Supremium: Image Comic's Less "Awesome” Superman

J. C. Maçek III

Every superhero owes Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's incredible creation a debt of gratitude for their very existence. And at the time of this writing, the hands-down runaway box-office hit is none other than The Man of Steel, just in time for the first Superman's 75th birthday. Time for a pastiche, don't you think?

It is, and has been, no secret that Superman was the first ever superhero before even such a thing existed. The “Man of Steel” changed everything for comics and spawned a wave of superheroes from all over the spectrum, from many different comic companies. Every superhero owes Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's incredible character a debt of gratitude for their very existence, just as Superman himself owes his debts to the legends of Hercules and the Golem. That influence of Superman has branched out into virtually every multimedia from radio to television to film to newspaper strips, to the internet, to cartoons that have spanned TV and film. At the time of this writing, the hands-down runaway box-office hit is none other than The Man of Steel, just in time for the first superhero's 75th birthday. Now that's staying power.

And just as every superhero followed Superman, so did a strange and different subset of the superhero in “the pastiche”. A pastiche is a close imitation of an existing work of art that celebrates (as opposed to mocking, as with “parody”) its subject matter. Rarely are pastiches actual “rip-offs”, as they are often used semi-satirically to tell a story that the original can't or won't, and often in a serious, or even too-dark tone. Prime examples of pastiched characters can be found in Dave Gibbons' and Alan Moore's Watchmen miniseries, with each character adapted or composited from the Charlton comics characters DC had recently purchased.

Thus the Superman soon became “The Superman Archetype” and pastiches of Superman cropped up all over comicdom over the years, from Captain Marvel (and his semi-progeny Marvelman) to Squadron Supreme's Hyperion to The Authority's Apollo, and the list goes on and on. Of course, each of these had their own unique spins on the concept, rarely becoming a duplicate of Big Blue. That is until we get into smiling Rob Liefeld's most powerful creation Supreme.

Created by Liefeld and first published as a flip story in the pages of Youngblood, Supreme has the power of flight, is bullet proof, can fly, has super vision, heat vision, incredible speed and even breath supreme. His arch enemy is “Darius Dax” instead of “Lex Luthor”, his girlfriend is “Diana Dane” instead of “Lois Lane”. He even has his own secluded fortress to hang his cape in, wears a red cape and sports a red shape on his chest (most commonly, yes, a pentagon).

Supreme might be considered more of a representation of Rob Liefeld’s Ego Supreme than a valid pastiche of the Man of Steel. After all, by Liefeld’s own admission, his premiere Image team of Youngblood was originally a redrawn representation of the Teen Titans of the 1980s and his alien bounty hunter character Bloodwulf is an obvious (and shameless) reimagining of DC’s Lobo.

Barring the white hair and predominantly white costume, Supreme is quite obviously a barely legal representation of DC’s Superman, with his alter-ego Ethan Crane often baring incredible similarities to Clark Kent. DC famously sued Fawcett Comics over their “too similar” Captain Marvel character (whose powers, history and origin are markedly different from Superman’s) but a pastiche like Supreme with more similarities to, than differences from, Big Blue appears to be perfectly ok.

The biggest difference between the characters is that instead of being an “overgrown boy scout”, Supreme is more of an overgrown jackass, in most stories throwing his weight around and showing no compunction against killing. This was Image in 1992, after all, and all of the heroes were either bloodthirsty or cancelled (and often both).

However, also unlike Superman, whose origin stories are revised every few decades, Supreme seemed to have a new origin story each and every time he appeared. Was Supreme simply another angry Image character with the powers of a Kryptonian, a religious zealot who quoted the Bible to justify killing the “bad guys” or was he a god himself, having vanquished (Image’s version of) Thor? Like Superman, did he really die and return from the grave or was this an alternate Supreme from another timeline?

Could anyone sort out the reality of Supreme, especially when even in his own continuity there were enough contradictions to comprise a Congressional bill of some kind? By Supreme #40, the twists in reality were revealed to be the machinations of Thor’s brother Loki (again, Images’ version thereof) and every question had been nicely wrapped up (except, of course, how it was that Supreme lasted a full forty issues). Still, the existence of the alternate Supreme(s) remained as an open issue if the next writer let it be and if he could sort out the rest of these oddball questions.

