Comics Ate My Brain

August 27, 2004

Supreme Power, Part 1

Filed under: supreme power — Tom Bondurant @ 8:07 pm
After spending a year with Supreme Power, I still don’t much like it. I didn’t really like it after the first issue, but wanted to give it a fair shot. 12 issues should be enough to attract and hold a reader, and I like to think I have an open mind.

Still, every time I’d get around to writing exactly how I feel about this series, I’d always get blocked. Therefore, I’m going through the existing 12 issues, 2 at a time, and giving them one last shot. I will honestly try to be fair.

Let’s get on with it, shall we…?

Cover of issue #1 features the child Mark Milton wrapped in an American flag, standing on a marble slab, glowering at the reader. It says to me now, as it did last summer, “this kid is controlled by the United States government, and he hates you.” Oh, the kid probably has superpowers; otherwise he’d just be a kid and you wouldn’t be scared — but this cover makes you feel like you should be scared of him. Ironically, as we’ll see, Mark neither wraps himself in the flag (other people do it for him) nor actively hates people without good reason.

Page 1: Mark’s rocket crashes as the “Kents” listen to “Cruel To Be Kind” on their pickup’s radio. (By the way, according to NickLowe.net, the album from which that song comes was released in 1979. We’ll later learn that Mark landed in 1977. I want to be a little picky about real-world facts, because the series is supposed to be set in the real world as much as possible.) Reference is made to Mark’s ship “singing” of its journey, and singing to Mark that he will never be alone. There are a few layers here — both the ship and the radio are singing; the “Kents” are going through some marital problems, and the song’s about handling a lover’s quarrel; and Mark’s “never being alone” will turn out to be a double-edged sword. He will never be alone, although he will want to be left alone.

“Cruel To Be Kind” also refers to the theme of the 1985 12-issue Squadron Supreme maxiseries, which showcased the characters from which these characters were based. The Squadron Supreme was the Marvel equivalent of DC’s Justice League, with analogues for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. In the SS maxiseries, following a tremendous battle with supervillains, the Squadron started rebuilding the global infrastructure and ended up becoming its de facto government. Because they were a little on the totalitarian side, but had good intentions, there were conflicts within the group and none of it really turned out well. Thus, “Cruel To Be Kind” is appropriate here.

Page 2: Splash page of Mark’s rocket crashing in front of the “Kent” pickup truck. The only dialogue is the radio singing “Got to be cruel to be kind.” I might have been willing to give the Stephen-King-esque use of song lyrics a pass on the first page, but having them emphasized on this page is too much. Unfortunately, that’s going to be the pattern from here on out. (Also, the indicia box covers the truck’s screeching tires as it swerves towards the ship; otherwise, the truck might have gotten a little more attention.)

Page 3: The “Kents” find Mark in the wreckage of his ship. He’s covered in chrome life-support equipment and looks like the bejeebus has been scared out of him. Contrast this with the happy, giggling Kal-El who emerges from the crater in Superman (1978).

Page 4: “Ma Kent” sees this as a miracle and a sign that their marriage will be healed. “Pa” isn’t so sure, looking at the chrome and green goo of the life support. Mark is happy to be out of the machinery. Don’t get used to the happiness, kiddo.

Page 5: A silent series showing the pickup driving away and black helicopters tracking it.

Page 6: Jackbooted government thugs show up at the “Kent” household. At this point the series could have really used an Elian Gonzales shout-out panel.

Page 7: Jimmy Carter gets briefed on Mark and orders that he be raised as a child of the United States. Oh, the irony that Jimmy, with the kindest public image of all our recent leaders, sentences Mark to a Truman Show adolescence! By the way, Mark sits on a marble table that looks like the same material from the cover. He is not wrapped in a flag here, though. Exposition briefs the President about Mark’s alien origins, his “skin density,” and his strength.

Page 8: More exposition, as Mark’s second set of foster parents (who I like to call the “Fa-Kents”) receive their mission. They are specifically warned not to get emotionally involved with each other or with anybody on the “outside.” In other words, 15-20 years without a romantic relationship with another person. (Isn’t that DC and Marvel’s target audience anyway? Thank you, I’m here all week.) I’m guessing that conjugal visits will involve lots of hookers and porn? Nice. Ma Fa-Kent still affectionately puts her hand on Pa’s. Careful, kids, no nookie!

Page 9: Yet more exposition on the government origins of how “Project Hyperion” and “Mark Milton” were named. One of this series’ obsessions is explaining how everything works. In a playroom, Mark gets fed a bottle on a stick by a woman dressed like Jane Goodall. Cut to Mark celebrating a birthday with the Fa-Kents behind barbed wire.

