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Supreme: The Story of the Year 2002 (SC TPB) 328 pages

cover by Alex RossWritten by Alan Moore. Illustrated by Joe Bennett, Mark Pajarillo, J. Morrigan, and various; Rick Veitch (flashback sequences).
Colours: various. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Eric Stephenson.

Reprinting: Supreme #41-52a, 52b (1996-1997) - published by Image Comics (#41-42), Maximum Press (#43-49), Awesome Entertainment (#50-52b)

Additional notes: intro by Alan Moore; publisher Mark Thompson; chapter sketches by Alex Ross

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Checker Book Publishing

By most accounts, Supreme was a blatant rip-off of Superman...except given an Image Comics spin: exaggerated muscles, snarly expressions, and lots of mindless fight scenes. When Alan Moore assumed the property he decided: why not make him more than a rip-off? Why not make him an affectionate homage to a bygone Superman mythos, the pre-Crisis Superman? As well, he takes the opportunity to have some fun with the very conventions of comic books.

It begins when an amnesiac Supreme encounters various dopplegangers of himself and learns reality has undergone frequent revisions in which different Supremes, with whole alternate histories, have come and gone -- all of which is a clear joke on editorial overhauls such as DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths and on the way new writers tend to re-invent old characters to suit their "vision" (kind of like what Moore has done himself -- and is doing here; so is Moore slyly spoofing himself, or does he not see the connection?). This latest Supreme learns his amnesia is caused by the fact that his backstory hasn't fully been established yet. Over the next few issues, his "memories" come back to him and we see flashbacks to his origin and various early adventures -- all written and drawn in styles meant to evoke older comics, including being on yellowing paper. While in the present, Supreme seeks to reconnect with friends and colleagues he has lost track of, battles some old foes, and resumes his career as Ethan Crane, mild mannered comic book artist (allowing Moore some further digs at the business itself). All of which, I'm assuming, means this is a completely re-imagined Supreme and you don't need to have read the previous 40 issues to follow much of it.

Although the stories seem largely self-contained (there are occasional multi-issue stories, like from #47-49) there's actually a bit of a story arc, with revelations in the final issues relating back to things portrayed in earlier issues, allowing this collection to seem like a genuine "graphic novel".

Supreme: The Story of the Year is a likeable undertaking, but it left me with mixed reactions.

I'm largely in sync with Moore's feelings here. Despite Alan Moore having been at the forefront of the dark n' gritty phase comics went through in the late 1980s/early 1990s, he seems to have some regrets about that era. Thus his Supreme is intended as a throwback to slightly kinder, gentler heroes, when stories were feuled by a whimsical imagination, rather than driven by fight scenes (though there are those). Being someone who grew up with the pre-Crisis Superman, and feeling much was lost when DC Comics pared down the mythos in the late 1980s, I'd often wondered about the legal possibilities of someone coming along and resurrecting the ideas DC discarded. After all, if a child discards a toy, it's O.K. if another child decides he'd like to play with it now that it's no longer in use. So the idea of doing an homage to the older Superman -- a Superman who started his career as Superboy (here Kid Supreme), has a super dog for a pet, a super-powered cousin (here sister), etc. -- isn't a bad idea. Moore is hardly alone in the field of modern comics writers whose work is steeped in nostalgia for past eras: writers like Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek and others have also been over this ground. (Admittedly, it's becoming an increasingly moot question as, a few years after this, DC started re-introducing many of the old Silver Age ideas back into modern Superman comics anyway).

Moore comes up with some wild and wonderful ideas including Gorrl, the Living Galaxy, a kind of nod to Marvel Comics' Galactus in that he's a foe who's so supremely powerful you can't actually beat him. Moore's version of the Devil has 7 heads that represents the Seven Deadly Sins...though Moore leaves that for the reader to figure out on their own. In another story Supreme enters a dimension that is, essentially, humanity's shared sub- conscious. Ideas like those are pretty head trippy for a comic that purports to be nostalgic. And Moore's League of Infinity -- a take off on the Legion of Super-Heroes -- also has some intriguing aspects.

However, like with other things I've read by Moore, there can be a feeling at times that the intellectual concept driving the enterprise is more sure than the actual execution.

