Jun 12 2013

Review: Superman Unchained #1

Superman Unchained #1 - Jim Lee

The highly anticipated series debut couldn’t possibly live up to the hype machine – or could it? Superman cuts loose in this timely new series.

Superman Unchained #1 (2013)

Superman Unchained #1 - Jim Lee

Writer: Scott Snyder

Artist: Jim Lee, Dustin Nguyen

Publisher: DC Comics

Rating: ★★★½

More info

It’s no accident that Superman Unchained #1 debuts in the same week as the big screen adaptation Man of Steel hits cinemas. Not simply a flagship character for DC Comics, Superman is the quintessential comic book hero who has stood the test of time over the last 75 years. However, since the debut of the New 52 in 2011, DC has struggled to produce a consistently compelling series out of either Action Comics or Superman. So Superman Unchained may at first seem like a precarious prospect, were it not for Batman scribe Scott Snyder and legendary artist Jim Lee in the driver’s seat.

Snyder’s main story begins in 1945, as a mysterious glowing figure drops over Nagasaki, Japan. It presumably has something to do with an infamous moment in history, but the question is left dangling, at least for now. What follows is more traditional Superman fare, with the man of tomorrow stopping falling celestial objects, an encounter with the recently incarcerated Lex Luthor and some hijinks with Lois and Jimmy. Yet it is the mystery that remains, with Clark Kent’s investigative reporter intuition sending Superman to the bottom of the ocean to uncover some clues. What he finds there will surprise him, naturally.

The question that should immediately be asked upon opening Superman Unchained is whether it can possibly bring anything new to the character. Snyder’s time with Batman has perhaps tuned him into the appeal of detective stories, and this is what this debut issue suddenly becomes in the last act. We are so used to seeing the Big Blue punching things or bumbling around as Kent that it is easy to forget that he is naturally inquisitive, a trait that led him into journalism in the first place. It’s this angle that Snyder follows in his take on Superman, although almost two-thirds of the issue is over before this occurs. Many of the initial pages are the kind we have seen before, and while we are tempted to call this a “classic” approach, it’s also bordering on retread. For example, the character revealed in the final pages could have stepped out of any point Superman’s past, although Snyder has created enough mystery to warrant further interest.

Jim Lee’s art is given many chances to shine in this outing, not least of which are some fold out spreads that don’t work quite as well in the digital edition. It’s blockbuster stuff, in that it’s big and bold and full of explosions, but it’s also fully expected of the genre. With the exception of the massive splash page, the framing and layouts are incredibly traditional as well. The Dustin Nguyen art in the short epilogue is far more visually engaging, and would have been a much bolder move on DC’s part to feature the world of an artist who is no stranger to Snyder (American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares) or the last son of Krypton (Superman/Batman).

While Superman Unchained is yet to distinguish itself from the other Superman titles already available, an increasingly insurmountable task after 75 years worth of stories, Snyder is taking the slow-burn approach that ultimately paid off with his first arc of Batman. This is, after all, the first story of what we imagine to be a lengthy stand on the character. Yet in many ways this highlights the difficulties of telling a new Superman story within the confines of continuity, even one as recent as the New 52. To paraphrase another work with ‘unchained’ in the title, it has our curiosity, but it’s yet to fully receive our attention.

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