Exclusive: Scott Snyder talks ‘Superman Unchained,’ shedding Clark’s boy scout image

If you say “Superman,” several images immediately spring to mind. The red cape, the iconic “S,” the perfectly coifed black hair. But for a long time, other less noble words are also conjured up by mentioning the Man of Steel. Boring. Boy Scout. Goody Two-Shoes. One note.

Veteran comic writer Scott Snyder wanted to change that perception. Back in June of 2013, he launched a new series called “Superman Unchained.” The story arc was designed to tear down the Superman the public thinks it knows and get to the meat of who Kal-El really is. At the time, Snyder said, “I tried to take all of Superman's greatest strengths and turned them into weaknesses, turning them on their head to challenge him.”

Over one year and nine issues later, “Superman Unchained” comes to a close with the climatic final battle between the Man of Steel and his foil, the Man of Tomorrow. We spoke with Scott Snyder about what this story is REALLY about and how you take a paragon of virtue like Superman and humanize him without losing his characterization.

Art By: Bryan Hitch and Alex Sinclair

HitFix: You”ve been writing “Superman Unchained” now for over a year. What”s the situation for everyone ahead of this climatic final issue?

Scott Snyder: For me, Superman Unchained is kind of the Superman story I wanted to do if I only ever got one chance to write Superman story in my whole life. So it”s kind of everything I love about the character. Everything I”m interested in in one place. It”s really easy to pick up and read even if you”ve never read a Superman comic before. And where we are with this one – with the finale –  basically the story centers on Superman”s discovery that the American government discovered an alien not unlike Superman back in 1938. Which was actually when the first Superman comic was published. 

HF: Poetic.

SS: Yeah, exactly. So the American government discovered an alien that had a similar physiology as Superman, but it was from a different solar system. Since 1938 the alien has been secretly been working for the government. He shaped a lot of what I call “the landscape.” And so the accusation against Superman is really about this question. “Is that is what Superman does in the world enough? Is he really a person or a hero to look up to or is he someone who shies away from doing the tough things in order to save kittens from trees and that kind of stuff?”  

The story challenges people to look at what Superman does in the modern world and it challenges Superman to look at himself in the mirror and decide whether or not what he”s been doing is enough. And ultimately it”s really a celebration of Superman where I think – not to get too much away – it”s ultimately a big affirmation in celebration of the kinds of choices Superman makes. Hopefully it shows why he”s one of the most inspiring heroes out there, because he”s not like this other sort of secret Superman that”s been working for the government.

HF: Speaking of hoping that people will see how Superman is a hero to look up to, there is a misconception with modern – I guess more movie going audiences more so than comic book audiences – that Superman”s kind of boring. That he”s a boy scout and he”s too perfect. That he doesn”t have real flaws. But Superman Unchained kind of peels that away. Was that something you actively were trying to do, to humanize him?

SS: Yeah. Very much so. Honestly what “Superman Unchained” does, and what” I”m most proud of about the entire series, is that it really argues Superman down a core explanation. And for me at least, it”s a personal explanation of what I love about Superman. The criticism he gets – that he always does the right thing, he”s just a boy scout, he”s outdated. How he”s just singular in his decisions and he never, ever questions what he”s doing and he”s goody two shoes. All that kind of stuff that people say when they”re trying to make Superman feel anachronistic or, you know, from another time. To me it couldn”t be further from the truth. 

When you write Clark, what you realize is he”s a guy who”s making it up as he goes along. He”s not someone who”s sure of himself or thinks that he knows the right answers. He”s not out there to be a symbol for us. He”s basically a guy who grew up in Kansas with the weight of the world on his shoulders, trying to do the right thing case by case. In that way, I think he”s actually a tremendous inspiration or he should be, because he”s anything but singular or monolithic in terms of what he stands for. I think he”d be the first to say “I don”t stand for anything. I”m not trying to show people how to live their lives. I”m just trying to do the right thing with trial and error each time.” And that”s sort of what the entire story is really about. The accusation made against him by Wraith, the other alien who that”s been working for the government forever and is much stronger than Superman, is that Superman doesn”t do the tough things. That Superman doesn”t change the world to do this, this and this because he”s afraid.  

And the truth is Superman doesn”t do those things, but not because he”s afraid. He doesn”t go to countries and reshape their politics. He just feels he”d be overstepping. And all of choices he does make are as a man trying to light his own way. To do things that he can be proud of and allow him to sleep well at night. 

