Favorites: Squadron Supreme

Squadron Supreme Mark Gruenwald, writer Bob Hall, Paul Ryan, John Buscema, Paul Neary, artists Marvel, 1985-1986 (my collected edition is dated 2003) 352 pages $29.99

I don't know what it is about Squadron Supreme, but I seem to read it only during times of great personal trauma. I first read the book in 2003, during my wife's hospitalization at a residential treatment facility for eating disorders. I have vivid memories of sitting at a nearby Panera Bread between visiting hours, slowly turning the pages. And as I reread the book over the past couple of weeks, an 11-month period during which my wife suffered two miscarriages was capped off by the news that one of my cats has a chronic immune-system disease, complications from which prevented him from eating; our other cat had a cancer scare; both of our cats required major surgery; and one of my wife's best friends lost her sister-in-law, her niece, and all three of her very young children in a catastrophic car accident that left three other people dead as well.

(More, and less TMI, below the jump.)

So it's entirely possible that as effective and affecting as I find Mark Gruenwald's magnum opus, my real life is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Certainly there are a couple of very different ways to read this, arguably the first revisionist superhero comic available to the North American mainstream. For some people, no matter how interesting Gruenwald's ideas are in terms of laying out the effects of a Justice League of America-type group's decision to really make the world a better place by transforming society into a superhero-administered utopia, the execution--art, dialogue, and melodramatic plotting all firmly in the mainstream-superhero house style--cuts it off at the knees. For others, it's precisely that contrast between the traditional stylistics of the superhero and a methodical chronicling of superheroes' disastrous moral and physical shortcomings that makes the book work.

Count me in the latter category. Squadron Supreme may have more in common with later pseudo-revisionist works like Kingdom Come than it does with Watchmen in that it obviously stems from a place of great affection for the genre rather than dissatisfaction with it. Heck, even The Dark Knight Returns, which is really a celebration of the superheroic ideal, earns its revisionist rep for a thorough dismantling of the superheroes-as-usual style, something Squadron Supreme couldn't care less about. No, by all accounts (certainly by the testimonials from Mark Waid, Alex Ross, Kurt Busiek, Mike Carlin, Tom DeFalco, Ralph Macchio, and Catherine Gruenwald printed as supplemental materials here) Mark Gruenwald seems to be working in Squadron as a person who loves superheroes so much that he can't help but try to find out just how far he can take them. That what he comes up with is so bleak and ugly--nearly half of his main characters end up dead, for pete's sake--is fascinating and sad. It's like watching Jack Webb do another season of Dragnet consisting of plotlines from The Wire Season Four: Against America's broken inner-city school system and grinding cycle of poverty, violence, corruption, and abuse, even Sgt. Joe Friday would be powerless.

Of course, in Squadron Supreme the heroes generally do prove able to conquer humankind's intractable problems. A combination of the kind of supergenius technology that under normal circumstances only gets used to create battle armor or gateways to Dimension X and the tremendous sheer physical power of the big-gun characters proves enough to end war, crime, and poverty, and even put a hold on death. (The book's vision of giant "Hibernaculums" in which thousands of frozen corpses are interred until such time as medical science discovers a cure for their condition is one of the book's great, haunting moments of disconnect between cheerful presentation and radical society-transforming idea.) Gruenwald and his collaborators seem to have no doubt that should Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and the rest of the JLA (through their obvious Squadron analogues) be given the reins of the world, they really could solve all our problems for us.

