Remember how Scott Snyder (emerging into the height of his popularity) and Jim Lee (in his final longform comics project) launched a new Superman ongoing for the character’s 75th anniversary? Remember how it was unceremoniously demoted to a nine issue miniseries (over the course of eighteen months) because by the end no one much cared, and now it’s almost entirely forgotten? Have you ever really let that set of facts sit in your head in all its plain absurdity?
Two years into the New 52, DC needed a clean win for its #2 golden boy. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics with Rags Morales, Brad Anderson, Andy Kubert et al. was like many Morrison Big Two efforts, a radical reinterpretation only fully appreciated well after the fact, rather than the immediate second coming of All-Star many imagined upon announcement. Geoff Johns’ Justice League with Lee, while not regarded at the time as the disaster it’s commonly looked back on as now, was still widely panned for its posturing, hyper-aggressive Clark Kent, and the book’s pairing of him with Wonder Woman was…controversial at best. The Superman title proper was a rudderless filler series passed incessantly between creators well past their best-selling primes. Even the concession towards a more classic interpretation with the announcement of the digital-first Adventures of Superman was immediately met with severe and earned backlash for the initial planned inclusion of Orson Scott Card. With Morrison’s star power leaving the line behind with a status quo creators were uninterested in playing with, the big 75th anniversary demanding something to commemorate the occasion, and a movie reboot on the immediate horizon, the comics were crying out for a center that could hold.
If DC was in the market for a miracle, they couldn’t have asked for much better at that moment than Scott Snyder. In a series of right places at the right times, he’d had the chance to demonstrate his considerable talent as a blockbuster superhero writer with an energizing splash of horror and rocket from the status of fledgling comics creator in 2010 with American Vampire to being arguably DC’s biggest name headlining Batman alongside Greg Capullo. Pair that with DC’s official ‘break glass if we need this to be a big deal’ in Lee, and no one wasn’t betting on this.
And while distinctly of its moment – Clark’s still a blogger, Lois has some kind of Minority Report holo-computer setup at the Daily Planet, Jimmy’s in a fedora, the dopey New 52 Superman suit is nanotech that spreads across him when he does the shirt-pull – the first issue opens with a big, bombastic rescue sequence capped by a smiling Superman reassuring the people he saved with a pat on the shoulder and words of encouragement, sending a clear message: this is the Real Guy back, folks. No more snarling at his teammates or passionless moving through the motions or weeeeiiiirrrddd Grant Morrison hijinks, this is the familiar, lovable old Superman you remember who’s still also the rad new armor bro Superman, and he’ll be doing big cool stuff and bantering with Lois and Jimmy and grappling with Lex and solving mysteries and saving the world. Everything’s okay again.
The failure to deliver here wasn’t just, in all likelihood, the last block pulled out of the Jenga Tower that was the New 52 Superman, even if the fall happened in slow motion. It produced, in retrospect, a strange flashpoint by which the entire narrative of Superman in the 2010s played out by proxy.
Looking at it in a vacuum, divorced from the larger political and thematic currents it’s tapping, and the tapestry of Superman going forward and backward through the decade? As a pure piece of action storytelling, it’s actually a nice book for the most part, often executed better than it’s remembered. The elaborate rescue-driven setpieces of the early issues do a lot more than most to emphasize the scale and complexity of Superman’s adventures and are anchored in great little character moments (“…okay, Clark. You can breathe now”). Lois is the right combination of caustic and caring, and her having crashed five planes in her lifetime is an A+ throwaway piece of trivia. Jimmy Olsen is as affable and hapless as you’d expect. Lex Luthor is GREAT if almost entirely ancillary and clearly only here to hit all the big classic notes; it’s unsurprising Snyder would go on to zero in on him later with his Justice League/Metal epic (speaking of which, the framing of The Machine feels like he was already on something of a Hickman kick). Wraith’s origin is a neat idea, very Wildstormey in its merging of the traditional with the high-concept and brutal militarism. If it gets weaker near the end as characters start making absurd decisions, fading into classic overextended Snyder metaphors, or swapping inventive saves for stopping all the nukes in the world by believing really hard into a crystal, it still manages to hold reasonably steady and occasionally manages a gem like the opening page of issue #6, an honestly Ennis-tier summation of the weight on Superman’s shoulders.
