If you’re a fan of comics, then you’ve got to love when an all-star writer/artist pairing comes together. In celebration of good ol’ Superman’s 75
anniversary, DC pulled one of these creator events together with Superman Unchained. Legendary artist Jim Lee and dark hearted superstar writer Scott Snyder decided to join forces for a big ol’ Superman epic. The resulting book was published slowly (as is the Jim Lee way) and featured more than a few fake outs (as is the Scott Snyder way), but eventually congealed into a Superman blockbuster. Consumed as a single story in trade format, this massive action n’ idea packed tale feels like the great dark Superman blockbuster that everyone was hyped up for Man Of Steel to be. It’s clever and wild and eye-popping and head-spinning and above all else deliriously entertaining. Is it the new definitive Superman tale? Nope, that honor still belongs to Grant Morrison’s beautiful All-Star Superman. But, Superman Unchained is still a wild ride that any comic book fan needs to take and probably the current highlight of Supes’ adventures in the New 52. And I say all that as someone who doesn’t even particularly love Superman.
The plot is complex in its misdirects and structure, but Superman is pretty simple character and the book never stretches beyond Supes’ limited parameters. It all starts with satellites plummeting to Earth with only Superman to stop them. Shockingly, he pulls off the feet in a few action packed Jim Lee frames. From there, he learns that a cyber terrorist group named Ascension was responsible and after a fast-talking n’ fact-checking chat with Lois Lane, also learns that while he stopped 8 satellites himself a 9
was stopped by a mysterious source. It turns out that source was a new villain known as Wraith. He looks like a cross between Doomsday and Darkseid (in a good way) and has a personal backstory for Superman. Turns out that Wraith is another alien who fell to earth and developed powers from our yellow sun. The only difference is that Wraith was brought up by the US government to whom he gave technological secrets and who helped him develop more and deeper powers than Superman. The pair form a reluctant alliance with Wraith teaching Superman alien fighting tips and Superman desperately attempting to teach his morality to Wraith. Eventually the whole Ascension thing turns out to be a ruse for an impending attack from Wraith long-lost alien race. An attack only a sacrificial Superman could stop. Plus Lex Luthor is involved in the whole thing with his new Superman-stomping plot. How could he not be?
As pure spectacle, the book is an absolute blast. As he’s proven time and time again in the pages of Batman, Snyder knows how to whip up a big set piece. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that it was a coincidence that Snyder dreamed up this story alongside his loopy Batman epic Zero Year and the ambitious surreal sci-fi/horror yarn The Wake. There was clearly a year when Snyder’s mind was in massive blockbuster mode, cranking out grandiose storylines that could only exist on a comic book page since Hollywood couldn’t dream of bringing them to reality within even a $300 million budget (well, for now anyways). That’s a good headspace to be in when crafting a Superman story and Jim Lee is a pretty ideal eye-candy collaborator. Lee’s idealized forms and fine attention to detail serves Snyder action scenes well. The glossy book is glorious to behold on a purely visceral level, with each issue assigned a massive explosion of Superman’s powers for Lee to fetishize with his beloved penmanship. There may have been delays getting all of these panels ready for publication, but it was all worth it. This is as grandiose as superhero yarns get and it’s impossible not to flip through the gorgeous images in the book without sporting a big goofy grin on your face.
Given that this will likely be Snyder’s only major crack at a Superman story, the writer takes advantage of the opportunity to play with all of his favorite toys in the Metropolis sandbox. Even though it’s not an “End Of Superman” story, Superman Unchained does offer a similar feel to Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. In all three instances the book is the work of a star writer attempting to cram everything that he loves about the Superman mythos into a single shining epic. Snyder’s run isn’t quite up to the standards of those two tales, but given that they are arguably the greatest two Superman stories ever written that’s just fine. He does fill his pages with amusing takes on popular characters and thematic challenges to the nature of Superman. A Wraith-suggested fantasy about Superman seeing all of his friends age and die while he remains a perfected protector is quite poignant as is the entire mirror image of Supes that Snyder created in Wraith. The villain certainly has some limitations and isn’t nearly as fleshed out as you’d hope, but he works for this particular story. There are times when Snyder’s tendency to over complicate his plots and themes rears its ugly head (especially in the tiresome Ascension plot and the rushed climax). But thankfully whenever Snyder is on a roll in this limited series (like Batman’s extended cameo or pretty much every panel featuring Snyder’s delightfully twisted take on Lex Luthor), the result is a giddy rush of ideas and entertainment. As far as bubble gum blockbuster Superman stories go, this is a pretty darn great one.
The Deluxe Edition release from DC is quite a nice little pick up for fans. The art is well served by the glossy pages and the hardback binding is strong. As an added treat, all of the unique covers used in the series are included in a hefty full page gallery after the main story. Pretty well all of DC’s heavyweight artists contributed alternative covers for the series, with each issue getting an alternate cover for every era of Superman (this was a 75
anniversary celebrating series after all). Everything from Bruce Timm’s take on Golden Age Supes to some hilarious renditions of the alternative Supermen from the infamous 90s Death Of Superman story arc can be found here and the gorgeous art varies in tone from austerely loving homage to outright parody. The cover gallery is a beautiful little love letter to Superman and a welcome addition to this pretty collection (along with a handful of other extras like pencil drafts and script pages). The only unfortunate misstep was failing to include the multi-page fold out poster that Lee designed for the first issue of Superman Unchained, but that was likely skipped to increase the collectable value of issue 1. DC does love to stoke the fires of the collector’s market, so I suppose that was an inevitable omission. Overall, it’s a damn fine collection for a damn fine Superman story from a damn fine artist/writer team. It’s hard to complain about that. In fact, if you’re a Superman fan you may as well just celebrate this sweet trade’s existence and pick it immediately.