Superman Unchained 1

Alternating Currents: Superman Unchained 1, Drew and Scott

Today, Drew and Scott are discussing Superman Unchained 1, originally released June 12th, 2013.

Drew: When DC began its New 52 experiment in 2011, they made a point of putting their best foot forward. The first issue (and ostensibly their flagship title), Justice League 1, featured one of comicdom’s most popular writers paired with one of its most popular artists. It’s a bit strange that they would repeat the same big guns formula (even going so far as to tap Jim Lee again) for an entirely new title in Superman Unchained. Of course, the way the title features the standard Superman logo with “unchained” incongruously typeset below suggests that this isn’t so much a new title as it is the Superman DC wishes it could publish if it weren’t tied (chained, if you will) to Scott Lobdell. But here I am reading between the lines on the cover. What about what’s inside?

Actually, the issue is downright respectful of the changes Lobdell has affected in Superman — this title is firmly set in the New 52. Clark is no longer working for the Daily Planet, but he’s still working the Superman beat, publishing articles on some kind of website. His most recent article — about Superman successfully catching 7 of 8 mysteriously falling satellites — gets Lois’s attention. It turns out, Clark is wrong about that 8th one — he knows he didn’t catch it, but it looks like somebody else did. When Clark heads to the bottom of the ocean to investigate, he’s met with two torpedoes — it turns out the US government has their own Superman they’ve been using for the past 75 years.

Now, that last detail is clearly a nod to Superman’s own real-world dodranscentennial — a factoid that the cover helpfully reminds us of. The implications of this nod are bizarre — and not just because we’ll likely see young, New 52 Superman fighting the 75-year-old Superman. The opening scene finds us in Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945 — that’s right: the time and place the US dropped the second Atomic Bomb on Japan. Indeed, we see the bomb drop from the plane, only it doesn’t contain a plutonium core; it contains a FUCKING SUPERMAN.

Remind me never to show Superman my foreign car.

Like, beyond the fact that this Superman would kill tens of thousands of people, this shit is dark. One of the biggest criticisms of the Nagasaki bombing is that it was not a military target. Yes, the industry on the port was of military importance, but essentially all of the victims were civilians. The US used a hatchet where a scalpel would have been appropriate — only this hatchet was capable of killing over 40,000 people instantaneously — and the implication that they actually had a scalpel is incredibly cynical. The military opted to kill people that didn’t need to die — an effect that is only exacerbated by the fact that many critics suggest that the Nagasaki bombing was entirely unnecessary in light of the Hiroshima bombing only three days prior — and this Superman agreed. Like I said: DARK.

The weird thing is, underneath all the spectacle, writer Scott Snyder keeps pointing us back to that darkness. The action centerpiece of this issue is Clark working to avoid a thermonuclear detonation — an overt parallel to the intentional detonation Evil Superman pulled in Nagasaki. Moreover, Clark solves the problem by pushing his X-ray vision beyond its normal spectrum — that is, into gamma radiation. In essence, we learn that Superman does indeed have the power to simulate a fission reaction.

Of course, it’s not clear that Clark should have the same powerset as this Evil Superman. Sure, General Lane refers to the mystery man as “the real Superman,” but I doubt that means he’s Kryptonian — for all we know, he’s a failed science experiment. Of course, this brings us back to the weirdness around this Superman having been specifically active for the past 75 years. Lane doesn’t just call him “our Superman,” but “the REAL Superman” (emphasis mine) — as if to suggest that this New 52 whippersnapper is just some kind of interloper of a much older tradition. Now, that could just be a nod to the fans who were upset about resetting the numbering of Action Comics — Lane is clearly not a stand-in for Snyder here — but it’s certainly a strange move to essentially vilify the history that fans hold so dear.

Of course, if any writer were going to sell the idea that Superman’s history is anything other than solid gold, Snyder can do it. It’s obviously a very hard sell, but I have faith in Snyder to make it sing — even if the “evil” of this old Superman turns out to be more of a manifestation of Snyder’s anxiety of working with the character than some more objective truth about the oppressive nature of continuity. Then again, the New 52 has already freed the Superman of that continuity — why exhume a dead horse just to beat it some more?

I guess I’m not entirely sure where Snyder is going with this, but I’m incredibly excited to find out. What did you think, Scott? Did all of the spectacle pull you in? Do you have any theories as to what Clark’s 75-year-old counterpart might represent? Do you suddenly have any cravings for a corn bagel?

