Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: Superman Unchained #9

Superman Unchained #9 came out this week, the last issue of this title which has, despite delays, been one of the better books that I have read over the last year. Yes, it took 16 months for 9 issues to come out. But in this story we got a classic Superman, a very strong and very classic Lois, a plotting Luthor, and the Wraith, an version of Superman had the government raised him (a sort of DC version of Marvel's Hyperion which is a version of DC's Superman).

Writer Scott Snyder had multiple plots rolling along through the book and I have been waiting for them to all come together. Last issue, it felt like it all came to a head. All the players were suddenly in the same place. But it felt a little rushed. It was as if DC realized the delays were slowing the momentum of the book, that it couldn't go 12 issues (which the pace would have supported), and that the plug needed to be pulled.

As a result, this last issue also felt even more rushed. Everything needed to be brought to a conclusion. And we sprinted to that finish line. That doesn't mean there weren't great moments. But I actually wanted more here. In this day and age, with disposable stories, with decompression, with event after event, it is rare for me to want a plot to take longer to roll out, for a story to fit nicely into the '6 issue trade' format. And, in my heart, I blame Jim Lee. I think he couldn't keep the deadlines which sort of derailed this book.

For a last issue, this one works well. It does feel a little rushed. But Snyder does a great job of mixing both high action with a sort of philosophical discussion on what Superman is, how he inspires. And that feel makes the ending of this book that much sadder.

Unfortunately, it also means that I won't be reading this Lois anymore, one of the biggest draws for the book.

Last issue, Lex revealed that the alien race behind the Earthstone and Wraith being on the planet were mobilizing a space fleet to attack Earth. And only he, Lex, has come up with a solution. He has given Superman a 'solar injection' that will super-power him briefly before making him explode. It is a suicide mission that will save Earth.

As I said before, I absolutely love Lois in this book. And I have loved the interaction between Lois and Superman in this book. It has a classic feel to it. It feels right. And the moments are powerful.

Here is one example. Superman realizes that he has to do this to save Earth, he has to sacrifice himself. And when Lois tells him he can't go he tells her he has to. It is the right thing to do and he knows it is the right thing to do because it is what Lois would do. Lois has earned his respect and admiration. He is inspired by her. Wonderful.

And having his head tilted down, eyes in the shadows, you know that he doesn't want to do this. But he has to. Nice art.

And then this moment right after.

This hug in the snow. And these inset panels. You know that she wants to tell him that she loves him. You know that he feels the same, a close up of his gripping her arm, almost steadying himself for the emotional impact of the statement.

But then she doesn't ....

Is it because she is still too scared to say it? Is it that DC said she can't say it?

It was delicious as a missed opportunity. How many of us have wanted to tell someone we have feelings for them only to swallow the words?

One of the more interesting creative choices in the book is to have several pages of 'other story' in each issue by Dustin Nguyen. Here it is a very rough mud-colored flashback where we see Clark's compassion. The Kent's paranoid neighbor has pictures of Clark flying and threatens the family, including Ma. In a fit of rage, Clark simply lashes out, screaming super-loud and frightening the man into a heart attack.

Semi-surprisingly, Ma goes for the easy out. Let the man die. It isn't *really* Clark's fault and their secrets will stay safe.

But Clark isn't going there. He isn't a weapon. He is going to try to save the man.

We'll see how this fits into the story in a bit.

With the story careening to an end, we need to have some exposition. And so Lex gives us a very succinct, very tidy explanation of everything.

The Wraith and the Earthstone were sent to our planet by aliens hoping to cultivate us ... like a crop garden ... to then come and reap the benefits. I guess that'll have to do for understanding everything that has happened.

But the fleet is approaching. And through the Earthstone, they have taken over all technology. The world is helpless.

In another interesting sort of choice, Luthor provides the majority of the text the rest of the issue, as a voice over.

He talks about creating a program where he could track Superman's energy pattern around the planet. This being Lex, he hoped to find a couple of big spikes of energy, hoping to see where Superman is concentrating his efforts.

Instead, Lex finds a sort of even spread. Superman is helping everybody a little bit.

And as usual, Lex just doesn't get it. Instead of seeing this a Superman shedding a little light on everyone, he views it as Superman being a failure. Instead of seeing this as Superman holding people up, he thinks that Superman is stumbling. Instead of seeing this as Superman letting people find their own way unless he needs to step in, he sees it as Superman avoiding a chance to wring the world into shape.

