Lee & Dustin Nguyen
Inks: Scott Williams
Colors: Alex Sinclair & John Kalisz
Letters: Sal Cipriano
Cover artists: Jim Lee & Scott Williams (regular edition)/Brett Booth & Norm Rapmund; Bruce Timm; Dan Jurgens & Rapmund; Dave Johnson; Jerry Ordway; Jose Luis Garcia Lopez; Lee Bermejo; and Neal Adams (variants)
Editor: Matt Idelson
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99 US
The manager at my local comic shop today noted instead of a $5 Jim Lee comic book, I could pick up Gerard Way’s new comic or maybe something more offbeat such as Boom!’s new Six-Gun Gorilla. While I’m interested in those comics, I told him I saw it as spending five bucks on a new Scott Snyder comic, and I pointed to the strength of his work on Batman and, more recently, The Wake. He acknowledged Snyder’s name was a better reason for buying a comic book than Lee’s. But damn, I should have listened to him. I definitely could have done better with my fin than this exercise in excess and confusion.
Satellites are falling to Earth, and Superman races against physics to keep thousands of tons of metal and circuitry from raining down on the heads of innocents below (and to save the lives of a couple of astronauts manning a new space station). While many believe a new anti-tech terrorist organization is responsible, Superman’s investigation points to a different source: Lex Luthor, but he’s en route to a new high-security prison in the bay by Metropolis. It turns out Superman wasn’t alone in his effort to prevent catastrophe, and little does he know there’s another superhuman hidden away from the world who’s played a secret but vital role in history over the past several decades.
I’d read and was informed by my comics retailer this issue included a fold-out posted that was glued into the comic rather than stapled, but after only a couple of pages, I quickly discovered it wasn’t a poster but instead a super-sized, detached page on which the story continued to unfold (literally) on both sides. As I eased the “page” off the cardboard insert to which it was adhered, I thought the creators must have reserved a particularly novel, inventive and pain-in-the-ass bit of comics storytelling for a powerful moment in the story. But no, instead, I found a jumbled scene, which at first looks like Superman doing harm rather than saving lives. There’s nothing iconic about the splash page or the visuals, and since the art is adorned by a lot of lettering, it doesn’t even really work as a poster.
Overall, Jim Lee’s linework throughout the issue was a disappointment. Every page is just so cluttered. The action — both with the crashing space station and the out-of-control helicopter — is hard to follow, in part because some of the art is rather sketchy and loose, as though it was rushed. Every panel seems overdone, and unfortunately, a less-is-more philosophy doesn’t seem to be something with which Lee was concerned when working on this project. Furthermore, the antagonist revealed on the final page of the main story boasts a design that reflects the character’s raw power and apparent malevolence, but it’s also not clear or easily reproduced (at least how the look stands now).
The issue boasts a two-page epilogue pencilled by Dustin Nguyen, whose darker, sketchy style suits the tone of the scene in question. Unfortunately, things don’t unfold all that clearly here either. Furthermore, it seems odd to bring in another penciller for such a brief scene, as did the decision to present it almost as a separate piece.
The opening scene, which “reveals” a secret bit of World War II history and suggests there’s been a superhuman around for a lot longer than the five- or six-year history of DC’s New 52, starts off on a strong note, as Snyder evokes a classic Superman phrase with a poignant and grounded perspective on a monumentous real-world event. But his choice to change the cause of an important moment in history with a super-hero genre element didn’t sit well with me. I’m not sure why, as it wouldn’t be the first time a writer offered an alternative explanation or included a genre element in a real-world tragedy. Maybe it’s because Snyder and Lee so effectively hold our attention with an innocent from “reality” that the impossibility of a superhuman element seems to encroach on his story, somehow tainting it. I’m not sure, but I do know I was a bit uncomfortable with it.
The one aspect of the plot I did find interesting was the journalism-focused scene involving Clark, Jimmy and Lois. I don’t think Snyder has the ins and outs of newspaper production quite right, but some of the lingo worked. Furthermore, I like the notion leaving the Planet behind to tell the sorts of stories he wants to tell, but it’s not clear how he’s doing it — his own blog, an online publication or a rival paper? Jimmy visits Clark somewhere as he works, but I can’t tell if it’s an office or Clark’s apartment. There’s no sense of place, no sense of professional context for the journalism discussion, and that’s unfortunate.
The Luthor scene is far too brief and seemed more like an afterthought, a quick explanation for the opening scene that doesn’t actually have all that much to do with the central plot. I’d hoped for more from this tense encounter between the iconic hero and his arch-nemesis, but the scene felt cramped and rushed. Snyder certainly seems to be hinting at another plotline here, referring to the M.A.W. prison, but the acronym seems more laughable than menacing.
Finally, the very title of this new series seems ill-conceived. First of all, if one searches the term “unchained” on Google, what arises is a barrage of links to articles about the fairly recent Django Unchained film, and the figurative chains binding the Man of Steel are clearly far more different than the literal ones linked to the character portrayed by Jamie Foxx. Nevertheless, DC clearly wanted to have a new first issue by two of its top talents to pump up its numbers, but given Grant Morrison’s recent exodus from Action Comics (as well as writer Andy Diggle’s quick exit from the book), it would have made more sense to have Snyder and Lee on that book rather than launch another ongoing title for a character that can’t really sustain this many books. This is clearly going to be DC’s biggest seller while the other two Superman titles are destined to languish, but once Lee and Snyder are done here, it’ll be Unchained that’ll end up getting the axe, no doubt. This new launch is all about short-term gains rather than a long-term plan to shore up one of the two established Superman titles. 3/10
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.