Patrick: I’d never really considered how strange it is that we refer to the biggest global political players as “super powers.” It’s…weird, right? That’s a phrase taken from our capes and cowls, our frequently immature power fantasies, and applied to governments. It might be comforting to think of the United States as Superman, swooping in to altruistically save the day, but the truth isn’t so clear-cut. How can a government take altruistic action when there is no “self” to sacrifice? One body makes a decision, another carries out the action, and a third has to deal with the consequences. Heroism comes from that internalizing the whole process, from decision-making through the consequences. With Superman Unchained 8, Scott Snyder suggests that Superman can (and should) be that singular entity.
Superman and Wraith are still engaged in some absurdly scaled action. How absurd? It starts with Supes tossing a freighter at his opponent, and it only gets more nuts from there. Wraith punching Superman through a mountain range? Check! Supes smashing Wraith through the moon? Check-check! The immediate return to Earth for a final tussle at the planet’s core? Check-check-check! This is the kind of nonsense that Scott Snyder and Jim Lee proved so adept at depicting way back in the first issue. There was a little bit more nuance back then, with Supes weighing his super-options and counting the nano-seconds it would take him to save individual lives, but this tour from lunar surface to Earth’s core is no-less rooted in necessity. I was reminded of the one cool moment from Scott Lobdell’s Superman Annual 1 (which feels, so, so long ago now at this point), wherein Helspont smacks Superman into moon. The key difference between these two scenes is that one is 100% spectacle, while the other is the result of actions taken by a properly motivated Superman. Taking the fight to the moon means that both of these jugernauts are robbed of oxygen, thus negating the edge Wraith had in the brawl. The spectacle is just as insane, but at least it makes sense within the context of the story.
Lee is an absolute beast in the issue, turning in tons of full page (and two-page) splashes that really celebrate this idea of supermen duking it out. I love the way the sequential stuff on the right side of the page literally takes a backseat to the awe-inspiring image of Supes decking his opponent against a star field. This is what Lee’s style, and by extension the DC house style, excels at: presenting jaw-dropping, iconic images with weight and speed and motion. The layouts here seldom offer anything all that innovative, but stay close to this basic idea — there’s a huge action beat, and then some storytelling. There may be 15 pages of punching, but between Lee’s iconic staging and an almost hyperactive sense of setting, the issue manages to feel like something more than a dull slug-a-rama.
Plus, it’s not like the conflict is without subtlety. There might be slight differences in Superman and Wraith’s powersets, but there’s a gulf between them philosophically and morally. The moral difference is quickly apparent — the prologue of the first issue made that pretty clear. Wraith is willing to be complicit (or even active) in the murder of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians during the final days of World War II, but that’s not the only difference Superman sees. Wraith allows himself the luxury of aligning himself with an army — and a government — capable of taking the responsibility for his decisions out of his hands. That also means that Wraith isn’t really responsible for the consequences of his actions. Superman makes the case:
“Your actions are Lane’s actions. Thoughtless on your part, and judged by no one.”
It’s a powerful moment and one that finally paints Superman in a meaningfully different light. The old-fashioned ideas of “truth, justice and the American way” aren’t cutting it anymore, and readers are more morally demanding of their ultra-pure heroes. We’ve made the argument on this site (especially Shelby) that the archetypical Superman is boring, but I think that’s incomplete: old Superman is boring because he doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t take courage or inner strength to stand up for “the American way,” does it? The American Way has more money, guns and cultural influence than any other empire in recorded history. But integrity? Accountability? Those characteristics are becoming of the greatest superhero in the cannon.
We’re not quite to the point where Superman demonstrates that he has those qualities, but the set-up for the next issue quickly puts Clark in Wraith’s shoes as he’s given roughly the same ability to nuclearly self-immolate and quash the alien force poised to invade Earth. It’s sort of a bummer that Luthor’s concentrated sunlight-serum will also kill Superman, because it takes some of the drama out of the decision. Obviously, Clark needs to find a way to fight off the aliens without killing himself. If he could survive the explosion, then there’s a real decision to make.
