Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Superman Unchained #1

Superman Unchained #1, the highly anticipated new title by current DC mega-star writer Scott Snyder and industry legend artist Jim Lee, came out this week. There was certainly a huge amount of pubilicity for this book. Innumerable interviews and articles talked about the creative team and their approach to the Man of Steel. It came out on the week that the Man of Steel movie is opening, adding a surge of mainstream interest. It came with a slew of variant covers by incredible artists. And it included a previewed 'fold-out' poster page which was actually part of the story. With all that coming before, I wondered if the story itself could hold up to the crushing weight of pre-expectations.

Surprisingly, despite the double-edged sword of hype, I was very very happy with the story. Did it completely floor me? No. But was it a solid Superman story with great characterization and some nice nuances which made it my favorite book of the week.

If there is one thing that I have come to realize ... and it is a sad thing ... is that it is becoming rarer for me to read a Superman book where he is written right, with the right ideals and right personality. So when I read characterization that is consistent with what I want to see in Superman, I am happy. It almost makes the action secondary. Here, Snyder captures Superman's characterization nicely (as well as Jimmy and Lois) and has a great plot as well.

Jim Lee's art is a bit rougher than I am used to seeing but it works with the early part of the story, a frenetic rescue.

The story starts in 1945 Japan where a young boy in Nagasaki looks up to the sky and through binoculars and sees the actual 'atomic bomb' which levels the town. Except, it isn't a simple bomb. The skin of the bomb peels away to reveal a 'human bomb' who explodes and destroys the city. Within the binocular's view, the boy witnesses the utter destruction of the city. Snyder even plays off the 'it's a bird ... it's a plane' Superman line as this being plummets like a missile.

We heard that Snyder wanted to talk about weaponizing super-humans and this is that idea brought to fruition here. It wasn't American know-how which 'conquered the atom'. It is a metahuman. So who is this human bomb? The Human Bomb? Hmmm ... certainly that would play into a WW2 motif. And does this idea explain the names of the atomic bombs in military code back then? Is there a 'Fat Man', 'Thin Man', and 'Little Boy'?

That said, the date of the Nagasaki bombing was August 9th, 1945 ... not April 9th, 1945 as written in the issue.

Flashing forward to the present, Superman has been busy. For some reason, eight space objects - satellites or stations - have plummeted to Earth over the course of the day. It can't be coincidence. We hear he has stopped six. The seventh is going to crash on an abandoned US military base near the Andaman sea off the coast of Thailand.

The bulk of this early story is Superman saving the eighth falling star - the 'top secret' multinational Lighthouse station, a sort of stop-over site for deep space travel.

One thing I like about this sequence is Superman's internal monologue as he goes about this delicate rescue operation. He initially compares a drop into atmosphere with his jumping into hay in Smallville. Here, we see a little bit behind the mask of the confidant and placid exterior Superman. Here he reminds himself he needs to talk to the astronauts to calm them and make them feel safe.

It is here that the fold-out page comes into play. I have to say that, for me, this was gratuitous and even unnecessary. The careful unfolding and refolding of the page broke the sort of early excitement in me as a reader and took me out of the story.

That internal monologue sort of humanizes Superman, shows us a little bit of the Clark inside him. Here he almost sounds a little nervous as he tries to figure out how to deactivate the stations nuclear power core so that this thing doesn't become a massive nuclear strike.

After pleading with himself to think about an answer, he uses some ingenuity. Snyder has Superman be able to manipulate the EM spectrum of his vision to go from X-rays to gamma rays. And that flood of gamma radiation shorts out the electrical wiring of the nuclear pile, shutting it down.

I suppose if his eyes can emit x-rays and infrared rays, why not gamma radiation.

And when Superman finally delivers the station's crew to Earth safely while crashing the satellite in a safe place, he has to tell himself to take a deep breath.

So much works here. Calling himself Clark (not Kal). Pausing to regain his composure, to once again exude the Superman-ness, that confidence,  that 'I had this handled all along' easy smile when knowing he was unsure, shows us what is inside the man. While we might see an infallible being, he is working hard to do what's right.

This sort of humbleness, turning away any recognition while telling the astronaut that this is his moment to get into the world record book, is perfect Superman. You could almost expect him to wink at the camera!

Still, eight satellites don't just plummet out of the sky. While a terrorist group called Ascension is mentioned, Superman goes to the most likely candidate to perform such tremendous terrorism ... Luthor.

Turns out Luthor is still imprisoned, being shuttled from one site to another. And while the two exchange barbs, Snyder gives us some exposition. Luthor is helping power Metropolis by designing a clean energy source for the city ... a solar tower.

So Luthor's face doesn't seem to carry the scars we have seen in Scott Lobdell's books. He also isn't in the 'solo prison' site he was seen in there either. And why would anyone put Luthor in a helicopter with other convicts to move him to a different prison? Isn't that asking for trouble? And given all he has done, would anyone actually trust Luthor to build an innocent energy source?

With the panic over, Superman becomes Clark and becomes a journalist again. On his website, Clark publishes an interview he got with one of the rescued astronauts.

He has an interesting conversation with Jimmy who has a sort of cool slacker sensibility here. Jimmy thinks it is great that Clark stuck it to the Planet. While Clark talks about wanting to write the human interest angles about news stories, something the Planet wasn't allowing anymore.

I still don't think Clark not being at the Planet is a good long-term move.

