Return of the Knockoffs

July 8th, 2008 by | Tags: , , , , ,

I haven’t really seen anyone talk much about the new Squadron Supreme 2 miniseries, so I thought I’d take a crack at it.

To really get into my thoughts on the first issue of the new miniseries, you have to look back at what brought us here in the first place. The original concept of the Squadron Supreme was brought to us by Roy Thomas as part of an Avengers storyline. The team would be the first example of what would eventually become a very hackneyed comic book cliché of one company copying another company’s characters and changing their names to keep things legally clean. Sometimes this works, like the time Plastic Man trained with an invisible monk, a super-strong monk and a fire monk. Most of the time it doesn’t work, like when Superman and Batman had to face the Ultimates/Avengers-based Maximums or when Garth Ennis thinks up yet another Superman knock-off for the sake of making fun.

The Squadron Supreme, of course, was based on the Justice League. It was a cool idea at the time and their alternate universe was instrumental in the Defenders. It was there that they laid down the groundwork for Mark Gruenwald’s opus maxi-series based on the Squadron Supreme universe.

If you haven’t read the original Squadron Supreme series, I’d suggest you do. It’s not the best comic ever, but in light of the last few years in comics, it comes across as an interesting bridge between the older days of superhero morality and the more sensitive times of now. It mainly dealt with the team taking over the government and giving themselves a year to fix up the damage they had caused during a mind-control episode. The big deal of their plan to change the world is that they used a special machine to alter the minds of their villains to make them good. The moral dilemmas weren’t lost on the story, as some heroes left due to disagreeing with the situation and one member of the team got kicked off for using the same machine on another teammate to make her love him. In the end, it became a Civil War situation with Hyperion’s side up against Nighthawk’s side.

The Squadron Supreme world could never successfully follow up on that series. There were stories here and there, including an arc in Exiles, but nothing special ever truly happened with it.

In 2003, with the Ultimate line riding high, it made sense when JMS started work on a new series Supreme Power, deemed by many as “Ultimate Squadron Supreme”. Actually, more accurately, it was “Ultimate Justice League”, as despite the JL basis and character names, it didn’t have all that much to do with the original versions of the Squadron characters. It was still an amazing series, going on for 18 issues. One of the more interesting bits in the storytelling is that they went with the Watchmen concept that all the amazing abilities and sciences are all tracked back to one thing. Characters like Amphibian, Doctor Spectrum and Blur could all be tracked back to Hyperion’s arrival on Earth. As cool as that was, that aspect didn’t last too long.

The series had a handful of tie-in miniseries. The ones for Doctor Spectrum and Nighthawk weren’t especially fantastic, but they at least worked well with expanding this new universe past the regular series. And say what you will about Daniel Way, the guy knows how to take the Joker and make him even more fucked up. The best of the various miniseries was definitely Hyperion/Nighthawk, which I consider to be the last great story of this alternate universe.

By the end of Supreme Power, the government had made it known that Hyperion was to be taken in. The final issue’s pages hinted at some of the unseen superpowers on Earth and anyone who read the original Gruenwald series would be able to figure them out one-by-one. This led to a Hyperion miniseries that introduced newcomers Emil Burbank, Arcana, Shape and Nuke, while bridging into the new Supreme Power on-going series.

There were two main changes to go with this series. First off, most of the primary characters were put together as a team. Second, the series downgraded from MAX to Marvel Knights. I’m sure that was to try and get more readers, but considering the series only lasted half as long as its predecessor, it was a moot point.

Already, the series was in trouble due to the size of the team. There were eleven members, with the independent Nighthawk remaining in the story’s spotlight. There were just too many characters with too little space and it looked like things were going to get worse, as Hyperion’s miniseries foreshadowed several future members, based on Hawkman, Green Arrow and Black Canary. At least with the Hyperion series’ look into the apocalyptic future, we saw that the series was going somewhere interesting. It appeared to be like an Ultimate version of the Gruenwald series, right down to the mind-altering machines and Nighthawk being the one trying to set things right.

Despite the giant roster, it at least felt like it was getting somewhere. Hyperion’s character development was bringing him from bright-eyed hero to cynical controller. Meanwhile, Nighthawk was changing from petty racist with anger issues to a real hero. The second arc of the series involved Hyperion fighting his arch-nemesis Redstone, ending on an exciting cliffhanger where he was to be joined by Blur and Nighthawk.

What a fight that could have been. We’ll never know. The series just plain stopped. JMS got distracted by shiny lights and walked off into the distance, leaving his series untouched. People who subscribed to the series were instead given subscriptions to Moon Knight for their troubles.

Luckily, something Supreme was on the horizon. Ultimate Power was announced, giving the expected crossover between the Ultimate world and the newer Supreme world. Unfortunately, the 9-issue miniseries turned out to be nothing to write home about. Writers Bendis, JMS and Loeb each got three issues to deal with, but that makes no difference. It just came off as pages and pages of team vs. team fight scenes that didn’t go anywhere. It was pretty bad, magnified by Greg Land’s porn art. By the end of the story, Zarda and Nick Fury had switched worlds. Personally, I wasn’t too into the switch. I thought Zarda is too important to the Supreme world to write off and Ultimate Nick Fury doesn’t sound too exciting out of his element.

That brings us to Squadron Supreme 2 #1, by Howard Chaykin (thankfully only writing) and Marco Turini. To review, we had a bunch of slow-moving momentum that was on its way towards something great, only for it to be brought to a halt. Now, instead of rebuilding that momentum, they’re just going in a more annoying direction.

The first feeling that something is wrong comes from the recap page, which gives us this: “Months after forming, the team fought a superhuman serial killer named Michael Redstone. The results of that battle are spoken of in hushed whispers, if they are spoken of at all…” Well, then. That probably would have sounded less stupid if you just omitted it and moved onto the Ultimate Power crap.