Pages 10-12: For his birthday, Mark gets Spot the puppy. The Fa-Kents both leave the room to get the rest of his presents, Spot starts yapping, Mark gets startled, and Spot gets fried with heat vision. Now, I don’t have kids myself, but isn’t the first rule of toddlers that you never leave them unattended? Especially kids you found in spacecraft who are super-strong and invulnerable? Of course, this traumatizes Mark. Is this why the series got the MAX treatment?

Page 13: Ma Fa-Kent is traumatized too, so Pa suggests they slip away from the cameras for a little backdoor action. Oh, that’s why SP got the MAX treatment.

Page 14: Next day, it’s a lot colder in the Fa-Kent household, as Ma tells Pa he’s not getting into her cabinets anymore. In the news, Pol Pot’s regime ends, and the Shah comes to the U.S. That means it’s January 1979.

Page 15: Mark grows up in front of the TV. From events I’m guessing this compresses about 9 years — the end of 1980 (Reagan elected; John Lennon dies) until June 1989 (Tiananmen Square). We see that Mark is home-schooled. Couple of potential errors in the 1989 scene — Mark refers to Chinese leadership as “Mousey Tung,” but Mao died in 1976; and there is a widescreen broadcast when commercial HDTV wouldn’t start for at least another 7 years. Probably a government channel anyway.

Pages 16-18: It’s 13 years after the rocket was found, so at least 1990. George H.W. Bush examines the rocket and the prism which powered it, and his naughty thoughts about a garter-belted scientist are manifested in the prism. Records from the rocket show it was escaping from a space battle. Bush wants to know who made the records, and what do they mean about Mark’s arrival?

Pages 19-20: Mark and Pa have a heart-to-heart. Mark wants assurance that Ma and Pa love each other. Mark describes his super-senses, says he knows about the guards, and reveals he can fly. Nothing can keep him in that house, but he will stay if he knows his parents love each other. He assures Pa “I love you just as much as you love me.” See, more irony!

Pages 21-2: Bush 41 tells us about the Doctrine of Unintended Consequences as a segue into the introduction of the Atlanta Blur. Blur’s sonic boom makes his neighbor think “there’s a storm coming.” Spooky.

Issue #2‘s cover features Joe Ledger, who we will later know as Dr. Spectrum, the Green Lantern analogue. His upraised fist shows off the power prism embedded in the top of his right hand. He wears a green-and-black quasi-military outfit which reminds me of the Silver Age Green Lantern costume. Ledger is staring intently at the glowing prism with a mixture of caution and awe.

Page 1: Synopsis of issue #1.

Pages 2-4: Mark fries a history book with heat vision. Mark and Pa have a talk about how Mark needs to meet other kids. Mark wants an opportunity to be trusted, because imagine what he’d be like if he didn’t work on his social skills. There is so much irony in this statement I could pick it up with a magnet.

Pages 5-6: Logistics of getting Mark to school involve using a tank for his “bus.” Mark shows that the tank won’t hold him. I have a feeling the tank bits are supposed to be funny, but even after one issue the mood has been so unrelentingly grim and solemn that it just comes across as more of the same.

Pages 7-11: Amphibian’s dad reveals the horrible secret of her birth, 14 years ago. Back then, Mom watched a shooting star streak overhead and dislodge a few smaller “streamers.” Later, she gave birth to a non-human child. (Mom wanted a boy, ironically enough.) Seeing the child, Mom drowns herself (singing “When You Wish Upon A Star”), but the baby’s fine. Dad goes into a mental institution.

Pages 12-13: The Richmonds are killed by racists, but their young son Kyle survives.

Pages 14-17: Joe Ledger receives the power prism and learns how to use it. It bonds to him, but he goes into a coma. He is a military assassin who considers himself like a “surgeon” or “doctor.”

Pages 18-19: A mother and son take food to a (presumably) aged, wrinkled crone who hasn’t been seen in a long time. They call her “the Princess.” After they leave, a wrinkled hand appears and announces “something is stirring.” MAX moment: full frontal female nudity in the wall art outside the Princess’ chamber.

Pages 20-22: Mark’s day at school; nobody likes him and the girls think he’s creepy. He sees and hears it all.

Page 23: Schoolday wrap-up with the Milton family. When they say they don’t know if there’s anyone else like Mark, we see shots of the other future Squadroners.

Comments

By the end of issue #2, we’ve seen the basic origins of those we will know as Hyperion, Nighthawk, Amphibian, Doctor Spectrum, the Blur, and Zarda/Power Princess. Most of these 45 pages are devoted to Mark/Hyperion. It is made abundantly clear to us that the government is doing a horrible job raising him. I used to think that Supreme Power was Marvel’s way of saying “Superman would be cool if we did him, because he would work for the government and he wouldn’t have that dopey secret identity with the glasses.” Now I’m not so sure.

