Monday, April 12, 2010

In Review: Squadron Supreme #1 - 12

Watchmen, a 12 issue miniseries from DC Comics that ran from September 1986 to October 1987, is almost universally hailed as a groundbreaking work. Sophisticated, literate, complex, and bleak, it's considered the first time we really saw superheroes behaving badly, and the debut of the costumed hero who lived in the moral gray areas of reality.

But it's not (excuse me while I sweep away the remnants of that straw man I just knocked down).

I submit to you Marvel's Squadron Supreme, a 12-issue miniseries that ran from September 1985 to August 1986. The run has some interesting parallels to Watchmen. Both starred analogues of existing heroes (the Watchmen characters were based on Charlton heroes Blue Beetle, Lady Phantom, Captain Atom, Thunderbolt, Peacemaker, and The Question; the Squadron Supreme were created as parodies of DC's Justice League of America). Both series ran for 12 issues and featured shocking moments and big ideas. And yes, both forced their heroes to make tough decisions. And though I'd never suggest Moore stole his ideas (Watchmen was likely in production long before Squadron Supreme appeared on the stands) it is a bit unfair that he gets all the credit as an innovator.

The Squadron Supreme characters debuted all the way back in 1971, in The Avengers #85. I haven't read their early appearances, but it seems to me they were little more than a cute idea, a way for Marvel to not-so-subtly dig at their rival comic company. The characters' powers, origins, and personalities were nearly identical to that of the JLA. Here's a list of analogues: Superman = Hyperion, Wonder Woman = Power Princess, Batman = Nighthawk, Green Lantern = Doctor Spectrum, Flash = Whizzer, Martian Manhunter = Skrullian Skymaster (he only appears briefly and his absence is never truly explained), Aquaman = Amphibian, Hawkman = Blue Eagle, Atom = Tom Thumb, Green Arrow = Golden Archer, Black Canary = Lady Lark, Zatanna = Arcanna, Firestorm = Nuke.

The characters continued to show up sporadically after their debut, teaming up with The Avengers again, Thor, and The Defenders between 1976 and 1982.

In 1985, writer Mark Gruenwald (best known for a 10 year, 100+ issue run on Captain America) took on the Squadron Supreme miniseries, and elevated the characters far beyond their initial conception. In no way did Gruenwald play it safe, either narratively or commercially. It helps that his stars were D-listers. One assumes Gruenwald had carte blanche to do with them what he wanted. This is a rarity in superhero comics, where the brand and trademark necessitates a constant return to status quo, and Gruenwald makes the most of it (much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did with their own private universe).

As the story begins, the Squadron Supreme have just defeated the Overmind, who had mind-controlled them into taking over the United States and using their powers to do all sorts of bad things. To redeem themselves, the group vows to use their resources to eliminate society's problems. The catch is that to accomplish this, they must remain in power. Nighthawk, whose alter-ego Kyle Richmond is also the president of the U.S., vehemently disagrees with this plan, arguing that society can't be bettered by force. He quits the group, and resigns as president out of shame for his part in the Overmind debacle. He vows to stop the Squadron's plan. The series concurrently follows the Squadron's attempts to solve the world's problems and Nighthawk's effort to build an underground resistance force, all leading to a final showdown in the last issue.

For so long, the idea of heroes using their powers to improve the world has been the elephant in the superhero comic living room. If Superman can turn the make the world spin backwards on its axis, thus traveling backwards in time, why can't he stop wars, natural disasters, and world hunger? Why would he waste his time stopping random robberies and getting into squabbles with Lex Luthor? Squadron Supreme addresses that question directly.

