Monday, December 15, 2014

A little more on Superman Unchained

I reviewed Superman Unchained, Scott Snyder, Jim Lee, Dustin Nguyen and Scott Williams' Superman story line, for Robot 6 this week. You can read the piece by clicking here. Overall, I thought it was a pretty great Superman story, despite all the quibbles one might have about how it was marketed and sold, from its goofy title to it's ridiculous number of variant covers (58, by my count) to a few plot points that, were I an editor, I likely would have suggested changing or even just tweaking.

The biggest "problem" with the book is, however, also one of its virtues—Jim Lee's artwork. I like Lee a lot more than many critics who have been reading and writing about comics as long as I have, but sometimes he works on particular projects better than other times, and sometimes he meshes better with particular writers than he does with other writers. And Snyder and Lee aren't the match made in heaven that Frank Miller and Lee were, nor does his style seem to fit that of Superman Unchained as well as it did with All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, or even "Hush."

One could say that Lee's artwork is the main reason this book was such a big deal in the first place, and there's probably something to that, but I found it quite interesting how low the sales of the book slipped during its run. After the first issue or three, it was being outsold by Snyder and Greg Capullo's regular old Batman monthly, despite significant incentives in the form of so many goddam variant covers.

I don't think that's necessarily because Capullo is more popular than Lee now, and may have more to do with Batman being more popular than Superman, but I do think its significant, and I wonder if the market doesn't more eagerly embrace a talented, punctual artist who meshes well with his or her writer more readily than it does a superstar artist with a bad reputation for hitting deadlines these days.

Anyway, I had a few more thoughts about Superman Unchained I didn't quite fit into the review in anyway that wouldn't have made what probably wasn't all that well-written a piece read worse still, so I thought I'd pull them out and address them here.

1.) JIM LEE'S DESIGN WORK As talented as Lee may be, and as popular as his work may be, I don't think anyone's ever claimed he was the world's greatest costume least not since he was drawing the X-Men for Marvel in his pre-Image days. I know a lot of people have claimed the exact opposite regarding his costume design skills, however, as is evident from the less-than-enthusiastic reception Superman, The Justice League and so many of the New 52 superheroes got when their new costumes started being unveiled (And, those with longer memories my recall his redesign of The Huntress' costume during "Hush" or his Green Lantern Kyle Rayner redesign in those long ago, pre-Green Lantern: Rebirth days. See also the entire WildStorm universe).

He brings some pretty lousy designs to play in this storyline. The first time I rolled my eyes was when I saw what Lois Lane was wearing to the office. I guess I'm not sure what material her glove-like dress is made of, but it's tight enough you can see her abs through it, so it sure doesn't look business casual. Also, that color!

The bigger disappointment is in the look of the new character, who is a Superman analogue who has worked closely with the United States military in secret since the late 1930s. He is basically a Superman analogue who made different choices than Superman, and while they attempt to be friends—or at least allies—it's clear from his first appearance he's going to end up spending most of the book in conflict with Superman.

Snyder gives him the not-very-friendly nickname of "Wraith," which was mean to be an acronym of "William Rudolph's Ace In The Hole," which makes me wonder what they called him upon first meeting him, before they knew he'd be their "Ace In The Hole," or their "Aith," as it were (Because he's been "invisible" all this time though, the name does function as an appropriate one for him).

Here's our first look at him:
Lee draws Wraith as big, gray and monstrous in proportion. He has the big, broad face of a Mongul or a Darkseid (particularly as Lee draws Jack Kirby's evil god), and that gray, rocky skin further suggests Darkseid...and, of course, Doomsday (Lee has created at least one good guy with that very visage, if not the glowing red eyes, in his WILDC.A.T.s character Maul, the guy with horns that grow out of his shoulder blades.)
It's never discussed, and you can only see it very clearly in a few instances, but the pattern of red energy that covers the character forms the shape of an Eagle clutching talons of arrows around his chest. Turns out that even in the New 52, a world without a Golden Age of superheroes, Superman still wasn't the first guy with superpowers to wear a logo/sigil on his chest!
Lee has Wraith change shape to various degrees in various situations throughout the book; I think these changes are meant to suggest his body adapting to different circumstances and/or reflecting his moods and mental states, but at several points throughout the book he grows spikes all over his body, making him look still more like Doomsday.
The Superman analogue that Geoff Johns, John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson are confronting the Man of Steel with over in Superman meanwhile, looks perfectly human, save for a weird head of hair, and doesn't look much more inherently evil than Superman or any other superhero might. Superman may or may not end up coming into conflict with that guy, but his nature isn't so thoroughly telegraphed as Wraith's is.

