GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "P" page 2

Back to the main listings (including character sections)


Project Superpowers 2008 (HC TPB) 190 pages

cover by Alex RossWritten by Jim Krueger (story Alex Ross & Jim Krueger). Illustrated by Carlos Paul, and others.
Colours: Debora Carita. Letters: Simon Bowland.

Reprinting; Project Superpowers #0-7 (2008)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dynamite Comics

Alex Ross made a huge splash with his fully painted, photo-realist art on such seminal projects as Marvels and Kingdom Come. He's parleyed that into a kind of nebulous creativity where he'll be credited as a guiding vision...even as he might only draw covers and design sketches. Still, with scripter Jim Krueger, in this ambiguous capacity Ross has been involved in projects at both Marvel and DC.

And now the two have turned their efforts to crafting a new super hero universe. Well, new...and old.

Marvel and DC get a lot of mileage out of having established heroes with years of history behind them. So for relative new comics company, Dynamite, Ross and Krueger raided the pages of old Golden Age comics and grabbed up old costumed hero who've lapsed into the public domain (though copyright considerations have necessitated some changes, such as the original, 1940s hero, Daredevil, now being identified as The Death Defying 'Devil here so as not to be confused with Marvel's blind hero).

And they've put them to work in service of a grand, epic saga of global (and allegorical) ramifications. It has echoes of everything from The Watchmen to DC: The New Frontier -- heck, almost concurrent with Project Superpowers, Marvel began publishing The Twelve, a maxi-series about obscure 1940s heroes finding themselves in modern times.

Still, it's a nifty idea (hence why it's been done before). Though I haven't read any of the original adventures of the heroes depicted here, I've heard of some. So seeing characters like Daredevil (uh, I mean, 'Devil) does engender a twinge of nostalgia in me.

If only the storytelling had lived up to the ambition.

The premise is that decades ago, one of the war time super heroes, The Fighting Yank, was convinced that he could end evil in the world by resealing it in Pandora's mythical urn. But, for reasons that are a bit dodgy (a problem with much of the narrative) he believes he must capture his fellow heroes in the urn, as well. This he does.

Cut to modern times, and the now aged Fighting Yank is visited by an enigmatic American Spirit who tells him he did wrong, and locked up the people who could've helped fight evil. Reuniting with the Green Lama (one of the few heroes not sealed in the urn) he sets out to free his allies from the urn, not realizing that there are others who don't want this to happen. After breaking the urn, which results in the old heroes being scattered all over the globe, they must unite them, while also facing a showdown with an army of zombies in the middle east.

Oh, and did I mention that after first advertising this as a mini-series...then as the start of a whole Dynamite super hero universe...toward the end of the run, it was hyped as merely "chapter one" -- kind of dampening expectations of a satisfying beginning, middle and end to these 190-some pages?

The problems generally get down to confused storytelling. Perhaps working with Dynamite's more novice editorial team (assuming there was an editor at all, as none is identified in the comics' credits) the duo just didn't have anyone looking over their shoulders.

So problems range from the very urn concept itself, and who and why was responsible for duping the Fighting Yank to begin with (much blame is laid at the feat of the Fighting Yank's ghostly guardian -- his revolutionary war ancestor -- but it's not really clear if he was aware of the wrongness of the plan, either). Or, given the state of this world, why it took a visit from a spirit for the Fighting Yank to realize he hadn't eliminated evil! Even the nature of the world seems kind of vague -- there's a U.S.-backed zombie army fighting in the middle east...but who are they fighting?! Or why?! At one point it's suggested they are trying to destroy the oil wells, forcing the world to become dependent on the alternative fuel offered by the Dynamic Family mega corporation that rules much of America -- but surely that's not the "official" goal of the war.

Ross and Krueger dredge up a lot of near forgotten comic book heroes, but it's not really clear who they are or what some of their powers are. They throw in the idea that spending decades in a mystical urn has changed some of the characters and their powers. Which kind of makes you wonder, if they didn't think the character, as is, was good enough to reuse...why bring him back at all?

In fact, there's a bit of a selfish hubris at work, as Ross and Krueger seem to be laying claim to just about every character they can find -- more than they can possibly hope to use in any meaningful sense (even the zombie soldiers are meant to evoke a 1940s comic book take on Frankenstein, I think). It's as if they just wanted to horde characters so no one else could come along and try a similar project.

