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Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Superman Unchained #1

Since the beginning of DC's reboot, we have seen quite a few books take off and successfully retool their characters under the correct writing/drawing team.  One of The New 52's biggest success stories would easily be the team of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo.  With their work on Batman, this team has been able to create a new villain in the form of the Court of Owls while also putting their signature stamp on Batman's greatest foe: the Joker.  It was only a natural choice, then, that the writer DC asked to pen a new Superman series would be Scott Snyder.  Despite being one of the most recognizable characters on the planet, Superman has not had a ton of luck since The New 52 began.  Superman has floundered and Action Comics has begun its downward spiral after Grant Morrison, whose run received deeply mixed reactions, stepped away from the title.  Amidst all this trouble, enter Superman Unchained, a new Superman book that DC hopes will reinvigorate the character in the comics just as Man of Steel will seek to do the same in film.  Scott Snyder is paired with notable artist Jim Lee on this new comic, so it would seem the stars are aligned for a good book.  But can The New 52 stand a third Superman title without feeling like too much, or will Superman Unchained rise to the occasion to become the only Superman comic you need to read?  Find out after the jump!

After beginning with a brief scene before the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 Japan, we are brought to the present, where Superman has had to stop a number of objects falling from space.  The latest object: a massive space station that was meant to mark the beginning of a new worldwide mission to explore space.  Motives are in question as Superman is unsure of who exactly could be behind this attack, especially since the evidence points to a number of sources.  While the answers may remain unclear, there is much more at work than Clark Kent or Lois Lane may realize.

Easily the biggest question surrounding Superman Unchained for this reviewer was how smoothly writer Scott Snyder would be able to make the transition to writing for a character like Superman after spending so much time with Batman over the past three years.  This may seem like a silly question, but it is a skill few writers possess: understanding both Batman and Superman so well that you can write stories for both of them without feeling repetitive.  Batman is easily DC's most popular superhero right now, perhaps because we live in such dark and brooding times and the people want a hero who looks more like them and reflects the times we live in.  This is perhaps the reason Superman has become such a tough sale in the 21st Century: many feel that the values he supports represent a time that is long gone away.  Enough cannot be said about how well Snyder writes Batman, but can he take the reins on Superman and work to move him away from this threat of irrelevancy to the newer generation?  The answer is, fortunately, yes.  Snyder does a more than adequate job of handling the character.  Though it cannot truly be said until we are a few issues further into the series, it does appear that Snyder may have just as much of an understanding of the inner-workings of Superman as he does Batman.  As Superman is struggling to keep a space station with a nuclear engine and its astronauts from falling to the Earth, Snyder provides brilliant inner-monologuing for the character.  It was interesting to see Superman's thought processes while he saves people: having to remind himself to breath, reminding himself to comfort the astronauts and tell them they would be okay, etc.  Yes, the sections of this issue that contain Superman are quite nice and it will be intriguing to see the way Snyder expands upon this.

So, sure, Snyder handles Superman well, but what about Clark Kent and the life that surrounds him?  That...is less stellar.  Clark Kent feels a bit distracted the entire time he is in this issue.  It is understandable that being Superman is difficult work, but Clark never truly feels like a character in this issue: just Superman with glasses on.  Hopefully Snyder will do a bit more with Clark Kent later on as it feels like he was only there in the first place so that new readers would be able to recognize the common tropes of a Superman story.  Bruce Wayne may not always like having to parade around in that identity, but Clark does not necessarily feel the same.  As far as the aspects of Clark Kent's life go, this issue seems to leave a bit up to knowing current New 52 continuity.  Most new readers will be very confused as to why Clark is not working for the Daily Planet with Lois and Jimmy.  Though Clark explains his reason for the new job, it seems like more of a service to those who may be reading Superman  and Action Comics and would like all of the books to be part of a cohesive unit.  Jimmy Olsen is perhaps the strongest written of all of the supporting characters in this issue.  Snyder definitely seems to have a hang of writing Jimmy, though he is barely present for this story.  Snyder's version of Lois has a bit of a "been there, done that" feel to her as there seems to be no real spin on her character.  This is something which can be corrected with time, but it would be nice to see Snyder really dig in deeper to Lois' character.  One thing with Lois and The Daily Planet which feels entirely confusing, however, is the access to technology available to employees.  We all know that the newspaper industry in our world is about at its lowest point since they began printing newspapers, but somehow The Daily Planet in this universe is able to afford hologram projectors.  What we see Lois Lane using in this issue to edit the latest edition of the Planet feels like something more at home in Tony Stark's lab than at a newspaper.  Although Snyder cannot be faulted too much for this, it serves as a reminder of the disconnect Superman has had with audiences lately when not even The Daily Planet feels representative of our times.