The new story takes place five years after Ultimate Power, where America is STILL dealing with all that alien goop covering Washington DC. It really took you guys that long? I mean, I suppose due to the events of that miniseries, your economy is in disarray, but what are you doing sending four astronauts onto the moon in the meantime if you’re so strapped for cash?

Ah, yes. The four astronauts. That’s the moment when I knew things were going to go downhill. There are never four astronauts in a comic unless they’re either the Fantastic Four or a group that’s meant to be the Fantastic Four. Then we see a hideous half-woman/half-spider killing would-be rapists and a zombie World War II soldier beating people up with his helmet while wearing blood-soaked flags.

So, that’s it, huh? That’s the best you guys could come up with after all this time. Hyperion slowly going nuts and taking over the world isn’t good enough, so you just toss it out the window so you can make Ultimate Ultimate Marvel? You have about a dozen characters waiting to be developed and instead we’re given a miniseries about Spider-Man as a female monster?

I mentioned earlier that taking a specific group of preexisting characters, changing their names and slightly altering their appearances could easily be a tacky and lazy cliché, but if the idea is grand enough, it can be saved. The original Squadron gets a pass because it was the original. JMS’ Squadron gets a pass because it had tons of promise. Ultimate Marvel just plain makes sense as a concept. But what’s the point of re-imagining the Marvel pantheon in a long-awaited Squadron Supreme return? So we can have Fake Justice League vs. Fake Avengers? Wow, that’s fantastic. Can we have the Fake Anti-Monitor show up to destroy this entire universe? Because if this is the direction we’re going in, it probably needs to be wiped out.

I suppose all these new superhumans are going to lead back to either Nick Fury or Emil Burbank, not that it really does much for either character. The two of them, as well as Arcana (using her powers in a pointless scene for no reason other than to remind us that she has powers), are the only preexisting characters who get any lip service. Hyperion, Spectrum and Zarda are only shown through images on the news and haven’t been heard from in five years. Fury and Burbank, despite being held responsible for Ultimate Power, are currently pretty high class in the eyes of the public and government.

Now, if it’s revealed that they’re like this because of Arcana’s reality-manipulation and not just their personalities granting them “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, I’ll give this some props.

This just wasn’t a good issue to start with. Of all the stuff that happened, none of it hit me as redeemable. The only thing keeping me from condemning it completely is that I can still hold out hope that maybe, maybe this could get better once the Squadron Supreme show up. I’ll give them that benefit of the doubt. Even if the cover shows us that we have several more Fake Marvel guys to meet with.

It’s a good thing this is a miniseries because otherwise, I could never see this getting past the sixth issue.

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8 comments to “Return of the Knockoffs”

  1. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that they’re still dealing with the alien goop. It’s not even alien goop. It’s something Emil Burbank whipped up to kill Hyperion at the behest of the military-industrial complex that’s been an on and off antagonist throughout the stories set in this reboot.

    Burbank I could buy being out on the basis of him being so brilliant. Him being cut out of the loop if he didn’t want to be seems like it denigrates the character. Makes him look dumb, you know?

    Fury being in good with the government was also kind of foreshadowed in Ultimate Power, but he doesn’t look like he really played hardball and got himself in good with the powers that be like they said he would in that series.

    Just got to agree with you. It’s a weak first issue, though I don’t know if it’s any weaker than the first issue of the JMS Squadron Supreme and its anvilicious preaching about Africa. Or the issue devoted to the man-hating female soldier who was raped and whose dad was a hypocritical hardcore fundie Christian.

  2. Far too much has been done too well with pastiche characters at this point for the series to be anything but more of what we’ve seen ad nauseum. The whole point of the Max series was gutted and lost when it downgraded to PG fare — why read about the hardcore JLA when they’re no longer hardcore? You could just read JLA! And now come some weaksauce Marvel standins that will accomplish nothing but to remind us of the far superior Planetary? Kudos, Marvel. I anxiously await the inevitable Crisis on Earths Ultimate, Supreme, and NewUniversal, because between the three they maybe have enough good original concepts to sustain more than one book.

  3. i’m gonna have to agree with ya man

    i dug the first series and really loved what JMS was doing with his and then he just stopped

    and then it was all downhill from there

  4. The JMS Squadron Supreme was when it went to Marvel Knights, right? IIRC, they were pretty hardcore there. Burbank was capping people like a full on psycho, and man-hater raped into a lesbian woman whose dad was a hypocritical hardcore fundie Christian had her origin “story” there. It was still violent and graphic.

    I don’t think we needed naked women for JMS or anyone else with any skill as a writer to entertain. Nighthawk vs. Hyperion didn’t have any (I didn’t enjoy that miniseries, personally).

  5. So the end of the series that JMS was writing was a confrontation with Redstone with Blur and Nighthawk? Didn’t they do that exact thing already? Of course, that was pretty damn cool, so a rematch would be awesome (though, never to happen now I guess).

    You should do a post on big projects like this that are started by high profile writers and artists and then abandoned or put on the backburner permenantly.

  6. What’s weird is that while SS#1 says it’s part one of six, house ads in current Marvel comics list it as a five-part mini-series…

  7. @Adam: The “abandoned/unfinished projects by high-profile writers” thing has been beaten into the ground already by dozens of people already. Kevin Smith, Ultimate Hulk vs Wolverine, blah blah blah. There’s really no need for another piece covering the same ground, considering there are only a few such projects and they’re all well-known.

  8. Don’t forget Grant Morrison’s Authority! In fact, I seem to recall Hoatzin wanting to write an article like that.

    Hoatzin writing an article. Ha ha.