Monday, June 19, 2017
Superman Unchained (comics)
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: Superman Unchained #1-9
Overall, I'd say I've read over half of the New 52 era of Superman. I've tried each creative team on Action and Superman both. On the whole, I've already kind of judged the whole endeavor - picture me as Ceasar giving the thumbs down - but there was one more piece of the puzzle to try.
That piece being Superman Unchained, a project celebrated at its announcement that feels as though it just came and went. I don't see much discussion of it, now or at the time. Strange, for a project teaming Scott Snyder, current comics golden boy, with Jim Lee, the standard bearer of DC art style for about a decade and a half. Now having read it, I can kind of understand why. Superman Unchained is perfectly fine, but doesn't really rise past that point, which is surprising given the talent involved.
A long time ago, American scientists sent an equation into space, asking for help from aliens, because I guess that's a thing you do. I don't know, maybe we've done it in real life. Regardless, something answered, an alien crash landed and America had its own "Superman", Wraith, who it's kept as a well guarded secret for over a hundred years. He was the second "bomb" dropped on Nagasaki in World War II and it turns out much of the worlds technology stemmed from this original alien visitor. In the present day, Superman is now forced to come face to face with Wraith, as well as the US army, led by Sam Lane, who if you cannot recall, is a dick.
There are other elements in play, including a terrorist group screwing things up, but they are the most after of thoughts. They blow themselves up halfway through the collection after they set off every nuke in the world and are just kind of swept under the rug after driving half the plot, just to get to the goods of Lane attacking the Fortress of Solitude with the Army and Wraith in a bid to kill Superman and take his technology.
That might even be the problem in itself. A lot of the threats end in a bit of a whimper, or don't have the gravity they probably should. As mentioned, the terrorist group Ascension just kind of blow themselves up. Wraith is beaten intelligently, but his change of heart has absolutely no build-up. The big alien menace ready to invade feels like a last minute hail mary of a plot point that is teased in the second to last issue, only to show up in the last issue, just to be dealt with. Even Luthor, who escapes mid-way through the book before enacting a plan - which involves Jimmy Olsen ending up in the Artic for no reason I can fathom - to get Superman to blow himself up to save us all, is re-captured by Superman off panel.
Wraith is a bit frustrating, because I don't feel like his conflict with Superman was mined like it could have been. He's very much a soldier, like Lane, who works for his country, believes in it and is upset that Superman doesn't directly tie himself to its cause, going so far as to ask why Superman doesn't turn over all the alien technology to the US. Lane has his own spiel about how Superman is a coward, because at least he and Wraith directly target threats and stop them, potentially saving lives, while Superman is, in Lanes view, a mass murderer because he's unwilling to get his hands dirty and concerned more with staying above the fray.
Superman never has a proper rebuttal that I can think of, or at least he doesn't directly confront the accusations in any meaningful way, which is disappointing because he could give any number of reasons as to why. It would not play well with the more "patriotic" among us - see the overblown, frankly dumb uproar over that one back-up where Superman renounced his American citizenry for an example - but there's a point to be made about how America is typically an aggressor, actively imposing our will and exerting influence in various regions of the world as it is, without even more advanced alien technology only they would have backing them up. There's the idea that it places too much importance and power in one place, too, an idea that resonates even more right now. Superman even passes up the opportunity to comment on how Sam Lane and Wraiths go-to option when he won't kneel and kiss the ring is to kill him, blow up the fortress and take it all. Would you really want people like that to have more power and tech?
The most we get is during the big fight with Wraith, when he's defeated and Superman starts in with a "Shut Up, Hannibal" speech. But instead of bringing up anything that illuminated his position or poked holes in any of the philosophical or metaphorical attacks on his character, he just verbally attacks Wraiths reliance on an army for back-up, while Supermans loner status left him learning how to fight out of necessity. It's the last we see of Wraith until he commits a heroic sacrifice in Supermans place, for no reason I can fathom. Superman didn't really say anything that might have caused him to "see the light" or make that choice, rather than let Superman die so he could live to keep fighting for his country.
