“This really is the story I’d do if I got one chance ever to write Superman.”
– Scott Snyder
“Superman Unchained” was supposed to be DC Comics blockbuster re-introduction to the Man of Steel within The New 52 universe. After “Action Comics” and his own solo title quickly fizzled out due to more creative changes than Madonna’s concert wardrobe, “Superman Unchained” was the prophesied and heralded messiah for DC Comics and their big, blue boy-scout. Having Scott Snyder and Jim Lee as the creative team behind this exciting comic-series seemed to promise Superman returning to his flagship title status, long lost to Batman since Snyder and Capullo’s debut. But something happened! After many schedule delays and a story that didn’t immediately resonate with jaded, pessimistic readers – DC Comics announced “Unchained” would be ending (prematurely) with issue #9. This past week saw the release of the final issue and the end of what may be one of the last, greatest Superman stories ever written.
I, Steven Biscotti, am a prime Superman enthusiast. My personal goal of reading all of DC’s essentials for Superman was surpassed when I then took it upon myself to read nearly every Superman story ever written. Suffice it to say, after having read Action Comics 1 to current, I am very far down the Doomsday sized rabbit hole! So when DC Comics announced “Superman Unchained” last year during the 75 years celebration and the release of the Zack Snyder directed/ Christopher Nolan produced “Man of Steel”, I couldn’t have been more excited. To have such a gifted writer like Scott Snyder handling Superman was a thrill. Not only has Snyder delivered a definitive take on Batman but has quickly become one of, if not THE best writer, of The Dark Knight. While Bruce and Clark couldn’t be more different, Snyder promised a story he’d do “if I got one chance ever to write.” In 5.2 Questions with Scott Snyder and Jim Lee (featured in “Superman Unchained” #1), Snyder said “Clark is much more emotionally open-he tells you (the reader) what he’s feeling, what he’s thinking. There’s no subterfuge in his narration or his dialogue.” Snyder has a talent for getting the characters he works on. Be it in “Batman”, “American Vampire”, or “Wytches”, it’s completely understandable to see how wildly popular his creative writing classes at NYU are. His way of delivering character driven and character welcome plots in big, sprawling, and ambitious stories are unlike any other. To compare him to writers such as Grant Morrision or Mark Millar would be a disservice to the unique writing style that is very much his own! As for Jim Lee, he’s someone that most comic and non-comic fans are familiar with. His artwork is featured on one of the Forever Batman U.S. Postal Service Stamps and has delivered classics such as “Batman Hush” and “Superman For Tomorrow.” After announced at NYCC 2012, releasing June 2013, and concluding on November 5, 2014 – “Superman Unchained” was/is very much the kind of title that will one day be recommended reading by those at DC Comics and promoted alongside such great stories such as “All-Star”, “Birthright”, and “Red Son.”
“Superman Unchained” opens against the reality of an unforgettable moment in history. Set during the bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a different kind of atomic bomb is dropped. It is here that we are introduced to the enigmatic and major foil of the series, a Superman in the world long before Kal-El, a character named Wraith whom General Sam Lane describes as “The real Superman. Working for the United States for nearly seventy-five years.” It is through the following issues, particularly by issue #3, that Snyder reveals that Wraith, a nickname for “William Rudolph’s Ace In The Hole”, landed in the Utah desert in November of 1938. Wraith was the result of a mathematical equation being sent to space while the world was on the brink of war. Being delivered to us and brought up by the military machine, he was regarded as a answer to a prayer. Unlike Superman, who stands for “truth and justice” while not necessarily aligning himself with any military or country, Wraith is the opposite. He is another kind of hero; he is a soldier. Wraith has learned that enemies are soon developed as one stands alone, “above the governments of the world, above the politics.” As a soldier, Wraith readily fights for America and, if ordered, would finish Superman if need be. His character isn’t a villain, but rather an expertly crafted foil, an anti-Superman Superman, to put it crudely. The high point of Scott Snyder’s story is that Wraith is the reflection of all of humanity held up to Superman. He is a carefully created and written character in the tradition of some of Snyder’s best.