A number of the heroes of that era had sidekicks (either boy partners or girlfriends), so when they appear, scattered all over the globe, a lot of the heroes wonder what happened to their sidekicks...making for repetitious motivation. As well, they're all pretty similar in personality -- and generic. Krueger makes them personable enough...but not in a way that makes any of them that compelling.

Anyway, the use of these old characters, with little explanation, means we aren't really sure what the "surprises" are supposed to be. Much of America is ruled by the former heroes the Dynamic Family (in shades of Ozymandis from The Watchmen) -- but why they turned "bad", and why they are robots, is unclear (I mean, were they always robots, or is this a new twist?) Dynamite maybe should have included vintage reprints in each issue, just to help familiarize us with who these characters are.

There's a lot of vagueness to the storytelling, and inconsistency (a number of the characters allude to their time in the urn as if they were alone...then another character remarks that all they had in the urn was each other!) Or where we kind of get surprise revelations...when we didn't even realize there was a question. When the hero Samson shows up...it takes a while to realize that he wasn't one of those trapped in the urn.

The basic plot in these eight issues is pretty, well, basic. The fact that Dynamite would start hyping this as "chapter one" indicates this is basically just a set up for their own super hero universe (not only leading into the next Project Superpowers maxi-series, but various on going spin-offs featuring the Black Terror, the 'Devil, etc.) Though at least it does build to a sort of resolution -- a big battle -- so it's not like it ends on a cliffhanger, at least.

Ross became a star for his painted art, so projects with his name on them kind of bring an expectation of visual greatness. With Justice, for example, though he didn't pencil it, he did paint over the pencils of another artist. But here, Ross neither pencils nor paints. Yet there is an obvious attempt to evoke a painted look to the colours...but it's an attempt that more often just looks muddy and crude. Likewise, the pencil art itself isn't that great, the faces kind of flat (and not significantly distinguished from each other) the figures stiff, the composition nothing that great. Ironically, the pencils and colours might cancel each other out. Maybe not weighed under by the colour, the pencils would look a little more appealing. Maybe over more dynamic figures, the colours would seem more effective. But the art can join with the writing to make for some confusing and muddled sequences.

Of course, the interesting thing with these kind of projects is what's the "message"...if any? It's easy to attribute some sort of real world resonance to the series. We have a regime that seems to have imposed order/security at the expense of individual liberty, and a war in the middle east where dead soldiers are recycled as zombie troops (perhaps analogous to the way the Bush administration brought in new rules where they could send soldiers back to the fighting even after their tour of duty). And there are references to the returning heroes as being viewed as "terrorists" by the authorities. All very edgy, provocative stuff. But borrowing catch phrases from modern politics has become so common in comics...it's not clear how much real meaning they contain (the current Buffy comics also have the heroes being viewed as "terrorists" by governments).

Then the heroes issue their manifesto about how they are going to fix the world one way or another, and say: "We are Americans. And we are your friends." Suddenly the heroes are sounding suspiciously like George W. Bush themselves.

Which, in a sense, is maybe the point: create a metaphor that can be read different ways by different ideologies.

Anyway...there are some good parts. Krueger offers up some okay dialogue here and there, an occasional cute quip. The heroes, though fairly indistinguishable from each other, are for the most part personable. And his hints at a camaraderie between them adds a "human" touch. But with so many characters running about, many only have a few lines here or there, not enough to make them come alive as people we care about.

It could be argued that this is the launching pad for a whole publishing line, and the heroes (and plot elements) will be explored and developed in the various spin-offs. But -- and I've made this point before -- the way to get a reader to follow along in those spin-off series is to tell a great story right off the bat. Why would I pick up the next Project Superpowers series, or a Black Terror monthly, if this first series didn't make me interested in the characters and convince me Ross and his collaborators could tell a coherent story?

After being disappointed in this series read month-by-month, I read the whole thing again in a couple of days. Now the characters were at least more "familiar", and some of the confusing bits do make more sense (but only some). And I thought, well, maybe I'm being harsh. Maybe I should pick up the next Project Superpowers maxi-series...

But the fact remains that the characters aren't that interesting, the plotting not very coherent, and the art not very attractive. Nostalgia aside, nothing here has really convinced me Ross and Krueger can deliver.