In that the next writer was none other than Alan Moore, the Author Supreme, the answer was, “of course he could”. The “problem” is that Moore was hardly a fan of Supreme in any form. Thus, Moore agreed to write the book for Liefeld only under the condition that he be allowed to ignore all previous continuity and tell whatever story he wanted. Liefeld agreed and thus was born “The Story of the Year” and “The Return”, two story arcs that not only served to bring a great deal of credibility to Supreme, but manage to stand as some of the best “Superman” comics published in some time.

To offer a bit of background to Moore’s reasoning here, Moore had become one of the biggest names in Comics by creating dark and often starkly realistic comicbooks, often using pastiches to deconstruct the superhero genre with violence and irony. Moore’s artistry here came not from tearing down and redefining what the superhero is (and how the superhero might exist in the realistic world) but from his depth of storytelling and character.

Moore’s famously iconoclastic works like V for Vendetta shined a coldly satirical light on a cynical future that might be on its way. His work on Marvelman (originally a reworking of Captain Marvel and later renamed “Miracleman” for legal reasons) took the concept of superheroes and villains in the real world and pushed these to their disturbingly logical extremes with the superpowered among us reworking the world into their own “orderly” image and assuming the role of gods. Moore’s reworking of the Charlton characters into the violent and complex heroes, villains and antiheroes of Watchmen was both groundbreaking and popular. So popular, in fact, that it was imitated by many of the early Image writers and artists, who got the violence part down pat, but didn’t quite reach the depth or complexity of Moore’s storytelling.

Moore was looking for an outlet for something of an “apology” for what his excellent storytelling unwittingly did and taking on a classic character and using him to celebrate what makes comicbooks great seemed to be the perfect outlet for this penance. It’s not as if the English author was incapable of writing something of the kind. His story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, spanning Superman (vol. 1) #423 and Action Comics (vol. 1) #583, had all the depth of Watchmen (and was printed the same year, by the same publisher), but little of the dark iconoclasm seen there.

Due to disputes over royalties for the same Watchmen comics (and the tie-in promotional items therewith), Moore developed a rather sour taste for DC and wasn’t much of a fan of Marvel either, after his stint with Marvel UK, thus restitution in the form of even an out-of-continuity story like “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” simply was not going to happen (either due to Moore’s refusal or DC and Marvel’s lack of free reign). Liefeld’s Maximum Press imprint of Image, did allow that autonomy and Moore was free to revise Supreme into a true pastiche of Superman, where he could legally tell Superman-like tales and explore the evolution of comicbooks from the inside, with a heavy focus on the Silver Age Superman tales.

Thus Supreme #41 debuted in 1996, ten years after Moore’s last Superman story and this “Story of the Year” was so acclaimed it earned the writer a 1997 Eisner Award for Best Writer. Here, Supreme is again, Ethan Crane, but is now the mild-mannered artist for Dazzle Comics, focusing on the character of “Omniman” (another pastiche, resembling Miracleman and other Superman archetypes).

In spite of his agreement with Liefeld, Moore didn’t quite throw out everything that came before, but instead built upon Supreme and explained not only the continuity lapses that we see here and in previous issues of Supreme but gave a clever explanation for retroactive continuity in general.

In “Story of the Year”, the previous events of the saga did happen, with each revision of the character retiring to a dimension known as “The Supremacy”, populated only by variations on Supreme and his roster of characters. The new “Dazzle-comics” version of Supreme was literally “Born” in issue #41 and the previous, nihilistic version retired to the Supremacy. The story postulates that as every character experiences a retcon, every character has his or her own dimension to retire to and prosper in after their “demise”. Hence, every continuity still “really happened”. This, of course, gives a certain joy to any comicbook fan with a favorite “era” of their favorite hero.

Moore and his series of artists didn’t stop with the Supremacy, but went back in history to retell his origins. Moore introduced Supremium, a reality-altering substance that both gave Supreme his powers and can act as something of a Kryptonite, depending on the type and story. In that Ethan Crane first experienced Supremium as a child, this enabled Moore to create “Kid Supreme” and to explore his own take on Superboy stories. He also introduced Suprema, Supreme’s sister, who allowed Moore to explore the Silver Age stories of Superman’s cousin Supergirl and Radar, the Hound Supreme, an analogue to Superman’s own “Krypto”.

Over the next fifteen issues, Moore and team celebrated the works of Superman writers and artists like Mort Weisinger, Murphy Anderson, Julius Schwartz and the great, great Curt Swan (Moore’s artist on “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”). Moore delved back into the Golden Age and guided readers through the Silver age, with an innocent and accurate take on the evolution of and changes in comic storytelling, from the Earthbound adventures, to the introduction of minority characters, to the 1960s-70s fascination with science fiction and beyond, even creating his own pastiches of General Zod and the other Phantom Zone criminals.

