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.
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.
Snyder 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:
Superman 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.
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