A Line in the Sand

Supreme Power’s Superhuman Reality

Despite being weaned on a regular weekday diet of Superfriends cartoons during my formative years, the allure of the whole Superman mythos consistently seemed to escape me. The Man of Steel always came off as a rather dreary, one-dimensional character, not only in terms of his annoyingly ingratiating disposition, but also his near-limitless array of powers. As long as he took care not to tread too closely to any of those ol’ Kryptonite rocks — which allowed anyone to pummel him with Ivan Drago-esque beatings — the son of Jor-El could do practically anything under the (yellow) sun. Heroic fiction is driven by obstacles and villains that make the protagonists sweat to earn their paychecks, so how can you challenge a guy who’s been granted near-godlike status?1.

Worse yet, this was a man who never seemed to have a crisis of confidence, who rarely was tempted to abuse the awesome power he had at his disposal, and most surprisingly of all, didn’t inhabit a world that exhibited the sort of paranoia you’d expect to find from any government faced with a being who could level the globe without fear of reprisal.

The whole notion of suspension of disbelief, with superheroes, really applies more to the world they inhabit than the characters themselves. When we pick up a book about the Hulk, or Green Lantern, or Howard the Duck2, we’ve already implicitly agreed to accept at face value anything that these beings are able to perform, so long as those abilities don’t contradict earlier established parameters. Generate walls of ice out of thin air? Fine. Rain down lightning from the skies with a few swings of a hammer? No problem. But in most superhero-themed universes, it’s the reactions of everyone else that require the biggest leaps of faith on the part of the reader. Behind closed doors, the NYPD might sympathize with the likes of Bernard Goetz3, but would they truly sleep well at night knowing that someone with the ability to toss around Buicks was at large, no matter how many bound-and-gagged hoodlums they delivered to the station’s doorsteps? Last I checked, American paramilitary organizations and/or individuals were frowned upon by law enforcement types4. After about the third or fourth time that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man spun his way through Manhattan, I’m guessing that his modus operandi would attract the attention of everyone from the NSA on down, leading to some very frank discussions between Uncle Sam and Mr. Peter Parker.

But in most comics, the world is usually governed by authorities who adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards super-powered individuals, so long as these folks aren’t flagrantly violating their local penal codes and mussing up the countryside5. Let’s face it: it’s the easiest way out in many respects — the sheer number of metahumans in, say, the Marvel or DC universes would realistically generate such a level of mass hysteria that it would overshadow any attempt at chronicling the adventures of the individual characters.

But what if you tried to assess what would genuinely happen if someone with incredible Superman-like powers were dropped in America’s backyard sometime during the Carter administration? That’s the story of Supreme Power.

In Supreme Power, the brainchild of writer J. Michael Straczynski6, Ma and Pa Kent don’t stumble upon the little wunderkind and raise him in an idyllic environment. They do, in fact, discover him, but any hopes of a traditional small town American upbringing are dashed hours later when their home is beset by scores of heavily-armed troops who confiscate the baby as property of the United States government. It doesn’t take long for the Pentagon to realize what kind of weapon it could potentially possess in the infant (Mark Milton, a.k.a. Hyperion), who’s already nearly invulnerable and has to be fed via bottles clamped to tongs so that he doesn’t inadvertently crush the hands of his caretakers. And so the top brass immediately begin devising an elaborate brainwashing/educational process to make sure that he answers only to the Red, White, and Blue when the time is right.

At the same time, a team of scientists is dispatched to go over Hyperion’s space pod with a fine-toothed comb. No one can make heads or tails of the alien technology for a number of years, but eventually they grow to suspect that the “gifts” it brought down to Earth weren’t limited to its drooling passenger — especially after the power source of said ship forms a symbiotic relationship with one of the military’s crack troops (later christened “Doctor Spectrum”), who’s assigned the task of harnessing it.

A handful of other metahumans — most of whom have ties to the aforementioned pod — make entrances during the 12 issues that comprise the first collected volume of Supreme Power, but the focus seldom wavers from Hyperion. It’s his incredible power, and the government’s attempt to manipulate and control that power, around which Straczynski and artist Gary Frank skilfully weave their tale. Although Hyperion grows up naïve, he’s not stupid, and controlled environments don’t mean much to a guy who can toss around tanks and smash the sound barrier many times over.

