Superman Unchained 6

 

superman unchained 6Today, Shelby and Patrick are discussing Superman Unchained 6, originally released March 19th, 2014.

Shelby: Comic books have to be one of the most restrictive forms of media out there. As a writer, you’re stuck dealing with characters with 70-odd years of history hanging around their necks like a lodestone. Deviate too much, and millions of voices cry out in anger before you find yourself suddenly silenced (creatively speaking). But if you don’t deviate enough, you find yourself with a story that is at best seen as a cliché and at worse doesn’t make any sense because there’s no way to make sense of that much backstory. I have a lot of respect for the writers who walk that line, and walk it well; I don’t envy them the choices they have to make. While I have lauded Scott Snyder in the past for his treatment of Batman’s origin story in Year Zero, his take on the Man of Steel falls a little too close to territory we’ve tread before for me to really enjoy it.

The world is about to end. Flash Fact: there are 919 active nuclear missiles in the world, and Ascension has just launched all of them. Even with all hands on deck, Batman is predicting a 60% stop rate at best, which will leave 367 missiles to easily bring about nuclear winter. Despite the help he could provide, Wraith heads off to protect American targets instead of going with Superman to stop Ascension itself. After some wall-smashing and villain posturing, Ascension activates their base’s self-destruct, destroying all of the earthstone except for one shard which Lois and Superman were able to hold on to as they escaped. Superman manages somehow to activate the crystal and uses it to cause all the missiles to self-destruct before dropping their payloads, and everyone is saved.

superman saves the worldWraith tries to kill Superman when he refuses to turn the shard of earthstone over to the military, but luckily Superman has a detective friend who likes to prepare for all sorts of contingencies; after Superman demonstrates his Wraith-version of kryptonite, Wraith leaves with a standard, “This isn’t over” warning. As Superman tries to figure out just what is going on with the earthstone, he’s interrupted by a most unwelcome house-guest: General Lane and a lot of very big guns.

It’s pretty well-known around the imaginary Retcon Punch offices that I’m not a big fan of Superman as a character. Setting aside the fact that he’s just a little too squeaky clean for my tastes (I like my characters like I like my men and my coffee: with just a little bit of grit), he’s just too big. His powerset is so unstoppable, conflicts have to be escalated to unheard of proportions to exist as credible conflicts at all. One nuclear missile? That’s just baby-town frolics for Clark, better make it near a thousand. Most powerful being on Earth? Well, here’s another alien who’s just like him, but more so. It’s no surprise that this issue strikes me as just more of the same Superman stories we’ve seen before. Massive global threat, Lois in danger, a miraculous save, a new powerful enemy, it feels like it’s been done before. I know I’ll get called out for blasphemy on this, but I’m also not that big of a fan of Jim Lee’s work. I recognize how important he is to the industry, and I respect him immensely for the work he’s done, but when I look at something he’s drawn, I just see a really good example of what comics used to look like. Artistically, I think Dustin Nguyen’s two-page epilogue is more visually intriguing; I love the heavy shadows and basic shapes that compose so much of the images. Lee tells the story, sure, but Nguyen sucks me into the scene.

That’s not to say this issue isn’t without merit. Snyder continues to humanize Clark by breaking down his thought process as he works to save the world. It’s easy to look at the character and see Superman only, but Snyder works to remind us of the man at the alien’s core. When I can’t sleep at night, it’s because I’m thinking about work stuff, or blog stuff, or how I don’t exercise nearly enough, or how I need to eat better and should also probably be better about managing money; nowhere in my mantra of things to worry about is the number of active nuclear missiles. By including the image of Clark laying awake at night thinking about those missiles, Snyder binds Clark and Superman together as the single character they are. Like any other regular person, Clark worries at night, it’s just that his worries are proportionate to a character as large as Superman. And while I might not find Lee’s pencil’s to be particularly intriguing to look at, he imbues his characters with a lot of … well, character. I love this little scene when Superman gives his boy Bruce a shout-out for the Wraith-kryptonite.

paranoid friendsI’m not sure, but I think Jim Lee just drew one of the cutest non-child versions of Batman I have ever seen. Patrick, what do you think?

