ďThe Pre-War YearsĒ
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Gary Frank (p), Jonathon Sibal (i)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: The first issue of Squadron Supreme appears in stores this Wednesday, March 22.
I have a hard time accepting this. Thereís quite a lot of content packed into these twenty-four pages. For uninitiated readers, like myself, who missed out on the preceding Supreme Power series, there are separate introductions for all twelve or so members of the team, as well as a public unveiling and a briefing of the purpose and mission statement of the team. Thatís a lot of content for twenty-four pages, especially given the complaints of the previous series taking its time to introduce each character issue-by-issue. So with all this content crammed into one issue, why am I still left with the distinct feeling that absolutely nothing happened?
The individual membersí scenes evoked the character introductions from the movie Armageddon, and anything that brings that movie to mind isnít doing itself any favors. Each member of the Squadron gets a brief introduction in order to say something witty and cool, or to show off their attitude, or to act obtuse and mysterious. For new readers like myself, all weíre given are one-dimensional descriptions of a colorful cast of characters and no real reason to care yet. Considering how the military officials are basically overloading the reader with exposition in this debut issue, the lack of characterization can be somewhat forgiven, though itís still no excuse to leave things as bland as they are right now.
This is Gary Frank on art? I usually associate him with clear and proportionate figures with articulate facial expressions, and a good 75% of the panels here are evidence that this is the same artist, but the rest are shockingly unattractive or downright ugly, giving an inconsistency from panel to panel. His Bush, while identifiable, oddly comes across less realistic compared to Frankís own designed characters. Perhaps Marvel should have played the Ultimates card and given Frank sufficient lead time to prepare for this relaunch, if they hadnít already.
Otherwise, thereís really not much else to say about Marvel ís JLA at this point. I know this type of empty first issue is typical for the publisher by now, but I really expected there to be some kind of legitimate hook Ė itís really the difference between readers picking up a collectible first issue and coming back for the second. Itís a shame that todayís packaged-for-trade market has all but forgotten the appeal and necessity of a good cliffhanger.
Plot: The evening before the government unveils their team of super powered individuals a high level meeting takes place to brief the top brass on who the members of the team are and what function they are to serve.
Commentary: The only thing that separates this comic from any other first issue is J. Michael Straczynskiís writing. This type of story has to be tough to produce. There is one issue to introduce (or in this case reintroduce) a group of characters, explain their purpose and make the audience care enough to come back for a second time. Straczynski pulls it off by not only giving the reader a decent glimpse of the team but also provides a twist at the end that changed the direction the story was taking.
Squadron Supreme makes an easy transition from being a MAX title to a more mainstream title. While the language is tamer, and there is the noticeable lack of nudity in certain characters, the tone of the series remains the same. There is a definite real world feel to the book, and it goes beyond the references to CNN, Fox News and Oprah, though they certainly helped. While I wonít go so far as to write that this is what would happen if super powered individuals suddenly appeared on the scene, it has a definite grounding that gives it a certain level of realism. Given some of the weird things the United States government has done in the past, it is within the realm of possibility that they would raise an alien superman and then create a team of super powered individuals to work as their agents. I buy what Straczynski did with the first series, and I buy what he is doing with this one.
Any team book lives or dies on how the characters are going to interact with each other. Straczynski has put together the usual assortment of odd personalities, but there is a lot of potential here, and he infused in the characters an emotional hook that resonated with me. I liked the scene with Stanley Stewart and his mother. I like the relationship between Joe Ledger and Kingsley, but then again I am sucker for romance. I really liked the scene that introduced Arcanna Jones, Emil Burbank and Raleigh Lund, which had a good bit of humor to it. It is this kind of writing that is going to make this series work and will separate it from other comics that have a similar setting such as The Ultimates or even Youngblood for that matter.
Gary Frankís artwork was amazing as always. His art from Supreme Power was integral to my enjoyment of the series, and he carries over that level of quality to this series. His style lends itself to the story and takes away the big budget feeling some super-hero books have. Not that I mind that big budget feeling, but this particular series needs an artist with Frank's approach.