It is why Lex is Lex and Superman is Superman.

As suggested by Lex, the alien fleet is imposing. And its ships are quickly able to batter Superman into a withered, dying hero. There is definitely a feeling like the drained Superman in the last act of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns.

I have read this scene a couple of times so I would love to hear what people thought.

We see The Wraith arrive, grab the solar injection from Superman, and use it on himself to stop the fleet, sacrificing himself instead of Superman.

Initially I thought this was a sign of just how inspiring Superman is. The Wraith, unaware that he was a vanguard for these aliens, decides to save the Earth and save Superman. Superman was the Wraith's enemy. But Superman also inspired.

Then I thought that The Wraith, so intent on the mission, so ingrained in the military life, serving General Lane, might do this not because Superman has inspired but simply because it is his duty. Superman looks like he is dying. Why wouldn't the Wraith pick up the proverbial gun and fight the enemy.

But I guess it is the former, not the latter.

Because we then go back to the flashback, see Clark rescue the neighbor with some Super-CPR. This man is incredulous that Clark would save him when he was so intent on hurting Clark.

It is lessons like this ... helping everyone, even your enemy ... that are the core of Superman.

And apparently, even Luthor sort of gets it in the end.

This magical equation that started all of this was aspirational. Its solution was the betterment of humanity. And Luthor finally gets it.

Superman is the answer to that equation. It isn't that Superman  is going to better humanity by setting himself up as the instrument to achieve that. It is that Superman wants us to help each other. And he'll do the same. He'll help us when he can, when he should. But he wants us to pick up the cause as well.

By inspiring us, we will inspire others, and everyone gets better. Maybe Superman is the answer to that equation after all.

And as we read that, we see The Wraith sacrifice himself.

Not a bad little sequence.

But just as this issue started with a great Lois moment, the book ends with one as well.

It isn't a Superman/Lois moment. It is a Clark/Lois moment.

While Clark nurses his wounds in Smallville, Lois contacts him. There is a sort of playful competitive banter about who is going to post the better article - Lois' huge expose of the alien invasion or Clark's blogpiece on folks who survived one of the plane crashes that happened during the Earthstone event. But then you can see how much they care. Lois talks about Clark's courage for risking his career on the blog. She tells him he is missed.

This just reads right. I don't get good Lois/Clark/Superman in other books right now.

(Of course, this scene is also a way for Snyder to try to nudge this more firmly into continuity. Initially it felt like Clark was at the Planet in this book.)

So how do I grade this?

This was a good if fast ending to this story. I liked the sort of thesis on Superman's character during the fight. I liked reading Luthor sort of begrudgingly admitting that Superman isn't holding us back after all. And I loved Lois. Overall, Superman Unchained has been one of the best (if not the best) Superman books over this year (Smallville and it are neck and neck). 

But I do feel that these last two issues were almost too fast, barely explaining the intricacies of what was happening. 'Aliens are responsible and they are going to attack. Let's blow them all up.' That fast resolution flies in the face a bit to the slow, simmering, suspenseful unfolding of the early issues.

Still. I will miss this book. Like Lex's candle, it burned brightly and then went out.

Overall grade: B/B+


Martin Gray said...

Very nice review, Anj. I was OK wih the pace, being keen to see the big finish - I think I had enough to go on.

I didn't read that Smallville scene as Martha telling Clark to let the man die, I thought she truly believed he was dead.

I totally agree that the scenes with Lois were truly special ... I liked that Wonder Woman wasn't on his mind at all as he mulled things over, she was just another JLA colleague.

Anonymous said...

Good review!

I too thought Martha believed the man was dead and was trying to make Clark understand that it wasn't his fault.

I loved seeing Jimmy, Lois and Lex together with Superman. This is what's been missing in the Superman titles for so long. The Superman family as it were keeps us connected to Superman beyond the powers and one fight scene after the other.

I really hope the publishers are beginning to understand what a huge misstep they made when they tried to isolate Superman not only from Lois, but from the rest of the Superman family of characters, most importantly being Clark Kent.

I wonder if this story wasn't an example that Synder has enough clout so he was able to write the story he wanted even if it didn't fall in to line with the current mindset? I hope whatever the reason, we see more of this and less of what we've been getting from the Superman titles.

Anj said...

Your interpretation of Ma makes more sense.

I am always just a bit dismayed when people don't try resuscitation. Even if it didn't work ... at least you tried!

Thanks for the comments!