Scott: If someone handed me a corn bagel right now, sure, I’d eat it. I’m only human after all. That Bagel Palace sounds pretty impressive, but Snyder missed an opportunity: they should have 52 kinds of bagels, not 50. Maybe that would have been lame, but Snyder proved he’s willing to make corny bagel jokes, so I think it would have fit right in.

Drew, I’m not sure what to make of old Superman. I don’t know enough about him yet to really venture a guess as to what he represents, but you’re right on the money about the implications of his involvement in the Nagasaki bombing. This is dark stuff. And for Snyder to invoke the classic “It’s a bird, it’s a plane…” device while showing that Superman falling from the sky adds a chilling dimension to the character’s history. Once upon a time, Superman didn’t have crowds of awestricken urbanites cheering him on as he swooped in to save the day. Instead, he was the last thing many thousands of people saw before they were wiped off the earth in horrific fashion. He is literally what we think of as being the atomic bomb. That’s what Superman (young Superman, I mean) is up against in this story. That can only be awesome.

Right off the bat it’s evident that this is a different kind of Superman story than what we’ve become accustomed to. Snyder’s Superman is smart and considerate, making an effort to comfort the astronauts who are scared shitless when their space station falls out of orbit.

Super Thoughtfulness

Snyder says Superman is “in many ways the most human of superheroes,” and it’s demonstrated here in the way Clark/Superman interacts with those around him. There are lots of familiar faces in this issue, but there’s a certain sweetness and humor apparent in Clark’s relationship with each of them, whether it be Jimmy, Lois, or even Lex. It’s wonderful to see Snyder establish Clark’s likability with such ease- it makes his dedication to journalistic integrity all the more realistic and compelling. In their interview at the back of the issue, Snyder and Jim Lee both stress the lack of a real distinction between Superman and Clark Kent, and they did a great job translating that onto the page.

There’s so much to like in this issue, from Jim Lee’s astounding four page fold-out poster to Snyder’s relentless sense of wonder. Like Drew, I’m eager to see where this story takes us. Everything is in place for this Superman Unchained to be a truly classic Superman story. I just never thought I would be so excited by the prospect of Superman fighting a 75 year old.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

25 comments on “Superman Unchained 1

  1. Man was this Super! I will admit that I did not spend too much time thinking about the REAL Superman, nor did I think it was a poke in the eye to the 75 years of Supes history. In fact, I assumed that General Lane was just using that phrase to be dismissive of what Clark means to the world. I must say that Clark being a blogger makes a ton more sense than being a newpaper reporter if for no other reason than it helps him protect his identity.

    • I don’t know, the fact that they specifically say that this Superman has been active for 75 years must mean something — it’s not just a coincidence. I’m not entirely sure what it means, but the thought of the 75-year-old Superman being the bad guy definitely has weird implications.

  2. Is DC really THAT chained to Lobdell? They’ve never had a problem firing other writers before…and I admit, I don’t see the need to launch this as an entirely new Superman title when Action Comics is completely listless right now, but I can’t complain too much: this issue was AWESOME. Despite the New 52 continuity, I got a very “Superman: the Animated Series” feel from the characters and their interactions. It feels classic without feeling dated. Snyder seems to have a ton of respect for the entire Superman mythos and it really comes across on the page.

    And the whole scene with Lois rearranging the newspaper to follow her whims WHILE talking to Clark and Perry AND magically knowing that Olsen was at Clark’s apartment was fantastic.

    • I totally agree. It’s weird that “Superman Unchained” basically means “If Superman didn’t suck.” I guess I was somehow imagining this as a mini, but the way it aggressively embraces the current continuity makes it clear that this is an ongoing series, which is totally weird. DC already has two Superman-centric titles, and neither is particularly good right now. I guess they realized they could make more money if they just added a new, good title to the mix (since the folks already buying those books clearly don’t have a problem with them), but it’s a little disappointing that they didn’t just fix what was already broke — and maybe hand the reins over to Snyder.

      • I read an article today about how little Superhero movies affect comic sales; perhaps DC felt it would be easier/more likely to rein in new readers with a #1 issue than with a #21. Other than that, I agree with your point.

        Honestly, when you think about it, DC (and Marvel too at that) have too many series period. If they had fewer series, they could get rid of all/most of their shitty writers/artists and publish like 25 really good titles that more people would buy.

    • I know writers have gotten pretty good at making Lois Lane out to be a uber-capable character, but it’s nice to see just how fucking capable Snyder can make her. He’s just such a smart writer, and can bring so many little pieces of actually information and expertise in for his characters. Scott mentioned Superman’s concern for the astronauts’ emotional well-being, but Snyder’s also the only writer that would be taking the physics of that into consideration: Superman can’t talk to his rescuees unless there’s an atmosphere for sound to travel through. SMART.

