Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Jim Lee
Release Date: June 12, 2013
Batman and The Wake writer Scott Snyder discussed his Superman Unchained plans last year with the following words: “The story is about Superman’s relevance being challenged, and things that have happened throughout history calling Superman’s relevance into question today. There’ll be a very big sense of what it means to be a hero today, versus what it meant before. The story touches on that hidden history that I love exploring.”
Godspeed, Mr. Snyder, because you obviously understand the commercial paradox that is Superman. On one hand, Superman’s simplicity fuels his immortality. Big Blue’s 1938 debut as an alien strongman repurposed the timeless archetype of heaven-born savior with a distinctly American flavor. (Both Siegal and Schuster were the children of Eastern European immigrants). Superman’s embrace of Norman Rockwell values fit the Greatest Generation as well as his red and blue leotard, but the cynicism and mistrust of Vietnam started a publishing trend where Supes and his Clark Kent disguise fought more for their optimistic disposition than the interstellar robots threatening Metropolis. As far as symbolism goes, though, Superman was the new mythology: he was the unbeatable, Christ-like good of the 20th century, immortalized in T-shirts and Bon Jovi’s left deltoid. Change that simple good, and Superman is no longer Superman. Keep that simplicity, and struggle to create relevant stories after The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen made heroes a lot less heroic during the literary revolution of the late ‘80s.
If the new Man of Steel film (SPOILER ALERT: that ending officially cancels any future Christ comparisons) and Snyder’s Superman Unchained rhetoric are taken at face value, it looks like Kal-El is due for a cultural reevaluation. Luckily, Paste can continue its borderline-unprofessional love affair with Snyder, who once again proves his mastery at distilling characters through revealing details (Kent wears Tortoise Shell Glasses, just in case you were wondering) and metaphysical plot construction through this new flagship series.
Superman Unchained, plain and simple, will pit America’s favorite superhero against the American military, and possibly the industrial complex that often accompanies it. The issue begins with a flashback to April 9, 1945 (not August?), in which an American plane drops a Fat Man bomb on Nagasaki. Unlike reality, though, the weapon releases a flaming blue supervillain instead of a flaming blue Plutonium Core. The issue then cuts to the present as Superman catches a giant space station — via a 4-page detachable foldout — as it plummets to earth. The action falls under the routine disaster management that the character makes a daily habit (how many pilots/astronauts/engineers have thanked Superman in his history?), but Snyder’s attention to character truly elevates this issue. In one scene, Kent explains how human interest stories define his journalistic ambition, painting a compelling link between the demigod and his disguise, proving that the two personas are more variants on the same idea than a ego/superego complex. Also notice how Superman calls himself “Clark” in his internal monologues — a drastic shift from his friend in Gotham.
These smart little moments give this issue a personal weight that almost makes the punching and flying boring in comparison. The introduction’s promise that Superman will face a foe from a time period that defines his values is the real proposition of this series, though. Identity Crisis indeed.
Jim Lee’s art manages the giant, celestial set pieces admirably. The aforementioned foldout gives a tangible sense of scale and scope that few pencillers are skilled enough to convey. Body language and facial expressions don’t vary quite as much, though: Zoolander model struts and C-SPAN seriousness define much of the interpersonal communication displayed, but Supes does flash a gentle grin at an astronaut during the opening’s resolution.