Superman Unchained 9

superman unchained 9Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Superman Unchained 9, originally released November 5th, 2014.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

-Traditional

Patrick: As I sit down to write this piece, the clock on the wall above my desk reads 11:00pm. It’s the end of a long day that’s been packed with all the various activities with which I busy myself. I worked, I ran, I improvised, I saw a show, I socialized. I talked to my sister on the phone, I explored the new podcasts on the Wolfpop network, I listened to that Nintendo Direct (Mario Kart DLC on November 13!), I even found some time to read a few comics. All of my interests were active all day, occasionally shifting in immediate priority so I could focus on completing one thing. This is the only way I know how to live my life — I don’t have much of a plan for my future, because I cannot predict which of these things is going to be / should be the most important thing to me. My enthusiasms revise themselves as opportunities and proficiencies wax and wane, and I’m constantly in fear that this maleability will rob me of genuine perspective. How can a writer have a voice, or a point of view, if they’re not any one thing consistently? In his spectacular finale to Superman Unchained, Scott Snyder posits that adaptability trumps consistency, and that Superman’s lack of defining ideology is his greatest strength. Neither Superman nor Patrick Ehlers stand for any one thing — and that’s what makes us mighty.

The clock’s ticking: with an alien armada en route to Earth, Superman is forced to enact Luthor’s plan and attack them head on. Batman and Wonder Woman start to scramble the Leaguers into action (including a mention of Hal that had me asking “oh, is Hal back on Earth?”), but the urgency of the situation means that this, quite literally, is a job for Superman. That’s a beautiful little narrative moment, and one that harkens back to our earliest cultural ideas about who Superman is. Actually, everything about the set-up at the beginning of the issue reeks of classic Superman — right down to Jimmy and Lois by his side and Lex antagonizing him. For my money, the most obvious sign that Snyder and artist Jim Lee are evoking a Superman from yesteryear is the intimate embrace Clark shares with Lois.

Superman says goodbye (for now)It’s a knock-out Jim Lee drawing in an issue positively full of them. There’s a brief exchange that occurs just to the right of this image, in mis-matched panels, choppily playing out the post-hug moment vertically. Lois squeezes Clark’s hard, she’s about to confess something, and finally utters “Thank you.” Clark lets go, and the line of panels just disappears off the end of the page — look, the bottom of that thick white border appears to be cut off. I was struck by how this moment would have played differently at various points in Superman’s history, and I’d be willing to wager that we’re meant to expect the words out of Lois’ mouth to be “I love you.” Without discounting the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle, the romance between Clark and Lois is sort of the archetypal comic book relationship, just as Superman himself is the archetypal superhero. This moment challenges that, reminding us that what we innately feel to be true is not, in this instance, actually true.

That’s when Supes speeds off into space. Again, Jim Lee appears to have been give license to draw as much of Superman soaring through space heroically as he could possibly want.

Superman can't help but be always smashingSnyder gleefully fills these pages with a monologue from Lex, which essentially calls Superman to task for not representing one clear point of view throughout his career. It’s hard to ignore Superman’s real life origins during this monologue, as the character we see on the page today is so different from the character that exploded in Action Comics #1 75 years ago. I have a tendency to bring up “Truth, Justice and the American Way” when writing about Superman, but that’s only because the character owed so much of his identity to that phrase for so long, but none of it is particularly applicable anymore. That’s a change from Superman operating one way to Superman operating a different way.

That’s where I start to see myself in both Superman’s shoes and in the shoes of the countless creative teams tasked with keeping Superman relevant for three-quarters of a century. None of our paths are clear, and they are all rife with mistakes, poorly managed risks, and lessons learned too late. Snyder expertly makes Luthor’s criticisms sound like inevitabilities, my favorite being this line:

I thought a profile would emerge, the profile of someone sure of himself. Someone sure he knew what was best for all of us. But I saw that Superman, whoever he is, is trial and error. He takes down a dictator, a worse one is installed; he doesn’t do it again. He avoids a situation and it worsens; next time, he involves himself. The point I’m making is that Superman doesn’t stand for anything. He’ just a man, stumbling through life. He’s not a beacon, he’s barely a candle lighting a path for himself the best he can.