      • Yeah, Snyder’s conception of what his heroes are capable of is always fascinating. Leave the Superman vs. Flash debate for lesser writers — Snyder has much more interesting fish to fry when looking at what Supes is capable of.

  3. Lex Luthor was a highpoint of this issue for me. I much prefer his light-hearted confidence here to the way Lobdell was portraying him – with an almost Hannibal Lector psychotic confidence. It doesn’t seem like this series will be spending a ton of time with him (Supes was just crossing him off the list of suspects), but it sure would be a nice surprise to see more Lex.

    • Speaking of Luthor, does anyone know what is going on with his face scar? I didn’t notice it in this issue so I’m wondering about it. Is it just being ignored now? I wouldn’t care either way, but its odd to just ignore since they must have had some kind of plan for it. Or, have I just missed its explanation?

  4. The bombing was August 9th, not April, which I found strange. Typo, or intentional distortion of history? Are we veering into decidedly alternate history here, rather than superhero revisionism?

    • Oops! I don’t know how I didn’t catch that. I’ll have to check my print copy when I get home, but the digital copy suggests that the typo is mine, not DCs. I’ll fix the write-up, but I’ll leave the comment here for posterity.

  5. I enjoyed this issue enough but felt that it was over-shadowed by by the first part of Zero Year in my own mind. Superman Unchained, by comparison, didn’t live up to my self-imposed hype whereas Zero Year actually surpassed it. I felt so much of this issue was dedicated to catching stuff and lifting stuff (except for the 2 exciting bookends, of course) that, while Superman acted and spoke completely in-character, that character study was largely ignored for action at a point in his publication history where mischaracterization and meandering direction has left him as being one hella-tarnished crown jewel. Also, Jim Lee’s newer stuff gets less exciting to me every time I see it. I would have greatly preferred someone like a Gene Ha (who, by comparison, gets fill-in work and assignments like Phantom Stranger). Or if they needed a Big Name Artist then Ryan Sook would have been an inspired choice – he’s done so many New 52 covers but so very little interior artwork, and I doubt he’d pass up the opportunity to work with Snyder. It was a great improvement over literally any post-Flashpoint Superman that doesn’t have the names Grant Morrison and Sholly Fisch on the cover, but I’m greedy for something more revelatory.

  6. Oh, and I can’t believe nobody mentioned the pullout splash page. Epic fail right? That thing was so awkward to read (on the second side with all the text). They should have gone with the 4-page horizontal pullout like in FCBD 2012 or GL 20

    • I actually don’t get why either of those images needed to be bigger than a regular page. It might have made for a lot of text on the second page, but I really don’t think that warrants the awkward fold-out thing.

      • It is EXTRA awkward in the digital copy. Like it is atrociously chopped up into pieces that don’t make any sense. I get the appeal of having a big-ass drawing of Superman, but like, I have one of those (by Jim Lee no less) framed on the walls of my apartment already (right across from the matching Batman) – but the other side (with the satellite) seemed especially pointless.

        • Also, who would hang this page up? Even the Superman side, the part you could use as a poster, has caption boxes on it, and who would want to lose a page of the comic?

          that is assuming they meant for the page to be used as a poster, but I don’t know why else it would be removable instead of just being a pull out or a normal page spread.

        • Dude, I think you’ve solved the best way to read it. It involves destroying the value of your comic book, but I’m okay with that if it’s for the purposes of enhancing my reading it, and the massive run on this means it’ll be easy to track down for years. Anyway, that’s the best way to read it, Spencer! Remove the poster from the book, but do not hang it! Just remove it and fold it out like a map so that it’s comfortable to read, then slide it back into its proper section of the book before re-bagging it!

        • Oh my god, you guys! I did this and it’s magnificient. I love the big map-page now! It’s actually fun to read! You HAVE to do this… don’t forget to gently peel off the gummy stuff, both from the white strip in the inside of the spine and the gummie spots that hold the poster to itself

        • Oh good lord, you were trying to read it without removing it from the book? That must have taken some amazing patience: kudos.

          (That’s exactly what I did, by the way. The adhesive was still sticky enough for me that I could put it back with minimum fuss. Of course, i also don’t care about the value of my comics; the real value to me is being able to read it :P)

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  8. “The military opted to kill people that didn’t need to die — an effect that is only exacerbated by the fact that many critics suggest that the Nagasaki bombing was entirely unnecessary in light of the Hiroshima bombing only three days prior”

    Thanks for referring to the fact.
    I also feel uncomfortable in this point.

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