It's the methods they'd use to get us there that Gruenwald has doubts about. A Clockwork Orange-style brainwashing for criminals; a Second Amendment-busting program of total disarmament for military, law enforcement, and civlians alike; a takeover of many of the key functions of America's democratically elected government--despite placing his beloved heroes at the center of these plots, it's no secret where Gruenwald's sympathy lies. (To return to the Hibernaculums again, a brief sequence involving "right to die" protestors features some of the book's most provocative ideas just painted on their placards, eg. "WITHOUT DEATH, LIFE IS MEANINGLESS!!!" Yes, there were three exclamation points on the sign.) Still, Gruenwald backpedals from condemning his heroes for their excesses outright: During the book's climactic confrontation, as bobo Batman Nighthawk wages a war of words with Superman stand-in Hyperion, the rebel leader reveals his biggest problem with the Squadron's "Utopia Program" to be his fears over what will happen to it when the golden-hearted Squadron members are gone and someone less worthy takes over their apparatus of complete control. (It's worth noting that the Squadron gets the idea for the Utopia Project as a solution for the damage they themselves did to the planet while under mind control by an alien tyrant.)

But parallel to the big political-philosophical "What If?" ramifications runs another, more affecting revisionist track. This one focuses on the individual problems and perils of the Squadron members. Some of these flow from the underlying Utopia Project scenario, and about those more in a minute, but other times--a Hyperion clone succesfully impersonating him and seducing the Wonder Woman character, Power Princess, in his place; little-person supergenius Tom Thumb (just barely an Atom analog) dying of cancer he's not smart enough to cure--Gruenwald simply takes a familiar superhero trope or power set and plays the line out as far as it'll go. In some cases, such as setting up a fundamental Batman/Superman conflict, making Superman and Wonder Woman an item, explicitly depicting the Aquaman character Amphibian as an odd man out, and dancing up to the edge of Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" essay on the dangers of superhero sex, I would guess Gruenwald was for the first time giving in-continuity voice to the stuff of fanboy bull sessions that had taken place in dorm rooms and convention bars for years.

While that's a lot of fun, it's the unique touches brought to the material by Gruenwald, shaped into disconcerting images by his rotating cast of collaborators (mostly Bob Hall and Paul Ryan), that get under your skin. Nuke discharging so much power inside Doctor Spectrum's force bubble that he suffocates himself. The vocally-powered Lady Lark breaking up with her boyfriend the Golden Archer under a suppressive cloud of giant, verbiage-filled word balloons. A comatose character's extradimentional goop leaking out of him because his brain isn't active enough to stop it, threatening to consume the entire world until Hyperion literally pulls the plug on his life support system. Power Princess tending to her septuagenarian husband, who she met when she first made the scene in World War II. Hyperion detonating an atomic-vision explosion in his semi-evil doppelganger's face, then beating him to death. Tom Thumb's death announced in a panel consisting of nothing but block text, unlike anything else in the series. Amid the blocky, Buscema-indebted pantomime figurework and declamatory dialogue, these moments stand out, strangely rancid and difficult to shake.

Perhaps no other aspect of the book gives Gruenwald more to work with than the behavior modification machine. There are all the ethical debates you'd expect--free will, the forfeiture of rights, the greater good. There's the slippery slope of mindwiping you saw superheroes slide down decades later, and far less interestingly, in Identity Crisis. But again, the personal trumps the political. The standout among the series' early, episodic issues is the one in which Green Arrow knockoff the Golden Archer (who has the second-funniest name in the series, after Flash figure the Whizzer) uses the b-mod machine on Black Canary stand-in Lady Lark to make her love him after she rebuffs his marriage proposal. She ends up unable to bear being away from him, her fawning driving him mad with guilt, and even after he comes clean about his deception and is expelled from the team, the modification prevents her from not loving him. Later, the device's use on some of the Squadron's supervillain enemies turns them into obsequious allies-cum-servants whose inability to question the Squadron, and moreover to feel anything but thrilled about this, does more to turn your sympathies against the SS than all the gun-confiscation scenes in the world.

Late in the book, another pair of behavior modification-related incidents ups the pathos to genuinely disturbing levels. When b-modded ex-villain Ape X spies a new Squadron recruit secretly betraying the team, her technologically mandated inability to betray the Squadron member by telling on her or betray the rest of the team by not telling on her overwhelms Ape X's modified brain and turns her into a vegetable. And when Nighthawk's rebel forces kidnap the mentally retarded ex-villain the Shape in order to undo his programming, his childlike pleas for mercy are absolutely heartbreaking, as is the cruel way in which the rebels repeatedly deceive him in order to advance their aims. The look of panic on his face as he shouts "Don't hurt Shape please!" is tough to stomach.

