Unfolded: Superman Unchained #1 Review

superman_unchained_1_cover_2013I’ve had some issues with Superman ever since his New 52 reboot. Because frankly, through the eyes of hindsight, Superman’s reboot was kind of a schizo mess.

On one hand, we had Grant Morrison on Action Comics, showing Superman as a kid in a t-shirt with a reduced powerset punching out millionaires. At the same time, Superman was going full blast in his own title, separated from Lois Lane and having big adventures, all while the original writer was screeching about editorial interference and jumping off midstream, leaving the title in the capable hands of the man who rebooted Starfire to be an amnesiac cockmonger. In the meantime, Morrison made Superman’s invulnerability partially contingent on some weird Kryptonian battle armor, and then Geoff Johns had Superman start chucking the meat to Wonder Woman. And that’s all if you ignore what’s happening in the out-of-continuity, video game tie-in title Injustice: Gods Among Us, where Superman is following “The American Way,” if by that you mean, “Ruthlessly enforcing order through the use of constant pervasive surveillance.”

That’s all gone on in just 21 months, and while it might be all well and good for your average rabid comics fan, there’s not much that screams, “It’s Superman!” to Joe Blow on the street… and that is a problem when DC’s last, best hope for creating a Marvel-style movie empire is Man of Steel – a Superman movie opening, well, tomorrow. And imagine that one-in-a-thousand moviegoer who is lucky enough to live in a neighborhood like mine, where there is a movie theater a block away from a comic store, and who leaves Man of Steel, wanders to that comic store and buys everything he sees with Superman on the cover… only to find a dude in armor making out with Wonder Woman when he isn’t incinerating banana republics for disobeying his orders.

Enter Scott Snyder, Jim Lee and Superman Unchained: a Superman story that uses the new costume and Superman’s New 52 status quo, but is still identifiably an old-school Superman story with an identifiable Big Blue Boy Scout, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and everything else that that mythical Some Dude Walking Into A Comic Store After Man of Steel might expect. And it should act as a pretty solid entry point for any non-comic readers that Man of Steel might attract…

…except for that fucking poster, which is an abominable choice.

We open in 1945 Nagasaki, where we find that the “Little Boy” bomb that the United States dropped on Japan might not have been what we were always told that it was. Smash cut to Superman in orbit, trying to save a manned space station from being dropped into the atmosphere like several other orbiting bodies that were dumped somewhere in the story’s gutters. After an extended and exciting rescue sequence, we see Clark Kent, now working as a blogger, talking with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet only to learn that he missed one thing that dropped from orbit: an American spy satellite that splashed down into the ocean. That satellite, upon inspection, proves to have a big, indented handprint in its steel, indicating that someone powerful might have chucked it out of orbit… and then an American sub blows the whole mess up with a torpedo, just before panicking when they realize that they also just took a potshot at Superman. Cut to a secret military base run by Lois’s father, and where we learn that the thing that was in that Nagasaki bomb might just be something for Superman to worry about… and please God, let Snyder refer to this thing as “Little Boy,” so I can buy a comic titled, “Superman Vs. Little Boy”…

Now, that might sound like a very simplistic plot summary, but the reality is that Snyder has put together a Superman comic that hits almost every single element that non-comics readers might expect from a Superman story, all while keeping things in New 52 continuity. When you think Superman, you think flying, heat vision, x-ray vision, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, The Daily Planet, Perry White and Lex Luthor, and absolutely every one of those elements or characters appears in this book. And more importantly, almost none of them feel shoehorned in… with the exception of the Luthor sequence (Superman saves the helicopter taking Luthor to prison from crashing), which felt a bit forced in as a way to give the guy some face time. But otherwise, this entire book all but screams the popular perceptions of Superman – it even makes a nod to, “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird…”

So the book acts as a very effective way to provide not only a user friendly portal into current Superman comics, but it does it while providing a very comfortable character study of Clark / Superman. All the things that people think of in Superman’s character are here; we’ve got a story about his upbringing in Smallville for the TV show fans. There’s a constant urge to not only save people, but to comfort and reassure them. Superman / Clark’s entire focus is on being interested in people as opposed to punching stuff, and it is shown most clearly in the space station rescue, which is truly exciting, while putting Superman’s motivation to protect people front and center. It is one hell of an action sequence, and it serves the character well, particularly for anyone reading a comic book for the first time…

And then there’s that fucking poster.