Peppered throughout the book are "flashback" stories meant to evoke earlier eras -- the stories simplistic and deliberately goofily written, the art rudimentary. While most are meant to evoke old style comics, some are more self-reflective, like a story, supposedly circa 1949, where Supreme and his fellow heroes are given a demoralizing look into the 1950s -- but it's less a look at the real 1950s, than at coming trends in comics (allowing for segments evoking EC Comics horror stories and Mad Magazine parodies).

In the flashbacks, Moore teams with artist Rick Veitch (also part of the dark n' gritty phase, clearly feeling nostalgic) to present stories that are on a par with some old comics...but they aren't as good as the better old comics. While reading this collection, I read a few Superman and Superboy stories from the periods Moore is conjuring, just for comparative purposes. And I found the old Superman stories better than Moore's "retro" Supreme stories.

Moore tries so hard to evoke Superman that Supreme runs the danger of being caught in limbo -- he's not, and can never be, Superman, but he's so slavishly derivative of Superman, he has trouble emerging as his own character. In the flashback story "The Conundrum of the Cloud Castle" Moore even concocts a story that is almost identical to a real Superman story, "The Super-Key to Fort Superman" (though Moore might have read it as a kid and only copied it sub-consciously). But once Moore is borrowing, not just character and mythos, but actual plots, there's a feeling we're looking less at an homage, and more at a rip-off.

Surely the point of Supreme is to take the best of the old Superman ideas, and spin them off into new and fresh adventures? In his introduction, Moore asserts this isn't just a nostalgic comic, but a vision that's "viable for the next century". When Mark Gruenwald did his Squadron Supreme epic, it worked because it was a Justice League rip-off that told a story the JLA could never tell. And Marvel's Moon Knight (at least in the early 1980s, before MK got the dark n' gritty 21st Century revamp) was a rip-off of DC's Batman, but with enough interesting twists and quirks that it was a fresh take on Batman. But too often here, all Moore does is just a version of the pre-Crisis Superman that isn't as well realized as the pre-Crisis Superman.

Even in the contemporary stories, Moore's love of nostalgia for a character that never was takes precedence over simply telling great stories. The plots are often fairely rudimentary, not bothering to grapple with any of the deeper questions that they might raise. Moore also develops hints of a romance between Supreme's alter ego, Ethan Crane, and a lady comic book writer, but even here, the relationship seems to arise from convention (if Superman has his Lois Lane, Supreme must have his Diana Dane) rather than because Moore genuinely portrays a human connection between the two.

Perhaps because of Moore's age, his nostalgia is restricted to the Silver Age (only one of the flashbacks is meant as a homage to the 1970s Bronze Age, with artist Rick Veitch adopting a style meant to evoke such early 1970s luminaries as Neal Adams, Mike Grell and Jim Starlin). As such, Moore doesn't appropriate ideas from that later period that, to me, were interesting. Supreme's version of Lex Luthor -- Darius Dax -- is a one-dimensional bad guy, but I liked the pre-Crisis Lex Luthor who had flickers of a conscience and who Superman, at times, held out hope might someday be his friend again. Granted, it may just have been one-time Superman scribe Elliot S! Maggin who played with that idea. But whatever its origin, it could've made for a more emotionally complex conflict. But that idea clearly holds no appeal for Moore.

And maybe what also is a stumbling block is that Moore occasionally seems to have his tongue in cheek, so that even when I try to take Moore's characters seriously...I find myself unsure if Moore is taking them seriously himself.

Things improve as these issues progress. In fact, a nicely handled issues is #50, in which the modern sequence is mainly Ethan Crane having a business date with Diana Dane, where Moore does a nice job of handling the flirtatious sub- text as the characters skirt around speaking what's in their hearts. And the three part tale from #47-49 is also reasonably entertaining, and boasts one of the better flashbacks, teaming Supreme with Batman-clone, Prof. Night. And the climactic adventure is also decent enough. And that isn't to say other issues aren't O.K.

Art-wise, there's not too much to say. With a constantly shifting roster of artists, most working in a similar style, the art is competent, but nothing more. Much of it's drawn in a modern sort of way, with cartoony exaggerations and big muscles. That may be part of the point, to contrast with the "flashback" stories, but it also undermines Moore's attempt to re-model Supreme as an older style hero. Chris Sprouse, who only contributes one issue here, has a cleaner, more restrained style that I think better suits the tone Moore is going for (Moore and Sprouse would later collaborate more consistently on Tom Strong). In the flashbacks, Rick Veitch does a decent job of evoking older comics in general, and occasionally specific artists, but like Moore's scripts, is rarely as good as those he's emulating (even with old timer Jim Mooney on inks).