The conflict in “Unchained” is Superman’s fight against a changing world. More dramatically told than the fights he has with cyber-terrorist organization, Ascension, and a sinister plot devised by Lex Luthor (reminiscent of Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “All-Star Superman”), we look at the endurance of an icon. For 75 years, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s creation, a character who started the golden age of comics and is the grandfather of all superheroes, has been consistent with how he was originally presented. While he’s lost the trunks, quit the Daily Planet, and blogs with Cat Grant – Clark Kent is pretty much the same mild mannered, Krypton born and Kansas bred fellow we have loved all these years. It’s the fact, shining as bright as the iconography of the symbol on his chest (a symbol of hope), that Superman is a paragon of virtue that Snyder and Lee wish to overhaul. Yes, he’s still the Man of Steel, but there is no need for him to still be viewed as archaic by today’s standards. He is a character, a hero like Batman, who doesn’t have it all figured out. Through trial and error, he makes mistakes and is, by no means, perfect. While seen as a God like figure by humanity, he is just a man. Superman is presented in 9 issues as “a guy who grew up in Kansas with the weight of the world on his shoulders, trying to do the right thing case by case.” (Exclusive: Scott Snyder talks ‘Superman Unchained,’ shedding Clark’s boy scout image – Hitfix.com) More poignantly expressed, is an idea that has plagued my more neurotic side as a collector. As a 25-year-old, collecting comics, statues, figures, and items of The Last Son of Krypton, there’s a real sense of time and legacy. The legacy Superman has on the world is that of a hero that will continue to live on long past all of us. Superman will continue to exist in a world years after I’m long gone. The collectibles will still stand, ever present and ever so in the now, standing tall and bright. Much like the non-aging persona of Clark Kent, the world will grow old and be born again, cycle after cycle, all while he still exists just outside of the harshness of existence that we all know too well. Issue #5 of “Superman Unchained” features a dream like sequence, perfectly captured with gravitas by Jim Lee, in which Clark envisions a week, then 10, 40,and lastly 80 years go by where everyone else around him grows old and eventually dies, whereas he just stays the same. Wraith points out that Superman “is neither here nor there” and that his existence is “in a limbo that cannot last.” Questioning the point of the Clark Kent persona and the why’s of why Kent does what he does, it’s a question that rattles the him. Having existed in books for 75 years is almost the answer presented in the book of why Superman is and always will be there. “Ultimately it’s really a celebration of Superman where I think it’s ultimately a big affirmation in celebration of the kinds of choices Superman makes” (Exclusive: Scott Snyder talks ‘Superman Unchained,’ shedding Clark’s boy scout image – Hitfix.com) Snyder said in regards to the overall answer, theme, and point of “Unchained.” Superman is who Clark Kent will always be. Due to the values instilled in him and his strong, unwavering beliefs, Clark, at his own sacrifice, will consistently put the needs of others before his own. For Snyder and Lee, it’s a personal explanation and argument for the validity and love of Superman. For myself, it’s perhaps the second best Superman story every written (“Birthright” taking the top spot; a story for another day). The motion and muscularity of Jim Lee’s art when paired with the talented skills of Scott Snyder is an event to behold. It is not just Superman being unchained, but two creative talents at the top of their game. The result is a story that reminds fans and non fans alike that the Man of Steel will always be a hero that exists in a moment. While his fans, writers, artists, and talents will fade into a memory, he will always exist for those as long as heroes endure. The social utility of an icon will always be the countless lives touched by the way he/she lives their life. And that no matter where we find ourselves, strong values and beliefs will always be our north star on a dark night.
“Superman Unchained” gets five out of five Great Rao’s*
*Rao is the parent star, sun, that gives light to the planet Krypton.