Interestingly, the Retcons on the page were being replicated in real life. By this time, Liefeld was Images’ CEO and a series of internal conflicts and legal filings caused his ouster from the company. This happened to coincide roughly with his second departure from Marvel Comics where he was handling the Heroes Reborn” version of Captain America (yes, while he was still Image’s CEO). Thus, Liefeld poured his resources into a new company called “Awesome Comics” where Alan Moore continued his run with Supreme #49 (May, 1997). Supreme was interim published by Liefeld’s existing independent imprint Maximum Press, starting with issue #43 (October, 1996) before the first Awesome-branded issue.

Liefeld also continued his string of “originality” with the planned launch of a brand new patriotic character who wore a star-spangled, red, white and blue costume and threw a round shield called “Agent America”.

Moore’s run continued until issue #56 when the series was cancelled and re-launched as Supreme: The Return, starting in May of 1999. Although planned as at least a six-issue miniseries, The Return only lasted until issue #5 (June, 2000) when Awesome Comics went out of business. Alan Moore’s final script went undrawn and unpublished. With no sixth issue, reprints of the series simply included “The End” on the final page of the fifth issue.

And that was the end of Supreme… at least until 2011, after Liefeld’s return to Image and the announcement that Alan Moore’s final script would be published after all. And so it was published, back under the Image banner in 2012, well over a decade after the final issue of The Return. Interestingly, while Marvel and DC will renumber their comics as often as their editors change socks, the first new issue of Supreme in 12 years was numbered 63 (treating The Return #s 1-5 as if they were Supreme #s 57-62). Twenty years and two publishers and the numbering remained intact.

The series continued under writer/ artist Erik Larsen, an original Image founder himself, famous for The Savage Dragon. Of course, Larsen is also the editor who brought the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles under the Image banner in the 1990s, infamously dismembering Leonardo, turning Master Splinter into a bat and rebuilding Donatello’s destroyed body into a cyborg. So you can imagine the care with which he approached the continuation of Supreme.

Spanning issues 64 through 68, Larsen, as writer and artist, completely undid all of Moore’s positive work on the character, picking up where Moore left off with an army of Darius Dax incarnations destroying the Supremacy and the one, true Supreme reverting to the (temporally, if not canonically) “Original” 1990s version, which the other characters refer to as “Mean Supreme”. Readers experienced the de-powering of the remaining alternate Supremes, the title “Hero” beating Suprema to a bloody pulp, while continuing his “holy” killing spree and ultimately committing genocide against an entire planet of people.

At best, Larsen’s run in the current time is a disappointment and waste of the potential that Alan Moore created over a decade ago. Being generous, the short relived series is in remarkably bad taste, not only undoing Moore’s efforts in the story, but also undoing Moore’s “apology”, by exemplifying the very early ‘90s Image themes that both sprung from and disturbed Moore to begin with. Being critical… it’s just plain bad. Where is Larsen going with this story? We may never know, as Image has once again cancelled Supreme with # 68 (which ended on something of a cliffhanger). One can dream that another writer may step in and re-retcon the series into the Supremacy and evolve upon what Moore was creating. One can also dream that it won’t take another twelve years for this.

With Man of Steel burning up the Big Screen and taking with it all kinds of canonicity and logic leaps, Supreme may be something of a solace to fans of the comics and of the movie. At each turn that some strange choice is made with Superman’s history in Man of Steel and even DC’s New 52, fans can read on and remember, all continuities still exist. All stories are valid. Versions may be replaced and revised and retired, but in the idealistic and hopeful parts of (at least) Alan Moore’s mind, each of these is only retired, never discarded completely. And if Erik Larsen’s five issue run tells us anything positive, amid the negative reemergence of the “Mean Supreme”, it is that even this retirement from continuity is never quite permanent.

In that Supreme himself is a pastiche of Superman, the Man of Steel, Superman’s retired versions found their new life under Moore, proving the point that you can go back home again. While the “Man of Supremium” may not always be the hero you want flying around the skies of “Omegapolis”, it is comforting to know that we can wait, even if it takes twelve more years, and the real deal might just swoop back in to save your kitten from a tree, or decapitate a team of villains. You know, depending on which version happens to float your proverbial boat.

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