Quite simply, this is the Superman comic that we've all been waiting for since the New 52 began. Now don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved Grant Morrison's recent Action Comics run but I'll be the first to admit that his meta-textual, non-linear approach to storytelling is the superhero equivalent to Marmite, you either love it or you hate it. I've also hugely enjoyed Scott Lobdell's action packed run on Superman so far. But I can see that his habit of playing up the bull-headedness of this much younger version of Superman, coupled with his habit of occasionally writing less than convincing dialogue, might put some readers off. Superman Unchained #1 on the other hand, is clearly going to be a real crowd pleaser. Superman has an incredibly diverse fan-base, and different fans want different things from their Superman comics. Every Superman fan has their own ideas about what a Superman comic should deliver. Honestly though, I can't imagine this comic not ticking every single box for practically every single fan.
The main action of the story comes from Superman's rescue of two astronauts, who are plunging to Earth in a huge, nuclear powered space station. Now this may seem like a relatively mundane thing for Superman to be doing, especially when compared to some of the more fantastic and wonderfully over the top situations Superman's faced recently at the hands of Morrison and Lobdell. But writer Scott Snyder and artist Jim Lee make the rescue feel like something special, a genuine Super-feat. Superman never seems overwhelmed by the rescue, but at the same time the success of the rescue doesn't seem like a foregone conclusion. I felt genuinely excited by it. We follow Superman and the astronauts down from space, through the heat of re-entry, right up until the station smashes into the Earth. Superman is reassuring the astronauts all the way down, while at the same time reminiscing in his inner monologue about his childhood in Smallville. In the hands of other writers this kind of thing has sometimes made Superman come across as folksy and twee, but Snyder pitches it just right. Superman seems warm, compassionate and human, but confident and powerful at the same time. The whole scene is a balancing act that Snyder pulls off beautifully.
The rest of the issue is equally successful. While the old, familiar trope of of the military meddling with super powers in sinister ways is trotted out, Snyder stops the whole thing from descending into cliche by re-writing a real life historical event. Snyder's Lois Lane is brilliant, undermining an exasperated Perry White and constructively criticising Clark Kent. The friendly journalistic rivalry between Clark and Lois is something I've missed in recent years, and it's great to see it back and being written so well. Snyder's use of the new status quo established by Lobdell (Clark's left the Daily Planet to be an independent blogger) serves to reinforce and enhance this rivalry while at the same time places the events of this issue firmly in current DC continuity. Snyder's Lex Luthor is just as spot on as his Lois. All Lex really does is make a little origami city out of a book, but we're left in no doubt of his personality, his motives, or his relationship with Superman.
A big part of this book's success is down to Jim Lee's art. In the past Lee has put a greater emphasis on cool but generic super-hero posing over story-telling, but this thankfully isn't the case here. There's never any doubt as to what's going on and the story flows along nicely. His action scenes are as powerful as ever but Lee accomplishes the more casual scenes with equal success, demonstrating a greater range of facial expressions than usual. The pages featuring Clark and Jimmy are a particularly good example of this. In places the art reminded me of Andy Kubert's. Unfortunately Lois Lane still has the one face that Lee seems to stick on every female character, but that aside, this is the best I've seen Lee's work for a long time.
The back up story is short but just as effective as the main story, with a pair of binoculars offering us a poignant little call back to the issue's opening. If this issue has a flaw it's the daft, gimmicky, pull out poster that's glued to a bit of card half way through the issue. There's no doubt that it features two great images by Jim Lee, but the whole thing's a bit of a pain in the arse if you're actually trying to read the story.
With Man of Steel hitting cinemas on Friday it's common sense for DC to offer something for people who love the film and are curious about the comics. This fits that bill perfectly, I would have no problem recommending this to a non-comics reader who wanted to get into Superman. It's exciting, action-packed and tells the reader exactly what kind of man Superman is without resorting to continuity laden exposition or long, po-faced monologues on the nature of heroism. For this reason I would also recommend it to any Superman fans who have so far steer cleared of New 52 Superman comics. I'll be very surprised if this series doesn't sell very well indeed, and not just because of the pulling power of the superstar creative team. This is quite frankly, how to write Superman comics with mass appeal. I can't wait for issue #2.
***** FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE!