It’s a real shame that Superman Unchained #5 comes out this close to the new year. Books released around this time often get lost in the shuffle, and Superman Unchained needs to be seen. Issue #5 is the crux of the series, the beginning of how writer Scott Snyder will coalesce his ideas of what it means to be Superman. The New 52 has received a lot of fire on how it rebooted the first superhero. Superman Unchained seems to be trying to right those wrongs.
It’s never easy to make a god into a man. Superman can blow out a star or change the trajectory of a planet with his muscles. To make a character that extraordinary relatable, you have to exploit whatever weaknesses he has. In Superman’s case, it is his heritage versus his upbringing. The idea of who he is juxtaposed against who he wants to be. Superman very much wants to be Clark Kent, but he will always be Superman. The emotional complexity behind that push and pull is Snyder’s real achievement with this book.
Opening with a flashback, issue #5 tackles that right away. A young Clark Kent and his then-crush Lana Lang, are atop a silo attempting their annual thrill of getting as close to the edge as possible. When Lana falls and pulls Clark over with her, young Mr. Kent saves the day in a most unusual fashion. Jump to the present day, where Lois Lane is learning of the history of the Ascension and how they have managed to take control of the world’s technology. Often subplots feel forced, as if they were shoehorned in to give the other characters something to do. Snyder avoids that by making Lois a central battery to the power of the subplot. He also manages to make the Ascension interesting, and their motives quite sinister.
The center of this storm is Wraith, the creature who arrived on Earth seventy-five years ago and possesses many of Superman’s powers, plus others the big blue boy scout can’t touch. Again, Snyder deftly avoids cliché by making Wraith smarter and filled with philosophical ideology, which also helps to make him more sinister. Wraith is a physical manifestation of Superman’s apprehensions on being a superhero. As Wraith attempts to explain why the Clark Kent side of our hero is ridiculous and doomed to failure, Superman attempts to explain his need to at least pretend to be human.
Wraith’s examples have nothing to do with domination of a weaker species, but more the reality of Superman’s life, something he doesn’t want to face. There is not a lot of action in Unchained #5, but you don’t notice it. The dialogue is too good, and the ideas being set up too interesting. I also enjoy how this is falling in line with what Greg Pak is attempting in Action Comics and Charles Soule is a attempting in Superman/Wonder Woman. All three books are looking to explore the reality of Superman, and his terror in being inhuman but filled with human ideas and sentimentality.
Then you have Jim Lee, who expands what he’s been doing in Superman Unchained. During the flashbacks, Lee uses a lighter touch, giving those scenes a dreamlike quality. In the present day, he’s back to the strong lines and hardcore detail work. Lee is obviously an iconic art presence for a reason, and Superman Unchained is further proof of that. No matter how long he’s in the game, Lee attacks each panel with the same hungry veracity that made him a legend.
Great fun to read, and beautiful to look at, Superman Unchained is subversive. Wrapped within an exciting comic book tale are ideas and emotions that will go on to redefine Superman as an icon.
(Story 4.5, Art 4.5)