Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Road to Hell: The Squadron Supreme Review.

For all my love of the superhero genre in the mainstream, I'm aware--sometimes painfully so--of it's limits. Much like followers of professional wrestling, a fan of the Big Two of DC and Marvel comics must eventually come to grips with the fact that the fix is in, that for all the struggle and travail his or her favored protagonist may go through, true and lasting change in conventional superhero comics will never truly happen. At the end of the day, Bruce Wayne will always be Batman, Superman will always be Clark Kent, and the cycle of their adventures will be forever bound in an eternal loop of origin, present day, origin, present day. You will never see the last Batman story, or the last Superman story, save in 'imaginary' tales. The Earth will never become a utopia in the pages of Marvel Comics; with geniuses like Tony Stark or Reed Richards you'd think there'd be cures for cancer and flying cars abounding, to say nothing of fusion power and complete freedom from reliance on fossil fuels. Why is mental illness still rampant on Marvel Earth when the potential for telepathic cures via powerful psychics like Charles Xavier and Jean Grey exist? Hell, the Purple Man (and yes non-comics fans, there is a character called the Purple Man. Oddly enough he's not themed around grapes) should be raking in the dough by offering dieting and smoking cures via simple use of his mind control abilities. Of course doing that would distance Marvel Earth from our world and that would be unrealistic (how 'realistic' a world rife with super-soldiers, gamma-irradiated behemoths, Norse Gods, and mutants who can regenerate from a drop of blood is a matter best left to wiser men than I).

Mainstream superhero comics don't change. They offer an illusion of change, yes, but by and large it's an exercise in re-arranging patio furniture: it looks very nice and it's different than how it used to look, but all the components are intact, simply in different arrangement. One either embraces this truth or ignores it.

Stories like Watchmen or Kingdom Come, wherein the hard-hitting questions were asked about the connections between heroism, power, responsibility and insanity, broke new ground in taking a step back from the superhero genre and examining what made it tick. Watchmen with the curiosity of turning over a brightly colored stone and examining the worms and bugs skittering beneath the bright surface, Kingdom Come with the bible-thumping conviction of heroism versus vigilantism and an ultimate rejection of the grim and gritty trappings of 1990s superheroics with an eye toward returning to the more old-time religion of more hopeful, optimistic fare. Yet before either of those works were published there was a series which took a look at the concept of the superhero and asked some of the questions that Watchmen and Kingdom Come were later to explore. That series was Marvel Comics twelve-issue maxi-series Squadron Supreme.

Initially the eponymous heroes were little more than Marvel's own thinly-veiled take on the Justice League, a band of superbeings from an another dimension who looked a little. . .familiar. . .whom the Mighty Avengers would usually trounce due to the Squadron falling under the influence of mind control(that beloved staple of writers everywhere, ensuring those superhero/superhero battles readers love). For a while no further depth was needed, and the formula worked as something to break out every so often to show the House of Ideas' inherent superiority over the Distinguished Competition. Until writer-editor Mark Gruenwald came along. Gruenwald had been a longtime fan of the Justice League despite working entirely for Marvel throughout his career, and saw the Squadron as an opportunity to tell a story that would not only give a nod to the beloved comics of his youth, but also comment on the genre as a whole.

In the wake of one of their crossovers with Marvel Earth, the Squadron Supreme are left in their home dimension in the wake of an absolute disaster. A power mad entity from the world of the Marvel heroes had seized control of the Squadron and led the world to ruin. With the aid of their other-dimensional brethren the Squadron were able to break free and save the world, but even with their Earth saved the planet is a complete wreck. The global infrastructure has collapsed, with shortages, riots, and absolute chaos taking place all over the globe. The heroes do what they can to help, but it's clear that the situation is dire. It's in that period of recovery that Hyperion (the Squadron's Superman analogue) proposes that this is a moment they could do more than merely return the Earth to status quo. They could enact changes that could benefit all mankind; eliminate war, disease, crime. . .to build a true utopia for the entire human race.

This is met with nearly universal acclaim from his fellow heroes, save from Kyle Richmond, aka Nighthawk (the Batman analogue). He feels that any effort the team undertakes to better the world runs the risk of stripping the population of their fundamental rights. The debate is intense, but ultimately Hyperion wins out and Nighthawk chooses to resign from the Squadron. Stepping down as President of the United States due to his role in the crisis which led the world to ruin, Richmond (yeah, Batman was president on this Earth. Let the awesome of that thought sink in for a moment) has the opportunity to kill Hyperion with an argonite (guess what it's supposed to be) bullet, but reneges at the last minute. Hyperion lays out the Utopia Project to a listening America and the world, and the first issue ends with the Squadron unmasking, revealing their true identities and declaring their intent to make the world a better safer place. The last panel has the Squadron looking confident, the heroes smiling and standing boldly clearly ready to whip the world into shape. The only off note to the otherwise joyous image is Kyle Richmond in his civilian clothes, head lowered slightly and features downcast, putting the lie to the otherwise triumphant scene.

For a while, it even seems to work. The team creates a city/headquarters in the midst of the desert, where they work to improve the lot of the world. Their steps include such bold moves as endeavoring to eliminate the existence of firearms across the globe, and the implementation of the B-Mod device. Simply put, their resident genius Tom Thumb creates a machine that can realign the moral centers of the brain. Hardened criminals can have the machine placed on their heads and then be remade into model citizens with absolutely no thought of committing violent crime or being anything other than a productive citizen. On the surface, this all sounds great. No guns and no criminals? That's awesome! Right?

Neil Gaiman once said in an interview that the trouble with a utopia is that eventually you have to fill it with people. Principles and high ideals are one thing, but people can be at once saint and sinner, bold and craven. The behaviour modification technology is great. . .depending on who uses it. The lack of guns is great. . .until the Whizzer's family is threatened and he immediately grabs the first sub machine gun he can find and lets the bullets fly. The Squadron's intentions are noble, but that doesn't stop Nighthawk from allying with Master Menace (the Squadron's Lex Luthor) to attempt to stop them from taking over the world. But even he has to shake hands with the devil and put the b-mod technology to work for him. Nobody comes out of this series with their hands clean. Not everyone comes out alive either.

Despite my status as the resident Silver Age junkie in my comics group, I enjoyed Squadron Supreme for that selfsame moral complexity. The violence and the ethical quandaries posed within its pages serve the story, rather than feeling like simple gimmicks to shock and jar the reader. The book was completely unlike anything like it on the shelves in 1985, and while it's perhaps not aged as well as it could have (the art style is a bit In-House at times, though still serviceable), the story stands as a testament to how the genre could be--and perhaps should be--challenged. Hyperion has a point with his ideals, but Nighthawk has one too, to say nothing of the individual members of the Squadron and their beliefs. Eventually it comes down to a final battle between the two groups, and while one side emerges victorious, it's a Pyrrhic victory at best. Unlike other stories told in this genre, this one has consequences that left both the world and its heroes changed.

Whether in an effort to see the foundations laid for Watchmen and Kingdom Come or just to enjoy an enjoyable superhero yarn with a bit more depth than the average fare of it's time, I'd advocate reading Squadron Supreme. It's a self-contained tale that's at once familiar for longtime comics fans but welcoming for the casual reader. Recommended.


Ps. 100 posts! Woo!

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