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Comic Review: SUPERMAN UNCHAINED #1

Superman is having a big year. 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the world’s most iconic superhero, and a little arthouse film called Man of Steel just dominated the box office last weekend. In timely fashion, DC has launched the new ongoing series Superman Unchained. Not only did the first issue drop the same week as the new movie, but the talent that they’ve gathered is among the industry’s hottest: Batman scribe Scott Snyder and DC top brass/New 52 architect Jim Lee.

So with the momentous release date and the pedigree involved, is this a definitive take on Superman for the 21st century? Well, no, not exactly. With that said, though, this is only the first issue, and Snyder is a talented writer capable of working wonders on the right title; so we’ll see what happens. The bigger question is: Is it possible for the definitive anything to exist in the New 52?

Snyder’s been trying his damnedest over on Batman to varying degrees of success, and what he does here is admirable. He grounds the story in the events of World War II, opening and closing with memories of Nagasaki, which lends it an “American myth” vibe befitting Superman. Snyder also establishes the current status quo for new readers, nicely delineating Clark Kent’s relationships with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, and Superman’s rivalry with Lex Luthor. The character work basically consists of a bunch of info-dumps, but they’ve got a good energy to them. Nothing big, but nice little scene-setters all the same.

supermanunchained1panel

When it comes to the New 52 of it all, though, Superman Unchained is in the same boat as most of DC’s output. There’s just something…off…about the whole thing. It’s easy to point a finger at Jim Lee, who’s been a guiding voice behind the New 52, but, well, maybe he deserves to be pointed at. Lee’s aesthetic remains forever rooted in the early ’90s Image era, which might provoke pangs of nostalgia in certain readers but is sure to give many headaches. Because he redesigned a good deal of DC’s stable for the reboot, most of their line has been dominated by Lee’s overly muscular, ‘tude-filled, be-turtleneck-ed style. Two years on, it might be pointless to bitch about Superman’s costume, but it’s distracting throughout the issue. Moreover, Lee’s people seem perpetually stuck in various states of constipation. All these years later, it still feels like Lee is trying to make his art as “cool” as possible, which is a sure-fire way to make something that’s not.

Also uncool? Gimmicks. Superman Unchained #1 is priced at a whopping $4.99, and though I wish I could say it’s for additional story or some sort of rad, innovative storytelling device, I’d be lying. Nope, this is another cynical price hike justified mainly by giving the reader a giant fold-out poster that must be unfolded to read the story in full (sorry collectors). This is nothing new, though, Lee himself did it in an issue of All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder. The rest of the issue is padded out with an epilogue featuring much better art by Dustin Nguyen, and an interview with Snyder and Lee.

It’s very difficult to have a great story without great art, which is something DC has been struggling with for the last couple years. You could probably count the number of visually interesting DC books on one hand, and because it comes straight from the V-necked source, Superman Unchained ain’t one of ’em. If you’re going to read this book, read it for Snyder. The first issue is nothing groundbreaking, but we know the man isn’t afraid to put icons through the wringer. If his Superman is indeed let off the chain, we might be in for something interesting.

Superman Unchained is available at your local comic shop and wherever digital comics are SOLD. 

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Arlo J. Wiley

Arlo J. Wiley