REVIEW: Superman Unchained #1

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Superman Unchained #1 is DC’s highest profile launch since the Justice League of America debut a few months back, dovetailing perfectly with the release of the Man of Steel film. It’s got a gimmick, it’s got two high profile creators, but does Superman Unchained #1 have the substance? This Major Spoilers review tells all.

SUMMARY

Pros
Great characterization
Lively, top-shelf art
Cons
Very safe
Fails to rise to the hype

Overall Rating: ★★½☆☆

READER RATING!

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (12 votes, average: 4.08 out of 5)


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SupermanUnchained1CoverSUPERMAN UNCHAINED #1
Writer: Scott Snyder
Penciller: Jim Lee
Inker: Scott Williams
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Letters: Sal Cipriano
Cover by: Jim Lee, Scott Williams & Alex Sinclair
Associate Editor: Chris Conroy
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99

This has to be one of Superman’s biggest weeks ever. He’s got a brand new movie coming out, with DC staking the future of its entire movie universe on its success or failure. And as movies are driving the future of comic books, that alone would be enough for Big Blue right there. But when you get right down to it, Superman has always been about the comic books. With Superman Unchained #1, the last son of Krypton has a new series, with a top tier creative team at the helm (and a few gimmicks such as a centerfold to justify that price point).

ORDINARY’S JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH TODAY

Superman Unchained #1 opens with the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, showing Bockscar dropping Fat Man on the Japanese city… only at the core of the bomb is not a plutonium core, but rather a mysterious blue being of energy. In the present day, Superman is busy traipsing around low Earth orbit, disrupting some rogue satellites as they crash towards Earth (and saving a few astronauts to boot). He does this with enough time left over to share a few quips with a soon-to-be imprisoned Lex Luthor, get in a little bit of story editing with Lois Lane, as well as share a bagel with erstwhile Daily Planet drone operator Jimmy Olsen. Oh and there might be a government conspiracy lurking around the edges, as well as something involving an ersatz Anonymous hacker group.

Snyder’s best accomplishment in Superman Unchained #1 is how well he already executes these character’s voices. Superman’s childhood reminiscences, Lois Lang’s no-nonsense patter, Jimmy Olsen’s dweebiness, it’s all wonderfully realized. His handle on these characters is great. But what’s lacking is the plot. This is supposed to be a big, crazy episode ushering in a new era for Superman. He’s supposed to be unchained, right? But this issue felt… safe. It read like any other Superman story. He saves a few lives, he writes a news story, there’s a nefarious plot and an ending cliffhanger coda. None of it felt big. None of it felt epic. Without any of the themes that make the character great, it didn’t even feel uniquely Superman. Swap out Martian Manhunter or Green Lantern, and the plot would not read much different. It is a serviceable story.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

It’s funny. I’ve made a hobby lately of tracking down old back issues of comics I read growing up in the 90s, and finishing up storylines I never read back then. The process has given me a chance to see how some of the talents who worked back then and still work today have changed their styles. Some, like Chris Bachalo, look very different. Others, like Jim Lee, remain almost entirely the same. The stiff grimaces, the excessive cross-hatching, it’s all on full display, just like you remember it. But Jim Lee was always the best at working that sort of style, and he still is today. He brings an epic energy to his action. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat talky issue, so Lee can’t fully stretch his wings here. The most ballyhooed image will probably be the centerfold, but it is the opening two-page spread that is the real highlight. It features Lee’s work at its most experimental, showing a child’s view through binoculars of that fateful B-29 bomber as it released its payload over Nagasaki. Beautifully drawn, chilling stuff.

BOTTOM LINE: A DISAPPOINTMENT

Thinking about this issue, it’s hard for me not to compare it to Scott Snyder’s debut on Batman #1. That was my introduction to Snyder as a writer, and I still remember it vividly. Snyder and Greg Capullo made a familiar character feel fresh. Snyder introduced Gotham as a character in itself, exploring the city’s relationship with Bruce Wayne. This gave his first story arc a through line which he would then masterfully subvert. Superman Unchained #1 doesn’t have that same sense of a thesis. There’s something going on about atom bombs and Lex Luthor is mean and Clark Kent is a blogger, but all this feels more perfunctory than personal. At my comic book shop, DC distributed free copies of All-Star Superman #1. DC did no favors to Superman Unchained by inviting comparisons to one of the best Superman stories ever. All-Star Superman #1 did everything with the character that Superman Unchained #1 doesn’t; it delivered a unique, meaningful story epic in scope, rich in metaphor.

Lastly, for $5.99, I wanted something more. I got a glossy cover, a gimmicky semi-unreadable pop-up centerfold, a two page backup story and a PR interview with the creators. I did appreciate DC running this issue without advertisements, but this did not feel like I was getting two comics’ worth of material. I could be judging Superman Unchained #1 too harshly. I didn’t not enjoy it. It was a fun comic book. But approaching something hyped this big with lowered expectations seems to me to be missing the point. This should be something more than any other comic book. Superman Unchained #1 earns a perfunctory three out of five stars. Check it out.

Rating: ★★★☆☆