On the other side of the equation, Jim Lee is a curious fit for this story. He does solid work for the most part – his basic figures as inked by longtime collaborator Scott Williams are what you’d expect, craggy and a bit stiff but still bursting with power (if not exactly weight), and Sal Cipriano’s letters are a fine fit for Lee and Snyder alike – but this is a major pivot from the close-ups on majestic Greek statue poses dominating operatic splash pages that defined Hush, For Tomorrow, or ASBAR. Rather Lee switches back-and-forth between more conventional medium/wide-range shots with relatively modest panel sizes and extreme pull backs to show Superman or Wraith as proportionately miniscule figures wreaking titanic damage on their surroundings a la The Authority. If Snyder didn’t originally have Bryan Hitch in mind to draw this, it feels plausible to assume he was a very direct source of inspiration somewhere in the creative chain. And if Lee can’t capture the way objects (and often flimsy fleshy human beings) warp and gather momentum in the wake of superhuman forces in the same way, it’s still interesting to see the preeminent Big Cool Superhero Action artist of three decades framing his heroes and villains through that lens. Combine that with neat touches such as binocular-shaped panels in the opening that shatter to reflect a material object in the scene, or a satellite view of a super-punch, plus a handful of neat designs such as Wraith adding some character to the typical 90s-style big meaty granite dude with how his figure is shaped and defined by his energy fields, and Superman’s absolutely rad 11th hour anime armor? Add onto that Dustin Nguyen’s dreamily hazy work in the backups? Not even getting into the fistfuls of gorgeous variant covers? For its flaws, including surprisingly lackluster, flat, and often muddy coloring by Alex Sinclair, the book is still frequently a pleasure to look at.
Once you start grappling with the bigger ideas though? On the surface, we’re dealing with, if not the most common Superman plot of the last decade, easily the most prominent in Superman vs. Evil Superman. More provocatively, it’s Superman vs. AMERICAN Superman, one who in showing up in 1938 is conceptually tied to the characters’ early journey from rabble-rouser with the strength of ten men (an approach then just recently brought back in Action Comics) to the flag-waver encouraging kids to buy war bonds to support the overseas effort. In theory, this is dynamite: Superman not at war with a perversion of his iconography and ideals, but with the truth of his own real-world history and co-opting into sanitized Americana and propaganda device– a battle for the soul of the concept. In theory, not only would this particularly resonate with the version of Superman introduced in 2011 as a champion of Metropolis’s oppressed, fighting the police and army as necessary alongside supervillains, but this would only become more resonant further into the decade with the replacement of the New 52 Superman with a revised John Byrne/Dan Jurgens-model interpretation who sought to return to that ‘classic’ ideal. In theory, this should be the central Superman story of the 2010s.
In practice… well, if not ‘the’ central story, it still serves well as an encapsulation of the ingredients it’s working with. But at heart this is, however deliberately, a story of doomed yet noble centrism vs. the twin forces of Principled Conservatism and deranged, suicidal leftism. A premise seemingly rooted in questioning the defanging of the Superman concept instead made a paean to the same.
To illustrate that disconnect requires elaborating on the factions in play – moreso than they get in the story itself for that matter. Wraith was rocketed to Earth by forces unknown to, by his estimation, serve the country he was sent to, in the form of their military interests. The book opens with him personally bringing about the destruction of Nakasagi disguised as the Fat Man bomb, a fact Superman later learns and accepts entirely neutrally. It’s worth questioning the strategic value of this: even assuming he was ‘only’ operating with a limited set of powers at that early point in his time on Earth and therefore lacking some abilities he demonstrates in the story proper, this is an indestructible being with unlimited travel capabilities at speeds granting invisibility and opportunities for pinpoint precision in offense. This being is utilized for an indiscriminate show of force against civilians rather than, say, easily swooping in and taking down military leaders individually, instead murdering an entire city as a PR stunt, an action for which he bears no demonstrated shame.
