The Story Starts to Fall into Place
Once again, I’m unsurprisingly late with my Superman Unchained #5 review. I’ve been fairly busy in my university break but I finally read the issue yesterday and can now properly make a judgement on how good this issue is. The last issue was definitely the best of the series yet IMO so Scott Snyder and Jim Lee have set a fairly high benchmark to surpass. With all the diverging subplots in place, let’s hope the pieces come together. As always, there will be SPOILERS discussed but I bet you’ve read the issue before I had.
Since the issue is practically split into 3 different sections, it’s best to start by looking at the flashback sequence. Unlike the previous issues where Dustin Nguyen provided the art for a two page back up story, in this issue, Snyder weaves a tale from Clark’s childhood into the main storyline and provides some insight on the Colder’s Leap that was mentioned in the first issue. I really enjoyed the innocent childhood interactions between Lana and Clark that kicked off the issue with Lana teasing Clark about harbouring a crush on their astronomy teacher. The joking was pretty funny in a childlike way without it being bullying on Lana’s part. It’s a sweet reminder about the blissfulness and cherished moments of childhood and even Superman had that experience as a child. Of course, I had an inkling that Snyder would inject this childhood experience with his usual tragic secret and of course am proven right when Lana and Clark tumble off Colder’s tower only for Clark’s flight to kick in allowing him to save Lana. Though it does play on some past Superman stories (cough Smallville Season 1 cough) I like how Clark’s flight kicks in during moments of danger and trouble in his childhood as it foreshadows the person he’ll become. Plus flight is always linked to him truly being Superman anyway for some reason. So far then, Snyder hits on the emotional and characterisation of Clark and Lana even as children with sweet dialogue that reminds me of Pak’s great chemistry between these two characters. But, as you would expect from Snyder, he’s not content with leaving the emotional threads hanging there. Once Clark returns home, the emotional meter rises up to its maximum when he discovers Mr Colder holding his mother at gun point after seeing Clark trespassing. Not only is this an emotionally tense scene but I really liked how Snyder played up Colder as the representation of humanity’s ignorance and fear over Clark’s abilities. It’s regrettably accurate to have Colder deem Clark the spawn of Satan and an unnatural, ungodly abomination that needs to be cleansed simply because he’s different from other humans. A sad reminder of the differences that tear humanity apart today. If there’s one thing wrong with this sequence, it’s that it cuts away from the main story but even that’s a weak criticism. There are problems with this issue but this flashback sequence is not among them due to great writing and stunning artwork.
As has been the case with this series, another subplot Snyder follows in this issue is Lois’ imprisonment at the hands of Ascension. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I really enjoy how Snyder places Lois centre stage in the unfolding mysteries and twists this story brings. It demonstrates a deserved respect for her character which Snyder also shows in her sassy and blunt quips to Ascension even in the face of certain death. Basically, this issue is the answer/exposition issue since we get loads of answers and plot points revealed. Depending on how you view such stories, this can be a good or bad thing but for the most part, I did enjoy the reveals Snyder drops. It turns out that Ascension was formed by the grandson of William Rudolph in response to the equation that came in Wraith’s ship being utilised by The Machine to create all of humanity’s current technology. Now here we come to the first and biggest problem in the issue. Just as most people on the discussion thread were saying, I have to agree that Snyder has gone for a clichéd and unoriginal story telling concept that demeans the issue in several regards. Most crucially, it reduces all of humanity’s technological achievements from 1938 onwards to be nothing more than borrowing from alien technology rather than human innovation on inventions like the transistor. As a result, this also undermined the fantasy of the DC Earth because at many points in comic book history, intelligent humans within the DC Universe have created technological marvels that are decades, perhaps even centuries ahead of what we can currently do and that’s always been accepted by most comic fans since it’s the realm of fiction. Snyder falls into his trap of utilising old traditional concepts in stories which is a shame given how fresh Unchained has been. Nonetheless, as a payoff, Ascension are given much more presence as a zealous and threatening terrorist organisation. From the leader casually threatening Lois to beat her to death whilst wearing her father’s holographic face to promising to bring the truth to light and give humanity a chance to ascend on their own by nuking the entire planet, Snyder finally sheds some light on Ascension’s purpose and motives giving them a terrorist ideology shaped to fit into a comic book storyline with their technological background. This issue really makes their Ned Ludd propaganda and anti technology position clear even if it is a bit convoluted at times.
