There’s a sense of deja vu finally reading Superman Unchained in its entirety after following the Superman run by Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr. for the last few months — Superman Unchained is out in hardcover soon, and I was reading an advanced copy of that; amusingly, the back copy boasts that it’s got “COMICS’ BIGGEST WRITER! COMICS’ BIGGEST ARTIST!” which is arguably true, but feels like Johns is crying somewhere in response nonetheless. Both Johns and Snyder are clearly trying to… not reboot Superman, exactly, but trying to convince fans that he’s super cool and awesome, honest, and both do so using the same method: comparing Superman with a fake Superman created especially for the story. I’m not sure if “Superstrawman” was ever actually considered as a name for either of the Super stand-ins, but it probably should have been.
Snyder’s fake Superman is called “WRAITH,” a name that’s both foreshadowing — I wonder if a character with a name like WRAITH and a monstrous appearance will turn out to be a bad guy? Hmmm — and a joke; it turns out to be an acronym for William Randolph’s Ace In The Hole, referring to the guy who discovered the alien in 1938 (Metatext ahoy: Yes, WRAITH’s in-universe arrival on Earth happened when Superman debuted in the real world). His entire purpose in the story is to act as a confused “What If?” for the Superman mythology: What if Superman worked for the U.S. government? What if Superman was the forerunner for an alien invasion? What if Superman looked like neon Clayface?
The problem is, none of that actually works, because WRAITH’s arc is kind of… arbitrary — he works for the government until he meets Superman and then the aliens invade because… it’s a nine-issue series and so everything had to happen just then? The US government has had its own superhero for the last three quarters of a century and no-one has ever heard of him before because… they just didn’t want to use him when Darkseid was invading, Brainiac was stealing cities or any one of the many quasi-apocalyptic events up until then? He ends up betraying his alien brethren and defending Earth at the cost of his own life because… Superman inspired him, I guess, just by being Superman…?
In fact, much of Superman Unchained doesn’t really work. There’s no reason for Lex Luthor to be in there at all, and his promise that Jimmy Olsen will be responsible for Superman’s death feels oversized compared with what that is revealed to mean (Jimmy’s hand will be used as a communicator so that Lex can talk to Superman!); it feels very much like a last-minute re-write, or attempt to pay off a plot somewhere other than originally intended. Lex’s final speech about Superman being an inspiration because he lacks purpose and is therefore human like us is… unexpected, to say the least, as well (“Nonsensical” might be another reading). The importance of Batman in the series feels as much like a marketing gimmick or offering Jim Lee some cool visuals to draw than anything that organically belongs in a Superman story (Indeed, you could make the argument that this is really a Superman-heavy Batman/Superman story as much as a Superman solo story).
And Jim Lee’s artwork…! Someone — I think Dylan Todd, but I might be misremembering — made the argument on Twitter that Lee is poorly served by inker Scott Williams, and that’s a case that is strengthened by pages of Lee’s pencils in here; Williams makes a lot of odd choices, adding visual noise where it’s unnecessary and removing much of the variations in line weight that’re present in the pencils themselves. But even if Lee had been served with an inker more sympathetic to the strengths in his art, he still would’ve dropped the ball with the writing here.
Lee, for all his ability, lacks a subtlety in acting that’s required in Snyder’s writing (This isn’t necessarily a complaint about Lee, per se; Kirby similarly couldn’t do subtle to save himself, and there’s not a comic artist I adore more. Of course, Lee’s no Kirby, but still). The two are mismatched here, as much as Snyder clearly tries to offer set pieces that feel appropriately “Lee-ish” in scope, dynamism and violence, and the end result is a combination that feels uncomfortable and unsatisfying for all parties, including — especially, perhaps — the reader. (This reader, at least.)
It’s not that Superman Unchained is bad, exactly, but it’s certainly not good. Everyone involved has done better work, and also found ways in which to explore their discomfort and weaknesses in more entertaining ways. This is where Johns and Romita’s Superman has the edge, in terms of a straightforward comparison of the two books; that book, at least, is both creators doing what they do best, and the result is, if not fun, then something close to it. Both titles may be playing with similar “Superman is best, and we’ll prove it by showing you what he’s not” intent, and while there’s still time for Johns/Romita to disappoint — the plot turn in the most recent issue makes me a little bit nervous, I confess — there’s a comfort and enjoyment visible in Superman than makes it a far more enticing read. Superman Unchained may have the BIGGEST CREATORS, but it makes a strong argument for any snobbery against the wisdom of the masses.
(That said, the gallery of variant covers in the back is filled with a lot of really nice work, especially from Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, even if some of the art is published in low-resolution, pixelated form and the latter pieces are lacking the period-specific trade dress that makes the pieces work so well. It’s not quite as bad as the Invincible Iron Man hardcover where the dustjacket was published with horrifically-pixelated art, but it’s close. Check your resolution, collection designers and editors.)