12 Jun 2013


Writer: Scott Snyder
Art: Jim Lee, Scott Williams, Alex Sinclair, Dustin Nguyen & John Kalisz
DC $4.99

Stewart R: Nearly two years on from the launch of DC’s New 52, and approaching the eve of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel hitting screens around the globe, the publisher has made the decision to take the writer of Batman and the premier artist from the first arc of Justice League - the two best performing books of the relaunch - and charge them with creating Superman Unchained, a new ongoing series. Can Scott Snyder’s rich vein of storytelling, encompassing a love for history of the 20th century and a fine grip on intimate dialogue, coupled with Jim Lee’s blockbuster pencil style, combine to bring Kal-El’s battle against evil and menacing threats to a wider audience?

From a comic book perspective I’ve never been a big fan of Superman and I’ve read very little of his individual stories and titles. Like many people out there, my knowledge of the Man of Steel came from the live action movies of the 70s and 80s (except Superman IV which I have not yet seen, and won’t be watching any time soon) and the animated series of the 90s. It was those focussed, summarised and adaptive versions that formed my view of the last Kryptonian and which I have taken with me when reading Justice League comics during the past decade. Until now I’d shown no interest in reading about the New 52 version of Superman as my PCG compatriots, who really do love the character and have a deep knowledge of his illustrated history, turned away from Action Comics and Superman early on following the relaunch and are yet to return. The lure of Scott Snyder’s writing however, seems to have changed that somewhat.

This A-Grade writer had no easy task of it either, having to fit all of the reshaped story of Clark no longer being in a relationship with Lois or working at the Daily Planet and the generally fresh status quo to a potentially virgin audience, while also pushing off in his own direction and steering Superman into this new adventure. Kick-starting things off with a reimagining of the atomic attack on Nagasaki back in 1945 and distorting this interpretation alongside the most famous of Superman related quotes is an inventive and intriguing touch. It shows that history is instantly not what we believe it to be and that sits comfortably inside the New 52 mould as well as birthing a compelling mystery.

We then get a standard action sequence where Superman puts on his best hero clothes and zooms about through the atmosphere, saving people and preventing mass chaos wherever possible. This type of scene was to be expected from a debut issue as preventing or limiting these larger than life dangers are what Clark excels himself at, but Snyder to his credit really captures the Man of Steel thinking on the fly (har har) and showing that he’s not just a powerhouse of strength, possessing as he does, a heightened intellect to be applied when attempting to disarm a potentially catastrophic situation. He also allows our hero to briefly compare the rush of the rescue to an experience from his youth back in Smallville and it’s that type of character writing that has brought Snyder to such prominence and should hopefully make ‘the alien man trying to live a human existence’ story more relatable than perhaps it has come across in the past.

I enjoyed the way that the investigation into the disaster is tackled from both sides of the protagonists identity - Superman questioning one of his greatest foes, whilst Clark interacts with Lois and Jimmy to get a different perspective - and I personally liked the inclusion of so many easily identifiable Superman ingredients to set a feeling of familiarity in and around some of the differences that this point in DC’s history brings with it. The issue wraps up with further hidden threat and exciting mystery and I’m pretty sure that through the groundwork laid here, Snyder is going to be successful in crafting genuine peril for an iconic character whose powers make it occasionally difficult to pull him into believable danger.

Flipping things over to the visual side of Superman Unchained #1, I’ll say that Jim Lee puts in a decent enough effort, but for my personal preference there’s just something out with the consistency through the issue. In the bigger, flashier moments we get Lee working close to his best - that cover, the fold out section (more of that in a second) and the underwater sections are great - while quieter moments, or those panels where he needs to zoom out to demonstrate Superman’s strength can suffer from a lack of detail. The Nagasaki introduction also feels overly simplistic, possibly down to too light an inking from Scott Williams and it doesn’t quite sell this as a ‘premium’ comic book from the outset which is what I was hoping for and expecting.

Then we get to the gimmick of presentation and the price tag which blatantly go hand in hand on this debut. For your five dollars you get 20 pages of regular sized story, a two page epilogue that does offer further mystery for the ongoing plot, and then there’s that fold out, double sided splash ‘poster’ (I can’t see anyone removing the darn thing) that for its 48cm by 29.5cm of glory only provides you with an additional 2 oversized panels. I’ll admit that the impact is noteworthy and Lee and the art team do it justice, but it doesn’t really make as earth-shaking a difference visually as perhaps was intended and I’m not convinced the novelty is worth it. I think I’d have preferred 8 further single pages of Snyder and Lee story. I’ll also add that the glue used to (unnecessarily?) hold the poster together has marked the page which spoils the spectacle a little. The only other presentation point of note therefore, which could explain the elevated price is the glossy cover, but when Batman #21 came out this week with a similarly plush, top-grade cover for no rise in cost to the reader I’m left struggling to understand why DC have elected to go with the $4.99 tag. Goodness knows why it would make any sense to pay the same amount for the digital version given that the apparent benefit of the price is purely in the physical ‘enhancements’!?