In The End: A solid first issue. Not a lot happened, but it wasnít that kind of party. The twist at the end caught me a bit off guard but it really made the story work. Iím looking forward to seeing where Straczynski is going to take the characters and from the title of this issue it looks like things are going to get dark in a hurry. Straczynski and Frank have once again taken an in-joke and turned it into something other than the Marvel Universe version of the Justice League that is constantly having their minds appropriated by some nefarious force that uses them to fight the Avengers.
All apologies to the late Mark Gruenwald for that last comment.
Kevin T. Brown
I will say upfront that I thoroughly enjoyed Straczynski and Frankís work on the Supreme Power series. While it occasionally moved agonizingly slow at times, it was always an excellent read. Now we have this brand new series that is definitely a ďnew beginningĒ for these characters. Not only is this series not a MAX title and considered ďmature,Ē it appears to be headed in a slightly different direction than Supreme Power.
This title has the potential to be one of the best books on the market, but itís kind of hard to tell with this first issue. The entire issue is just an introduction or, in many cases, a reintroduction to the characters. There is no action in this issue, outside of a very short bar fight. When youíre paying $2.99 for this book, thatís extremely disappointing. But, hey, you get to see about 3 pages of Arcanna Jones discussing whether or not Raleigh Lund (Shape) has macaroni & cheese or beans and franks on his plate.
Donít get me wrong, Straczynski does have an incredible knack for writing dialogue, itís the plotting that is suspect a times. As I wrote above, it occasionally moves agonizingly slow at times. In this case, itís moving excruciatingly slowÖ. Straczynski needs to pick up the pace a bit more here. If I hadnít already read the previous series, odds are Iíd probably not bother picking up the second issue of this new series.
One thing I have no complaint about is the art by Gary Frank & Jonathon Sibal, with colors by Chris Sotomayor. Itís just a shame that all they basically had to draw were ďtalking headsĒ throughout the majority of the issue. Personally speaking, I think itís an incredible waste of Frankís talent to have him drawing such an issue. No, Iím not wanting from beginning to end, non-stop fighting, but throw us a bone here and give us something more than this!
So while some may enjoy the dialogue heavy story, I did not. This is a very inauspicious start to this new series. I know Straczynski is quite capable of writing better than this. Thankfully, we at least have some gorgeously drawn head and shoulders to look at though. Hereís hoping that issue #2 has more action in it. Not sure if I can handle more talk about such things as macaroni & cheese.
The US government decides which superbeings will be on a public team and which will work on a covert team. Readers are briefly introduced to the characters and their respective powers. Nighthawk canít be found, and his abilities make capture difficult if not impossible. The government unwisely dismisses him. Zarda has apparently killed a woman and taken over her life. Hyperion makes it clear that heíll use the team for his own agenda when he leaks the line-up for both teams to the press.
I havenít read Supreme Power in at least a year. Iím more familiar with the original Squadron Supreme than these characters. But based on what Iíve read here, combined with what Iíve read before, Iíve got a good idea whatís going on. The love between Dr. Ledger and Kingsley is unexpected, but should provide an interesting emotional dynamic within the team. Itís also strongly implied that Kingsley is telepathic. That should make people nervous. Iím surprised supervillain Emil Burbank is on this version of the team. How long before he goes rogue? Arcana seems more like the Scarlet Witch than the mystical original; Thatís disappointing. It seems as though JMS has limited the fantasy quotient on this book. Beyond the superhumans and a handful of extra-terrestrials, this series is grounded in reality. The point seems to be how the real world would react to such beings.
Gary Frank does a great job as usual with solid, gripping pencils. Itís a suitably heavy look for a heavy series. Always nice to see Sotomayor doing the colors. His styleís different from what he did on Captain Marvel. Of course, this isnít a fantasy/adventure series like Captain Marvel; this is a more serious work. Iíve never heard of Jonathan Sibal, but his inks are sharp and clean. Heís a good addition to the team.
So with all this talent behind the series, with a solid start friendly to new readers, with everything going for it, why wonít I buy it? Maybe the whole premise leaves me cold. Maybe I just donít want to see another series about politics, society, and superheroes. It was a novel idea when Mark Gruenwald did it in 1986, but after Dark Knight, The Ultimates, and JMSí own Rising Stars, the premise has been run into the ground. I wonít deny the quality the series. Itís just not appealing to me personally. I like my entertainment to have an element of fun. Thatís why ití s ďentertainment.Ē Is that immature?