Basically, there’s no road map for being the most powerful creature on the planet. Neither is there a road map for writing one of the most the most iconic characters is western literature. But by that token, there’s also no road map for living my life. Or your life. Or any of it. Superman has to make his decision on the fly, and it’s not totally clear whether he survives because of that ability to improvise or in spite of it. Perhaps it’s telling that Wraith is there to bail him out at the end — we’ve been saying since issue 1 that Wraith is essentially a stand-in for what superman was in the 30s and 40s — as Superman’s enduring legacy may have more to do with his first impression than anything happening today.

Drew, while there wasn’t much incident in this issue, I sure did find the themes to be interesting, and oddly resonant. Even that long-dormant flashback sequence played the same idea that no one action or attitude should define a person. Also, is there some redemption for Wraith in becoming the weapon Superman was meant to be instead of the other way around?

Drew: I think that redemption is actually the lynchpin of this issue, and speaks to why my reading is so different from yours. Don’t get me wrong — you make a very compelling case for Superman’s facile ideology, and I certainly see the meta-commentary you bring up, I just think Lex happens to be wrong about his conclusions. Sure, part of that is just knee-jerk suspicion of anything Lex Luthor says, but a bigger piece is exactly how Snyder ties the flashback sequence to the action in space, all hinging on one line:

Wraith SacrificeSuperman does indeed have an ideology — it’s “do the right thing” — he just doesn’t always know how to execute it. Lex Luthor might dismiss an inconsistently-enacted ideology as no ideology, but that presumes that Superman is somehow clairvoyant enough to know the repercussions of every action. Tellingly, even Luthor isn’t that good at predicting outcomes, since he obviously didn’t anticipate Wraith getting involved here at the end.

Which brings me to the bigger truth of Superman: he’s inspirational. In saving his neighbor, in spite of said neighbor’s murderous intent, he inspired the neighbor to (apparently) shut up and let the Kents live their lives. That conclusion leads straight into Wraith’s sacrifice, seeming to suggest similar roots (even if, in this case, Superman was the one with murderous intent). Superman’s desire to do good can win over even his xenophobic neighbor and the ideologically opposed Wraith. The fact that he can’t inspire Luthor — that Luthor refuses to even see any kind of consistent motivation behind his actions — speaks to just how much Luthor hates Superman.

Of course, that inspiring aspiration to goodness gets kind of muddled in the “kill an armada of aliens before they kill us” climax. Snyder goes out of his way to paint the aliens as some kind of galactic plague, a cancer that consumes and discards planets like Earth, but even still, a “let’s blow them to smithereens” solution feels decidedly unlike Superman. I mean, he fought one for several issues, but never landed a killing blow because he’s, you know, Superman — that he would be more comfortable killing them when there are millions seems like a bit of a stretch. Remember: he saved the guy who moments earlier threatened to kill his mother.

I think Snyder and Lee realize how out-of-character it is for Superman to fly into space planning to kill tons of aliens, which is why we never see one besides Wraith — we can focus on his sacrifice, instead of the millions of his species that he’s taken down with him, turning this genocide into an act inspired by Superman’s goodness rather than one he’d never stand for. It’s hard for me to ignore the irony of this conclusion — Snyder and Lee want to have their cake and eat it, too, but a Superman story that solves the problem with mass murder is never going to feel all that inspiring, even if Superman doesn’t end up actually pulling the trigger.

All of which may actually bring me back to your postmodern read, Patrick. In addition to subverting longstanding expectations in that goodbye scene with Lois, Snyder and Lee subvert our longstanding expectations that Superman would figure out a solution that doesn’t require any killing. It’s a WAY bleaker outlook than most interpretations of the character, yet somehow tries to point at instances where he didn’t kill as defining moments. In that way, maybe Superman doesn’t stand for anything anymore, but I see that less as an inspiring message about us all being Superman, and more as a portrait of the slow erosion of what made him inspiring in the first place.