I think SP tries to have it both ways – first, by saying “look how we’ve made Superman relevant by taking away Clark and the Kents”; and second, by saying “look how screwed up Superman would have been if he hadn’t been raised by the Kents.” Clark Kent has always been Superman’s way of hiding from the world, precisely so people like Mark’s one-time classmate won’t treat him like plutonium and screw up his worldview. In its twisted, bass-ackwards way, Supreme Power reinforces that.

SP also ties its other paranormal individuals to the arrival of Mark’s ship. This hearkens back to Watchmen, which used its lone superpowered character as a springboard for all the changes in its world. However, where Watchmen (and many other “real-world superhero” stories) started with the changes and used flashbacks to show how they were made, Supreme Power shows the progression in a more linear way. It also devotes paragraphs of expository dialogue to its characters’ details.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and Squadron Supreme all showed superheroes as tools of the government. (Of course, in SS, they were the government.) This ushered in a whole slew of “realistic” takes on superheroes, many of which involved secret government and/or corporate projects from which the heroes escaped. (John Byrne’s Next Men, DNAgents, Gen13, The Liberty Project, and even Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan himself are all examples of this.) Supreme Power hardly breaks new ground to suggest that Supes/Hyperion could have been part of such a project. The extent to which it explains his early years comes across as overcompensating.

In other words, I’m not convinced that Supreme Power believes in its story or its characters enough to let them stand on their own. It invests so much time, energy, and dialogue in making sure everything is plausible that it sucks all the joy out of what made these characters popular in the first place. Heck, none of the characters seems to be having much fun except the Blur, and we barely get to know him in these two issues.

So where do we stand at the end of issue #2? Mark’s an alienated teen with an uncertain past, but he has four potential colleagues waiting to be introduced to him. Ominous portents surround all of them. There is no joy in Mudville. Did I mention there was a storm a-comin’?

Credits:

Written by J. Michael Straczynski, pencilled by Gary Frank, inked by John Sibal, and edited by Mike Raicht and Nick Lowe (probably not the same one).

New comics 8/25/04

Since I already talked about the grand implications for this week’s “War Games” installments, I’ll start with comments on how those books worked as individual issues.

Catwoman #34: Written by Ed Brubaker, pencilled by Paul Gulacy, inked by Jimmy Palmiotti, edited by Matt Idelson. The book opens with a car chase, which is a little confusing, but I blame that on Gulacy. After that it’s dialogue-driven, as Selina has illuminating conversations with Leslie Thompkins (mad at Batman for being part of the cycle of violence; and mad at herself for not raising Bruce better) and Stephanie Brown. In between Catwoman fights Mr. Freeze, but even that is more dialogue than action. Gulacy is a fine artist whose figures can be a bit “sharp,” but Palmiotti softens his pencils. Faces and bosoms are still pointy enough to be distracting, though. At certain angles Selina looks like Shannen Doherty.

Batman #631: Written by Bill Willingham, pencilled by Kinsun, inked by Aaron Sowd, edited by Bob Schreck. Batman, Batgirl, Nightwing, and Tim Drake free the hostages at Tim’s school. This issue succeeds at portraying Batman from almost a Marvels/Astro City-ish “normal person’s” perspective. Although we go behind the scenes to see the Bat-crew prepare for combat, they stay in the shadows long enough that when Batman finally bursts through a skylight to start kicking ass, it feels like an actual payoff and not just a glamour shot. Since the point of the issue is that yes, Virginia, there is a Batman, the creators did a good job in “finally” revealing him. However, I have to fault this issue for its Greek chorus of newspeople jumping to a questionable conclusion at the end. We’ll see if the crossover as a whole agrees with them.

DC Comics Presents Justice League Of America: Two good stories again in this final Julius Schwartz tribute issue. The first is plotted by Harlan Ellison, scripted by Peter David, and drawn by Joe Giella. It once again makes Julie a protagonist, but this time he gets to fight (and in some cases, humiliate) the Justice League, so how can you go wrong? At the end, Green Lantern, speaking for the League, says “We love you, Julie. You gave us life.” The second is written by Marv Wolfman with art by Dustin Nguyen and Richard Friend, and concerns the present-day JLA traveling back in time to defeat their Silver Age ancestors. Although Julie isn’t a character in this one, Wolfman gives both Flashes complimentary dialogue that clearly is directed at Schwartz. I get sentimental easily, perhaps, but I did like this book, and the series as a whole.

JLA #104: Written by Chuck Austen with art by Ron Garney; edited by Mike Carlin. J’Onn J’Onzz gets the spotlight this issue, as he strikes out on his own to get away from the overwrought emoting of his teammates. He joins a private detective agency and gets involved in an uneasy romance with a colleague, but the League eventually tracks him down. I thought this was a well-written issue, and the art was good as always, but it goes against years of J’Onn’s characterization. As a shapeshifter, he has (or had at one time) multiple identities all over the world into which he can slip at a moment’s notice. Why not focus on one of those? And why would he think the League’s pain is any less sincere than his own? As an adult, J’Onn lost his family, so Grant Morrison had him bond with Batman and Superman, both orphaned in childhood. If I hadn’t read a Martian Manhunter story before this one, I’d think this was a lot better. As it stands, it is better than its predecessors in this arc.

