Summary: Babylon 5 creator and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN writer J. Michael Straczynski presents a new vision of a world about to give birth to its first generation of super heroes! Follow the origins of these new heroes and anti-heroes — from their birth through adulthood — and examine how their lives and abilities change and shape the world around them. The god-like Hyperion discovers his whole life has actually been an elaborate government-made lie, and his reaction could mean the end of the Earth! Do the world’s other super-powered beings have any chance at stopping Hyperion if the truth sends him over the edge?
Supreme Power, vol. 1, by J. Michael Straczynski, Gary Frank and John Sibal 8.25
This is the second time that I’ve read Straczynski’s ‘Supreme Power. I don’t remember how I got it the first time around, given that it’s been a few years, but this time it was due to a recent exploration of his oeuvre (see ‘Superman: Earth One‘ and ‘Superman: Grounded‘). To be honest, it seemed familiar when I re-requested it, but I wasn’t actually sure I’d read it.
And yet, it should have been a memorable book.
Supreme Power is based on the characters from Squadron Supreme, a team of superheroes that graced the pages of The Avengers back in the ’70s and early ’80s and eventually got their own mini-series in the mid-’80s. This is a modern re-invention – which naturally means a more “realistic” approach.
Both times I read it as a thinly-veiled Justice League of America book, wrapped around a pseudo-Superman, and only found out at the end that it was another established superhero team. But, looking at the origins and powers of each hero, then looking at them collectively, it really feels like a modern JLA.
To better understand what I mean, let’s take a look at the key players:
Hyperion: Sent out to Earth in a space craft by his parents whilst still a toddler, this superhero is extremely strong, invulnerable, can fly, can shoot heat rays from his eyes and has heightened senses. Hi alliterated human name is Mark Milton. No, he doesn’t work for the Daily Globe.
Nighthawk: The orphaned son of a business tycoon, this billionaire vigilante exacts vengeance on the streets with the aid of specialized gear and his own highly trained physique. As angry as he is imposing, he carries a huge chip on his shoulder and tends to only protect African-Americans.
Princess Zarda (orig. Power Princess): An immortal goddess that has been living in a grotto for centuries, cared for by a devoted lineage of caretakers, she decides to come out of hiding to be Hyperion’s guide and partner. A vain and morally ambiguous character, she is stricken with mild folly, no doubt due to her years of self-imposed isolation. Stunningly beautiful, and raven-haired, she looks like a doppelgänger for Princess Diana even if her back history is dissimilar.
Dr. Spectrum: This one’s a little less obviously JLA, because he’s somewhere between Captain America and Green Lantern, but Dr. Spectrum is a US government operative of the highest caliber. Used as a guinea pig to test the powers of an alien crystal found in Hyperion’s ship, he was picked for his uncanny ability to focus on any task. The crystal would eventually make him super-powerful, a match for Hyperion.
Blur (orig. Whizzer): Graced with a superhuman speed, Blur has remained off the radar long enough to have an average life. He is the first non-human that Hyperion would meet, after years of thinking that he was the only one of his “kind” (so to speak). His name was likely changed in this iteration to avoid bodily-function jokes.
Amphibian: A male in the original incarnation, this mutant female lives underwater and knows very little of the world beyond the waves. She is terribly lonely and naïve, having been cast away by her terrified human parents. Her abilities are unclear, but we know that she is extremely dangerous when vexed.
Now, if this group of people doesn’t give us an alternate take on the Justice League of America’s Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Aquaman, then I don’t what does. I fully understand that this is supposed to be Squadron Supreme, and there are plenty of divergences to refute my claim but, in my estimation, there are more similarities between Supreme Power and the JLA than with Squadron Supreme.
Whatever the case may be, Straczynski has written a tight book that observes what our world would look like if superhuman beings suddenly started to make themselves known to us. It establishes that reality early on by going for the rational choices, not the expedient ones, taking into consideration that our world is much more complex than it was 60-70 years ago and that not everything is black and white.
What it does especially well, is to explore the psychology of most of its characters, even the secondary ones – and particularly in relation to one another. Straczynski eschews the facile approach of giving us thought bubbles and instead contextualizes the actions and reactions of these characters, leaving us with nuances that can often be thought-provoking; as we are left to decipher their words and behaviour, we realize just how much perception colours our reality.
One the book’s key strengths, as in the rest of Straczynski’s work (thus far), is its moral compass. Straczynski has the ability to define clear whites, blacks and various shades of grey with intelligence and an insightful look at human behaviour. There’s a moment that really struck me, when Hyperion visits a priest, not because he is religious, but because he needs someone to talk to:. Unable to help him directly, the priest says:
“Very often, we resent that we are not told what we need to hear, but we are as much to blame as anyone else. Because too often we are afraid to ask the questions we need to ask. Because we are afraid to actually receive those answers. It is easier to resent the silence and begrudge the ambiguities than to confront a suspicion we do not wish to have confirmed. So step one is to acknowledge your own culpability. Step two is to ask those questions.”
I don’t know that I agree with the priest’s perception, but I know that this is likely true for some people. And I am quite impressed with this analysis of human behaviour that Straczynski gave us in what is a “funny book”. To tell a hero that he is responsible for some of the lies that he was told, that he purposely turned a blind eye in order to keep up his illusion that all was well is an incredibly powerful thing when it would have been so much easier to just say that the liars are bastards.
I’d go so far as saying that it’s some of the best writing that I’ve seen in a superhero comic – a genre that has a tendency for pedestrian storytelling and a lack of depth (case-in-point, the bonus ’70s issues of The Avengers at the back of the book). It’s not the best I’ve ever read, but if superhero stories were typically as sharp as this, they would get more credit than they still do. They might even take on a stature reserved for science-fiction – that of modern morality play.
Thankfully, the artwork is equally proficient. Between Frank and Sibal, ‘Squadron Supreme’ has a beautiful, slick look that is rather impressive. I found that some of the paneling was two-dimensional, but I wasn’t sure if this was the artist’s style or a choice that was made for the book. Having said that, it’s a minor detail that most people wouldn’t notice and I suspect almost everyone would be pleased with the art on display in what is a massive set.
My only issue with this book, and the reason why I don’t rate it more highly, is that it takes incredible liberties with the original characters. Although I’m not personally attached to these ones and don’t remotely care that they were modified (especially given how Straczynski went about it), I can easily see how this could upset die-hard fans of Squadron Supreme – much in the way that I get upset with the revisionist Superman stories of late.
Still, if one can detach one’s self from the original sufficiently, ‘Supreme Power’ is a solid entry in the genre and a terrific read throughout. Fans of superheroes would be wise to take a look at what can be done when a smart, talented writer is paired with artists of matching calibre. It provides a mature look at superhuman beings with very human, real-world concerns, all the while avoiding the pitfalls its peers fall into: cynicism, bleakness and gratuitous violence.
“Supreme Power” is deserving of supreme praise.