Patrick: You like your coffee with grit? I mean, I knew you had a type when it came to men, but coffee? (Also, everyone do yourself a favor and google “cutest batman.“)

I think Synder gets at a few more universal truths than you’re letting on in this issue. Sure, he embraces the absurdity of a superbeing assigned with stopping 35% of that 919-missile payload (322 warheads for those playing at home), but the things that he struggles with are decidedly more human. The first big decision that Superman has to make in this issue is to either a) stop his share of the missiles or b) take his chances confronting Ascension directly. Clark chooses to go to Ascension, and in so doing could have let those 322 warheads explode, and that’s over six times as many as would be necessary to completely fuck the world. We’re seeing some super arrogance in that moment — it’s the same arrogance that makes Clark hate the commercial depiction of himself saving a cat and then taking a self-satisfied nap.

All of which is to say that Superman knows he’s Superman. If that’s not enough, we can add to his stunning list of superpowers the ability to interface with some earthcrystal directly, accessing a network of satellites and missiles in motion across the globe in an instantaneous and nuanced way. Remember, he doesn’t just detonate the bombs early, he dismantles them without detonating the payload. It’s a miracle, and there’s no explanation for it, but of course Superman can save the day.

I think a lot about what kind of Superman story I would ever tell, given the chance. And one of the voices that always lingers in my head in Shelby’s: “too clean, too powerful, too right.” She’s correct, of course, but part of the tension is that we know this information, and therefore, we know that the storyteller will try to throw something at Superman than he can’t quite handle… right up to the point where, it turns out, he just can. That’s what I see in this earthcrystal moment — a solution that cannot be predicted and only works because Superman believes it will work. That’s at the heart of this Superman vs. Wraith debate. They’re both benevolent creatures of immense power, and the only reason we side with Supes is because we know he’s our hero. Clark believes that what he’s doing is right, and therefore it is.

It’s hard not to agree with him. He is largely a selfless man. My favorite scene in the issue takes place back at the fortress of solitude, as Lois gets a tour of Clark’s zoo. Lee channels his inner-Seuss, when drawing the creatures that Lois specifically describes as “not cute.”

Superman's zooHe’s not rescuing dogs — or cats, for that matter — because that’s too utilitarian. A dog can love you back and is loyal and adorable and everyone understands that. But Clark’s sacrifice has no such benefits for him. These are survivors from dying worlds — “strays” as he calls them. Lois’ exploration of the fortress of solitude leads her to another conclusion: it’s less of a vacation home and more of an office. Superman doesn’t get a vacation home because Superman doesn’t get a vacation.

It’s a lot harder mentality to understand, this idea that Superman’s service makes him great. Snyder manages it gracefully, and even lets the dude see eye-to-eye with Batman a few times. That’s a pretty successful Superman story in my book.

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?

17 comments on “Superman Unchained 6

  1. It’s more of a metaphorical grit.

    But seriously, I think this is one of those examples of a book where I can recognize the quality of the work, but I still just don’t like it. For me, those are the hardest books to talk about; I know the bigger ideas are there, but it’s hard to drill down to find them.

    I hope my voice in your head doesn’t bug ya too much, Patrick.

    • I’m actually not convinced there are bigger ideas here. This series seems to be lacking a lot of the symbolism that makes Snyder’s other work so engaging. Part of that may be that Lee’s art is so straight-forward (when I interviewed Snyder last summer, he indicated that he is very cognizant of the artist that he is working with, and adjusts his writing accordingly), but I think another part of it may be that this series has been all over the place. Snyder had a pretty solid thesis with the ideological battle between Clark and Wraith, but he kind of lost that with all this business with Luthor, Ascension, General Lane, etc. The result is pretty generic, so I’m tending to agree with your assessment of “meh.”

      • Drew, are you suggesting that Snyder is dumbing down his story to write for Lee? I can understand writing to an artist’s strengths but certainly, Lee’s strength isn’t “stupidity.”