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?

19 comments on “Superman Unchained 9

  1. So, if Superman was willing to fly up there and kill everyone, he could have just as easily injected one of the aliens, turning them into the bomb. Is that any worse than blowing himself up? I feel like that’s decidedly not something Superman would do, but I’m not sure I understand how his actual plan was any more moral than that.

    • Actually, that’s making a lot of assumptions about the invading alien force. While Wraith CAME from them, we don’t have any evidence that they’re all exactly like him. It’s possible that he’s something they designed for the specific purpose of acting as a double agent, crafted to be a super-being on earth. We don’t know that every (or even any) member of this alien race responds to sunlight the same way. I mean, for all we know, the aliens are a bio-mechanical mess of resources devourers.

      Drew, you’re right that it’s a weird narrative work-around to not to know anything about the aliens, kind of absolving Supes of any responsibility for their lives. But for just that reason, I’m not that bothered by the implication that Superman is all set to straightup kill these dudes.

  2. So I finally read this after it ended and yeah… This is basically why I didn’t like Man of Steel.

    That ending where Superman has to kill in order to save innocents seems contrary to the idea that posits Superman always finds a better way–because he’s Superman. True, that’s not at all a complex or nuanced approach to morality, but then again, it was never intended to be. The whole gist of Superman–at least to me–is that he’s an inspirational figure who earns his fame and nobility by always striving to be something better than he is or is told to be.

    Zod tells him he has to kill him to be rid of him, and Superman does it? He obeys the genocidal villain’s wishes? What about finding another solution–a better and more “heroic” solution? Now I fully realize that that’s not what the real world portrays–whether through cynicism or necessity–but that’s the point: Superman isn’t part of the real world; he’s part of fiction. And in fiction, you don’t have to be subjected to what the “real world” would say; in fiction, you can strive for something more, something considered better by a simplistic set of moral rules, “right and wrong.”

    Hence my problem with the ending of Superman Unchained. Like Drew says, it situates mass slaughter of the aliens as the right thing to do when in the flashbacks, Clark is explicitly show that he will not have the death of even one man–one man who attempted to kill him and his mother–on his hands. He will save him. He will find another way. And in Uncahined, we basically see the opposite of that. Worse, we see the opposite of that moral framework because Lex Luthor told him the only way to save Earth is by killing an entire armada fleet of countless aliens (granted, they could be techno-fiends or robots, but the allusions to Wraith’s people being in that doesn’t sell me on that white-washing stance). Where’s the Superman that would reject Luthor’s murderous approach? Instead, we get arguably the same Superman as that one depicted in Man of Steel–heroic and wanting to do the right thing, sure; but also ruthless to a certain degree and willing to utilize a rather bleak utilitarian philosophy to get the job done. Not the kind of Superman I remember.

    Thanks for letting me vent. Awesome site, guys!

    • I fully agree. I think Snyder is a very competent writer who just doesn’t have a good grasp on Superman. His failed foray into modernization and moral grey area typifies DC’s near-consistent fumbling of their crown jewel that dates back to John Byrne’s ’86 reboot.

      • I don’t know that I agree that Snyder is glorifying that read of Superman, so much as presenting it here. It’s like Lex outlines in his monologue: Superman’s principals are unevenly applied throughout this career. The same is true for the character. Snyder’s also so careful to give us three different of Superman in this issue – current, young Clark and Wraith, and they all display different commitments to life, sacrifice, duty, etc. I personally took it as inspirational that even a floundering Superman is still Superman, but I can understand where a reader’s specific desire for one of these versions of the character to be proven superior (i.e., young Clark) could make that more frustrating than enlightening.

        But I’ll agree about Man of Steel – fuck that movie.