Once again I've harped on the negative in a review. The thing is, I didn't dislike Supreme: The Story of the Year. I very much appreciated the intent. But I also didn't quite feel it became what it hoped to become. The nostalgic flashbacks, too often, were pale versions of earlier eras, and the modern stories aren't really classics-in-the-making. At 328 pages meant to rebuild and re-establish Supreme for a new readership, I still didn't really feel by the end I had much of a feel for the characters and their world. They remain imitations. When Supreme teams up with a JLA-like Allies...well, you're a better man than me if you notice any personality traits to most of them. With all that being said, Moore's tenure on Supreme has produced a second TPB collection, Supreme: The Return, that I'm not averse to trying one of these days.

And maybe this'll work better for newer readers. After all, I have a bunch of older Superman comics in my collection (including reprint books like the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told). Maybe this is more aimed at readers who can appreciate the homage aspect...without actually being able to compare it to the real stuff.

Apparently an earlier edition of this book suffered from some shoddy printing reproduction, but the edition I read was fine. The back cover bios were a bit curious: Supreme creator Rob Liefeld is credited with changing "everything as we know it" in comics. That seems a tad hyperbolic when most of the critical reviews I've seen of his work can be pretty dismissive. But maybe the effusiveness is just a joke. Alan Moore's brief introduction seems a tad...disjointed, too, as if maybe it was edited from a longer piece.

Cover price: $42.95 CDN./ $26.95 USA.

Supreme Power, vols. 1-3

Written by J. Michael Straczynski. Pencils by Gary Frank. Inks by Jon Sibal, with Mark Morales.
Colours: Chris Sotomayor. Letters: various. Editors: various.

Collected in three softcover volumes: "Contact" (Supreme Power #1-6), "Powers & Principalities" (Supreme Power #7-12), "High Command" (Supreme Power #13-18) - 2003-2005

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Marvel Comics (their "adult" MAX imprint)

Instead of reviewing each of the Supreme Power TPBs on their own, I'm reviewing the three books as a whole...for reasons that'll become apparent as we go.

Supreme Power reflects the modern trend in comics, of being both a deliberate homage to past comics and comic book archetypes, as well as a revisionist, "sophisticated" spin on those same archetypes. It begins with a scene meant to evoke one of the most seminal scenes in comics, as a rocket ship crashes on earth carrying an alien infant. It's an obvious riff on the Superman story...except the farming couple who find him...are immediately accosted by government agents who confiscate the child, to raise in a controlled environment to be America's ultimate defender -- and super weapon.

Told with "adult" profanity, violence and nudity, and socio-political cynicism, Supreme Power is meant to be a re-imagining of Marvel's Squadron Supreme characters, which had previously been featured in a well-regarded, provocative mini-series, revitalizing minor, second string creations...which themselves were a deliberate riff on DC Comics' Justice League of America. Which, in turn, was a revamping of DC's earlier Justice Society of America.

And maybe that's the problem. After all is said and done...a lot of this has already been said. And done.

Writer J. Michael Straczynski sets out to explore the idea of a world with no super powered people until the arrival of Mark Milton, almost immeasurably powerful and soon to be dubbed Hyperion. The Superman-like Mark is raised by the government to be the ultimate American, reared on bed time stories that are thinly veiled pro-American propaganda. When an adult, Mark is used in black ops missions, winning America's wars without anyone knowing he exists. Until the story becomes too big to hide, and he is unveiled before the public. However, by this point, other mysterious characters begin appearing -- there's the Green Lantern-like Spectrum who is a fellow government agent, and the violent, non-powered vigilante, Nighthawk (the Batman archetype). But also people with super powers outside of the government's knowledge begin appearing, such as the super fast Blur.

The first six issues (collected as the TPB Contact) feel a lot like they're laying the ground work. There's precious little action -- this isn't a super hero adventure so much as a political drama about super beings. The first six issues don't end on a cliffhanger...but nether do they entirely satisfy as a story. The next six issues (Powers & Principalities) chronicle Mark's growing disillusionment with the government, leading to a violent break with the authorities, while also continuing to feel like it's laying ground work for the series proper (Princess Zarda, the Wonder Woman-like character, doesn't even appear until these issues) and introducing the first real concession to the super hero/crime fighting aspect -- in the form of a super powered serial killer. So the third TPB (High Command) deals with Hyperion, Nighthawk, and the Blur's efforts to capture the serial killer, as well as the government's retaliation against Mark for his insubordination...and Mark's increasing sense of alienation from humanity, with the potential to become the very menace the authorities feared he might be all along.