        Although… what are Jim Lee’s strengths? Can we talk about that without having to tip-toe around his status? I own large posters of his iconic Batman and Superman covers (those of just the hero standing in profile front of their city-scapes), and while Bats and Supes are both too muscley, I like the how iconic they are. Like Lee’s somehow able to tap into the mythical quality of the characters he’s drawing. I don’t know that that translates to coherent storytelling, but it certainly is something.

        • It’s not exactly dumbing down, but I think it would be fair to say that subtlety is not Lee’s strength. Like, I’m totally with you on enjoying how iconic his art can be, but I think for him, that often comes at the cost of clear, compelling storytelling. Or: there might be a reason you own Lee posters rather than passages of his sequential art. I would never fault him for his ability to craft awesome panels, but I can see why Snyder wouldn’t trust him with more symbolic imagery.

  2. I agree with your assessment of Superman, Shelby. People say he’s great because, despite all his powers, he’s just a normal man. But he’s not really. He’s “clean” as you say, and no one truly is in real life. We all have our flaws, but Superman is supposed to be flawless in personality, morals, and abilities. I’ve also seen the argument that his powers don’t really make him boring, because the way superhero stories work is that they’ll eventually win. But the difference is, while Batman’s the toughest human around who’s also one of the greatest thinkers and fighters in the DCU, if he slips up he still bleeds. If Killer Croc gets a good punch in Batman gets completely disoriented and might pass out, if someone stabs him he still bleeds even if he overcomes it through toughness and willpower. Even though he is absurdly skilled and incredibly selfless, you get that sense of struggle much more in the three categories I listed in which Superman is flawless. Flash is the only character consistently portrayed as being as flawless as Superman in that sense.

    That being said, I’ve been enjoying Superman Unchained. I think it’s played down the clean-ness enough while still not changing the character in a way that would cause outrage. Though with Jim Lee’s schedule, it certainly loses momentum with all the delays. Some day, after Snyder finishes with Batman(though I hope that’ll be quite a while yet) and has less on his plate with creator-owned books, I think he might actually write a good Justice League. Batman and Superman are the most polar opposite members of the League, and he writes them both well. Plus, he’s always expressed an interest in writing Wonder Woman. It’d be interesting to see.

  3. I can just never understand the complaint that Superman is too morally admirable to be featured in great stories considering that a great deal of my favorite comics are Superman stories. I see it as some kind of indictment of modern readers that they’d rather a Punisher or Wolverine or Deadpool or Red Hood than a Superman. To me, Superman always has been and always will be the cornerstone of the medium.

    • My big problem with modern Superman storytelling is how much Clark Kent has been sidelined. If he’s only a super-man who deals with super-problems, there’s not a lot of direct parallels to life that we can all relate to. Like, Kryptonite and black hole bullets aren’t great replacements for pining for his coworker or even saving individual human beings in trouble.

      I totally agree that a moral paragon like Superman can be the centerpiece for very compelling stories, but I also think there’s room for him to be conflicted, or even wrong from time to time. Like, I think I’d enjoy this issue more if there was anything in here that suggested that Clark was struggling with all of his responsibilities. But a punch-em-up between two beings that can’t be hurt by punches seems pretty boring to me — the suped-up version of a tickle fight.

      For me, that’s what people mean when they talk about Superman being boring — if he’s physically, morally, and mentally impervious, where does the drama come from? Too often, the answer is a thing that just happens to be too powerful for him to stop until it isn’t, which doesn’t make for the most dynamic storytelling. I know Superman has been and will be used to tell fantastic stories, but very few writers have any clue what to do with him. That even someone like Snyder is struggling (and I’m inclined to say that he is struggling) kind of goes to show how hard it is.

      • To your last point, I would consider that maybe the error is in assuming that writing Batman really well automatically qualifies someone to write Superman. I think there are a slim few writers who’ve turned in classic material for both icons. You’ve got Moore, Morrison, and Loeb, sure, but look at the list of creators who’re accepted as canon for one but never struck gold with the other: Frank Miller, Denny O’Neil, Dan Jurgens, Greg Rucka, Brian Azzarello, and on and on.

        As for his power level, he shouldn’t attract the complaint any more than The Flash, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Thor, or any number of other characters who constantly outmatch smalltime villains.

