Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review: Superman Unchained #3

Superman Unchained #3 came out last week and continued to be a very engaging story with multiple plotlines moving forward. It is only a matter of time before all of them come together, threads weaving a tapestry.

One thing that I like about this first arc is the scope of the story. This is Superman writ big, looking at what the world would be like if there was a pro-active military-based super-power working for America. This is hardly the first time we have seen something like this but usually those stories have the Superman character being raised differently. Here it is another super-being and Superman has to deal with his existence. How can this end? Hopefully not the same way the Man of Steel movie did.

Writer Scott Snyder continues moves that action pretty briskly, working in a classic comic book device of two heroes initially fighting and then teaming up. But action alone can't carry a book for me. I need characterization. Snyder has the right voice for Superman and Lois, both playing major roles in this arc. But he also makes Wraith interesting. And he also makes General Lane a more three-dimensional character, and less of a caricature. That alone is a great feat!

Jim Lee's art is solid enough if less detailed than I am used to seeing from him. That said, the big moments have big art which is always key. And the page layouts vary nicely with a mix of both splash pages and small inset panels as well.

But I have to say, I am wondering how all these plotlines will end up intersecting. And when I am puzzled, I am more invested reader.

We start out in 1938 when Wraith first arrives on Earth after the United States has sent into space a mathematical equation hoping to get a response. 11 seconds later, Wraith crash lands on Earth.

Of course, 1938 isn't just plucked out of the air. It is a nice little homage to the first appearance of Superman.

11 seconds seems like an awfully quick time for a response to happen. Although I don't understand astrophysics enough to know if that is awfully quick or not.

And we know now that Wraith is apparently an alien. That makes the eventual comparison and contrast to Superman that much closer. Two aliens who can process yellow sun energy land on Earth and have very different experiences.

After that flashback, we pick up where last issue left us, with Superman facing off against Wraith and Lane's troops. Feeling threatened, Superman decides to both fight and take flight.

This is one of those multi-panel set-ups that I don't necessarily associate with Lee.

Wraith's cells are packed with energy and he is pretty tough too, stronger and faster then Superman. But one of the things I like is that Wraith himself doesn't seem like a toadie to General Lane. He actually wants to talk to Superman, work with Superman.

But that isn't how these things work in comics. Hard to know if we can call Wraith a hero but it is pretty common for two heroes to brawl the first time the meet.

So we go from tight small panels with lots of story beats to big panels and crazy action. I liked the transition from one page to the next, jarring in a good way.

And we get a great sense of Wraith's power as we see him boot Superman across state lines. By using small panels the page before and then going big, I don't feel cheated as a reader. There is enough story packed in here to allow big art when needed.

There was something sort of Dragon Ball Z-ish about that lower panel. I mean that in the best possible way!

Now while the Wraith plot line is clearly in the forefront, the Ascension terrorist group and their maneuvers are still sizzling in the background. Last issue they simply cut out the power of the plane Lois was flying in.

One thing I love about this book is that Lois is shown to be strong and independent, saving herself instead of hoping Superman will save her.

So she grabs the controls and decides to land the plane herself, a sort of gliding belly-flop. But even better, she uses her brains, guiding the plane into power lines hoping that a massive blackout will bring a rescue party faster then their plane crashing would do alone.

It's a brilliant scene for Lois. Love it.

After their tussle, Wraith convinces Superman to join him in a conversation and to answer some questions. So this isn't Reactron and Metallo out to destroy Superman at General Lane's command. This is someone who thinks he is doing good and wants Superman to join him.

The includes a tour of 'The Machine' a sort of shadowy black-ops military group, led by General Lane, which quietly and anonymously changes the world for the better. And Wraith is the key weapon.

I love this shot, Wraith's fortress of solitude, filled with mementos from his prior missions. This isn't an interplanetary zoo and a giant metal diary. This is a different trophy room, again widening the differences between Superman and Wraith.

I do like how Lane still has his men in the background aiming their 'black hole guns' on Superman. Even in a truce, Lane doesn't trust Superman.

Now I am a firm believer that some villains think they are misunderstood good guys.

Here Lane is able to show on a map how unstable areas of the world are slowly growing smaller and smaller because of the Machine and Wraith. It is hard to deny results like this. Maybe Lane isn't such a bad guy after all? Or maybe he has no right to determine the fates of other countries?

This is a nice gray area which makes Lane, for once, slightly relatable. Instead of a hand wringing xenophobe who hated just to hate, he is someone looking at the big picture.

And then a very nice exchange. He doesn't hate Superman because he is an alien who was romantically interested in Lois.

He hates Superman because Superman could be doing so much more in the world. He could be a 'hero' - at least how Lane defines it. He could be making the world better on a bigger scale.

