Today, Mikyzptlk and Spencer are discussing Superman Unchained 5, originally released January 1st, 2014.
Mikyzptlk: Since the beginning, Kal El has been a man caught between two lives: Clark Kent and Superman. Sometimes, these two lives are shown in conflict, while other times they are shown in harmony with one another. No matter what though, these lives are a part of the Man of Steel. In Superman Unchained 5, the other superman, known as Wraith, attempts to use Kal El’s dichotomy to get Superman to see things his way.
It turns out the last month’s bombshell revelation that General Lane created Ascension was just a tad bit misleading. It is revealed to Lois that her father didn’t create Ascension so much as he helped to create their necessity. Meanwhile, Superman and Wraith head to the Fortress of Solitude in an attempt to locate Lois’ and Ascension’s whereabouts. While there, Wraith also attempts to convince Superman to join him in his way of thinking and in his allegiance to the U.S. of A. However, the duo is interrupted by Batman and Wonder Woman, who explain that Ascension has somehow managed to launch a nuclear missile. Oh wait, how many was it Batman?
Oh snap. Well, this certainly looks like a job for Superman…next month. This month though, let’s dive into what Scott Snyder, Jim Lee, and Dustin Nguyen have served up. I was a little disappointed to learn that last months cliffhanger reveal was less than it seemed. This issue’s clarification, to put it kindly, has somewhat cheapened last months reveal. I was all kinds of ready to hate on General Lane, but I suppose it makes sense that Lane isn’t the actual mastermind behind Ascension since he’s normally pegged as a Superman adversary, as opposed to a straight up villain.
That twinge of disappointment aside, Ascension’s raison d’être has an interesting sci-fi spin. Ya see, when Wraith landed on Earth in the 1930’s, American scientists discovered a special equation in his ship. Since then, they have used the equation to advance their technology. Ascension wants to literally blow humanity back to the stone age because they feel that humanity was cheated out developing modern technology on their own.
I guess all of the technological accomplishments achieved by humanity prior to 1938 means nothing to these guys. The nerve. Anywho, while I enjoyed learning more about Ascension’s philosophy in this issue, and while their plan to unleash all of Earth’s nukes is certainly a devastating one, I couldn’t help but feel that it had little to do with the meat of the story.
With that, let’s get into Wraith and Superman. We are five issues into Unchained, and I’m still surprised by how important Wraith is to this story. He certainly has firmly embedded ideals, ideals that he will fight to the death for, but the same thing can be said of Superman. Wraith uses his abilities to fight for what he believes in, just as Superman does. There are more similarities to mention, but the only difference I see here is that where Wraith fights for the people of America, Superman fights for the people of the world. In essence, I believe that we are seeing the Superman of 1938 asking the Superman of 2014 to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.
As a young time traveler once said, “this is heavy.” Snyder is using the ideals of the old Superman to confront the ideals of the new. Superman once fought as a soldier for the U.S. Army in WWII. By contrast, Superman also denounced his American citizenship not too many years ago. Snyder could be commenting on the ideas of national isolationism versus globalism. To extend this to more modern issues, one could see this as an argument of cultural xenophobia versus tolerance. It’s also possible that I’m completely off-base with this, but I love the fact that Snyder is getting me to think about such important topics with a Superman funny book.
Of course, I’m not saying it’s wrong to fight for the American way, and Snyder isn’t either. Wraith hasn’t been painted as a villain here, although he could be seen as myopic. It’s not wrong to want to defend one’s own country, but it is shortsighted to disregard the safety of the rest of the world. The same can be said of celebrating one’s own culture while respecting those of others.
Spencer, my sincere apologies for soapboxing, but I couldn’t help but notice those themes in this month’s issue. What were your thoughts on the events of issue 5? Did you get a kick out of Wraith’s mental exercise with Superman? What of the Nguyen-illustrated flashback sequence? How do you see those events playing into the present?
Spencer: Those are excellent questions, Mik, and I definitely wanna answer them, but first I wanna expand a little on the themes you were talking about, so move over and make some room on your soapbox.
Mik, you compared Wraith to the original 1938 version of Superman, a Superman who fought for “truth, justice, and the American Way,” who fought for the people and fought in WWII, and while I certainly see that comparison, I find it interesting that the original 1938 Superman “fought for the people” mainly by punching mobsters and sleazy slum-lords. He was invested and involved with the people he protected, worrying more about their immediate concerns than the agenda of anyone. Even when he eventually joined the war effort, he was fighting an enemy who was clearly evil—there aren’t many shades of gray with Nazis, y’know?