What it reminds me of more than anything is taking an adorable stuffed animal that you love and throwing it in the garbage. Do you know that feeling? This is not a sentient creature, it does not and cannot interact with you in any real way--and yet you love it. It never did anything to hurt you. Why would you want to throw the poor guy away? No, don't! By the time you get to the end of Squadron Supreme, a love-letter to the Justice League of America that ends with an issue-long fight that leaves half the participants brutally slaughtered, that's the feeling I get from the whole book. These superheroes never did anything but bring Mark Gruenwald great joy, he wanted to repay that by doing something unprecedented with them, but as it turns out the unprecedented thing to do was to throw them away.

Comics of 8/18

Yah, like Lester I was thinking about how good ol internet time made it seem like we never posted. What's up with that? I've mostly been trying to unravel a Mystery in the UK the last few days -- I think I have most of it sussed, but I'm still not sure HOW to solve the crime, as it were.

I also finished TILTING (appears on Friday on Newsarama), and have started making notes on Deppey's NuMarvel essay in the new Journal. Damn, that's one fine issue.

Plus I dinged 30 in CoH, and am now playing the How Long Until I Get Bored and Quit game (I doubt I'll make it to 35, is all I can say, but we'll see -- really this is all a function of running out of Content and having to Street Hunt too much at the higher levels)

I'm going for my bi-annual haircut in a bit, so let's see how many comics we can bat away first....

For some reason, IE won't connect to blogger this morning, so I'm doing this via Opera, which means I don't have easy itals. I probably should learn the HTML commands, but I'm lazy and I'll just use CAPS for stress and titles this post instead.

(After the fact note: When I went to publish this, Opera wasn't working with Blogger either, so you won't see this until I get home tonight)

SIMPSONS #97: Usually I'm the big singer of Ian Boothby's praises -- he's usually the Funniest Writer in Comics, or something -- but I thought this issue was kinda flat and boring. The feud thing really didn't work -- maybe because it's too much of a staple cliche. Anyway, EH.

SHE-HULK #6: Some cute and decent Ha Ha in a few places, but the art, being mostly done in Marvel House Style reduces the humor for me by tons. OK.

NEW INVADERS #1: Too much time spent introducing the characters in far too obvious ways -- the whole first half of the issue passes in a weightless plot free fall. The second half is also mostly plotless as the flat characters revolve around each other in obvious ways. It's not BAD or anything, but, unless you really have a hankering for these characters it is pretty lifeless. For $3, I have to go for a high AWFUL.

TERRA OBSCURA V2 #1: I don't really care about any of these characters, and I'm surprised anyone else did enough for there to be a second go round here. Having said that, I like this much better than V1, and I'll go with a strong OK.

BIRDS OF PREY #72: You might have noticed most of this week's DCs came bagged with a SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW CD. Well, you didn't notice this at CE, at least -- I unbagged all of the copies (that was a fun 45 minutes I'll never get back). One the other hand, this means a certain VP gets a fun package on his desk on MOnday morning. They filled up an entire DoubleWide Diamond box, sheesh! Anyway, this comic mostly felt like marking time to me -- not much happens except setting things in motion for NEXT issue, which, while fine, makes me only say OK

HAWKMAN #31: This is well done comics, but I think this arc (while adding to the Dead Girlfriend in the Refrigerator count [sorta]) really shows why a traditional Hawkman comic really doesn't have much for legs -- at least with the Ostrander HAWKWORLD run they were able to get into neat outsider-looking-in concepts. But this Hawkman is pretty much Just Another Hero. *shrug* OK

GOTHAM KNIGHTS #56: "War Games" 4 Lots of super-villains. They don't do much. There's an attempt to go with the throughline of GK's "Wow, Hush is a badass!" thread, but he's not, really, and he comes off far more as Chump to this reader. Batgirl also feels written very wrongly here. My fav bit is at the beginning where all of the bosses finish each others sentences. Only in a comic book, man. AWFUL.

