Sunday, April 25, 2010


In summer 2009, Marvel teased an upcoming Captain America storyline. They released secretive ads and hinted at something major, something that even the mainstream media might care about. It ended up being rather anticlimactic. The story was Reborn, featuring the resurrection of Steve Rogers (the original Cap), something everyone had expected to happen sooner than later.

This detail might be lost to time, but before the real story was revealed, there was a rumor that Captain America's mantle would be picked back up by Isaiah Bradley
, a black soldier enhanced by the same Super Soldier Serum as Rogers (detailed in the 2003 miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black). I, for one, hoped this would be the case. What better time than during the administration of the first black president for America's most patriotic hero be black as well?

It didn't happen, of course. Blond-haired blue-eyed Rogers came back. And
Isiaiah Bradley remains on the sidelines, as does the idea of a mainstream superhero whose skin isn't white. It's a huge blind spot in comics that should have been rectified years ago.

"But wait," you say. What about Cap's partner, the Falcon? What about Luke Cage and War Machine and Storm and Blade and Black Panther and Living Lightning and Shaman and Patriot (Isaiah Bradley's grandson)? But how many of them would you consider A-listers? None, though Cage and War Machine have the best current potential. How many have their own book? Only one by my current count, Black Panther.

Why is this?

Back in September 2009, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort made the following statement: "Because we're an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males ... whenever your leads are white American males, you've got a better chance of reaching more people overall."

On the surface this sounds perfectly logical, but underneath it's rather insidious. Brevoort is basically saying, "We're victims of the system being the way it is. There's nothing we can do about it." What if the American Colonists had held that attitude back in the late 1700's? "Because Britain is more established and powerful than us, we might as well accept that." If they hadn't decided to revolt, there'd be no Captain America at all. Or what if we take it even farther:
What if country clubs were to say: "Whites are the only ones who want to come here, so they're the only ones we'll ask to join." Oh wait, that actually happens? Is Brevoort okay with his logic applied in that way?

Furthermore, Brevoort's statement assumes that white comic book readers have made a conscious choice not to follow characters of color. He's insinuating that we white readers have such a narrow focus of interest and experience that if our heroes aren't white we won't be interested. There's no way to support this claim because it's never really been tested. Marvel hasn't exactly made a concerted effort to put out books with heroes of color. If they keep following the logic of fear, they never will.

And there's no excuse for that. It's a win-win. White readers would certainly benefit from reading about more non-white heroes, and more people of color might become fans if comic books were the one medium where they were actually reflected accurately and positively on a regular basis (it's not happening in TV or movies or video games, that's for sure). Expanding and diversifying your audience? Perish the thought.

For me, the worst part of all of this is that many fans celebrated Brevoort's comment for "refusing to be PC (politically correct)." Do you know what being anti-PC basically means these days? It means,
"I want to be able to say and do racist (and sexist and classist and homophobic) things without being made to feel bad for it." I don't think Brevoort was coming from that place, but he wasn't far away.

The bottom line is this: We need more people of color writing and drawing comic books, starring in comic books, and reading comic books, not more white editors telling us why these things aren't happening. And we need a damn black Captain America.

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.