Hero Squared #6

“Two big origins for the price of one!” Hero Squared #6 promised to reveal the origins of our so-called hero Captain Valor and his arch-nemesis Caliginous.

This issue is loaded with satisfying in-jokes from the history of superhero comics. The cover illustration refers to the introduction of Robin to the Batman comic, maybe hinting at the co-dependence between Caliginous and Valor.

Captain Valor’s own origin pays some serious homage to the original Captain Marvel, with some hilarious differences. Instead of Shazam’s lair being set in a cave under the subway, Milo’s initial transformation into Captain Valor takes place inside an enchanted toilet stall. It’s actually pretty funny even if you don’t know much about Shazam in the first place. Milo’s Wizard (“Xisuthros, the Old Seer”, an ancient Atlantean Sorceror) resembles a naked, demented cross between C. Montgomery Burns and one of those monster hosts who’d introduce an EC or Warren horror story.

The Old Seer tells Milo “Nothing like a good whiz to uplift the spirit — is there son?” — an inside reference to “Whiz Comics”, where Captain Marvel debuted back in the early 1940s. Yup, nothin’ like a good whiz, all right. Milo, like Billy Batson, was a young kid placed in an adult-sized superhuman body by circumstances beyond his control. If that isn’t a metaphor for puberty, I don’t know what is. Milo really wasn’t ready to be Captain Valor (who would be?), but in a very funny and fantastic sequence, the decision ends up being made for Milo by the old Wizard. Milo will become Captain Valor, the earth’s protector from evil.

The second origin in this issue is that of Caliginous, Captain Valor’s arch-enemy, who relates her creation tale to Milo, now her lover. According to Caliginous, Captain Valor pushed Stephie too far when he broke up with her, even though he claimed it was for her own protection from his enemies. Unfortunately, not fifteen minutes after their break up, Valor ended up in the arms of the super-Amazonian heroine “Earth Goddess”. Stephie rejected his excuses for this betrayal and literally spat in his face. Milo/Valor had finally pushed Stephie too far, and Valor’s fifteen year old brain struggled to rationalize his actions. Unfortunately, in his frustration to justify himself, he lost his temper and pounded his fist into the base of the gigantic “Chalice of Empyrean Nectar” (seriously), causing it to topple over and spill its cosmically-charged juice all over Stephie, drenching her to the bone in negative soul-energy (seriously). Thus, she became the superhuman version of “a woman scorned”. What worse enemy could there possibly be for a super-hero with the maturity of a fifteen year-old boy? Not good (seriously).

Caliginous became convinced that Valor could have actually saved her from her fate, but that he did not do so because of his resentment of her moral superiority, and his self-loathing as Milo. In fact, Caliginous claimed that Milo wanted to be rid of Stephie and that she was created as a result of Valor’s inaction. Holy super soap opera Batman! This kind of co-dependency is a familiar comics theme, similar to how the Joker was “created” directly or indirectly by Batman, or to how a young Lex Luthor was turned to evil by Superboy. Through his own misadventure, the hero ends up creating an adversary who can challenge him, and who perhaps knows him better than almost anybody else.

In addition to the campy, over-the-top humor and comic book fanboy references, I really like how this series has used the bombastic promotional style of mainstream superhero comics — mostly the Marvel “true believer” style of blatant self-promotion — with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Speaking of which, at this point in the series, Milo’s tongue is now planted in Caliginous’ cheek, and Stephie’s is in Valor’s. Egos and alter-egos are all bed-hopping and heart-swapping. Things have become a bit complicated character relationship-wise, but that’s really not a bad thing. With Caliginous, Milo seems to have found an alternate version of his “Stephie” — a wounded and vulnerable person to whom he can relate. Likewise, Stephie has discovered in Captain Valor’s idealistic inner voice — a younger Milo — the person she always wanted Milo to become.

In terms of intelligence and sensitivity, Stephie is far more mature than Milo. Her alter-ego Caliginous is smarter than Captain Valor too. This is a classic superhero theme. Lex Luthor always had the intellectual upper hand on Superman, mostly to compensate for Luthor’s lack of super powers.

Caliginous is also Stephie’s sarcastic, vengeful response to how Milo treated Stephie all those years while they were growing up. It’s plausible that since Milo felt like a loser, he tended to act like one, and vice-versa, so Captain Valor — the image of outward perfection that he is — is basically Milo’s wish fulfillment embodied.

Boy, just when you thought things couldn’t get more complicated between Milo and Stephie, the two of them practically switch roles as they each transition from being normal people into superheroes and villains. Milo’s acne-scarred comic geek is transformed into the acme of physical ability, handily leapfrogging over the rest of his puberty in the process (physically, at least). Stephie starts off as a loving and unblemished young girl, and apart from Milo’s actions, seems to have been largely untested by adversity. Caliginous is Stephie’s angry and bitter survivor persona; a person who is scarred both psychologically and physically. It will be interesting to see where this weird love/hate rectangle goes from here.

Overall, the quality of the artwork in this issue is a noticeable improvement over that of issue five. Abraham seems to have abandoned the “repeated panel” device completely, and his inking seems cleaner and more refined. For me, the real standout aspect artistically, is the beautiful coloring work of Mike Cavallaro, Matt Webb, and Sumi Pak. Their work brings so much quality, texture and dimensionality to Abraham’s line art, that I really feel they should have received credit as co-artists instead of just colorists.