ROBIN #129: "War Games" 5. Tim shows everyone in the whole city that's he's a super bad-ass, which makes me hope all the more that the speculation of his returning to the mantle at the end of WG (and/or IC) is wrong. My fav bit is right at the last 2 pages where a seemingly invisible gunman shoots the chick, then seemingly decides it's not worth (despite being, y'know, invisible) to follow up and make sure she's, y'know, dead or something. A very low EH

BATGIRL #55: "War Games" 6. Almost nothing happens in this one -- the overall WG plot isn't moved ahead one fraction of one inch. Still, Sean Phillips art makes this the first chapter I've genuinely liked LOOKING at, so OK.

TOUCH #5: Suddenly, the book starts moving right before it gets axed. Huh. OK

FRACTION #5: This one on the other hand just feels like it's standing still. Nice art, but this can't end fast enough. A very low EH.

DC COMICS PRESENTS: THE ATOM: Damn, they both picked a "Julie saves the day!" turn. I liked the Gibbons story better, mostly because Waid "cheats" on the second one and only has the cover be a brief one-panel bit in the story. Still, OK

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #631: Quite a bit harsher than one would expect from a Superman story -- I don't know I'd let a kid near this one. Having said that, very strong and moving, really only undercut by the sequence of Supes hearing that last shot. How does he hear that from halfway around the world when I bet there's guns going off in, say, Detroit too? Meh! OK.

EX MACHINA #3: Finally, something to get excited about! This is a really terrific book, and one of the rare recent example where we're gaining new readers with each and every issue. Between this and Y, THE LAST MAN, Vaughan is cementing himself as one to watch. VERY GOOD.

EXILES #51: I also quite liked this -- the happy twist at the end was both unexpected and was celebratory of heroism. I don't feel that often enough in super-hero books, which is pretty fuckin' weird, don't you think? GOOD.

FANTASTIC FOUR #517: An "Avengers Dissembled" crossover (Which is about as "red skies" of a crossover as you can get), and, to celebrate the sales increase, the book is now $2.99. Huzzah! A perfectly reasonable issue, but the previous points left a nasty taste in my mouth, so I'm going with a patently-unfair AWFUL. (If it weren't for that, I might have gone for a low GOOD)

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #64: IN every technical way this issue is just as good as the book has ever been -- but something in me somewhere says this arc was a mistake. None of this was anything I wanted to see, and it largely strikes me as pandering. So, foo, let's settle with EH.

MANHUNTER #1: There's nothing for it but to compare this with BLOODHOUND, because the two books seem to occupy a similar "space" in the DCU. This one tries way way way to hard to set up it's moral dilemma, and given that it seems to be moving to "Murder is fine, as long as it is scum!" rather than anywhere else, I'm going to give this the big thumbs down. The art is nice, the writing is adequate, but I don't want to read about super-powered murderers, thanks. There's really nothing here, no mystery no suspense, that makes me want to come back for issue #2. The worst part is this is naturally going to sell better to the retailers because of the legacy name, and the suggestion somewhere that this ties into IDENTITY CRISIS somehow (though I can't seem to find that citing now that I'm looking for it -- I know I read somewhere that there was a connection though). Sorry, though, this is AWFUL.

DOCTOR SPECTRUM #1: Not only does nothing happen, but it doesn't happen between panels of earlier issues of SUPREME POWER. Wrong way to do a spin-off, kids. EH.

SUPREME POWER #12: Meanwhile JMS does a good job with the formalist four-panels-across story. Things are starting to move here, and I like what he's doing all in all. VERY GOOD.

JSA STRANGE ADVENTURES #1: Period work, which always fits the JSA. Nice nice art from Kitson. But the story feels a bit light for the HOLY SHIT, $3.50?!?! Man, that's too much. EH.

Right, be back with more tomorrow, I think -- that's what I've read so far. Whatta d'you think?