Squadron Supreme looks poised to be one of the best series I wonít buy this year. The only question I have is, whereís the Super-Skrull?
This comic doesnít do much for me, Iím afraid. I vaguely recall reading Straczynskiís first Supreme Power issue and feeling the same way; the competence and talent of the creative team is clear, but the comic itself fails to be compelling and entertaining. The art, for example, lacks flair and movement, and comes across more as a series of painstaking renderings of carefully posed mannequins than a true visual narrative; the detailed art does look good, but thereís no life and movement in these characters, and the result varies between a slightly disconcerting emotionless feel on some pages, to just plain boring on others. Perhaps part of the problem is that most of the issue is devoted to characters sitting around talking, and despite some superficial similarities in style, Gary Frank lacks Steve Dillonís uncanny ability to make such scenes as visually interesting as a big superhero slugfest (which, to be fair, heís considerably better at, although thereís sadly little action in this issue). It pains me to say this about the art in this comic, as I do like Frankís style quite a bit, but the storytelling has about as much vigour as a comatose pothead.
Similarly, Straczynskiís scripting does little to make me care a jot about these characters and their lives; Hyperionís scheming against his employers is a plot element that is within a stoneís throw of the boundaries of Interestingshire, and thereís something ever so slightly compelling about the strange relationship between Doctor Spectrum and Amphibian, but otherwise the book is something of a chore to read. The Squadron is put together by generic military bureaucrats in a featureless office, which is hardly the most inspiring of scenarios, and the little vignettes with the team members are, for the most part, rather lacking in effective characterisation, which given that theyíre supposed to introduce the cast, is a somewhat major flaw. Itís entirely possible that the flimsy characterisation is due to Straczynski believing that heís done most of the work in the previous Supreme Power series, but as this is ostensibly a jumping-on point for new readers, this bizarre non-introduction does these potential new readers no favours at all (and while I understand that these arenít really ďnewĒ characters, the changes made to them are such that some form of introduction is perhaps necessary). Besides, itís not even as if Straczynski is doing away with the unnecessary exposition in order to get to the good stuff, as all we get is empty and generic characterisation, and nothing more.
This comic reeks of pointlessness; I donít see how this brings anything compelling and innovative to the Squadron Supreme concept, let alone that of the JLA. There are a couple of nascent good ideas in here, but on the whole, Squadron Supreme commits the cardinal sin of superhero comics: itís dull.
Plot: The military plans to assemble two teams, a public group of known alien-infectees and a covert group of secretive operatives. But Mark Milton (Hyperion) isnít big on that idea, so he makes sure that the full Squadron is introduced to the public.
Comments: Thatís about the most that happens in this issue. The rest is a reintroduction and run-down of our starring cast: Arcanna, Hyperion, Zarda, Nuke, Tom Thumb, Inertia, Shape, the Blur, Doc Spectrum, Amphibian and Emil Burbank. When the narration (the military discussing their new agents amongst themselves) wonít do, JMS switches to revealing scenes of the individuals in action.
These, however, show a collection of dysfunctional, mentally challenged, sadistic or at best victimized persons. Straczynskiís real politick view of super powers is grimly Machiavellian, focusing on many downsides for the heroes, and not yet giving them villains beyond a mutual antagonism with ordinary humans. Thereís a Ben Urich-style reporter, and Nighthawk is a ruthlessly wary Angry Black Man (heís as tortured as Bruce Wayne, but more pro-active than Kyle Richmond ever was), but the other conflicts seem inter-personal.
Sexism watch: Letís pay special attention to the ladies here, because JMS and Frank sure do: theyíre a highly disturbing, if lovely bunch. Zarda is schizophrenic, with no regard for human life, and an obsession with her own looks. Kingsley (Amphibian) is mute and totally dependent on her lover, Dr. Spectrum. And she has a bad temper when upset. But at least she gets a bathing suit this issue. Intertia is a lesbian bully. Arcannaís the only stable one of this bunch, but her power of quantum manipulation suggests Wanda Maximoffís potential to lose it big-time at any moment.