Eventually coming to the realization that he’s simply a pawn of American military and foreign policy interests, Hyperion soon develops a dangerous glint in his eye ... which doesn’t bode well for anyone involved in the orchestration of his deception. At a hastily-called emergency meeting to deal with the prospect of an angry Hyperion thundering down on them, his handlers nervously calculate that the destructive potential of the Pandora’s Box they’ve opened can only be accurately expressed in megadeaths7.

Is it time for the government to empty the missile silos and head for the hills? Not quite8, but Straczynski goes to great lengths to keep the reader off-guard by omitting any and all interior monologue — in other words, thought bubbles. “I always wanted to keep the innermost thoughts of (Hyperion) secret from the reader, so that from start to finish, you’re never quite sure of what his intentions are,” Straczynski admits. “And I couldn’t omit just his thoughts and leave in everyone else’s...so as you read through this book, you will note that we never go under the surface of his thoughts, or inside the head of anyone else. As with the real world, all we have to go on is what we’re told by someone else. Which is what makes so much of the book ominous.” When Hyperion casually concludes midway through Vol. 1 that “sometimes I think that only an alien could solve all the world’s problems, because only an alien could be objective enough to get the job done,” it is up to the reader to determine what exactly he has in mind as far as solutions.

And the murkiness isn’t limited to social interaction between the characters. From the outset of the story, the reader has no idea where Hyperion comes from, why he’s landed on Earth, or how his arrival has served as the catalyst for a myriad of other strange happenings that soon transpire9. Hyperion has no idea either; there’s only one entity which does know the whole picture — the alien space pod — and it ain’t talking, save for cryptic messages sporadically sprinkled throughout the book.

For this reason, we’re encouraged to identify with the American government at the outset of the book. We’re all anchored in the same pool of ignorance with regards to Hyperion’s origin, so when government scientists unravel a new piece of the puzzle, we share in the discovery, even as we both know that eventually there will be a price to paid for America’s reckless abuse of their new weapon. But through it all, Hyperion unflaggingly exhibits an altruistic attitude and wants to do the right thing by the society that’s come to view him as a hero. Later on, when we discover that his craft may not have been the first of its kind to reach Earth, the question is opened as to what kind of trouble civilization would face if met by a similar being that shared no such compunctions.

As the initial arc of Supreme Power chugs towards a finish line littered with cliffhangers, Straczynski decides to opt for a visually creative solution to address a sticky conundrum. With the various story threads splintering, hopping from one to the next becomes increasingly clunky — so it’s simply abandoned. Instead, the concluding chapter is presented in “split-screen” form, with each set of two-page foldouts being divided into four horizontal strips10. The finale, where factions are defined and uneasy alliances are forged, sets the proper stage for the next six issues of the series11 — after which point the series will “re-launch” in 2006, moving from Marvel’s MAX line to its Marvel Knights imprint12.

Straczynski will continue at the helm of the series next year, and it’ll be interesting to see in which direction he heads as the focus edges away from Hyperion as the sole lead. The series occasionally bogged down when the attention shifted elsewhere; the series’ homage to Aquaman (a blue-skinned female who lacked the capacity for human speech) spent an inordinate amount of time with pained expressions on her face in the absence of a relevant role, while the plodding, six-issue Doctor Spectrum miniseries (written by Samm Barnes during an SP hiatus) chronicled a troubled childhood that unfolded in predictable ways, without providing much in the way of new insight as far as his powers or connection to the alien space pod.

That being said, however, there is much to recommend with Supreme Power, and it’s one of the finest comics I’ve read in quite some time. Sure, no one’s re-inventing the wheel with the character frameworks, but Straczynski always seems to know exactly how to pace his tale and how to reveal just enough detail to leave the reader itching for more. The tension and paranoia are palpable as the SP world seems to slowly inch towards the precipice of Armageddon — prodded along by Gary Frank’s artwork, which lends an air of subtle menace to the series . During a particularly chilling scene, a young Mark Milton, sensing the growing unease of his pseudo-parents (who are in fact government agents), asks his father whether they love him. But when Mark later adds that “I love you as much as you love me,” it’s not a reciprocation of affection, but rather a line in the sand.

1Superman was somewhat “de-powered” in the mid-1980s in a well-publicized effort by DC Comics to re-launch the character under much-hyped writer John Byrne, but presently is still able to fly through suns, move planets, etc. — basically all the sorts of things that you or I would do if given omnipotence and an afternoon or so to kill.