Art By: David Finch and Sonia Oback

HF: But Superman”s decisions are still played out on a worldwide scale. Is that the crux of his conflict with Wraith?

On this global stage, Superman is someone that we can all look up to and he”s almost kind of ultimately American. In some ways, this is what the argument is about. Wraith says, “You know, you”re not American. You don”t do what this country wants. You don”t go and take down terrorists. You”re not a military weapon.”  What Superman does instead is owning his own decisions, case by case, and by making choices that he can stand. I think in some ways, he ultimately represents the best of us.

HF: A lot of the situations Superman finds himself in have no good solutions. This is slightly a weird angle to come at it from but. “Superman Unchained” reminded my of “Futurama.”

SS: Ha, how so?

HF: There”s an episode (“Godfellas”) where Bender ends up with a colony of mini-humans living on his body and he becomes their God. And this run of Superman reminded me a lot of that episode, where no choice is the good choice. No matter what you do, every choice has consequences that will screw it up. So if you help, you”ve screwed up. If you don”t help, you”ve screwed up. There are no good choices.  

SS: That”s a really good comparison. One of the things that I was trying to say is that from a villain”s standpoint – say Lex Luthor –  Superman”s choices don”t make any sense. All of them are going to come to a terrible end. For example, Superman takes on this human identity and Wraith and Lex don”t know he”s Clark, but ostensibly in Clark Kent they know that he at least hides among humans. So they say “You probably have people that you love but you age about a fifth as fast as they do. So within a few years they”re gonna start to notice something”s off with you.”

HF: Part of the struggle in “Unchained” is Superman”s refusal to pick a country to represent, right?

SS: Yeah. And since Superman doesn”t align himself with any government, pretty soon all of these governments are going to build up weapons to take you down in case you disagree with their initiatives. He might try and stop a bomb or a drone strike and he”ll become an enemy of the state.

Art By: Jim Lee

HF: You said these governments will start making Superman killing machines but that”s kind of already happening in this series. They go up against several robots that seem designed specifically to take out Superman because he”s an unknown quantity. And there are just a lot of moving parts in this very small arc, between Lex Luther and the Ascension folks and the alien threat and the government threat and the international government threat.  How do you keep all of that moving without crashing into each other and the story completely falling apart?

SS: Well, I”m glad that it didn”t fall apart, in your opinion! For me, the way that I keep it together and from becoming too complicated or going off the rails is that it”s always about one thing. From the very first issue where Superman – he gives a monologue at one point where he”s coming back into the atmosphere from outer space and he”s talking about how as a kid he and Lana Lang and Pete, would go to this neighbor”s farm and they would jump off the silo right before school started into these big hay bales. And Superman talks about how in that way, there”s a moment in between when he jumped and when he hit that was beautiful. Where it felt as though everything was sort of possible. 

For me that”s what the whole story is about. Superman exists for this moment and the way he lives his life right now is not necessarily sustainable. But he is taking the same leap, metaphorically, that he took as a kid off of this silo. Basically he”s doing the best that he can and existing for this moment. So I try and keep these kind of post-its in my brain, so that regardless of how complicated the plot gets or how many plates are spinning at once, it”s always about that thing. It”s always about Superman having to come to terms with this terrible challenge from Wraith and Lex and all these different sort of sides. But all of those challenges represent the same argument from different, terrifying angles for him, which are the way he lives his life, the choices that he”s made, Superman as he”s constructed him – none of that can last. It”s all going to end badly. Then slowly, towards the end of the story, build him back up so that he decides “No. I don”t care what the consequences are. I don”t care what anyone says, this is the way that I feel right about living my life as Superman and as Clark Kent and I”m going to continue that way.” 

So I try really hard to keep a very singular sort of North Star of story for myself.

HF: With “Superman Unchained” finished, what”s next for you? 

SS: You know Superman was such a fun project. I”d love to come back to the character at some point. But right now I”m really singularly focused on Batman. We”re actually just starting what might be the biggest, nuttiest arc that we”ve tried on this series. So it”s a really easy way to jump on if you are not reading Batman. Batman #35, which came out a couple of weeks ago, starts this giant Joker story called “End Game.” Basically Joker comes and says “You know, for a long time Batman you and I have played this game together where we circle each other like cat and mouse. But I”m tired of it and you”ve become boring to me. So now I”m just gonna end everything and destroy everyone.” Including the Justice League. If you”re interested in Batman, I hope you guys will pick it up!

After the jump, get a sneak preview of SUPERMAN UNCHAINED #9. The penultimate issue will be on shelves both real and digital on November 5th.