Of course, the bulk of the story is focused on the uneasy and tense alliance between Superman and Wraith. Snyder does another solid job on getting Superman’s voice right in this issue. Though it does lack the spark from the last issue, Superman isn’t in the same situation as he was then. Still, Snyder gets Superman’s voice right in his concern over the events on the last few pages and in courteously inviting Wraith into his Fortress of Solitude to locate the energy signature Ascension have left behind. What’s even better is that just like with Ascension receiving a purpose and insight, Snyder allows Wraith to receive an extra dimension in his characterisation. Wraith is much more fleshed out in this issue as he continues to act as a pseudo-mentor to Superman tutoring him in his vision powers just as he did with his heat vision in the last issue. It’s strange seeing the oldest and most enduring superhero receive a lecture from someone else yet Wraith fits the bill seeing how long he’s been on Earth and how much experience he has in his mission and in using his powers. Snyder has promised in interviews that Wraith would reflect the Golden Age Superman during World War II who would happily bash the Japs and sock Hitler in the jaw to solve the world’s problems to contrast it with the Superman of today who wouldn’t get involved in human conflicts so as not to drastically guide human history. And this promise is coming to fruition as Superman and Wraith’s differing ideologies result in my favourite part of this issue. But first a complaint because Wraith reveals that he’s been ordered to find out Superman’s secret identity but has never done so. This conflicts with the very reason Superman’s secret identity is safe, because people DON’T think an alien god from another planet would hide amongst them integrating with their way of life. For Lane to suspect this is warranted but it’s still contradictory with the security of Superman’s identity. Anyway, Wraith’s questioning of Superman brings about a harrowing and saddening jump into Superman’s future as the readers see a sorrow reminder of what Superman’s ties to humanity could ultimately result in. Usually, we don’t see what happens to Superman’s loved ones in the future but Snyder maps a play by play sequence of how time will change and take Lois, Jimmy, Perry and those Superman most cares about and yet he’ll always outlast them all. It’s a very different take on the immortality question that plagues Superman at times and Snyder handles it wonderfully by ending the sequence with an elderly looking Clark Kent opening the door to a derelict and abandoned Daily Planet building. That was a pitch perfect conclusion rendered in an amazing fashion. And this all plays into Wraith’s desire to see Superman working for The Machine in order to transcend his emotional ties to humanity and protect them in a way that won’t see Wraith come after Superman eventually even as he holds a laser weapon at him. But this brings up another issue when Superman notes how Wraith was involved in the second bomb that fell on Nagasaki yet doesn’t seem emotionally or morally compromised by it that much. I would have preferred a Superman who spoke his mind to Wraith on his involvement there.
Although I have certain problems with more than one artist on a single issue let alone two contradicting styles, I’m simply amazed with how gorgeous the art was. Nguyen knocks it out of the park with a lush afternoon sun bathing the characters and environment in a wonderful light coupled with a weathered look to the pages emphasising how his pages are part of the flashback sequence. His style also fits well with the horrific turn of events towards the end of the issue. But as always, Jim Lee’s utterly detailed and stoically rendered artwork is a pleasure to see. From the splendour of the two page spread of the Fortress to the sombre derelict of the Daily Planet office in the future, Lee captures a range of detailed environments exceptionally well in this issue. Granted, the lines are sometimes apparent but this adds to the specific nuances Lee points to in his balanced artwork for this series thus far.
All in all, this issue delivers many answers and a pretty good read. There are some unoriginal and trite concepts provided by Snyder but we get a lot of much needed exposition, some fleshing out of the villains’ motives and a harrowing sequence of Superman’s future. Fortunately for me, there’s more to enjoy than there is to dislike with a dense but excellently written issue.
- Story: 8/10
- Art: 9/10
- Overall: 8/10