The big question is what are any of these people doing together? Stanley (the Blur) is the only nice guy of the bunch, and heís swimming with sharks. The answer I suppose is the government wants them together, and thus under some sort of control, and several of the members have their own reasons for sharing the spotlight. The nobility that unites the Justice League is nowhere to be found, however; nor even the self-determination that so often marks the Avengers. Instead, these are a bunch of victims of an extra-terrestrial crash-landing that may have been the pearhead of an invasion, coping with being exposed to super-tech beyond their kin.
In other words, itís yet another descendant in the aughts of Mooreís work in the 80s (Miracle Man had a similar updated origin) and Morrisonís too (so did Animal Man). Very little is taken from the original SS idea as evil (and then good) knockoffs of the JLA. This is a show group assembled without even the naked military goals of the Ultimates. It seems unlikely theyíll have much stability, unless they meet a threat that unifies them. Weíre reading a disaster-in-progress. But maybe the
title of this first arc makes that clear.
As someone new to the world of the Squadron Supreme, I had no expectations whatsoever for the characters I was going to meet in this issue, or the direction the book might take; I didnít ever read J. Michael Stracynskiís Supreme Power, but I heard lots of good things about his ďre-imaginingĒ of Marvel ís version of the JLA with a more modern, militaristic bent. However, Iíve been reading JMSí work on Amazing Spider-Man ever since he took over the book and have noted a few storytelling tics over the years which have begun to grate ever-so-slightly, such as a tendency to repeat lines or phrases from issue to issue, an over-reliance on levity and humour to carry his inner monologues, and Ė conversely - an overly sincere sense of pathos which can have the effect of over-egging some of his more emotional scenes. This issue took me by surprise, therefore, by offering up a surprisingly concise introduction to the team for new readers, moving the characters to a new place for established fans, and eschewing these minor irritations in JMSí writing habits which have sometimes clouded his otherwise strong work in other Marvel titles to provide a strong narrative which brings together the members of the Squadron in time for their public unveiling.
JMS presents the Squadron Supreme with a tone which is a world away from what Iím used to in his work on Spider-Man, working his super-team into a contemporary political landscape and grounding it with an overriding sense of realism - as far as is possible within the confines of a super-hero book, anyway. Itís not too far removed from other such politically aware superhero books such as The Authority or The Ultimates, but there are a few more concessions to old-fashioned superheroics here than you might find in those titles, most notably in the slightly more cartoonish art style and the more vivid colours of the charactersí costumes and environments. This isnít a bad thing however, as Gary Frankís linework is strong and his character designs consistent, and the overall art style is reminiscent of John Cassadayís work in Astonishing X-Men. JMS has a lot of characters to introduce here, and itís to his credit that he manages to juggle such a large cast without any character being given short shrift in an issue which is all about establishing the team membersí powers and personalities in as short a time as possible. Character subtleties are evident even in short appearances such as Hyperionís brief introduction, Kingsleyís body language, or Arcanna Jonesí description of how her powers work, which really help sell the characters as efficiently as possible without resorting to panels and panels of exposition. One issue in, and I already feel like I know something about how this team works and interacts, without the heroes ever feeling like one-dimensional archetypes. The fact that their powers are similar to those of DCís superteam helps matters, of course, but the way the characters relate to one another Ė along with their governmental mandate Ė helps to set this team apart from the likes of the JLA. Hell, this could almost be DCís Ultimate Universe (and if further proof of that were needed, look out for the upcoming Ultimates / Squadron Supreme crossover coming this autumn).
As I said, I didnít ever read any of the old Supreme Power series, but Iím definitely tempted to check it out based on this strong first issue of the teamís new book. The groundwork for some mystery and intrigue in future issues is established, and Iíll be keen to see the sections of the book which deal with political spin and military interests elaborated upon as the series progresses. Itís almost impossible to please both new readers and old fans when rebooting a title like this, but JMS walks the line between the two camps very carefully here, offering enough to make this comic worth reading for longtime fans, but not overloading newcomers with detail or excessive amounts of character history Ė we get just enough information to understand the team and the characters, after which Iím sure most readers will be keen to learn more. Itíll be nice to see something actually happen to these characters next month, but the absence of action and relative lack of plot here can be forgiven in favour of all the other boxes which are ticked by this strong first issue.
What did you think of this book?
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