This is a review of the series as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: ___


Project Superpowers: Chapter Two 2010 (HC TPB) 176 pages

cover by Alex RossWritten by Jim Krueger (story Alex Ross & Jim Krueger). Illustrated by Edgar Salazar.
Colours: Victor Romanos, Ivan Nunes. letters: Simon Bowland.

Reprinting: Project Superpowers: Chapter Two #0-6 (2010) - with covers

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dynamite Comics

Reviewed Mar. 2012

Dynamite Comics entered the biz, in a sense, through the side door. In an industry dominated by super heroes, they went the route of fantasy and media tie-in properties (which, come to think of it, is what a lot of fledgling companies do -- why go toe to toe with Marvel and DC until you're established?) Eventually they decided to move into the super hero genre, and recruited writer Jim Kreuger and artist/conceptualizer Alex Ross (who had collaborated before) to oversee not just a super hero comic...but to create a whole universe of super heroes. And the two did so by mining the pages of old Golden Age comics for characters that, one assumes, had fallen into the public domain, so that they could create a "new" universe of super heroes that would nonetheless have a pre-existing history.

First came Project Superpowers (reviewed above), establishing their concept. In the 1940s, a bunch of super heroes get trapped in a mystical urn, only to then be freed in the modern world -- a modern world mired in corruption, with sinister cabals pulling political strings behind the scenes. Project Superpowers, frankly...wasn't very good.

Then came a few mini-series focusing on some of the heroes in solo or smaller groupings, such as Death Defying 'Devil -- the only one of them I read and which, frankly, was pretty bad.

Then came Project Superpowers: Chapter Two -- which, given my feelings about those earlier volumes, I wasn't really going to bother with. But a couple of years passed, and I came upon the TPB in the discount bin...and I figured, oh, what the heck. I'll give 'em one more chance to win me over.

I guess I should've known better.

There are a number of problems with this collection -- and with Kreuger's and Ross' approach to storytelling in general.

But before we get to that, I'll just make a comment or two on the art -- which is basically okay. Salazar at least knows anatomy and perspective and the like. But it can be a bit stiff and undistinguished. Granted, that may be partly a fault of the material he's working with. A lot of scenes of generic costumed heroes, literally standing around in a crowd, in talking head scenes...or big fight scenes where people zap and hit reach other, indiscriminately. Not necessarily stuff that really demands an artist find that perfect angle or close up, or where he can conjure up a particular pose or body language to convey some inner emotion. Actually, the art improves (to my mind) half way through, the lines becoming crisper, sharper. There's no indication of a change in inker, so maybe Salazar just was developing his style. Or there is a change in colourist, which maybe influences things.

And now...onto the story:

One problem is contained in that whole "Chapter Two" sub-title. Like more than a few modern comics writers (and TV and novel writers, for that matter) they aren't really approaching this as a story...so much as just a part of some on going epic. It starts out picking up threads from the previous series, rambles about for a few issues, cutting between various players and alliances, and then doesn't resolve much...ending, not on a death defying cliff hanger, but nonetheless "To Be Continued". You can't just close the book and think, gosh, what a fun read...I'll have to re-read it again some day. Because nothing is really accomplished or resolved.

The other problem is that, in creating this, Kreuger and Ross have basically tapped into and unleashed their inner eight year old.

This analogy first occurred to me reading Death Defying 'Devil (and since that was Ross working in collaboration with another writer, maybe it's Ross who deserves most of the blame). And that is, it reminds me of the sort of comic I might have written and drawn as a kid (surely all comics fans, when they were kids, doodled their own comics -- right?) Comics where the finer points of story and narrative and characterization are ignored (or nor fully comprehended by our eight year old brains) in favour of a lot of super heroes, standing about, having conservations that have no meaning, and getting into big fights that have little context.

Such is Project Superpowers: Chapter Two.

Kreuger and Ross have gathered up old super heroes the way a shrimp trawler casts a net -- just trying to hoard as many as they can. So we have dozens of costumed heroes standing around in any given scene, most without personalities to speak of, or even lines to utter, and where even their powers and raison d'etre is often unclear (despite being pre-existing characters, most have fallen into obscurity, so Kreuger and Ross seem to be banking on a recogition factor that doesn't exist...as well, the characters specifically say how in many cases their powers have changed since their 1940s adventures anyway) And then they just keep adding more heroes -- as if their thinking is, when in doubt or when the story seems stalled...just toss in more generic costumed characters.

