Have you read… ‘Superman Unchained’ ?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out…

superman unchained

Art for ‘Superman Unchained’ by the phenomenal Jim Lee (image credit: DC Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  2013

Written by:  Scott Snyder / pencils by:  Jim Lee (main story) & Dustin Nguyen (epilogues) / inks by:  Scott Williams / colours by:  Alex Sinclair

What’s it about?

As Superman tries to prevent the escalating attacks of a cyber-terrorist group, events lead to him crossing paths with General Lane and a mysterious and powerful alien being called ‘Wraith’…

In review:  why you should read it

Originally published as a nine-issue limited series, launched in June 2013 to coincide with Superman’s 75th anniversary as well as the release of Man of Steel on the big screen, Superman Unchained is a bright spot in DC’s divisive ‘New 52’ reboot.  Whilst other DC characters and titles such as Batman (for the most part) and Justice League were well served during the New 52, Superman, generally, was not with both Superman and Action Comics something of a mixed bag, if not mediocre.  Superman Unchained remedied that with an epic and exciting story that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Written by Scott Snyder, who was already in the midst of his popular run on Batman (with artist Greg Capullo) and with pencils by Jim Lee (with inks and colours by his regular collaborators, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair), Superman Unchained sees the Man of Steel faced with the threat of a cyber-terrorist group known as Ascension, whose attacks lead to an encounter with General Lane and his forces, the discovery of a military facility called ‘the Machine’ and a secret weapon: Wraith, an alien being – with powers to rival that of Superman – who arrived on Earth in 1938 with an equation that is the key to unlocking technological advancements.  Amidst this, humanity faces even greater danger as a further threat from the stars looms.

As well as drawing in appearances from Batman and Wonder Woman, Unchained also gives Lois Lane her own share of the action as she investigates and is ultimately captured by Ascension, learning that they are in possession of a powerful crystalline technology known as ‘Earthstone’ which they plan to utilise to devastating ends.  It also wouldn’t be a good Superman story without Lex Luthor and Snyder has fun with him, presenting a Luthor who’s at his megalomaniacal and ingenious best.  Luthor’s escape from maximum security detention (aided by a mech-suit of his own construction) and subsequent kidnap of Jimmy Olsen exemplify all of those qualities and remind us that he’s Superman’s most formidable nemesis.  The main story is complemented by back-up epilogues that run sporadically throughout, written by Snyder and pencilled by Dustin Nguyen and which provide tantalising teases of things to come.

Snyder creates a busy narrative, with multiple threats, fast action and several interconnected story threads but luckily it all hangs together quite successfully.  The fan-favourite writer has a good handle on the character of Superman in his New 52 iteration (later defined during DC’s ‘Rebirth’ initiative as an alternative version, whose essence would merge with that of the original pre-New 52 universe Superman…whoever said comics could be confusing?), who has a bit more of a gritty edge than the traditional take but still upholding those nurtured values of truth and justice.

Whilst Unchained may seem predominantly focused on Superman, there’s still a place for Clark Kent as we see his efforts to investigate Ascension and enlist the assistance of Bruce Wayne/Batman in tackling the group.  Snyder also incorporates a flashback of a traumatic event in Clark’s childhood that plays thematically into the present.

Although there’s a lot going on in Unchained and parts of it may seem overly wordy, it’s more a case of substance than waffle and Snyder does take time to focus on characterisation, even when there’s fists flying and satellites crashing and we get a sense of what motivates everyone.  The conflict between General Lane and Superman is a good example, both are sworn enemies with opposing viewpoints but Lane has an argument and a personal perspective with a commitment to duty and service that drives him, adding some dimension to the age old battle between the two characters.