Early on, resident genius Tom Thumb invents a Behavior Modification Machine, which basically allows for localized brainwashing. The plan is to use it to eliminate the urge for criminal behavior. This, in correlation with the confiscation and destruction of all guns, and the invention of a ray that stops aggressive behavior by stimulating the brain's pleasure center, virtually eliminates crime. In addition, Thumb creates the Hibernacle, a way to freeze dead bodies, which will then be stored until a cure for whatever killed them is invented. Of course, the Squadron meets resistance along the way, both to the seizure of arms (imagine that!) and to the idea of cheating death (Gruenwald brings in religion ever so briefly, in the form of protesters who feel it's playing God).

And though the group's efforts to make the world a better place go right more than they go wrong, the cost is terrible. Gruenwald puts his characters through hell, and it's a beauty to behold. This is a partial list of some of the crazy cuss that goes down:
  • A Squadron member discovers he has given his parents cancer with his radioactive body, goes crazy and is accidentally killed by another member.
  • A Squadron member uses the Behavior Modification Machine to make another Squadron member love him. The group eventually discovers this and exiles him.
  • The Squadron's enemies, The Institute of Evil (comprised of Quagmire, Foxfire, Lamprey, Doctor Decibel, Shape, and Ape X) become the subjects of the Behavior Modification Machine and all 7 of them join the Squadron.
  • An evil version of Hyperion immediately takes a liking to Power Princess, kills her husband (he makes it look like an accident), and successfully moves in on her.
  • A main character dies of cancer, which we're unconventionally told of as an epilogue to issue #9, in a final black panel with white text.
  • Quagmire is injured in an act of heroism, and ends up in a coma. When his powers go unconsciously out of control, Hyperion makes the difficult decision to pull Quagmire's life support.
  • In the final battle between the Squadron and Nighthawk's forces, 6 characters end up dead.
If it sounds brutal and bleak that's because it is. But it's never done in an exploitative or offhand way. Every gut-wrenching twist and turn is done in service of story, with big consequences every time. Like Watchmen, the story's central question - Can Utopia be achieved by force? - can be seen as an allegory for the Cold War, but it provides no easy answers. The "fascist" Squadron realizes the error of their ways in the end, but ends up doing a lot of good despite the death toll. In fact, three of the behavior-modified Institute of Evil villains (Quagmire, Foxfire, and Ape X) become the most likable and noble characters. The democratic idealist Nighthawk is supposed to be the good guy, but he sacrifices his ideals many times in the process of revolution (namely in teaming up with the one of the team's worst enemies), leading one to wonder what he was really fighting for in the first place. It's really a remarkable story.

Squadron Supreme doesn't get nearly the love and respect it deserves, certainly not as much as Watchmen. Maybe that's because it didn't have any literary pretensions, or maybe it's the fact that the art (Bob Hall on 6 issues, Paul Ryan on 5, and John Buscema on 1) was more serviceable than spectacular. But it deserves more than it gets.

Think of it this way. Had this mini-series been created for DC using the actual Justice League of America, it would easily be considered one of the top 5 best JLA stories of all time. People would still be talking about it.

Gruenwald died too early (in 1996 at the age of 43) but he was obviously and rightly proud of Squadron Supreme. In fact, his will stipulated he be cremated and his ashes be mixed in with the trade collection of the series. It was a move just as surprising and daring as the series itself.

2 comments:

  1. Paul - Squadron Supreme was such an amazing book! I've read it numerous times and it still holds up. It's also interesting to compare Squadron Supreme against Kingdom Come. Lots of similarities there also.

    Great post!

    The Irredeemable Shag
    http://onceuponageek.com
    http://firestormfan.com

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  2. I've been thinking about this since Captain America: Civil War is just around the corner. They really did it here, first. Mark Gruenwald was such a great author - his death was such a loss. Squadron Supreme was the OTHER super-hero deconstruction that happened in 1986 and ushered in the next era of comics. Later comics have adopted a lot of its tropes as they became darker. SS deeply explored what a super-powered world might look like if it weren't held back by comic book tropes, although it was still bound by the Comics Code. Technology invented by characters like Tom Thumb or Reed Richards would reshape the world. And fighting with dangerous super-powers is actually dangerous.

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