Superman Unchained Review

There seems to be a trend among writers getting a crack at Superman to make some big, sweeping statement about what the character should be interpreted as. This could be something like Grant Morrison’s god-like Superman, Alan Moore’s very fallible Superman or even John Byrne’s strong use of duality between the mask of Superman and the very human nature of Clark Kent. Three fantastic big interpretations that work, but they are generally the exception to the rule in terms of measures of success.

On a strange flip side, we rarely get a big blockbuster style Superman story. Something akin to summer blockbuster films. The Death of Superman comes to mind, but as fans, we all know things slow down considerably during the second act. There is also the Our Worlds at War storyline from the turn of the millennium, but the general premise of that storyline often missed the mark and ultimately collapsed under its own weight.

So it came as both a surprise and delight when it was announced that Scott Snyder had a Superman story he wanted to tell. And it was a Superman tale that Jim Lee wanted to pencil. Snyder’s usual hyperbole aside, it was easy to get wrapped up in his excitement over this project. It was big, it was explosive, and while it had repercussions in-story, Snyder also respected what was going on in the main titles at the time; effectively put the set pieces back where they needed to be by the end of the of the story, while also leaving things wide open for potential future use.

The only real criticism of this story comes from certain cliched tropes sneaking into Snyder’s writing, specifically the strange new super powered being with mysterious motives. We saw this in his Batman run, and it appears Superman is not invulnerable to it either. Unexpectedly though, Snyder nails Lex Luthor’s character, and this ruthless version of Luthor is reminiscent of John Byrne, Roger Stern and more recently Paul Cornell. A lot of writers miss the mark with Superman’s arch nemesis, but this was truly one of Snyder’s strengths in this story.

Jim Lee’s artwork of course, is a true highlight and when compared to his run on Uncanny X-Men or even Batman: Hush, Superman Unchained definitely belongs among his career highlights. Big splash pages have also been Lee’s strength, and there is no shortage of these throughout the series, though they never truly feel gratuitous, but in fact serve the bombastic scale of the narrative.

Even the back-up feature with Dustin Nguyen on art does a superb job at what it sets out to do; fill in the gaps that the main story cannot necessarily accommodate in the main pages. All in all, while this may not be the most perfect Superman tale, it just may be the most enjoyable.

Collects: Superman Unchained 1-9

Justice League: Origin Review

A decade has nearly passed since the New52 (eventual Rebirth) initiative kicked off, and for a universal reboot has experienced quite a few more downs than ups in the ten years since its inception. It is perhaps a tad poetic that Justice League, as a then flagship title, perhaps represents a microcosm of the successes, failures and the impact that this slate wiping produced.

In many ways this series can be seen as a natural successor to the 1990s JLA run under Grant Morrison and Howard Porter. Like that famous duo of creators, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee knock right out of the park, the feel for what a Justice League book should be; high stakes, perhaps a bit high drama, and high octane. The Justice League should be tackling the planetary and universal threats. Let Superman save kittens from trees in his own titles; when you appear in the Justice League, it is because you are expected to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Darkseid. It is no surprise that the likes of Johns and Lee give us exactly that in the opening arc.

It is perhaps why this type of Justice League story becomes the classic or archetypal interpretation. There is a time for many different approaches to the source material, but it is not too unreasonable that if you are going to kickstart a new universe with this as a core title, that more relaxed, oddball interpretations, are perhaps not the natural first choice. While the general plot of this collection is fairly by the numbers, it does reveal early flaws in the whole reboot. Those flaws can loosely be grouped into three areas: plot, characters and continuity, with considerable overlap between.

In terms of characters, the Justice League depicted is the classic line-up. Kinda, mostly. In a daring move, Martian Manhunter is not only erased as a core member, but shuffled off to another corner of the DCU (bad idea). With mixed results, Cyborg is promoted to both JLA member and founding member (not a bad idea, just not a great one, and for alternatives see below).

Cyborg is written as a very convincing member of the Justice League… but most readers associate him as a member of the Teen Titans, especially with prominent animated adaptations depicting the character in the last two decades. Charter member of the Justice League? No. First new recruit? Absolutely should have been, and with minor tweaking might have still worked within the storyline. These two largely cover issues over continuity as well.

Previous continuities presented either Wonder Woman (Silver Age & Post Infinite Crisis) or Black Canary (Post Crisis) as a founding member. This would have been a perfect opportunity to establish both female characters as founding members, especially on a  team that can honestly be described as a sausage-fest for most of its history.

The only other issue character wise are the wildly out of sync character representations of both Batman and Green Lantern in this arc. Fans of Hal will likely start fuming at references to how incredibly obnoxious their favourite emerald ring-slinger was, and Batman does one thing so glaringly uncharacteristic that it defies logic. In terms of writing, the Batman moment is a bit unforgivable when one takes into consideration the first issue of Justice League takes place five years into their new timeline; Bruce is simply too long into his crimefighting game to make the naïve decision he did. This one can be filed under continuity issues as well.

Finally in terms of plot, this is fairly paint by numbers in terms of storytelling; hero meets hero, misunderstand each other, fight, come to their senses, meet another hero and repeat a few times until the writer is ready to introduce the universal level threat that the characters will all have to overcome their differences to defeat.

In the end, there is no denying the overall impact this opening arc has had; from influence in the DCEU movie franchise, the promotion of a strong person of colour in the character of Cyborg to the upper echelons of super-heroics (one, who already had a rich history to begin with) and even a direct adaptation as an animated film. Big impact, entertainment value and Jim Lee at some of his best artistically; if you can forgive a somewhat thin plot.

Collects: Justice League (Vol. 2) 1-6