This is where Wraith differs from his inspiration. He’s isolated from the people. Although he certainly has a mind of his own, he’s essentially Lane’s weapon. Wraith certainly fights for the “American Way”, but he doesn’t fight for the people—he fights for the military and their agenda. Much like Superman, I’m curious why.
Wraith’s patriotism comes across more like propaganda. He’s yet to really give us a reason why he chooses to ally himself with the United States. Did he have a choice at all? I’ve always assumed that Wraith arrived on Earth as an adult, but on the prior page he mentions knowing very little about his home world—perhaps, much like Superman, he came to Earth as a child, and was fed patriotic rhetoric his entire childhood by his handlers? Something about Wraith’s backstory and alliances just doesn’t sit right with me, and I’m eager to find out more about him.
We’ve spent a lot of time comparing Superman and Wraith, but I think there are some interesting comparisons to be made between these two and Ascension as well. Superman, as he’s been written in modern times, is very hands off with humanity and politics because he doesn’t want to influence humanity; he wants to let them forge their own path, only occasionally nudging them in the right position. This positions him exactly in the middle of the two ideological extremes represented by Wraith—part of a clandestine force that’s been secretly influencing mankind for decades—and Ascension—who are so determined to help humanity forge their own path that they’ll destroy most of the planet to do it.
What sets Superman apart from these guys? I’d have to say it’s his moral code. Ascension seems to be helmed by sociopaths who are so caught up in freeing “mankind” as an entity that they can’t see the value of the millions of individual lives they’re planning to wipe out. Wraith, meanwhile, has been isolated from mankind his whole life, and serves an organization, not people.
Superman, however, has a moral code, and it comes from growing up as Clark Kent on a scenic little farm in Smallville, Kansas. Y’know, it took me a while to figure out the significance of the flashback scenes Mik asked me about, and to be fair, there seem to be several possible interpretations—for example, both our present story and the flashback end by telling Clark that there’s nowhere left to hide, and there’s even some fun Easter Eggs tying together the two narratives, such as Clark’s love of space:
Yet, I can’t help but feel like these flashbacks are important primarily because they remind us of Superman’s humanity. They reinforce why Clark isn’t Wraith, and why he will never become Ascension. They also demonstrate why Clark continues to live in the “limbo” Wraith talks about. Sure, Clark will outlive everyone he loves, but he can’t just stop being Clark Kent. It’s not a disguise, not a “human counterpart”; Clark Kent is who Superman really is, who he’s always been, and without that part of himself, Superman risks becoming somebody else entirely (and we’ve seen how badly that usually turns out).
Oh, hey, I can’t talk about the flashbacks and not mention Dustin Nguyen. Actually, I thought both pencillers hit a home run with this issue—Jim Lee is a legend for a reason—but Nguyen especially showed off a side of his work I wasn’t familiar with. I tend to associate Nguyen’s art with his cutesy, chibi-inspired style over in Lil’ Gotham, but here he gets a chance to spread his wings and show off some work that takes advantage of his typical style to create a nostalgic, homey atmosphere, then radically subverts things with some legitimately horrific imagery.
I’ve got to send kudos to flashback colorist John Kalisz as well, who works miracles with a nearly monochromatic palate and limited backgrounds. The almost entirely yellow hues at the beginning help to make the scene sweet and nostalgic, but slowly darken, heightening the tension, until Colder attacks and things are completely red, matching his rage. It’s masterful stuff.
Writer Scott Snyder is at the top of his game as well, and it’s not just because of the juicy subtext he gives us to dig into. Actually, a fair portion of this issue is devoted to exposition as Ascension explains their goals and methods, yet the exposition never bogs the story down. There’s one reason for that: Lois Lane.
Lois Lane’s smart mouth and acid tongue keeps things from getting too dull. Snyder has an excellent handle on Lois in general; I heard every line of her dialogue in Dana Delany’s voice, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay to anyone writing Lois Lane.
Superman Unchained is an impressive, expansive book. Even as the disparate plot points converge the scope only seems to widen, and we didn’t even touch on Lex Luthor this month! I can’t wait to see where this story goes—and what it teaches me about Superman—next.
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?