Flash #213: Written by Geoff Johns, with art by Howard Porter and Livesay. Wally West’s first problem of his second secret identity phase surfaces, as he’s accused of attempted murder. (Always reminds me of that Sideshow Bob quote — “Do they give the Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?”) He still manages to defeat the Turtle without letting the cops know he’s the Flash. Also, plotlines involving the Rogues’ Gallery are advanced. The fight with the Turtle is handled deftly both by Johns and Porter, and the subplots don’t overwhelm the issue. All in all, an improvement over last month’s unpleasantness with Mirror Master, and that wasn’t so bad itself.

Green Lantern #180: So I hear Ron Marz has become associated with mistreatment of female characters. Therefore, this issue, featuring Kyle Rayner having a heart-to-heart with his sweet, saintly mother, provides an opportunity for Mr. Marz to introduce a female character and not have some horrible fate befall her. To underscore the point, Kyle visits the graves of two other girlfriends before confronting Major Force (who last issue swore to kill him). Other than the event which kicks off Kyle and Force’s fight, this is a pretty well-done issue. (By the way, art was by Luke Ross and Rodney Ramos.) I just don’t know what Marz was thinking with the one thing. Next issue is the series’ end, so something final will probably happen to Kyle one way or another.

Legion #38: Speaking of final issues, here’s the last before the Waid/Kitson reboot starts. It finishes the Gail Simone/Dan Jurgens/Andy Smith arc in slightly rushed fashion — who knew that’s all you needed to do to get Metropolis’ power back on? — but maybe that was an editorial dictate. It doesn’t seem like The End Of The Legion As We Know It. The book is neither extra-sized, nor does it feature appearances by the entire Legion. I don’t even know if it makes a nice lead-in for the upcoming Teen Titans/Legion special. Anyway, Dreamer comes off pretty well, so there’s that.

Wonder Woman #207: Written by Greg Rucka, with art by Drew Johnson and Ray Snyder, and edited by Ivan Cohen. A good transitory issue, featuring two views of villainess Veronica Cale. We see Medousa and her henchwomen visit Veronica while Wonder Woman tries to stop the body-hopping Dr. Psycho from making people commit suicide. Psycho also tells WW about his involvement with Cale, which gives us the second perspective. I like the art a lot, and Rucka is good as a matter of course, so it’s quality all around.

Superman #208: Written by Brian Azzarello, with art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams; edited by Eddie Berganza. In the aftermath of a second “Vanishing,” Superman confronts Mr. Orr, a shadowy assassin-type, and has to deal with criticism both global and from within the Justice League. Along the way, Supes realizes he’s losing his grip on his humanity, as the Kryptonian Fortress of Solitude starts to feel more like home. It leads up to a confrontation with a fellow Justice Leaguer which should give Jim Lee the opportunity for big fight scenes next issue. The arc is picking up steam after a few meh issues, and I am cautiously optimistic about it.

Star Wars Empire #23: Written by Jeremy Barlow with art by Brandon Badeaux; edited by Kilian Plunket (and assistant-edited by Jeremy Barlow). A smuggler who professes neutrality helps a beautiful paramilitary type escape from Rebel forces. The smuggler refuses to choose up sides in the Galactic Civil War, but since we know how black-and-white the Star Wars universe is, we’re pretty sure that 1) everybody has to choose and 2) if the Rebels don’t like you, maybe it’s because you’re not on their side. It’s a predictable story whose suspense comes from wondering how the hero is going to find himself on the “right side.” In other words, the reader is probably smarter than the hero. Not really a happy ending, and for that I have to give it credit, but it might have been nice to see what a happy ending would have looked like.

Astonishing X-Men #4: Written by Joss Whedon, with art by John Cassaday; edited by Mike Marts. The X-Men break into Benetech to get the secret of the mutant cure. Meanwhile, the new villain confronts two students at the X-mansion. It reads like an early Buffy episode, and that ain’t bad; but since I am more of a Whedon fan than an X-Men fan, perhaps the Big Surprise at the end doesn’t carry the emotional heft with me it might with others. Also, because I am a Whedon fan, I would not be surprised for the Big Bad of this arc to be unstoppable until the heroes figure out the one very simple way to render him totally powerless. I still say that Firefly is Whedon’s best work (outside of Toy Story, and that’s just because I don’t know how much credit to give him for that) because by and large it doesn’t rely on people using superpowers to get themselves out of world-threatening jams. I wish Astonishing felt more like Firefly and less like Buffy.

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