What’s the first thing readers will think of when they see Superman Unchained #1 on shelves Comic Book Wednesday? Obviously, they’ll notice the Jim Lee cover — unless they’ve been drawn towards the more expensive variants. They’ll also see Scott Snyder’s name on the cover along with the names of longtime Lee collaborator, inker Scott Williams, and epilogue illustrator Dustin Nguyen.
But what of the title? Faster than a speeding bullet. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.
And now he’s Unchained.
If the title was an indicator measuring how big Snyder and Lee want to take this title, the indicator that shows how invested DC is in making big bucks with the series shows in those four names down the spine of the book. DC has coupled its number one scribe and number one penciller — Lee is also a DC co-publisher — together on the same book for a one-two punch built for maximum impact.
Beginning in Nagasaki, Japan on a fateful day when the United States dropped its second atom bomb during World War II, Superman Unchained #1 starts with a young villager named Ichuru who peers up into the sky with his binoculars only to see the very thing that will end his life.
A bomb falls towards the ground, breaks into pieces, and reveals a humanoid figure primed for mass destruction.
In the present time, Superman has his hands full dealing with a runaway space station reentering Earth and primed for a collision course. It takes quick thinking and sudden flurries of movement to save the freefalling crew while keeping the station from landing anywhere close to civilization, and once it’s over, Superman’s off and away to deal with a prison break aboard a helicopter transport delivering criminals to a maximum security location. Included in the flight list is one Lex Luthor, and Superman gets his opportunity to pick the mastermind’s brain to discuss possible suspects responsible for sending satellites and space stations hurtling back towards Earth.
By the end of the issue, Clark Kent has already ruled out terrorist group Ascension as the culprits, and an investigation somewhere in the Pacific Ocean brings Superman close to a secret military installation housing a super man that history has forgotten.
It’s an issue that lays some fine groundwork with great visuals coming from the hands of the talented Mr. Lee. A three-page spread reminiscent of the kind of epic detail Katsuhiro Otomo puts forth in his work shows Superman flying completely through the space station on one side before he rips through the walls of the hull. The artwork is above average by comic standards, but there’s a lack of punch seen in some of Lee’s earlier work. It’s a little underwhelming by Lee standards, but it’s more than serviceable.
Overlaying some of those intricate lines, inker Williams has his work cut out for him. Drawing over delicate pencils with permanent inks can be a thankless job but someone’s got to do it. Williams is a master, and he complements Lee’s style.
The visuals are made vibrant by Sal Cipriano’s colors which play with light in interesting ways. There are colored shadows and tints that create atmospheres, and Cipriano uses his expansive palette to add dimension, particularly in the characters’ faces.
The art goes well with Snyder’s scripting — the aforementioned three-page spread depicting Superman’s rescue mission shows off a more complex superhero who’s not just brawn. Being able to read Superman’s thoughts brings readers to a better working knowledge of the superhero’s priorities and tactics. Snyder doesn’t want to write about the wrecking ball, his Superman shows a range that goes far beyond just being a physical protector — he’s also a comforter who considers the emotional aspects of danger that create panic and fear.
As a whole, Superman Unchained falls short because of its lack of intrigue on the plot side. Maybe it’s the pacing — there’s an industrial rhythm to it — a steady beat with urgency and push that sometimes rushes over a beat or two trying to get to the ending. There’s also a lack of anything with gravity besides the glimpses of what could amount to be a major foe for Superman. Whether this new villain, partner, or plot point becomes something with staying power may be determined by what happens in this story arc. So far, it all seems a bit standard procedure.
Still, Superman Unchained #1 is well worth the price of admission. The artwork, so far, is loud and leaning towards the epic. Characters are attractive, and Lee’s knowledge of anatomy gives him precise control over his pencils. Snyder has the writing chops, and while this might be an underwhelming first act, there are more issues to come that could bring it in the wow department.
With both of the biggest superheroes under his pen, Snyder looks to be the standard bearer for DC. With Lee bringing the words to life in a visual capacity, Superman Unchained is designed to be the book Superman fans have been clamoring for. This issue may be the chains coming off.
Hopefully, the next issue gives way for flight.
Superman Unchained #1 (2013)
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Words: Scott Snyder
Pencils: Jim Lee and Dustin Nguyen
Inks: Scott Williams
Colors: Alex Sinclair and John Kalisz
Letters: Sal Cipriano
Next Issue: Superman Unchained #2 Review