I had read the first six issues, and was kind of ambivalent toward them. But a few years later, I re-read those issues (almost entirely in one day), enjoyed them a bit more than I remembered, and decided to pick up the next collection, just to see if the story resolved. It didn't really. But again, reading it all rapidly in a day, allowing myself to be fully immersed in the world, and taking each issue as simply a chapter, I was sufficiently willing to see where it went, that I picked up the third TPB, collecting the final issues of the series, willing to let it impress me as a "graphic novel".

Unfortunately, it still doesn't provide a satisfying resolution. Despite being the last of the Supreme Power issues, the series had spun off into a few parallel mini-series, and then was picked up again as a new Squadron Supreme series. And my question is: how long am I supposed to follow this just on the off chance that it will impress me? I mean, maybe Straczynski did wrap it up in the Squadron Supreme series -- and maybe he didn't (it apparently just led into a crossover with Marvel's Ultimate universe series, and recently a new Squadron Supreme series -- not by Straczynski -- has started up). What's more, the Squadron Supreme issues were no longer "mature readers" stories...yet surely the main novelty in the series was the "adult" treatment! (And isn't there an ethical problem with switching? After all, if a younger reader picks up the Squadron Supreme issues, he/she is going to want to read how the series began...)

So why am I obsessed with a resolution? I don't demand closure from Spider-Man, right? But that's because Supreme Power doesn't fully satisfy just as a month to month, on going series. Too many of the scenes and issues feel like they exist just to push forward the overall arc. It feels like it wants to be a limited series, another The Watchmen...but just rambles on indefinitely.

There are a lot of things to like about Supreme Power.

For one thing, the very fact I could read through a bunch of issues in one day indicates a fundamental readability to them. And by teasing along disparate characters and story threads, there is a nice sense of an epic unfolding. There's some decent writing, some clever quips and phrasing. There are some intriguing and clever ideas here and there. For example, as Mark begins to succumb more and more to his sense of alienation from other humans, there's a scene where he's talking to a naked stripper who's trying to seduce him...and we see from his POV as he looks through the girl with x-ray vision, literally seeing her bones and organs, as we realize that even how he perceives reality is different because of his powers.

And before we get further, there's the art by Gary Frank (inked by Jon Sibal). Frank has a detailed, realist style that is ideally suited to this attempt to explore the "realism" of a world with super heroes. His figures can be a bit stiff at times, his lines a bit severe, but generally it's exceptional work -- and even seems to get better toward the end, though that may be as much a reflection of the inking, or the colours, or simply the scenes themselves being more moody.

The comic is also a "mature readers" story, so there's plenty of four letter words, and even nudity. In the first half dozen issues, it basically goes the "respectable" route, of having limited nudity, and mainly male. But by the second volume, there's a lot more emphasis on gratuitously naked babes -- Princess Zarda makes her first appearance naked...and doesn't get clothes for another few issues (though once she does...they stay on -- awww). While another heroine, an aquatic fish girl, is likewise without wardrobe (though her alienness makes her a little less sexy). And in the third volume, there's even a visit to a strip club. (Though it's interesting to note the taboos even in "adult" comics -- pubic hair is only depicted in long shot, in a couple of 400 pages!) One can criticize the nudity as gratuitous and sexist. On the other hand, one can find it refreshingly uninhibited, given that even a lot of "mature readers" super hero comics will play up the violence or profanity, but not the flesh.

But there are a lot of ways the story just isn't half as clever, or provocative, as it seems to think it is. Part of the idea is to explore the "what if super heroes really existed" idea. But as often happens, there are so many ways one could quibble and say, um, no, I don't think that's anymore realistic than any conventional comic. And part of the reason it feels like a limited series, is because it takes a long time for anything to happen. Straczynski's too much of a writer's-writer to indulge in the decompression idea fully, of padding out scenes with a lot of wordless panels. Indeed, some of the scenes are exceptionally verbose, with word balloons crammed with whole monologues. But there's still a sense he's taking a long time to say very little.

