Superman Unchained: Reclaiming Superman

What a weird coincidence! A brand-new Superman comic debuting in comic shops and on your favorite mobile devices the same week as Zack Snyder’s big-budget Man of Steel hit theaters. And the comic is written by Scott Snyder—who is completely unrelated to Zack Snyder, actually, so, yeah, that part is a coincidence.

But the first part isn’t. Superman Unchained #1 is not just poised to take advantage of the excitement around a big splashy Hollywood production, it’s a comic that’s positioned to deliver on the same task: reclaiming Superman.

Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s Superman Unchained isn’t tied to the movie in any way, and even though the early plans for the comic included using the words “Man of Steel” somewhere in its title, this isn’t set in the cinematic universe. This is Snyder and Lee doing their take on Superman in DC’s New 52. And it’s off to a strong start.

Superman hasn’t fared particularly well since DC’s line-wide reboot back in September of 2011. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run revamped the character as a work-boots-and-jeans strongman with a social conscience before spinning the story off into a time-warped exploration of multiple realities and chronological collisions. The inconsistent art from a variety of pencillers and inkers sabotaged the narrative flow of Morrison’s story, but, even if it hadn’t, Action Comics didn’t provide a sturdy Superman for readers to grab on to. Morrison seemed more interested in exploring various iterations—and echoes—of Superman than actually pinning the character down as the rock-solid core of the new DC.

And George Perez’s first story arc on Superman wasn’t able to do that either. Perez has since discussed how difficult it was to relaunch that series while trying to follow Morrison’s lead, without actually knowing how Morrison was going to redefine the character, or how the modern-day version would behave once the backstory was completed. The bland, limp opening issues of Superman were the result of a group of creators not knowing what they were supposed to be doing but knowing that they had to pump out some issues to meet the monthly release schedule. And though writer Scott Lobdell has been teamed with occasionally excellent artists in the follow-up issues of Superman, the series still feels like a minor superhero diversion. It’s far from the heart of the DCU.

Action Comics has fared even worse. After the end of Grant Morrison’s run, incoming writer Andy Diggle quit before his first issue even reached comic shops.

Superman, as a character and concept and brand, has floundered in the New 52.

So here come Scott Snyder and Jim Lee and inker Scott Williams and colorist Alex Sinclair to set things right. To tell Superman stories worth reading. To reestablish Superman as the heart and soul of the DC Universe. To show how he can be—if I may borrow a favorite word from visionary director Zack Snyder—“awesome.”

They may not pull off all of those tricks in Superman Unchained #1, but the story’s just beginning and everything bodes well for the future of the series.

The first thing worth noting is how effectively Scott Snyder’s script pays tribute to Superman’s past while subverting it in a way that’s dramatically powerful. The issue begins with an allusion to the famous “it’s a bird, it’s a plane” radio and television line that introduced Superman to generations of fans, but in Snyder’s version, the words are spoken in Japanese, and what the young boy sees through his binoculars is a horrifying sight.

By the end of issue #1, we learn more about exactly that boy saw in the sky, and the antagonist for the opening arc comes into focus. It’s no one we’ve seen before, and yet the character immediately adds a sense of history to this rebooted Superman franchise. A sense of history, and a sense of scale. This story’s due to become explosive.

Another thing Snyder does well in Superman Unchained #1 is accelerate the pace of the scenes to match his swift-moving title character. In Snyder’s other work—even his most critically-acclaimed projects like “The Black Mirror” in Detective Comics or American Vampire or the “Court of Owls” arc in the New 52 Batman series—he has a tendency to unfold stories in an almost novelistic fashion. He lets mysteries linger and he explores character and then he spirals back toward action. But with Superman Unchained, Snyder jumps from scene to scene and Superman is constantly on the move. We shift from Japan to machines falling from the sky to a Superman rescue mission to a high-flying Lex Luthor interrogation to Clark Kent at work to undersea exploration and more.

Jim Lee and Scott Williams keep things loose and dynamic as well. This isn’t the typical, ultra-chiseled, inert Lee/Williams penciling and inking job. Lee’s layouts seem less interested in heroic action poses—though he does get a massive pull-out poster-page to use to show off—and more interested in storytelling. And Williams goes for a scratchier, fully-rendered (but not over-rendered) inking style. It’s quite a contrast to 2004-2005’s “Superman: For Tomorrow” story arc with writer Brian Azzarello. They went with statuesque splendor in that run. In Superman Unchained, they go with a bit more gritty energy.

Scott Snyder and company have a big story underway here, and yet they don’t allow the spectacle to overwhelm the characters. Superman Unchained isn’t the bombastic, overblown comic the title might imply. Not yet anyway. Instead, it’s just a good Superman comic that does a whole lot of things right and looks like it’s ready to tell a bold large-scale story worth reading. It’s about time.

Superman Unchained #1 is available now from DC Comics.

Tim Callahan grew up watching Super Friends, sure, but his first Superman comic was probably that Radio Shack giveaway where the TRS-80 saves Metropolis, so he has legit credentials.


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