When you flip to page four, there is a big poster folded into the book. And there is no indication that it is anything but a nifty bonus poster that you can ignore, unless you flip past it and happen to notice some upside-down captions on the back side of it. That poster actually constitutes pages five and six of the story, and if you want to see what happens, you need to read it like this:

superman_unchained_1_poster_unfoldedThe poster is also blu-tacked shut, so to open it up, you need to caaaaarefully peel back the paper from the paste, gently open it to avoid tearing it. and then unfold it and flip it carefully to keep it in the book. Luckily, I read this on my couch, with an empty coffee table in front of me to stabilize the book upon. If I’d read this on the toilet, I’d be shopping for a new copy of the book. And probably for some pants.

Frankly, the first time I read through the book, I just flipped past the poster and continued for a page or two until I realized I wasn’t sure what was going on. And as a collector, I was hesitant to mess with the poster, since I knew if I messed it up, it would be be worth fuckall on the secondary market in 30 years when I need retirement (beer) money. And I tried to imagine that ephemeral new comic reader, who upon seeing an insert in a regular magazine, probably thinks either subscription card or perfume ad and rips it out to make the actual magazine easier to read.

So while this poster is a nice showcase for Jim Lee’s art, I can’t imagine who it is actually for. Comic collectors won’t want to mess with it, and will then miss two pages of story. Non comic collectors will likely rip it out, and then miss two pages of story. It is a “bonus” looking for someone who wants it, and it only serves to make the story harder to read. It’s a baffling choice to me, and while it doesn’t affect the story in any way, it affects the reading experience, which is not something you want to fuck with in a book that is presumably at least partially meant to be a Superman comic that comic stores can keep prominently on the counter for curious new Superman fans.

Jim Lee’s art is as iconic as ever in this book. The guy does detailed, pose-driven art like few others these days… by which I mean it’s pose-driven, but the storytelling is still relatively easy to follow. There are pictures of Superman in this book that are as iconic and heroic as just about any you’ll find since the New 52 rebooted, and yet you can still follow what’s happening… with a few exceptions. There is a transition between two panels where we go from an image of astronauts flailing in space to a panel of Superman blasting at something with his heat vision; it is meant to show Superman turning on the space station’s heat shield, but without any dialogue, it looks unsettlingly like Superman is executing the astronauts. These are the hazards of art that is focused on making everyone look badass in every panel, but in general, it is beautiful, and not all that difficult to follow, which is key for potential new readers. Except for, you know, that fucking poster.

It might seem like I’m spending more time bitching about the poster than talking about the story, but shit like this matters. The timing and content of Superman Unchained #1 are clearly meant to service new readers. And that means that you need to make the book as accessible for people who don’t necessarily spend three hours a day reading, thinking about, and writing about comic books. The story and the artwork pretty admirably meet that challenge, but forcing new readers – hell, any readers – to stop and perform an origami problem that runs the risk of ruining the magazine in order to get the entire story just boggles my fucking mind. You want to include a cool Jim Lee pinup poster for the kids? Stick it in the back and maybe don’t charge five clams for the book. But forcing me to stop in the middle of a story to fiddle with the book’s physical structure is the opposite of an immersive experience. It’s a roadblock in a book that should be as accessible and forgiving as possible, and while it doesn’t ruin it, it is a bad, bad choice.

It’s not a bad enough choice to stop you from buying the book, as it is a good entry point for any Superman reader… but it’s pretty damn stupid.