Friday, August 27, 2004

Supreme Power, Part 1

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).

4 comments:

Shane Bailey said...

I look forward to reading more of your synopsises (sp?) on the other issues. Very nice work. I'm still intrigued by this series, but don't know if I like it or not even after 12 issues. It moves at a snails pace thats for sure.

Captain Qwert Jr said...

Yeah, more synopsis! That way I don't have to waste money on SP.

Tom Bondurant said...

Qwert, I am probably the one who's wasted the money. Even with my shop's 15% discount, and counting 6% sales tax, I calculated spending $33.33 on these 12 issues. You can probably get the 6-issue paperbacks for cheaper on Amazon.

No wonder I'm complaining....

Matthew_Rossi said...

I stopped at the end of the first trade. So you're made of sterner stuff than I am.