        I do agree that Snyder is only having a “pretty good” run on Superman, but since Pak is turning in much better material to much smaller fanfare I would consider it has more to do with hype and expectations than any issue inherent with the character. I think there may be more great Superman stories than any other character outside of Batman, personally.

        • Just realized my list of creators who flubbed either Bats or Supes is Batman-heavy… But add John Byrne, Mark Waid to the Superman side and you see what I’m getting at.

        • I do have issues with all those characters. I think any characters that are supposed to be “human” in appearance and how they live their life, yet are incapable of being harmed by anything that actually exists in reality already have a strike against them. One thing I’ve appreciated about the New 52 is that in general characters like Superman and Wonder Woman have had their powers toned down a bit. If they had never surpassed their abilities from the Golden Age too strongly, I’d be a happy man. But where Superman is exceptional in that department is he’s supposed to have the greatest personality ever and be the moral compass for the entire universe he inhabits, too.

          Some fans get upset if anything that we actually have in the known universe short of a black hole puts Superman in danger, but they also get upset if he fails or doesn’t just plow through any moral dilemmas with the assurance that he’s Superman so he has to be right. Not to say you’re one of those people, but I see it a lot. So if we have a character who is impervious to literally anything that exists on our planet, who humans can’t do anything to without Kryptonite(and even that weakness was written out by Geoff Johns), and is never supposed to be put in a bad position what do we have left for him to do, really? To me, characters who have issues or personality flaws or struggle with things, but still are heroes in the end, are more inspiring than characters who are perfect in every way and are held up as something “inspiring”, like Superman. My bad if this sounded too confrontational, I’m just trying to explain what I find irritating about Superman.

        • Those are precisely the reasons that I read DC over Marvel, because their most iconic heroes, excepting Batman, couldn’t possibly be less grounded. I’m not interested in practical, realistic superheroes and prefer the zany pageantry of cosmic treadmills, talking squirrell space police, and Earth-3. I want comics where at their most dizzying heights they evoke wonder and nostalgia and tradition in their content but constantly exhibit the newest storytelling styles and concepts in their execution. I think All-Star Superman is the perfect example of this; there is no need to ground your concepts in order to humanize your character. All-Star even perfectly exemplifies the level the stakes should be written at for a character like Superman as well as how to incorporate the supporting cast. I maintain that not only is Superman not an inherently boring character, he has the most storied and important publication history of any comics character save Batman.

        • I can’t deny that there are TONS of great Superman stories out there, but he’s also been around longer than any other superhero, and has probably been in more comics than any other character (probably save Batman). I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of crummy Superman stories was also larger than anyone else’s (again, save Batman). I think Shelby hit it on the head when she suggested that it’s not so much that it’s hard to do Superman right, it’s just so easy to do him wrong. I think the ratio of bad Superman movies to good ones actually illustrates that quite nicely (I know both Superman Returns and Man of Steel have their boosters, and while we could quibble about their quality and fidelity to the character, I think we can all agree that Superman deserves better). I totally agree that he’s a great character with a huge range (anywhere from farm boy to godlike figure), but I think he’s often misused. (I should add: I don’t know enough of the golden/silver age classics to back this feeling up, but I know the Fleischer cartoons are incredibly formulaic, giving the impression that Kryptonite is the single most abundant mineral on Earth.)

        • Oh yeah, his being the first superhero comic and the sheer volume of material is certainly a huge part of the legacy… I’d say you’re definitely right that his ratio of good to bad material is probably average at best. But you think about Superman and you get the memories of the John Williams theme, Chris Reeves, the Death Of Superman media storm, leading roles in beloved classics like COIE and Kingdom Come, as well as a dozen of the biggest crossover events by DC, longtime Justice League membership, TAS… His importance to fiction rivals Sherlock Holmes or Mickey Mouse. That’s what separates the Trinity characters.

      • Yeah, I think it’s less about the readers and more about the writers. I think a character like Superman is more difficult to write a compelling story for than a more morally ambiguous character might be.

        Or maybe it’s not that it’s more difficult, just easier to be lazy about it, if that makes sense.

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