With the “Doomed” cross-title event over, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder are able to get back to telling their own stories on what has arguably become the best Superman comic on the stands right now, Action Comics. Since the creative team took over the title back with issue #25, they have helped to rescue Superman from the overly dark miasma of the New 52 universe, returning him to a lighter and, at times, almost goofy Silver Age sensibility. Including a trip to the center of the Earth, where Superman discovers an underworld kingdom populated with strange science-fiction creatures, and develops a friendship with a huge monster that has the personality of a small inquisitive child. Then the “Doomed” story arc came, and while Action Comics did contain some of the better entries of the event, it always just seemed that Pak and the rest of the team had to hold back a bit to ensure that their stories fit into the overall arc.
With issue #36, the team is back and this time they are embracing the darker nature of the New 52, but with a story that involves the supernatural, and directly addresses the aftermath from Doomed. This is no ordinary zombie story, which is not surprising given Pak’s talent for taking somewhat mundane subject matters and turning them into something fantastic and engaging. The conflict in the story hits Clark right where it counts, and despite the spectacular action-oriented sequences, it’s actually the more personal interactions between Clark, Lana, and John Steel that make this story so good.
However, without Kuder on art, while this would still be a good story, it wouldn’t be great. Kuder’s visuals, combined with Quintana’s moody and atmospheric coloring, turn this into a really great story – just what readers needed after the overly long Doomed arc. Kuder’s undead and other supernatural creatures are appropriately creepy, but as recently deceased humans they also have a gripping expressiveness that pulls the viewer in. Kuder does a masterful job of making the viewer feel pain and sorrow once we figure out who some of these zombies use to be when they were alive, even though now they are ugly, scary, and mindless walking dead.
We’re not use to seeing Superman deal with supernatural horrors like this, so this is a refreshing change from the usual Superman story rotation between slug fests and trying to outsmart people who can’t just be punched into submission.
Another Superman-related title came out this week, and while sales-wise it’s done well, it sadly hasn’t truly gotten the recognition it deserves. Back when Superman Unchained was first announced, it seemed that the creative power-team of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee would be the ones who would be able to really define Superman’s role in the New 52 Universe. DC has put some of its top talent on the various Superman titles, including Grant Morrison for the first few arcs of Action Comics. However, the character seemed to be floundering when Superman Unchained was announced.
Sadly, the title has been through several rough patches, mainly due to shipping delays (including a three-month gap between issues #5 and #6, mostly blamed on Lee’s art being late), and having its length cut from an ongoing to only nine issues, then having issues #8 and #9 canceled and re-solicited.
This lack of momentum really killed the story and made it extremely hard to follow, which is unfortunate as Snyder is a proven story-teller and there are some really great moments in Superman Unchained. Even when viewing issue #9 as almost a “standalone” issue rather than as the finale to the story, it’s clear that Snyder has a strong grasp on Superman and knows how to make him a very relatable character. This is an important point, because many writers just don’t seem to get how to do this – it does take a lot of talent to take an all-powerful and invulnerable sun-god character and bring him “down to earth” so that we, the readers, can view the world through the character’s eyes and see what makes him tick. Snyder does this by showing Superman’s relationships with others, most notably Lois Lane, his mother Martha Kent, and even a few short scenes with his girlfriend, Wonder Woman. It’s through these interactions that we learn how and why Snyder’s Superman makes the choices he makes, so that near the conclusion of the story we already know what Superman is going to do. Snyder does throw in a small curve, but in this case it was a little too telegraphed and not entirely in keeping with previous issues of the title, but it’s what had to be done to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.
As always, Lee’s art is superb and very indicative of his hyper-detailed style. His Superman is powerful and charismatic, his Wonder Woman is feminine but majestic, and his Batman is moody and secretive. As with previous issues of the series, Lee totally nails Lois, showing her as a strong, willful woman who also has a softer, more sensitive side – it’s a very fine line to walk, but Lee walks it masterfully. Near the end of the story, as Superman is reeling in the aftermath of a powerful explosion, it almost seems as though Lee was quoting some layouts and character designs from Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns, which is an odd but fun choice to end this series.
In addition to Lee’s art, there are also several flashback scenes illustrated by Dustin Nguyen and colored by John Kalisz. These scenes have an almost sepia-tone quality to them, with soft, somewhat washed-out dreamlike layouts that are a big contrast to Lee’s sharp, heavily-lined scenes. Nguyen was the perfect choice for these scenes, as it’s through the flashback scenes that we learn a bit more about Superman’s past on Earth as a teenager – Nguyen’s dreamy quality of the art in these scenes is very appropriate to the subject matter written by Snyder.
Overall, Superman Unchained will probably be read best as a trade collection, given the unevenness of its publication that served to kill any momentum the story had. Still, despite all its problems, this is a Superman story that shouldn’t be missed.