Also, at one point, Wraith puts on this stupid looking armor/girdle, that renders him immune to a "synthetic mineral" that works on Wraith the same way kryptonite works on Superman:
That image is by Nguyen, not Lee, but note how stocky and Darkseid-like Nguyen draws the character, as if he's working from a description of "Darkseid, but nude, save for a goofy glowing red 'armor' that looks a little like football shoulder pads or something."

Wraith's not the only one who puts on armor during the course of the storyline. Batman appears throughout, and most of his scenes find him wearing a specially-designed "stealth suit" that renders him invisible to Superman's many super-senses. And what does a stealth suit look like?

Well, it glows bright yellow, for one thing.
I might have gone for an all-black Bat-suit, either one that rendered Batman as completely featureless shadow, with a cowl that covered his eyes and mouth as well, giving him a creepy, feature-less face (think Black Panther without eyes), or at least an all-black suit, with black triangle lenses for eyes instead of white or yellow ones, and a black bat-symbol over a black bat-suit.

At the very least, I wouldn't have had it glow.

But then, I'm not a comic book artist or a stealth suit designer.

Then there's a scene where General Sam Lane and the military forces he commands attacks The Fortress of Solitude with these neat giant dog droid tanks bristling with anti-Superman weaponry. Superman meets them in a suit of armor with special weaponry of his own and he looks like this:

I think his plan was to make the soldiers laugh so hard that they would be incapacitated long enough for him to round them up at super-speed, but it doesn't work, and he's forced to fight them using his shield and laser ninja sickle and wire thingee.
Poor Superman. And to think, people used to laugh at your mullet!

2.) WONDER WOMAN Much of Superman's expected supporting cast appears, playing roles of various importance—Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, General Lane—and, of course, Batman plays a pretty big role. Essentially, Batman's there for Superman to bounce ideas off of and to supply him with research and development help (The stealth suit is used to answer a question regarding whether or not one can elude all of Superman's super-senses, and it's Batman that makes the Wraith kryptonite for Superman).

While various Justice Leaguers get mentioned in passing, particularly near the climax, where every nuclear weapon on Earth is launched at the same time and, later, when an alien armada prepares to invade, the only other Leaguer to appear on-panel aside from Batman is Wonder Woman.

She's instrumental in a scene in which Wraith attacks Batman in the Bat-cave (see above; and note the panel before has Batman asking Wraith, "Penny for your thoughts?").

Wonder Woman's relationship with the Man of Steel and The Dark Knight, as individuals and as a pair, has been portrayed in many different ways over the decades, and she's been romantically entangled with both...just barely with Batman during Joe Kelly's run on JLA (and in the Justice League cartoons), and she is currently dating Superman in DC's comics.

My favorite version of the trio's relationship is the one suggested in the Batman: The Brave and The Bold cartoon, where the three of them are essentially super-best friends. Wonder Woman is just one of the guys...not by being essentially guy-like, but because the three friends' relationship has nothing to do with their genders at all. It's a little like they just swapped out Robin Dick Grayson for Wonder Woman in the relationship suggested by all those fun old World's Finest comic book covers, you know?

As I mentioned in my Robot 6 review, Snyder focuses on Superman's relationship with Lois Lane throughout the book, most intensely at the climax, where he gets a few pages with Lois and only a few short words of strategy over a Justice League communicator with Wonder Woman. Now, Superman's relationship with Lois is just one of great friends here, and it's possible that Superman's keeping his game face on with Wonder Woman at the moment, but it's an odd note to strike.