2The film adaptation of which became the Ishtar of its genre before Ishtar was even released.

3Currently a candidate in the 2005 race for Public Advocate of New York City, by the way.

4Although, in various circumstances, the State Department has often looked favorably on such groups operating outside American borders ...

5There are notable exceptions, of course — such as the exacerbating schism between humans and mutants in the Marvel Universe. The idea is that the appearance of mutants (termed “homo superior” instead of “homo sapien” — no one’s ever accused Stan Lee’s successors of being Latin scribes) marked the advent of an evolutionary process that threatens the survival of normal folks like you and me. While this makes for good theater, on another level it’s somewhat illogical. As my friend Mark Delsing points out: “We're expected to believe that, in a world where there are tons of costumed superheroes that are revered as heroes, all of humanity hates the X Men on sight. It's just dumb. How does Joe Six-Pack know the difference between the Thing and the Beast? Why would he love one and hate the other?”

6It’s not entirely germane to this review, but the inspirations behind Supreme Power are quite labyrinthine and may induce mild amounts of head clutching to those not familiar with the Marvel and DC universes. SP is loosely based on Marvel’s Squadron Supreme, which was itself originally an homage to DC’s Justice League of America. Apparently, one of the early writers of Marvel’s super group title The Avengers, Roy Thomas, was a big enough fan of the JLA that he introduced similarly themed characters for his Avengers to battle back in the 1970s. (The writers of JLA soon returned the favor in the DC world, though it was all on the up and up and mutually agreed upon, so no invectives — or legal accusations — were hurled.) It should also be noted that while the Squadron Supreme occasionally interacted with characters from the Marvel universe, it was not native to that world, nstead inhabiting a planet that had a history similar to that of “real” Earth but, for reasons that will not be delved into here, had been stripped of any sort of functional government and ruling authority. Thus, as the most powerful inhabitants of their realm, the Squadron Supreme felt it was their duty to assume control of its planet and transform it into their vision of a utopia, an undertaking that splintered its ranks with dissension and led to all sorts of philosophical discussions about the corrupting influence of power. The 1985 limited series that explored these topics was seen as the precursor for other “mature” comics that followed, particularly the landmark Watchmen series written by Alan Moore the following year.

7Specifically, a lone Hyperion at DefCon 1 = one million casualties every 16.6 days. It’s basically what General Zod (magnificently portrayed with über-contemptuousness by British actor Terence Stamp) and his cronies would have accomplished in Superman II had the White House not capitulated so quickly. Incidentally, Superman II was, in my estimation, one of the finest pre-CGI superhero movies ever made. Wonderfully written and cast, featuring villains who could actually put a hurting on the Man of Steel, Superman II managed to achieve the incredible feat of depicting believable all-out super-powered combat via 1980-era special effects technology. Poor Metropolis was all but leveled in the pre-climactic battle royal.

8Though the military considered this very response while General Zod’s crew was running roughshod over America during Kal-El’s power-sapping tryst with Lois Lane. The option was summarily dismissed due to “danger to the civilian population.”

9Only one character, the race-conscious (and somewhat delusional) Nighthawk, has an origin that’s fleshed out in detail during Vol. 1 of Supreme Power. But there’s nothing “super” about him — he’s basically just a rich guy with an ax to grind (clearly based on a Batman archetype) who would have been out roaming the streets whomping on bad guys whether or not Hyperion ever arrived.

10Kind of like reading your daily newspaper comics pages, in a sense. And it works, particularly in a medium where you have the time to digest each sliver individually. On film, split-screen camera work can only be employed in quick bursts — it’s just too difficult to follow the action otherwise, especially when overlapping conversations are involved. Director Mike Figgis actually made an entire movie using this technique back in 2000 called Time Code, which to this day remains one of my more frustrating film-watching experiences.

11Scheduled to be released this month in trade paperback form.

12Basically, the MAX label was designed for titles that allow explicit content (i.e. profanity, nudity, etc.), not found in your typical Marvel comics. A while back, the company split with the Comics Code Authority and instituted its own ratings system in order to head off censorship at the pass, but since the MAX label isn’t universally welcome at comic establishments, the powers-in-charge figure that a little trimming of the SP’s more gratuitous elements might ensure a larger readership — much like the way big movie studios will push for a potential blockbuster to leave the gates with a PG-13 rating instead of a less-inclusive R.