Readers and, especially, retailers may have plenty of reasons to be annoyed by Superman Unchained, the now-complete series available this week in a fancy-schmancy 350-page, slightly oversized hardcover "Deluxe Edition."
DC Comics announced the awkwardly titled series — please note, there are no literal or metaphorical chains either going on or coming off in the story — as an ongoing, promoted with seemingly countless variant covers (more on these later). In theory, it sounded like a can't-miss comic, featuring as it did the work of Scott Snyder, one of (if not the) most popular writers in the direct market and Jim Lee, one of (if not the) most popular artists in the direct market, working on DC's flagship (and second-most popular) character.
In reality, the book turned out to just an nine-issue miniseries, rather important information a retailer would have taken into consideration when ordering. Whether or not it was always intended to be a miniseries, I don't know; it reads as a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, and it fits into the New 52 continuity, but loosely enough that one need not have any idea what's going on in any other book to follow it easily (Snyder really pulled off some great line-straddling here, as this reads equally well as part of the New 52 and as a standalone book for a new or lapsed Superman fan). The plan might have originally been for it to be ongoing, until the reality of a Lee drawing a monthly series set in.
Even at just nine issues, Superman Unchained was plagued with delays that made reading it serially something of a chump's game. It took 15 months to publish those nine issues. That averages out to a bimonthly-ish schedule, but the delays were random and erratic: Issues 4 and 5 shipped in consecutive months, for example, and then there was a two-month delay before Issue 6, and a three-month delay before Issue 7. If there's a more perfect argument for waiting for the trade than Superman Unchained, I've yet to hear it (you even get all 58 covers in this collection, some process stuff and no ads, and at $29.99 it's cheaper than the buying all nine single issues at $3.99).
So, yes, if you're in the business of trying to sell comics to people, you may have some ill will toward this book. And if you tried reading it "monthly," you may also not feel great about it. I can't defend DC's production or marketing of the book, but I would argue in favor of forgiving Superman Unchained. Because the thing is, it's actually a pretty great Superman story.
I wouldn't put it up there with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman or Mark Millar's Superman Adventures run, or some of the great "One Year Later" stuff Kurt Busiek managed, sometimes in collaboration with Geoff Johns, but it's a very well-written story with art that ... well, the art leaves something to be desired. However, while Lee's no Quitely, he sure is popular, and he has refined, and continues to refine, his style. He's not the best visual storyteller, but he draws people posing and punching pretty well, and that is, if not half the battle, then a pretty big chunk of it.
The basic plot is a (graphic) novel-length version of a conceit Morrison played with in every issue of All-Star (and Johns is currently playing with in his Superman scripting): Superman meets a version of himself, and the contrast between Superman and the virtual double is used to define the title character.
Here that double is named "Wraith," which, like the Darkseid-meets-Doomsday design Lee comes up with for the character, signals that despite his seemingly good intentions, he's more of a bad version of Superman than just a bad-ass version. He too is an alien from a faraway civilization; he too is powered by Earth's yellow sun; and he too has dedicated himself to fighting for the good of his adopted world. He landed in the 1930s, however, and aligned himself with the United States military industrial complex, becoming the secret weapon in a massive operation referred to simply as "The Machine," which Superman and Lois Lane are just now learning about.
How deeply involved with the U.S. military is Wraith? Well, they didn't drop an atomic bomb on Nagasaki to end World War II in the DC Universe; they dropped Wraith.
The new old super-being is Superman's better, having some 75 years more experience with their similar power sets, and some 75 years more worth of solar energy soaked into his cells. As one of The Machine's ongoing missions is being ready to take down the Man of Steel if the hero ever goes rogue, Wraith and Superman are poised to come into conflict at some point, even if they attempt to be allies -- and even friends -- for a while, with Wraith finally discovering a kindred spirit with whom he can talk.
Making the conflict all the more personal, The Machine is currently run by General Sam Lane, Lois' father. And further complicating matters is that a seemingly Anonymous-inspired group of techno-Luddite terrorists named Ascension is waging a war on Earth's technology using bizarre weaponry, and the imprisoned Lex Luthor is up to ... something.
Snyder introduces a lot of characters and gets a lot of plates spinning, only gradually revealing how everything is connected. Lois Lane and Batman are used fairly extensively as supporting players. (Wonder Woman is present as well, and it's interesting to see how Snyder and Lee portray Superman and his two girlfriends in the climactic scene, where he flies off on a suicide mission to save the world. Superman talks to Diana over a Justice League communicator, saying nothing that doesn't involve Earth-saving strategy. Meanwhile, there are two pages of heart-felt conversation with Lois, including a splash page of them embracing.)
There's an awful lot of action, much of it involving Superman fighting robots, super-weapons and Wraith, but by the climax, Snyder presents different ways of seeing Superman, via Wraith, General Lane, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane and, to a lesser extent, Batman. What's fascinating is that they're all right in their readings of who Superman is, what he's all about and what he "means," which, in the case of Luthor, makes him that much more fascinating a character. Luthor's not evil, just really smart -- so smart that he almost can't help but be evil. Additonally, Snyder's use of Luthor as a subordinate villain who eventually weasels his way into a key position by the end is pretty great; Luthor starts the series as a red herring, sitting on the sidelines of the great conflict between Superman and more imminent, powerful threats like Ascension, Wraith and The Machine, but by the climax he's prepared to save the world and kill Superman at the same time.
As great as Snyder is at writing Superman and his cast (the scenes in the first two issues where he thinks his way out of impossible situations at super-speed, saving everyone in a matter of seconds, are pretty perfect), the conclusion could probably use a tweak so that the alien invaders are robots rather than sentient creatures, as Superman prepares to save the day by slaughtering what must be thousands of them. He doesn't go through with it, but only because someone else decides to slaughter all those aliens for him.
It's a single questionable action by the Man of Steel in what is otherwise a near-perfect Superman script.
As for Lee's contributions, they are about what you'd expect. Few if any of the designs are noteworthy, but he has a good handle on the primary cast, and is naturally a master of DC's New 52 house style, which, after all, is derived from his own.
Lee gets some help from Dustin Nguyen, who draws epilogues to almost every "chapter" (apparently meant to be back-up stories, adding to the page count and justifying the $3.99 price tag of the singles), and contributes more heavily as the series progresses, drawing rather extensive flashback sequences.
As for the covers, they come courtesy of so many artists that you're pretty much guaranteed to see work from some of your favorites (I was happy to see art from the likes of Brian Bolland, Jon Bogdanove, Dave Bullcok, Cliff Chiang, Sean Murphy, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Chris Burnham and Bruce Timm). These are broken into various categories, with different artists drawing different Supermen from different eras (Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, "Death of Superman" and aftermath, New 52) and battling various archvillains (Luthor, Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Silver Banshee, Parasite, etc). It's a downright ridiculous amount of covers, but at least when collected like this, they become something of a gallery.