Spencer, after a couple of issues of silly punch-em-ups, I’m thrilled to see Snyder turning his attention back to the question of what Superman should be. But how did you feel about it? I suspect that the number of splash pages is going to be a little controversial, but hey: a page full of punching is a page full of punching, right? Also, as much fun as it’s been to have Wonder Woman and Batman tagging along in the last couple issues, it was nice to stay focused on Clark here. Did you miss Batman in this one? (Answer: We all miss Batman. All the time.)
Batman has a tendency to dominate any scene or book he’s in, and Diana’s recent appearances in Superman books always seem to be focused on their relationship, so Synder made a smart move by instead focusing on how Clark is inspired by these two (as well as Lois!) — it helps keep the book Superman-centric by exploring how Clark’s friends and family influence how he uses his strength.
This is a stark contrast to Wraith, a loner who simply follows orders to the point of being a tool. In fact, the entire battle between Clark and Wraith demonstrates how different these two truly are, and as far as I’m concerned, the most important difference is simply in how they fight.
Or, in this case, the fact that Clark knows how to fight. Wraith is incredibly powerful and it cannot be denied that he knows how to use his powers to their fullest potential, but when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, Wraith’s got no experience, and it’s because — as Clark explains — he’s always fighting people weaker than him, always hiding in the shadows, always relying on back-up. The very qualities that Wraith thinks makes Clark weak gives him the advantage in their fight, and that’s brilliant.
It’s also a wonderful subversion of many fans’ opinions of Superman: namely, that he doesn’t know how to fight and only wins battles because of his power. Snyder’s been contesting this throughout the entirety of Superman Unchained by giving us insight into the very intelligent and thoughtful ways Clark uses his powers to solve problems, but this issue is the best example, giving us a Superman who may not necessarily be as skilled a fighter as Batman or Wonder Woman, but who has learned from his friends and used his abilities and intelligence to become more than just a powerhouse.
Actually, Wraith seems to be a personification of many people’s misconceptions about (or mischaracterizations of) Superman in general. Not only is Wraith a powerhouse who relies on his abilities but doesn’t know how to fight, Wraith is also caught up in “the American Way” to the point where he takes orders and follows rhetoric without thinking — like Frank Miller’s Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, for example. I’m thinking that Snyder is better defining who Superman is by showing us who he isn’t, by comparing him with a character who personifies many of the more cynical takes on Superman. This even applies in-universe; I’m specifically thinking of Wraith’s role in the upcoming alien invasion:
I’m going to guess that Wraith doesn’t know that his presence on Earth has slowly been opening the planet up to attack, but it’s exactly the kind of doomsday scenario Luthor’s been preaching about ever since Superman’s arrival. Part of me thinks General Lane won’t turn against his golden boy, but if he does, Wraith won’t be prepared for that kind of betrayal, while after years of fielding Luthor’s slander Superman can easily stand up to it.
There’s so much I love about Luthor’s appearance here in general — how it dovetails into the Wraith/Earthstone plot, how he’s been one step ahead of everybody from the start, how he’s concocted a plan to use Superman to save the world yet destroy him at the same time — but you’re right to criticize the decision to have the serum kill Superman as well, Patrick, at least to a point. As readers we know Superman won’t choose to kill himself, but in the narrative itself, I think Superman would be more likely to drink a serum he knew would destroy him if he thought he had no other choice than he would to become a bomb and kill others. Either way, presenting this choice to Superman feels like a strange decision from Luthor, as even he should know Superman wouldn’t willingly murder (unless he’s watched Man of Steel one too many times).
As for the splash page controversy, I’m fully for them — when you’ve got an artist like Jim Lee at your disposal, it would be a crime not to throw some splash pages in! The battle between Superman and Wraith is so epic that it fully justifies the space spent on it, but it’s also the thought put into the battle, the way every punch has a clever reason behind it, that makes sure those splashes aren’t gratuitous. All in all, this issue is just plain well-constructed, and I had a blast with it. Lee’s art perfectly captures the explosive battle, which Snyder uses to expound on who Superman really is (and isn’t); it’s a comic that’s smart and fun, fast-paced and full of splash pages yet also packed with exposition and characterization; it’s quite a feat. Snyder and Lee have outdone themselves; perhaps this issue should be called Snyder and Lee: Unchained?
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