Some characters do clearly have bigger, more central parts than others -- but I still wouldn't say they do a great job of establishing personalities, or motives, or interpersonal relationships for many.

Ross and Kreuger seem to want to pretend they are doing some profound, political metaphor. The Superpowers attempt to stand up to the corruption -- but in a heavy handed way, including overrunning the American pentagon and even kidnapping the U.S. president. Actions which make them heroes to some...terrorists to others. Including other, equally well meaning super heroes, like a team of their erstwhile sidekicks (most 1940s super heroes having had sidekicks). So in that we can see echoes of such classic, seminal comics works that pitted heroes against heroes, and asked questions about free will, and when does might make right -- such as Squadron Supreme, The Watchmen, and Kingdom Come (on which Ross collaborated but, one can now suspect in hindsight, maybe with less editorial/story influence than he has on Project Superpowers).

But like what I said about their inner eight year old, it's pretension without context, ideology without meaning or narrative. It's mainly just a lot of scenes of anonymous heroes standing around, looking grim, talking about how they have to stop the villains...and scenes of anonymous villains standing around talking about how they have to stop the heroes. We get precious little sense of the world itself, or how their actions are going to change things. The Green Lama himself (one of the heroes) bitterly remarks that "people flounder when they attempt to save others without a good plan" -- so even the heroes acknowledge they don't have a plan! They just barricade themselves in the pentagon for a bunch of issue and think that, somehow, that's making a difference in the world! At one point they remark how they'll let the pentagon staff get back to their daily work, as a show of restoring normalacy -- but, um, huh? Not that we even see these staff workers, but how can they get back to work if the building is still under the control of an occupying power? That'd be a bit like taking over a grocery store, barring the doors to customers and delivery men...but then saying you'll let the trapped staff get back to their normal work.

Again, it all gets back to that inner eight year old and disregard for logic.

And this happens throughout -- conversations, scenes, plot developments...all which seem to occur with little coherence. A hero-turned-villain, Captain Future, is revealed as something other than they thought...but it's not explained (or asked) whether this was always his secret, or whether he's an imposter, and so what happened to the real Captain Future? Or at another point, a character named Justine shows up -- a character who comes out of nowhere unless you read the Death Defying 'Devil mini-series...but even if you had, that might explain who she is...but her presence still comes out of nowhere here, as suddenly she leads a group of the heroes against the terrorist organization The Claw, without much explanation for who, or what, or why. Indeed, at one point they are identified as an organization of "unknown purpose and origin" -- which could kind of be the tag line for the whole Superpowers line. Other characters speak of cryptic dreams hinting at clues...without us, the readers, seeing those dreams!

Maybe some of these things are supposed to be cryptic, and left for future revelations. But in many cases, the question's not even being asked, giving us no indication the characters (or the writers) feel it's anything that needs to be explained. Secondly, these logic and narrative problems have plagued the previous series (including the Death Defying 'Devil). Frankly, it seems plotted a bit like a narrative Ponzi Scheme.

All of which is made ironic by the fact that this was published in 2010 -- and at the writing of this, it's 2012 and there's been no further instalments in the Superpower saga (or any ancillary mini-series) since. So either we can assume my reaction was hardly unique, and that many readers walked away, fed up with what can only be described as an almost amateurish approach to storytelling. Or...that Kreuger and Ross decided to put the series on the back burner...which in a sense, is even more insulting. As I say: they haven't crafted entertaining, stand alone sagas that, nonetheless, are part of a greater universe building. No -- it's a rambling series that only seems to exist to hint of things to come...and if they then dropped the ball in the middle, what was the point? In that sense it reminds me a bit of J. Michael Straczynski's work on Supreme Power and The Twelve (both of which share traits with Project Superpowers) which never went anywhere.

Too many writers are undermined by their hubris, their arrogance, and being more obsessed with the "greatness" of their vision, or the building of their "universe" -- when they should just focus on telling a good story, and then another good story, and then another, and letting the universe arise out of that.

Around the time I read this, I read the first TPB of Gail Simone's Welcome to Tranquility -- and that's more what I mean. Though beginning a series, and creating a "new" super hero universe...Simone's opening arc told a definite, self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. It can be read as the start of a new series...or simply as a good, satisfying read on its own. Kreuger, Ross (and Straczynski) could learn from that.

Cover price: $9.99 USA.


Psi-Force
is reviewed here


< Back    Next >

Back to