Where this issue mostly does service to new readers is in its villains.  Yes, plural.  As Superman is unsure as to who could be behind the assortment of objects falling from the sky, this gives Snyder the chance to show off a number of potential culprits.  Since this will most likely be a book many new comic readers pick up immediately after seeing Man of Steel, DC and Snyder cater to that market by putting Lex Luthor in this issue.  Though Lex is written somewhat well in this issue, there are definitely some great subtle moments that show his intellect, it ultimately does not amount to anything more than a "hey, you guys know who he is, right?" moment.  Luthor reveals to Superman that he has a plan for building a solar tower in Metropolis (much like the recent work Bruce Wayne has done in Gotham in Snyder's Batman) so perhaps that will be expanded upon a little bit more in further issues.  Perhaps one reason this issue does not feel as complete as possible is that there is not really an actual villain.  There is a bit of a twist with the military at the end of the issue which seems to point to the main antagonistic force of the entire first arc, but there is not much here standing in Superman's way.  The villain teased at the end of the issue does not appear to be anything associated with previous DC continuity.  This could be an exciting aspect of the coming issues as Snyder has already proven with the Court of Owls and James Gordon Junior that he is more than capable of coming up with some fantastic original villains.  Fingers crossed that whatever villain Snyder has in store for us is just as memorable.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of this issue is the story.  This issue contains a lot of exposition.  While things start out a little light on explanation with the Nagasaki flashback (done very well) and Superman stopping the space station, we are then launched into an all out assault of speech bubbles telling us what is going on.  Superman Unchained definitely hits the ground running here.  So much so that one almost forgets that they are reading the first issue of a brand new series, but more a long-running series beginning a new arc.  It could be that the small learning curve of continuity could be the reason for this feeling as Snyder does a good job of making this comic fit in with what has already been said so far in The New 52.  What is most troubling about this issue is that what little story we have feels eerily similar to a Batman story.  While this may be because Snyder currently writes Batman, the general mystery surrounding this issue does not really feel like the kind of story one would expect from Superman.  An internet-based terror group called The Ascension and Lex Luthor are the prime suspects in the falling objects mystery, but no one seems satisfied with either explanation, allowing for the mystery to continue into the next issue.  It should be said that it is not a bad thing for Superman to do more of a mystery story; in fact, it is a concept which could be handled in a very intriguing way considering the abilities of the character.  The reason this feels like so much of a slight is entirely predicated on knowing the guy writing the issue also tells Batman stories.  Hopefully Snyder will develop on this mystery in a different way in the coming issues or do away with it entirely as it all just feels a little too close to home here.

With Jim Lee providing the art for this issue, you know you will be in for a treat.  Though he may not be everyone's cup of tea, you cannot deny that Jim Lee knows his way around a comic book.  His splash pages are utterly beautiful and DC knows this.  DC knows this so much that they converted one of the pages of this issue into a fold out poster.  It could be a nice decoration for one's wall if you don't mind the thought boxes being in the way, but it is a distraction to those who don't want the poster when it keeps falling out as you attempt to read the issue.  As for the rest of the comic, Jim Lee does some great things here and the issue is beautiful as a whole.  Lee has always done a great job drawing Superman, but he looks even better here (in large part due to the awesome costume he has in The New 52).  Hopefully Jim Lee stays on this book as long as Snyder as the two are surprisingly a great pair.  Good writing is met with stunning artwork in this comic.

If you find yourself walking out of Man of Steel wanting to begin regularly reading Superman comics, you could certainly do a lot worse than Superman Unchained.  The issue, though, is not without its problems.  Continuity from other books is met with new reader service in a very awkward way.  Not to mention, the annoying fold out poster raises the price of the issue to a ridiculous $4.99.  That being said, there is enough good stuff here to keep one coming back for more.  Snyder has a really good handle on Superman and the way he works and there's room for improvement with how he covers the Clark Kent side of things.  Jim Lee does excellent work as always.  Both of these elements come together for a good, but not great first issue.  It may not be the Superman comic that saves the character in The New 52 just yet, but, after a few issues, it just might get there.

Rating: B+

Summary: Superman Unchained #1 tries its hardest to balance a new story, continuity from The New 52, and being accessible to new readers and is mostly successful for it.  The story is a little weak thus far, but this comic has a ton of potential.
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