Prepare yourself for a bold statement: J. Michael Straczynski’s Supreme Power #1 could be the perfect comic book. That’s not to say that it is the best comic ever, or even the best comic released this week. But, it is near perfect, for a plethora of reasons.
Supreme Power is Straczynski’s re-imagining of Squadron Supreme, a group of mostly forgotten Marvel superheroes from the ‘70s that were blatant rip-offs of DC’s popular and iconic Justice League characters.
The story opens with an eerily familiar scene. A married couple, cornfields in the Midwest, a strange object from the sky rockets to the ground, and an infant child left in the wreckage. And then, it all changes.
From the very start, it’s clear that Straczynski’s very obvious riff on the Superman origin is a little askew. The hard glances the husband and wife shoot each other make it clear that these aren’t the happy Kents. And the CIA Black Ops team that soon arrives to examine the wreckage and seize the child complete the shock to the system. This ain’t your father’s Superman.
Com.X’s Cla$$War was about a government super-hero gone rogue. He learned that behind the flag-waving apple pie façade existed a regime of corruption. Supreme Power starts at the opposite end of the timeline, showing just how such a thing could happen. The foundling, now a ward of the U.S. government, is placed in the care of operatives who create the perfect All-American illusion and indoctrinate the child in the ways of selfless patriotism. And with the barest hint of what’s to come, the issue ends.
So, what’s so great about it? While the story is well-crafted and engrossing, it doesn’t really explore much new ground. But what makes Supreme Power special is that it pulls together all the elements that a comic needs to be successful these days and have a chance of breaking into the mainstream.
First is the creator. J. Michael Straczynski is one of the increasing number of non-comics celebrities crossing over to work in the medium. Straczynski is a long time TV writer who worked on everything from He-Man to Murder, She Wrote and created the popular sci- fi shows Babylon 5 and Jeremiah. Like writer/director Kevin Smith, novelist Brad Meltzer, and comedian Patton Oswald, Straczynski brings a pedigree to comics that (hopefully) says to non- comics readers, “Hey, this stuff is pretty cool.”
The content is another key strong point. As part of Marvel’s MAX imprint, Supreme Power is for mature readers only. The complex, unflinching political content, the R-rated action and language, and the various “adult situation” belie the old stereotype that comics are just “kid’s stuff.”
And while grounded in the superhero genre, Straczynski does his best to place it in a real-world setting. With the help of his artists, he even manages to bring a sense of wonder to superpowers such as flight and heat vision that comic readers now find old hat. These are truly amazing, larger-than-life figures, and Straczynski wants the reader to feel the same awe at their abilities as the people in his story.
Finally, there’s the pacing and the packaging. One of the big discussions (some might say controversies) in comics these days is about single issues versus trades. The fastest growing section of the comics industry is the bookstore market, which focuses on selling the larger collections and graphic novels. Larger collections provide the convenience of having an entire story in one place, offer a competitive price per page versus multiple single issues, and simply carry more credibility because of their size and durability compared to a flimsy 22-page comic.
On the other hand, many argue that the serialized issue format makes comics unique, and provides an edge or distinctiveness versus other media. There’s also a certain nostalgia attached to the format that has served comics fairly well for 60-plus years. But perhaps the most damning complaint of single issue enthusiasts is that the focus on larger collections has publishers (especially Marvel) encouraging talent to “write for the trade.” What could easily be told in one issue is stretched out to three, leaving the reader with more fluff than substance.
Supreme Power is certainly geared towards the trade. This first issue spans some 13 years, and gives us just a glimpse at a few of the major players and themes. But it isn’t fluff. Straczynski effectively establishes an entire world and sets the stage for some amazing events in just a few pages.
But traditionalists and fans of the single issue need not fret, because with the offering of a “Special Edition” of issue #1, Marvel gives consumers plenty of incentive to buy the monthly issues rather than wait for the collection. Complete with an alternate cover, character sketches, and reprints of the two Avengers issues in which the original Squadron Supreme debuted, the Special Edition is the equivalent of a DVD Director’s Cut, and this kind of value-added material is one key for publishers to boost lagging sales.
Will all these factors really make a difference? Well, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Supreme Power #1 sold over 100,000 copies of both versions combined, putting it in the league of heavy- hitters like Batman, Spider-Man, and The X-Men. It’s the first time one of Marvel’s MAX titles has sold over 100k, and the first time in a long time that any mature-readers title has sold so well. And if the quality keeps up, many people will be buying the eventual trade as well.
So, no, Supreme Power isn’t the best thing since sliced bread, but it is damn good. Most importantly, it is a bright spot in the comics landscape, and a rare example of one of the major publishers thinking ahead and putting out a great product that actually lives up to its hype. Perfect.