In fact, I almost wonder if the book would be better without Wonder Woman in at all. She only gets a few lines, lines like:

•"They accessed silos around the world. It's bad."

•"I'll do what I can to help Green Lantern. Still, we're looking at a sixty percent stop rate at best."

•"'s Batman's servers, they're picking something up in the current running through the cave. An energy pattern."

•"Is it Wraith? Does he have some link to the Earthstone?"

•"So what do we do, Superman? I can tell you have a plan by your tone. Whatever it is, we're helping."

And that's it. Those are all of Wonder Woman's lines in the whole book. Even in the scene where she plays the most prominent role (above), stopping Wraith from kill Batman, she's just playing the role that anyone stronger than Batman could have played. She could have been swapped out for Cyborg, Green Lantern or the New 52 version of Aquaman in that same scene. And she doesn't have any lines at all throughout it.

Superman shows up shortly after to save her from Wraith.

So I'm a little torn. It's nice she's in the book at all, but it's weird how little she has to do, or even say. During the Trinity's fight with Wraith, for example, Batman fights Wraith one-on-one for about seven pages, before Wonder Woman saves him, fighting for about three pages alongside Batman, until Superman arrives for the next issues Superman vs. Wraith throwdown. Throughout it all, Batman gets all the quips.

3.) THE VARIANTS So yeah, they went a little super-overboard with those, huh?

That said, there was work from a lot of my favorite superhero artists, some of whom just don't seem to get the amount of work they deserve from DC anymore (provided they even want it, of course), and many of whom probably could have really made Superman Unchained sing in a way that Lee couldn't.

These are broken into various categories, and it was especially fun to see the first appearance and Golden Age versions of Superman. Gary Frank, for example, is hardly one of my favorite artists, but I did love his Golden Age style cover, from the look on Superman's face and the particular costume he wore, to the look on Lois' face as she cheers the bemused Superman on in his fight with a lion.
It was also great to see favorite characters I haven't seen in their original, superior forms in so long, like Superboy as drawn by Tom Grummet and Steel as drawn by Jon Bogdanove.

These are probably my favorite of them all though, because each suggests a super-compelling story all on it's own. There are a lot of great covers in this massive variant cover gallery, but these are the three I wish had stories to accompany them:

Especially that Super-Noah story. I love the idea of Superman going back in time to save the dinosaurs be relocating two of each to a different planet, thus saving their lives but also not altering the history of life on Earth. And who else would be there with him but Jimmy Olsen?

And Amanda Conner's...oh boy, that's gotta push a lot of Superman's buttons in some rather uncomfortable ways, huh?

Finally, I just wanted to highlight this wonderful Sean Murphy from the "Superman Reborn" era:
Murphy is maybe the all-around best artist Snyder has collaborated with in the last few years (On The Wake), and I'd love to see the pair work on something again soon. I just wanted to pull this one out though to note how cool Murphy's version of the very 1990s Superboy is. It's tweaked just enough that that particular costume looks like it would work out just fine today, and doesn't seem the least bit dated.


JohnF said...

For all of his artistic gifts, Jim Lee is a godawful costume designer. I struggle to think of even one costume he's ever made look better.

Spenzo Tom-Sun said...

Man that Sean Murphy cover is fantastic. I love the way it is just faded enough to look like a 90s back issue.
I've been thinking a lot recently about how some artists have been rehabilitating the 90s style. Tradd Moore is an obvious example, as is Murphy. I guess a lot of these guys grew up with the early Image comics but seem to have an up to date sense of design, particularly fashion, and better all-round craft. I hope we see more of it!

Bram said...

Scott Snyder sells Batman. Its a perfect match. His creator-owned stuff has a following, but it's that … ugh, synergy … that makes it a hit.

Superman, maybe less so. He's a tough character to write, and I think what draws readers to his Batman might not translate.

Keep in mind, the vast majority of the comic-buying public isn't following creators anywhere near as much as People Who Write And Comment On The Internet.