        • I think we’ve got a serious problem with DC’s handling of Superman where, prior to the Bronze Age, Superman was in very high contention for most popular and bankable superhero in existence. Then, Batman, their other extremely bankable hero defined the next age of comics and every age since at DC by introducing realism and pragmatism. Past that point DC has often failed at any attempt to restore Superman to prominence by implementing what they think has worked for Batman into their Superman brand. Here, you have a very pragmatic Batman writer taking a very pragmatic approach to Superman, and I know it’s an opinion, but I feel that this is antithetical to what worked about Superman before his status drop. The young Clark presented here, the one so heavily dismissed that he’s relegated to a few flashback pages and is missing from certain issues entirely, works extremely well. I think it’s very telling that DC’s most high profile and universally beloved take on Superman in recent memory, All-Star Superman, makes zero attempt at a realistic and pragmatic approach to the character. It’s a credit to Grant Morrison that he was knee deep in an extremely successful run of Batman books at the time and was still wise enough to understand that Superman and Batman have almost nothing in common as far as their draw.

        • I love your implied reading on young Clark being treated by DC as a throwback to the past–and only to the past–because Snyder’s take on the modern version seems to be more in line with what DC wants for its star character. Our beloved pre-Bronze era Supes? Relegated to the past, as seen through the modern interpretation’s (beautifully colored) memories. Still, I can see Patrick’s appeal for an Everyman Superman, who is just trying to do the best that he can. Different eras for different fellas, different strokes for different folks…

          And yes, I LOVED Morrison and Quitely’s stunning homage to the Silver Age Superman.

          And I’m glad that we can all say, “F**k Man of Murder–err, Steel.”

        • Despite all the structure issues, I thought Morrison’s New 52 Action Comics Superman was a very nice attempt at an everyman Superman. I loved the cotton tee, work boots, and jeans that were radically different but immediately humanizing, and the concept of using his Golden Age power set as a kind of Year One period in his life before fully realizing flight and his full spectrum of abilities. I get why people were turned off when he went Full Morrison with the ADHD plot structure and quantum mechanics take on Mr. Mxyzptlk and fifth dimensionality, but if you separate that from the more straightforward issues then I feel like you’re left with a lot to love.

        • I completely agree. I felt that Morrison’s Action Comics run was woefully underestimated. It had several strong elements to it, not the least of which was the excellently social-minded Superman that would pull himself, the poor, and the disenfranchised up by his/their bootstraps. I really admired the angle Morrison was going for, and “the spirit of the Siegel and Shuster” era character that he was channeling. And I agree–the explanation of the Golden Age power set as Clark’s preliminary build before he would possess the typical Superman power set that we all recognize was a stroke of genius.

          And while Morrison may have lost me a bit on that questionable plot structure, I can still appreciate his ambition and the far-flung wackiness of his 5th Dimension.

        • I’m right there with you on the appreciation of his ambitions, even if it turned a lot of people off, and was sometimes depreciating the value of the story even for me. And I think quantum mechanics are pretty fascinating, so the attack-across-time element worked very well for me, even if it’s a break from tradition as far as previous iterations of the 5th dimension. Seems like there’s a lot of common ground that we have in our readings of Superman. It’s been nice to chat with you about this stuff, man.

        • It’s also been nice to read this back-and-forth guys. I know I don’t really have a compass for the platonic form of Superman, and Mogo makes an interesting point about the storytelling needs for a character like Superman than a character like Batman. Can I ask what kinds of qualities y’all do want to see in a Supes story?

          If I can extrapolate a little bit and venture my own guess: optimism, fun, science fictiony stuff, action, maybe some exploration and inspiration?

        • Yeah, Patrick, you’ve got the right idea of what I’m looking for. I just want a simpler, more hopeful morality, and really big stories, full of ideas and outcomes which create a sense of wonder. And I want a ton of heart in my Superman. I feel like there has been a lot of attempt, from the likes of JMS and Snyder recently, but also countless others, where they’re attempting to throw Superman in situations which seem specifically designed debunk his simple morality as a logical impossibility in the face of complex situations. It’s as though writers are specifically going out of their way to do that. Sure, you can do that, it’s actually rather easy, but I don’t see how it benefits the character. I doubt Batman could maintain his dark detective appeal if you told an endless stream of his stories but told in the Carribean during broad daylight, featuring very sane and sympathetic foils, for instance.