Most of the problem seems to be in the back third of the book, where everything is racing toward the conclusion. It almost feels as though the series got cut short, which is why all these plot points and opportunities were resolved in an unsatisfactory way. Maybe it was. I think Unchained was supposed to be an ongoing, or was at least suggested to be such, before it ran into delays; as I recall, it took a year and a half to put out nine issues, so if that's what happened, it makes sense, but might have hurt the overall material.
Even Jim Lee's work doesn't help and might even actively hinder the material. Some of it might be personal preference; it has been a long decade and change since Batman: Hush and Jim Lee's style and sensibilities set the tone for DC for much of the time after, so it's been around a lot. I figured it might just be an issue with me falling out of love with Lee's style, which is thick with extraneous lines and not nearly as eye catching to me today as it was ten years ago. But the more I read, the more I thought that the problem might be elsewhere and not even relate entirely to Lee.
We don't think much about the inkers and colorists unless something goes very right or horribly wrong. After all, there's not a lot to talk about compared to things like the general style of the linework or the story, so they very much end up the unsung heroes of comic books. I could be wrong, but I think that Jim Lee has used the same inker and colorist for all of his work over the years. Having read the prior Jim Lee pencilled Superman story - the Brian Azzarello written For Tomorrow arc - as well as Unchained, I think that the usual choice of color, tone and use of shadow of this team might simply be unsuited for a solo Superman tale.
Coming off Son of Superman, I found I very much preferred the simple, brighter shades employed with Superman, a character who embodies light and hope. Keep in mind that I say this not intending to directly compare the two jobs or praise one over the other - they're both different styles, both are good and both could be superior for different projects - but I think of the difference in the details of how this book portrays something as simple as space compared to that story. In the opening pages of Unchained, where we kick off with an admittedly exciting, very Superman task of saving a falling space station, space is very black, almost oppressively dark in that sense, with only the stars breaking up that feeling. In Son of Supermans final issue, space is brighter, with the glow of the planet and the moon turning into gradients of blue, green and even purple.
Regardless, I should note that the work of Lee and his team is far stronger here than it was for the opening volumes of Geoff Johns run on Justice League. I remember that everything felt a bit more rushed and less detailed there than usual, likely owed to Lee being forced to let up to meet the then-ironclad monthly schedule the New 52 was determined to honor. Unchained was its own thing, divorced from the general goings on of the rest of the line, as opposed to Justice League, which was the first book of the New 52. Unchained could be delayed. It shows, because it's a marked improvement over Justice League. If you like Jim Lees art and have none of the issues I did, you'll enjoy looking at this book.
To loop back to writing, there are things to enjoy there, as well. One thing I noticed, and appreciated, is that Snyder portrays Superman and Batman as friends, with no large amount of tension or bull. Batman is prepared, just in case, but is ready to help Superman out when he needs it, does not seem particularly suspicious of him or his motives and is even appreciated by Superman, who remarks at one point that it's good to have paranoid friends. It's enough to make you want a Scott Snyder penned Batman/Superman title. Better still, while Batman is around and helps, he's a supplement to Superman and even when he has a standout moment, like when he holds the line against Wraith in the Batcave until Superman arrives, it doesn't feel like he's hogging page time. Superman has his friends and relies on them while still showing he's able to get the job done alone.
By the way, this thing apparently had an obscene amount of variant covers, because there's like a million of the things. Yeah, I know, that's hyperbolic. I'll clarify. Apparently, the nine issue run had fifty variant covers through its run. I counted. The cover gallery - with script pages for the first issue and raw Jim Lee pencils - are close to a third of the book. Not saying this is a bad thing, it just surprised me. Quite a few of them are nice to look at, with plenty of homages, so hey, it's a decent extra. I like being able to see the alternate covers in the trade anyway.
Thus far, this is Scott Snyders sole work with Superman. It's a shame, as I get the feeling that he does genuinely get the character and would do well with one of the two ongoings. His work with Batman seems to be winding down for now, so perhaps he'll follow Tomasi's lead over to the other half of the Worlds Finest team for a proper run in the future. I'd be willing to read it. But as for this, I can't give it a hearty recommendation. It might do more for you than me, so check your library system, I guess.
My Opinion: Try It