Superman Unchained #1 Written by Scott Snyder Art by Jim Lee, Dustin Nguyen Grade: B-While generally I try to keep first-person narration to a minimum during reviews, this particular book has evoked a very personal response from me, and I can't seem to find a way to say what I want to without breaking down that wall. If you're one of those people who reads a first-person review and says, "I don't care what this guy thinks!," then you probably won't much appreciate what I've got to say here. But I'll be using as much straightforward opinion and objective evaluation as I do in any review--just phrasing it differently.
I've read through Superman Unchained #1 twice today, and can't help feeling a bit disappointed with the end product. Is this really "The Superman we've all been waiting for?" For me, at least, not really. There are a few things at play here that give the release context, and let's run them down quickly before discussing the actual comic.
I know I'm in the minority here, first of all, but I don't think that Superman has been a huge mess since the launch of the New 52. There have been great moments, great issues, in the George Perez, Dan Jurgens/Keith Giffen and Grant Morrison runs. The titles haven't been the overwhelming success that Snyder's Batman or Lee's Justice League have been, of course--and both the comic's and DC's reputations probably have taken a bit of a hit by virtue of Perez's comments that the title was being micromanaged into mediocrity. The biggest problem that Superman has had in getting traction since the launch of the New 52, I would argue, is that the creative teams were barely on the book for a minute before their departures were announced; it gave the book a feeling that everything was transient, disposable, and likely to be reimagined or undone by the next guy. They also fell back on talent already widely associated with the character (Jurgens in particular) rather than sticking with their own mission statement of bringing "new" to the New 52. Perez and Jurgens tried to combat this by introducing new threats and villains, but creating a credible, new Superman villain is arguably one of the hardest things to do in superhero comics and most of the characters fell flat. Anguish was the closest anybody came to really getting it right, but the visual of Superman getting beaten up by a teenage girl on the solicited cover was really just setting that story up for failure, unfortunately.
Action Comics is a different story, of course. The mad genius of Grant Morrison is divisive, meaning that the title wasn't the kind of massive, runaway hit that Batman has been--but certainly it performed, and it got strong reviews, and it set Superman up with an interesting and different status quo for the New 52. Those who liked the book, adored it, and arguably the biggest problem with Morrison's Action Comics run was that eventually Morrison would no longer be writing it. And...then what? The loss of star writer Andy Diggle fed into the ongoing narrative that the Superman books were in trouble and/or that DC was micromanaging the title. Whether either of those things is actually true is impossible for those of us not involved with the day-to-day production to say, but handing the reins of both books to Scott Lobdell is probably not the answer. From a PR perspective, then, Superman Unchained is near-perfect. Snyder represents the next generation of hot talent at DC--a writer who started in the trenches of creator-owned, non-superhero work and who has quickly become one of DC's most-respected and best-selling writers. Lee, in spite of his lofty editorial position and advancing age (can you believe he's almost fifty?), is still widely considered young and hip, and everything he draws immediately becomes a hit. Even with a $5 cover price, the first issue of this series will likely be the top seller in the direct market this month, which is exactly what DC wants to see the month Man of Steel hits theaters.
Here's the thing, though; I don't really see a lot of difference between the way Snyder is treating the character and the way that other creators, particularly Jurgens and Giffen, have done. The voice he's being given is consistent with that material, which makes sense--but it also begs the question: What's so special about this book if it feels a lot like another version that DC didn't like? They want to tell a widescreen story, and that's admirable, but this first chapter truncates all the key story beats, leaving us with a page here or there about Superman dealing with the problem at hand and then a few pages of Lois/Jimmy setup, followed by a passage at the end that really gets the ball rolling in terms of the overarching plot. This feels, in short, like a story written for the trade; no part of the tale gets quite enough traction to completely suck me in before it transitions to the next scene. The whole thing carries with it a very cinematic aspect, but it's simply not the definitive statement that I would have liked from a first issue (for examples of how that works, they could have checked out Morrison's Action Comics--or Batman #1 and today's #21, both from Snyder himself).
The mysterious threat Superman faces is certainly both interesting and dangerous...but it carries with it some logical and practical problems. If there's been a secret, government-sponsored super being operating in the dark for more than fifty years, for instance, Superman is no longer the one whose very presence changed the world. Perhaps he is, in a way, since the public knew about Superman and not about this other, mysterious figure--but honestly? It feels like something that should have been introduced at the start of the New 52, not nearly two years in. It strains believability a bit, and that's even before you get to the fact that Snyder and Lee are retconning not the events of an old comic book, but actual world history to convey the gravity of the character. It pokes a little uncomfortably at the fourth wall, it seems, and feels oddly forced. At the same time, it's necessary because creating a fictional event analogous to Nagasaki would have been an even harder sell. Readers are probably looking at the above paragraph and thinking that I'm just a critic who's looking for a reason to be critical, but I was really excited about this book and have no particular desire to be "that guy." I felt the same way when my beloved Booster Gold series saw his sister accidentally inspire the Mona Lisa. Sometimes when these character tread too closely to the real world, it diminishes both the fictional and the real aspects of the story for me.
The larger problem than my being personally uncomfortable with a super(hero?)being responsible for carrying out Truman's wrath is that going back to the old "he's been here all along and you just never knew it!" well feels like it's been done a number of times in comics, often with Superman analogues, and not generally with positive results. Iron Munro was a rare exception that worked, but that was within the context of a certain set of stories and the fact that he worked could largely be attributed to the fact that DC never tried to carry him over much outside of JSA tales. Characters like Sentry (Marvel) and Triumph (DC) are arguably a better fit, though (Munro was actually being slotted in AS Superman in stories where the Man of Steel was no longer present, whereas Sentry and Triumph were "the greatest heroes history forgot"), and neither of them ever resonated with me--or a lot of fans. Sentry, for sure, has some supporters but they're vastly outnumbered, it seems, by those who would just as soon forget the character altogether. Look, this is a strong first issue. The action hums right along, the art isn't Lee's best, but it's strong--and I'm confident this book will become a must-read by the end of the first arc. Still, it's indicative of how hard Superman is to nail and how impressive the accomplishments of guys like J.M. DeMatteis and Joshua Hale Fialkov have been, getting a hole-in-one over on Adventures of Superman. A new Superman #1, especially a high-profile release like Superman Unchained, should inspire readers and leave us reminded why Superman is one of the best characters in modern literature. That Superman Unchained didn't may be something unfair to hold against it--but that's where the bar has been set. This is a good, solid #1 but it's not a classic. It's not even particularly memorable.