Nor do I think that he is actually being a good journalist. Lois calls him to tell him that any story about the rescued astronaut needs to include the fact that Superman rescued the crew. Clark didn't mention Superman at all. I suppose it helps Clark from an ethical journalistic viewpoint since he isn't writing about himself. But doesn't Clark's covering only the human interest angle seem like a waste of his investigative journalistic skills.

Clark didn't mention Superman. He didn't mention Ascension (who we are told again that as a terrorist group it is too small to pull off something like this - a guarantee that they are big enough). And he didn't mention that the eighth satellite was pushed off course into the sea, something Lois assumes was done by Superman.

I definitely liked Snyder's take on Lois. She seems more in control of the Planet than Perry White. She is smart and strong and sure of herself. And she challenges Clark. How many people can say they can do that. No wonder he loves her.

Of course Superman knows he didn't push that satellite away from the US base. So he goes to investigate. The satellite is in the ocean and a handprint is impressed into it's hull. A huge handprint in comparison to Superman's. If it wasn't him ... or Diana or Hal ... it is someone new.

His investigation is interrupted by a US submarine who ... of course ... fires on Superman. I have said it other places and I will say it again. I am completely exhausted with seeing Superman fighting American troops. It is has been omnipresent these last years. I would love to see Superman working with the troops at some point, protecting the American way with the military.

Anyways, I thought this panel showed the sort of roughness to Lee's art. Doesn't that last panel have an almost Frank Miller feel to it?

It turns out that the 'abandoned' US base isn't so abandoned. Deep below the surface is a working military site commanded by General Lane! It is an odd mix of big weapons and tanks but also with a farm, a small church, a sort of phony small town USA. And that seems to be there not for the army but for the 'first Superman' who lives there. It was this guy who pushed the satellite aside, saving his ersatz home town.

Clearly this is the same guy as the Nagasaki bomb agent. So who is this? There is a sort of star/eagle feel to that energy logo on his chest. Could it be a dark version of the parody character General Glory? The new Human Bomb? A re-imagining of Damage? Cyclotron?

The issue ends with an epilogue with art by Dustin Nyugen.

It is a back and forth story. We see Perry White talking to Jimmy about some old binoculars his great-uncle gave him. They are from ground zero at Nagasaki where his uncle was stationed. The story opened with those binoculars seeing the bomb-man. It closes with the same lenses, that shadow of the bomb-man again seen in the reflection. It is a nice image which mirrors Perry's warning about how that strike was the beginning of a lot of terrible things.

But mingled in with this life lesson by Perry are panels of a fishing vessel which picks up a man whose eyes are burned out ... asking for Lois??

Overall I thought this was a very good introductory issue. Take away the fussy fold-out and the standard 'Superman vs the Army' angle here and I would have been thrilled. Those things took just a smidge away from the experience.

Otherwise, Snyder was able to capture the essence of Superman, Clark, and Lois. And the rescue scene with that internal monologue worked very well. And we have a great hook and cliffhanger to make me want more.

Overall grade: B+/A


Martin Gray said...

Yes indeed Anj, this is a very good first issue. I do hope, though, that Perry gives Lois a good talking to about her forgetting the limits of her job - he's the boss, she defers to him ... yeah, Lois can be a pushy broad, but she, Clark and Jimmy should remember they're working for one of the greatest newsmen the US has ever seen.

End of rant (I love Perry!).

Hmm, I'll have to look again at the comic later, I remember Clark mentioning that Lois might accuse him of burying the lede , but I didn't notice that he'd not mentioned Superman at all. That would be dumb, it's one thing to have a different angle on a story, but the basic facts should be there ... the readers have to know HOW the astronchap was saved.

I'm with you, totally - Clark needs to be back at the Planet.

Count Drunkula said...

I thought this issue was pretty good, enough so that I'll stick with it for a few months to see where Snyder is going with this story.

The highpoint was the entire rescue sequence at the beginning. I loved Superman using Gamma radiation vision, and his comments to the astronauts during and after the crisis. The whole thing felt very big and epic and deserving of Superman.

Since I haven't been following the titular SUPERMAN series in the New 52, I'm not current on Clark, Lois and Jimmy's occupational status. Lois criticizing Clark's writing was surprising; not my favorite part.

As for the human bomb plot line… I guess I would rather see something more reminiscent of classic Superman villains than whatever the heck that thing was at the end.

Like the first year of JUSTICE LEAGUE, I think this book would be much improved with a different artist at the helm. Jim Lee, even during his '90s peak, which is when I first started collecting comics regularly, has never been my favorite artist, and I don't think he's improved with age. The designs for his new villains, like Graves in JUSTICE LEAGUE and this Human Bomb look like rejects from Top Cow's WITCHBLADE series. I don't get a DC feel from them.

But aside from that, I did enjoy the issue. Like I said, I'll give it another month or two, and then see what Greg Pak does on ACTION.

Jay said...

I enjoyed it. I thought Lee's art was a disappointingly sloppy, but I liked the setup for the story. As always with Snyder my question is with pay-off, but we'll cross that bridge when it comes. I wish we'd see a bit more of the wit and "edge" (hate that term but can't think of anything better) to Superman that Morrison and Lobdell gave him. I've grown accustomed to a little fire to the guy, I admit. I was glad though to see that his Lex seemed to be right out of Superman #15, which was great because Lobdell's written the best Lex to date within the relaunch.

Kandou Erik said...

I was an awesome first issue. I certainly don't want it to become a trend - but that 4-page spread really did wow me in the context of the story.

Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Looks like we all thought this was a very solid first issue. That's good news!

Phillyradiogeek said...

Not to sidetrack the topic, but I didn't know Pak was taking over Action. Great news!