Throughout one can't escape hearing echoes of earlier works, not just in themes, but in plot points -- the original Squadron Supreme mini-series itself, The Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, even Robert Kirkman's Invincible. (I was going to add Jim Shooter's Star Brand and, indeed, Marvel's whole "New Universe" experiment...but, in a way, some of those actually dealt more plausibly with the notion of super powers than does this -- and, interestingly enough, the "New Universe" series, DP7, included a super fast black character nicknamed the Blur...just like Supreme Power!). Straczynski isn't saying anything that original...he's just taking a long time to say it. Heck, in the aftermath of the serial killer plot, with the killer in custody, Straczynski devotes much of a whole issue building to a resolution...that any other comic would've told in just a last page epilogue.

There's a sense Straczynski has his ideas, and is shaping his story (and characters) to suit it. We aren't really getting a broad canvased exploration of how society would react to these ideas. For instance, later in the story the series does evoke some chilling resonance depicting President George W. Bush (other presidents are depicted in earlier scenes) and parallels to the War on Terror -- but Straczynski's problem is that, in a sense, he is still an American and perhaps unable to look beyond American borders to realize that most people in the world never fully bought into claims of Iraqi WMD, etc. Instead of effortlessly shaping global views -- as Straczynski has the president do here -- arguably there would be a lot more diversity of reactions.

And for all that this isn't really an "action-adventure" series (though there is action), and is, therefore, more character based -- the themes and sub-text are driving the characters more than they the themes. We never really get a sense of why, if Mark was raised indoctrinated with propaganda, it didn't have much affect on him as an adult. Nighthawk -- the Batman-type -- is here an angry black man whose parents were murdered by racists, and is almost as bigoted as those he fights. He's Malcolm X in a costume, not Martin Luther King. But beyond that, we don't get much more from him. And a lot of the supporting characters -- like the military brass -- are vaguely developed.

The characters are well enough defined...were this a plot/action series. But they feel a bit thin for a series that is supposed to be about characters. And, indeed, fall into the same trap I would argue The Watchmen did, for all its accolades -- and that is of emphasizing the super over the human. We get very little sense of the real world (friends, familiy) outside of the super beings and government conspiracies.

By far and away the most appealing and likeable character is the good natured Atlanta Blur, who provides a much needed humanity in a series where too many of the characters lean towards grey tone anti-heroes (conspicuously, he's one of the few characters who didn't get spun off into his own mini-series!).

I find myself kind of back where I was after initially reading the Contact issues -- intrigued but ambivalent. There's no doubt that reading the 18 issues over the course of a few days, you can find yourself drawn into the story, not the least for Gary Frank's art. Even if it's not half as original, or provocative, or smart as it wants us to think it is. But part of what kept me interested was waiting to see where it was headed, like The Watchmen, or the original Squadron Supreme mini-series -- as a graphic novel. Instead, you close the final pages -- with no real resolution, with threads dangling and the whole thing feeling unfinished. Worse, by this point, it's rambled and meandered for so long, it's not even like one feels it can have a neat, tidy resolution.

And, as I say: after all is said and done...

Still...eventually I decided to give the property another shot and picked up the subsequent collection, Squadron Supreme: The Pre-War Years, which I review here.

SPOILERS: I often do reviews deliberately trying to be vague so as not to spoil it for readers. But sometimes, one wants to make points that address specific ideas. So if you haven't read these issues, don't read this paragraph. If you have, and are interested in my opinion, proceed. But talking about realism is a tricky notion -- as it's not really about right and wrong, merely about what the individual reader accepts or rejects as "realistic". But when the military "outs" Mark by revealing him as an alien -- first off, one would think it would be anti-climactic. I mean, surely rumours about him being alien would've been commonplace. And once the government revealed he was an alien...surely the public would then assume that all the super people were aliens, since they appeared around the same time. And the idea of people turning on Mark -- I don't know. Some people, yeah. Not everyone. In fact, one could equally imagine him being embraced almost as a messiah figure by some. While the notion of the government using convicts as guinea pigs is a very traditional, very cliched idea...but, I mean, how stupid would you have to be to deliberate try and turn a serial killer into a super being?

Cover price: ___

Supreme Power: Contact
   For my review at, go here.

Swamp Thing
is reviewed here

Sword of the Atom
see here

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