This is always the argument with Superman. Should he wrest control of the world and make it good? Or should he inspire good? Is he there to rule? Or, as Morrison said, there to pick mankind up when they fall? Should he eliminate evil by killing? Or should he be a role model of compassion?

Whether it is Morrison's JLA or Kelly's 'What's so funny about Truth Justice and the American Way?' or even JMS' dark mirror of Supreme Power, we have seen this argument before. What I love about this is how it makes Lane a more realistic person than the lunatic who swallowed his own gun in War of the Supermen.

As for Lois, the plane crashes into water and sinks.

But before they can abandon the plane, the engines restart and the propellers actually bring the plane to the surface.

The miracle? Someone wielding a blue crystal which seems to give them powers.

Now the glow of this seems to be the same color as the glow of whatever anti-Superman weapon Bruce was hiding last issue. What is this thing? And how is it going to tie into everything? My guess is it can somehow give energy (as it did here) or take energy. Maybe it drains Wraith?

And is it similar to what Bruce had, which we know was built to defeat Superman?

Meanwhile, Ascension (which seems to be the biggest threat of the book) ends up hijacking Russian drones and sending them into Tokyo airspace. With a bigger threat to deal with, the Wraith and Superman put aside their political differences to work together.

I think it fascinating that Ascension, an anti-tech cult seems to have major technology on their side. My guess is that someone has taken over the group for their own ends.

Now Wraith has been a secret weapon, in hiding, and unknown to the world for 75 years. Doesn't this seem a bit conspicuous? Standing on a Tokyo roadway and standing on cars?

Of course, we end with the threat. Wraith knows at some point he will kill Superman.

As has been the case with the book, we get an epilogue by Peter Nguyen.

The last plot has been Luthor breaking free from prison by downloading his sentience into this robot frame, his body inert in the center. Where does he fit into all this? At first I thought he might be behind Ascension but now I don't know. And what the heck does he want with Jimmy Olsen? My guess - all he wants is the signal watch. Luthor wants to talk to Superman about some threat which could effect them both.

I was pretty happy with this issue, mostly because of the more serious and less maniacal look at the US military and General Lane. Lois is treated very well. Wraith and Superman continue to be odd reflections of each other. And the multitude of plots all simmering along are like some puzzle. I am trying to figure out how it will all come together in the end.

While Jim Lee's art isn't his usual dense pencils, there are nice flourishes.

Another solid chapter in Superman Unchained.

Overall grade: B+


Jay said...

I don't know, I continue to be disappointed by this title. For reasons such as improved art, and Lois and Lex, I felt this was actually the most solid issue of the series yet, there's just one problem. I really don't like Snyder's take on Superman himself. He's too passive, too meek. Sam Lane essentially insulted him in the worst way; taking a shot at his entire mission statement and even calling him a coward. And he doesn't even snap back. Terribly disappointing.

Snyder kinda reminds me of Cornell on his run. Really good with supporting characters, but falls flat with the star.

Supertorresmo said...

Hey, I'm an astrophysicist and I could help you with that.

11 seconds is really quick. Electromagnetic transmissions travel at light speed, and light takes around 1.3 seconds to reach the Moon and 8 minutes to reach the Sun.

The Curiosity Hover for example, that is currently on Mars can't be driven directly because the commands takes at least 3 minutes to reach Mars (at closest approach).

So 11 seconds, considering that an "answer" came means that it was closer than half that, 5.5 seconds, that's just a little outside the Moon's orbit, so he should already be very close to the Earth.

In my scientist mind, when I read that at first, I thought that it could only be a coincidence, too close too soon, but in the writer mind could be something else.

If you put time travel in the equation, there is no limit for how quick the answer can be.

Martin Gray said...

Anj, fine review and Supertorresmo - wow!

Jay said...

Another irritant: this question of moral responsibility, the level of interference Superman should partake in, has been dealt with before, by Superman himself. Sam Lane isn't the first guy to drop this on him. Morrison tackled it in his run when Superman confronted the League about this very sort of thing and he was shot down. So Sam levying this at him now should by no means throw Superman for any sort of loop. Its not something he's never considered before. With only two years of continuity, Snyder should have done his research a little better.

Anj said...

Thanks for the comments-

Jay, I was a bit more forgiving about this, figuring Superman was more in a 'fact finding' mode, listening and observing, getting a measure of The Machine.

Also, maybe before he had the opportunity to respond, he and The Wraith got called away.

And yes, as mentioned, it has been examined before. For me, it was the fact that it came from Lane that made it interesting.

And how great is it that we have an astrophysicist here! Thanks for the post Supertorresmo! I figured some real science was mixed with pseudoscience.

Thanks again!