After Wraith’s reckless nuclear youth, he committed himself to (going by provided maps of global ‘danger spots’ across decades and a period of deactivation) waging the Cold War before pivoting to the War on Terror, with an additional move towards attacking Superman multiple times on American soil for the sake of intimidation or the seizure of resources. Again acting behind the scenes against opposing forces presumably entirely incapable of fighting against him, but the conflict is still drawn out across decades. Even granting an extreme degree of discretion on the part of his handlers in ‘The Machine’ to avoid revealing his existence, there’s little reason to think these wars could have lasted much longer than those holding his leash would have wanted, whether for economic or propagandistic reasons. Yet as tight as said leash is held, Wraith is shown to be capable of disobeying orders…to go seek personal revenge against Batman late in the story. He is not a child, incapable of conceiving of harm or consequence or personhood. He’s a 75-year-old man who considered an affront to his dignity more risible than being asked to kill tens of thousands of people.
In spite of this, we are led to understand that Wraith is noble because apparently he helped Superman offscreen a few times. Wraith even tries to be nice to Superman at first and admits he feels bad about having to kill him! And in the end he changes course and redeems himself by, well, becoming an even bigger bomb to save America again? Good for him. He lived his life thoughtlessly committing horrors behind a veil of anonymity except when moved otherwise for his own gratification, but by god they were American horrors. And while he may be an antagonist in this story, that’s apparently enough going by his framing to make him a complex one.
Ascension, meanwhile, is a terrorist group formed by the original leader of The Machine as a result of his guilt at his actions and their legacy. Correctly surmising that the technology offered by Wraith’s people was the Trojan horse of colonizers, they champion the rights of the common people ala the Superman of Action Comics a few months earlier. Ascension’s basic viewpoint is validated at every turn. On the macro-scale in knowing the full scope of the stories’ background to a greater extent than any other major character and drawing correct conclusions from it. More subtly (and likely accidentally on Snyder’s part) with the likes of the ‘Apollodorus’ robot they hijack being noted as replacing the work of countless laborers with two workers, a miraculous feat of automatization that in practice would presumably result in massive downsizing. However, because they are the scary radical bad guys whose validation would result in lots of awkward questions rather than an Honorable, Principled Foe fighting for the homeland, their big plan after causing random catastrophes and twirling their collective mustache at Lois Lane is to fire literally every single nuclear weapon on the planet because they’re completely out of their minds. And they’re thrashed soundly well before being able to have a part to play in the finale. Even as the story postures at acknowledging that the maintenance of the American status quo is built on ruthless cruelties that our hero Superman doesn’t approve of, there can be no question that the alternative is infinitely worse.
Superman himself is, generously, a conundrum. What Snyder seems to be going for is a quietly radical reinvention of him as an everyman figure rather than moral exemplar, not operating from any kind of place of certainty but doing his best day-by-day as his conscience dictates. That’s a potentially welcome turn from the baseline ‘Superman-as-savior’/‘Superman-as-Christ’ shorthand for his nobility that typically serves to unthreateningly flatten out his character. In practice here, given that it’s repeatedly noted to his face that his entire means of operation on both global and personal scales is unsustainable and he privately changes his mind on major matters repeatedly, and sans any kind of meaning or weight to what choices he makes and why beyond “he does regular Superman stuff, because regular Superman stuff is what he does,” he comes across as wishy-washy at best.
The matter of Superman changing his mind is worth zooming in on. While General Sam Lane accuses Superman of keeping hands-off with more dangerous, controversial matters due to his need for public approval (an interesting notion given the characters’ insecurities and established background even if it’s hollow coming from said source), a climactic speech by Lex Luthor reveals that Superman has quietly intervened and deposed dictators on occasion, only to shift back and forth on the subject with time. As presented, this is meant to highlight him as capable of recognizing himself as fallible, while always trying to figure out how to do what’s right. In reality, this is a being of unlimited power working out the degree to which he’ll unilaterally intervene in global politics without anyone looking over his shoulder and recalibrating when things go horribly wrong, when, the issue before, he gave a big dramatic speech about owning your actions and living in the light. Snyder and Lee’s Clark Kent is a man who dislikes militarism but dislikes those who oppose it more, who floats above the lines of the world supporting an unsustainable status quo except when he feels like doing otherwise where nobody can see him. In short, despite all best intentions: he’s full of shit.