Some of Snyder’s more recent works (and to an extent, the latter parts of his Batman run) tend to be a little overindulgent and unnecessarily convoluted but Superman Unchained is a more positive and coherent example of his writing and being paired with the amazing Jim Lee certainly helps.  Lee’s visual storytelling speaks for itself and his style here is as you would come to expect – powerful, detailed and cinematic – Superman Unchained reads and looks like a superhero blockbuster.  Lee’s renditions of Superman are confident and his depictions of the action scenes are exciting, all adding to the appeal.  Lee proves he can handle the scale and also the craziness of Snyder’s script, Superman’s battle against Lane’s forces in a Kryptonian armour suit being a particular highlight.  There’s also the design of Wraith, a hulking stone-grey creature emanating flaming tendrils of energy – simple, yet effective and when married with Scott Snyder’s dialogue together they create an interesting adversary for Superman with a foe who is not just physically imposing but also challenges the Last Son of Krypton on a philosophical level.  Having been in the service of the U.S. government since his arrival and intervening clandestinely in conflicts throughout history, Wraith believes in what he is doing just as much as Superman does and having our hero team up with Wraith against Ascension creates an unusual dynamic given Wraith’s declaration that once they’re done he has one more task to perform: kill Superman.

Superman Unchained is a highly entertaining read and easily one of the best Superman stories of the last decade and it wouldn’t be surprising if in the years to come it ends up ranking amongst some of the Man of Steel’s all-time greats.  Even if you weren’t a fan of DC’s New 52, it’s well worth the dive.

Read it if you like…

The Man of Steel by Brian Michael Bendis (as well as the writer’s current run on Superman with artist Ivan Reis), Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee and Superman: For Tomorrow written by Brian Azzarello with more fantastic visuals from Jim Lee.

Superman Unchained is published by DC and is currently available in print and digital formats.

12 thoughts on “Have you read… ‘Superman Unchained’ ?

  1. Wow, I did not know this even existed. I was underwhelmed by the New 52 version of Superman (though I enjoyed the early Action Comics), and had dropped the Superman titles by 2013. I’ll have to hunt this down and give it a read. Thanks for another superb comics recommendation!

  2. I remember reading the first two issue of Superman Unchained but I never got around to the rest in the series. It was interesting to see Scott Snyder’s take on Superman and the art by Jim Lee was very impressive. Need to go back and check this one out in trade for the whole story, sounds really good.

    • I highly recommend checking the whole story out Paul, I feel it’s gotten lost/been overlooked simply because it was in the midst of the New 52 where the character generally wasn’t given his due. Unchained more than makes up for that, I keep hoping there’ll be an animated version as it would translate extremely well.

      • Cheers for the recommendation. I’ll have to track it down in a trade paperback collection. Yes, I agree, Superman wasn’t that well served during the New 52 era of DC comics. It would be fun to see Unchained turned into an animated feature, especially as recent DC Comics animated Superman films have been exceptionally good..

      • I’ve not checked out Bendis’ run, I didn’t make it all the way through his Man of Steel tbh. The tone of it all just didn’t grab my attention. Maybe I’ll check out some trades later and see how things are developing. I’ve been enjoying a lot of the recent DC animated films, looking foward to Reign of the Superman as well – they have been such good adaptations of these classic comic book storylines 🙂

  3. Clearly I made a huge mistake in not picking this up much sooner. To have Snyder and Lee collaborate together still blows my mind. Ever since you first recommended this to me way back then, I was amazed that this project even came to life. We definitely more of these creative teams with consistent artwork and stand-alone stories. And less “New Age of Heroes” flops… Is this version of Superman grittier than the Earth One version too? This review also reminded me that I have a lot of New 52 stories that I have yet to visit, even if Superman/Action Comics might not be a priority among all the New 52 series I need to check out. Fantastic review as always, Chris. Your love for this one shows clearly throughout this review. As well as your skepticism regarding good ol’ Scott Snyder! 😀

    • Thank you sir, always great to have your input! I guarantee that you will love Superman Unchained, it doesn’t get enough praise in my opinion and definitely a stand-out Superman story despite it being part of the New 52. No, I wouldn’t say this version of Superman is grittier than Earth One, in fact he’s more like the original Superman just with a little bit of an edge – much like Henry Cavill in ‘Man of Steel’ really. I’d definitely like to hear your thoughts if you decide to pick it up (which you most definitely should).

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