        • (Hope this pops up in the right order of responses)

          Yeah, it’s been my real pleasure to chat with you, too, Mogo, on all matters Super-related and otherwise.
          And I have to agree 100% with you on the specific qualities that I would like in my Superman tales–“more hopeful morality, and really big stories, full of ideas and outcomes which create a sense of wonder.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
          I’m a sucker for a lot of those crazy Silver Age stories in Action and Superman where literally anything could happen and usually did. Superman has to travel back in time to prevent Brainiac’s latest plot? Done. Superman needs to contain a collapsing star core in the palms of his hands? Check. Good ol’ Supes has to face a particular abstract of the cosmos like Time or Fate? Check and check.
          But I think that what made a lot of those stories work (and believe me, not all of them worked) was the fact that Superman/Clark had such an earnest and simple morality that guided him through whatever problems he was facing at the time. The circumstances could be extraordinary and very universe-encompassing, but the writers could usually find a through-line by way of Clark’s humanity and sense of right and wrong. Long have I been a fan of Superman’s morality stemming from the human side of his nature and childhood. You can’t really beat “good ol’ Kansas morals”, haha.
          And yes, Patrick, your extrapolations are dead on–“optimism, fun, science fictiony stuff, action, maybe some exploration and inspiration”–are some of my favorite Superman tales. Heck, those are also the same qualities that are making Slott and Allred’s run on Silver Surfer one of my must-read titles coming out today (not to mention, Shiny Surfer is another of my top three faves). Also, thanks for giving us such an awesome forum to have these conversations with!
          Exploring the impossible, having outrageous adventures; yet still anchored with a fully human core and emotional pathos–some top tier comics for me : )
          (This is also not to say that I don’t enjoy the inverse of said preferences–noir fiction, very realistic stakes, compelling detective fiction–I can enjoy me some fine Batman and everything in between tales!)

  3. I’m not a fan of this mini, and am pretty regretful of having stuck out the whole thing, but does anyone else think that the end of the flashback sequence is a far better modern interperation of the character than anything presented in the present day meat-and-potatoes? I kind of felt like the wrap-up to the flashbacks succeeded in every way that the main ending failed, and that they were practically opposites how satisfying I found them. Just a thought.

    • I can sympathize with your feelings on sticking with the series through the delays, waiting for Snyder to stick the ending, only to find… that ending instead.

      Nevertheless, I agree with you completely about the flashbacks to young Clark being the definitive version of the Superman character over what we were presented with in the primary story–and in other series past where Clark’s handling has been dubious at best.

      I guess it’s the general shift in tone that DC seems insistent on with its core books and legacy characters that has me riled up more than most. I mean, “Forever Evil”. Really? Why not just call it “Grim n’ Gritty 4-Evs”? In addition, I steered clear of Action when it crossed over into that DOOMED story arc. It just didn’t seem fitted for me. Superman as a villain? Oh boy, they haven’t done that before…

      (Pardon the unnecessary snark, but DC has been playing fast and loose with one of my all-time favorites since the New 52 began)

      • I’m glad that it’s not just me. You know, conversely, I actually really loved the Forever Evil dedicated mini and the parallel Justice League issues, but that’s an Injustice League VS Crime Syndicate story. We’re also gonna get a Darkseid VS Anti-Monitor story from Johns, and I’m 100% okay with that stuff going dark. It makes sense to meet that the villains in general would be at each others throats often and in really nasty ways; I much prefer this to heroes fighting heroes. What I don’t want is Superman, of all characters, getting drug down in that muck. Let him be Superman. Let him save the day. Let him be optimistic, and a symbol of hope. Don’t be afraid to let his stories have happy endings. That’s exactly the escapism I’m looking for when I buy a Superman book.

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