It’s a true shame to find these flaws taking the sheen off of a debut like this, especially considering that Snyder does a great job of getting me interested in a Superman story with fine dialogue, a big fat mystery and some nods to the iconic canon. If this had been sold to us without the gimmicky poster, with perhaps a few more pages of story, at $2.99 or possibly further reduced to stir up interest from current, returning and new Superman readers alike, I’ve no doubt that this would be heralded an unreserved success. At a time when Action Comics and the solo Superman title struggle to limp into the Top 30 of the sales chart each month behind the likes of Aquaman and Batgirl, it feels like DC need Superman Unchained to be as big, vibrant and importantly accessible to the market as possible. That would catapult Superman to a place in the charts where he belongs and while the creators have arguably fulfilled their initial side of the remit, it’s a pity that a business decision may potentially hamper this aim from the outset. Full of promise? Yes. Worth your time? Yes. Worth your money? Quite possibly not. 7/10


Badger said...

I don't mean to be rude but that was to a degree a disappointing review,and I'm not going to pick at it as the reviewer is entitled to their opinion ,but I will say that the last bit about it possibly not worth your money buying Superman Unchained isn't exactly encouraging anyone to go out there and try it especially any potential new readers.

Matt Clark said...

Why encourage someone to buy something if you don't personally believe it's worth the money?!?

As you noted, the review is AN OPINION. It's not a statement of fact and only a fool would treat it as such.

Stewart R said...

Since I reviewed this I'll roll in with a response...

Thanks for your comment Badger.

The rest of the review was fairly supportive of what the creative team have accomplished - I think that Snyder could be the writer to deliver a decent and compelling Superman story - and if people are reading this review and not worried about the cost of individual issues then my further point on value for money won't be a consideration and I'm sure that my generally positive response to the story and script may convince some to pick this up.

However, price is a valid point to consider these days especially when publishers occasionally appear to play around with the dollar value of their product depending on certain factors - the buzz relating to Man of Steel is more than likely an influence on the extra $1/2 increase this week for a DC comic of similar size. I'd be surprised if it was all cost related, not least because of the number of copies DC must expect to shift just for this being a blockbuster #1. DC themselves are a company who adamantly sold their product a couple of years back on the strong $2.99 model and used it as an active marketing hook.

For an industry that generally sticks quite rigidly to the $2.99/$3.99 cover price it's an extra consideration when that rule is broken and you end up paying above the 'normal' price and value for money then really can come into play.

Badger said...

Gentlemen,what I'm trying to get across is if we don't encourage more people to buy comics how is the fan base for our brilliant hobby supposed to grow,and as you state Matt and I quote "If you don't personally believe it's worth the money",surely we should be letting people make their own minds up without putting them off before they even buy a comic of any sort,surely we should be saying [even if it's a some what negative review of any comic]don't take my opinion as a statement of fact [kind of quoting Matt again here]go and try it yourself,but as you point out Stewart it is the price on this one that may but some people off trying it.

Matt Clark said...

Er, Ian, this is primarily a review site, we're not working in PR for the various publishers, we're offering our opinions on comics, both good and bad, and yeah, if we don't like something we'll say that, just as if we love a book we'll aim to make it our job to let as many people as we can know (and as an aside, didn't you criticise me for giving glowing reviews for every issue of Hawkeye recently....?)

I'd like to think most people who visit this site are smart enough to make up their own minds anyway. What I don't think is that we're in any way trying to discourage people from buying comics.

In fact, I know we're not.

Andy C said...

Personally I think it's a well written and balanced review. I picked the issue up on the strength of the creative team, having not read a single Superman issue previously and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. I will definitely be sticking around for #2.

However, would I opt to pay a premium for gimmicks such as a pointless poster and glossy cover? Definitely not. For me, it adds nothing to the read so it's pointless fluff and does not add value. I opted to let the price tag go on this occasion but the review would be lacking if it didn't address this issue.

It is not the PCGs job to sell comics (although I feel they often do because of their enthusiastic praise of the best offerings) and I would not personally thank them for encouraging the inclusion of gimmicks. Worryingly, this seems to be the direction in which DC are heading. 3D covers are arguably a good sales move but at OUR cost I would rather not have them and pay the normal cover price. Villains Month? Just a distraction from writing good stories.

Keep up the good work.

Badger said...

Er,Matt I know this is just really a review site [and not a bad site at that,and no I'm not sucking up,I don't do that crap] but don't you think that maybe it would be a good idea to from time to time open it up a bit more to have open discussions about the industry,just a thought,and I know you don't discourage people from buying comics,in fact I've picked up some you yourself recommended,all I'm giving is my opinion,no disrespect to anyone is intended,and as for Hawkeye I get why it's a good comic to buy,must be the reason I'm still collecting it.