When the book was announced, Snyder mentioned in interviews that he was going for a more realistic interpretation of Superman’s world rather than the pure metaphor surrealism that the character often defaults to. That approach would before long become Snyder’s own stock-in-trade as Batman: Zero Year shifted gears from pseudo-realism to monsters and city-sized deathtraps. When he tackled Superman again with that mindset for Justice League: The Sixth Dimension alongside Jorge Jimenez, the results were much more fruitful, mapping out the nature of Superman’s characterization and morality onto the metaphors offered by DC cosmology for a satisfying action romp. Here though there’s no veil or abstraction to hide behind, he and Lee and company have to actively say things about the U.S. war machine and terrorism and colonialism. From the story being bookended by a little Japanese boy being killed to show off how scary and important Wraith is – which, again, Superman seems largely indifferent to – and a mirror image little white boy not dying as the symbol of how Wraith redeemed himself and saved the day, Snyder, Lee, and company prove this is not territory they are qualified to work in.
Moreover, Superman Unchained’s shallow approach to the topics at hand constantly raises questions and contradictions it seems uninterested in or unaware of. Where does Ascension’s opposition to the modern world play into the big themes of the work? What’s the supposed message on interventionism when the technology of Wraith’s people improved the world, the military is supposed to be at least somewhat bad, and America itself being colonized by an outside force is terrible? What ‘difficult decisions’ by his friends and loved ones does Superman respect, other than maybe Lois not hiding herself like he told her to at one point? Are the flashbacks to his sparing Colders’ life meant to show one of those decisions, and if so, how does it parallel his final one beyond illustrating a vein of being willing to sacrifice himself, that in the context discussed above comes off as more self-defeating and self-important than noble? Speaking of that sacrifice, what are we meant to take away from Superman setting out to save the day by becoming a bomb (a sentence that if they weren’t still with us, would have Grant Morrison spinning in their grave), and Wraith being the good guy for once again becoming one in service of America in direct triumphant parallel to the monstrosity that was the first time? What weight are any of these conflicts supposed to have when an alien invasion appears at the last moment to render all other concerns meaningless?
Stories may not be obligated to spoon feed the consumers clean-cut ideological takeaways, but with ingredients this thorny in the mix and placed at such odds with one another, “Superman sez: figure it out yourself” isn’t anything more than a cop-out. The one takeaway offered is that a story initially presenting itself as condemning the wartime portrayal and transformation of Superman became a sanitization despite the extent of its stand-in’s atrocities: Wraith the unknown ally, the devoted soldier, the teacher, the good immigrant who saves the world from his own vile kind. And in the end, it’s that archetype which the ‘real’ Superman and the story can find nobility in, rather than those who would expose its sins.
Between the delays behind it and Batman continuing as Snyder’s clear success story, Unchained was downgraded from an ongoing to a mini as attention migrated elsewhere. With the big shining light of a renewed Superman line snuffed out, and the other titles failing to recapture attention despite Greg Pak and Aaron’s Kuder’s exciting work on Action Comics and the boost of putting Geoff Johns and a fresh-to-DC John Romita Jr. on Superman, the very next year Truth began the process of closing the book on this version of Krypton’s last son. In his place would be a vision of a Superman of yesteryear who dramatically props up the knocked-down flag to signify his victory, takes his kid on a road trip to discuss the virtues of the Korean War and complain about movies not glorifying real American heroes, and gives a speech to the Hunger Dogs of Apokolips about how they can solve their problems if they learn from the example of the USA. DC received its own cheers as stories under this new paradigm had characters point out the superior standing of this ‘new’ Superman, touting his experience and steadfastness to the extent that it was mulled over that he was “more” of a Superman than his predecessor.
In the end then, perhaps Superman Unchained was in fact the definitive Superman story of the 2010s, beginning in earnest the transmogrification from the socially-conscious, working-class firebrand Superman of the beginning of the decade to a clean, uncontroversial, renewed American Icon (with the Superman office told to have their comics appeal more to Trump voters). There is Superman, in search of validation for his anniversary, finding himself up against a living weapon wielded for the stars and stripes, and rather than being horrified by its crimes finding himself respecting this ‘superman’ and its comforting sanction, as what it represents without the truth of any troubling details is ultimately folded into him once again. And the promise of a newer, bolder, uncompromised Superman is chained.