Sitting here on my desk to my immediate left is the Squadron Supreme Omnibus. It’s an impressive book, weighing in at about three pounds with over 430 pages of comics greatness. It also has a price tag to match that heft: $74.99.
Yeah, that’s seventy-five dollars American–and though I bought the book for half off, it still cost a hardly trivial $37.50 (though I paid no tax on it, which saved me 9.5 percent, which is a big deal in my state).
For that kind of money, I expect a whole lot of great comics entertainment. Pretty much every time in the past when I’ve spent this kind of money on a book–Absolute All-Star Superman, Absolute Watchmen, or the Howard the Duck Omnibus–my reward was a book that ended up being a real classic of comics art.
In all of those cases, I had read the contents long before buying the collection, and I expect to keep reading those books in collected form for years and years. These are truly classic comics, and I’m delighted to own them in a permanent and mostly perfect edition. However, I’d never read these Squadron Supreme comics over the years–even though I’d heard glowingly positive comments about these comics. You could call the Squadron the poor-man’s Watchmen, if you believe the reviews.
For instance, The Slings and Arrows Comics Guide says about the comics collected in this book: “This is Gruenwald’s comic and it’s a rare treat to see twelve issues so well conceived and executed. The series stands alone and makes its point.” Thus, I took a chance and decided I’d try splurging a bit to try out this comic.
I really regret my purchase.
The thing is that much of the alleged greatness of this book rests with when it was first released. Marvel Comics in 1985 and 1986 wasn’t an especially innovative place; it was generally a place where conservative storytelling and art reigned. At the same time that their rivals at DC were producing Watchmen, Dark Knight, and lesser-known series like ‘Mazing Man, Swamp Thing, and Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow, Marvel’s line was much quieter. Readers were still a few years away from the revolutionary effect of the Image Comics crew, and Marvel’s books had a feeling of sameness about them.
Against that backdrop, Squadron Supreme definitely stands out. Set in an alternate universe that has been devastated through the machinations of an evil overlord, the only superhero team in the United States decides to stage martial law and set themselves up as virtual dictators. The members of the team face complex moral quandaries as they fight amongst themselves–and they live, die, and are maimed in the battles that they bring on.
Sounds intriguing, right? That’s what I thought. I was hoping for an interesting look at an alternate Marvel universe where the heroes take responsibility for their actions and have to live up to the implications of the ideals that they profess to represent–and this book has some of that, don’t get me wrong.
However, compared to what it could have been, this book seems so tepid. A big part of my complaint is based on the fact that so much has happened in the comics world since these original comics were published.
There was obviously a lot of shock value in the idea of killing and maiming characters when this book first came out. Unfortunately, when you take this comic out of the context of its time, the things that happen to the characters seem downright commonplace.
Hyperion gets blinded in a battle, but the shock of those events doesn’t have the impact it did 25 years ago. We’ve seen plenty of characters get maimed in comics, so this is nothing too terribly special to read these days.
Likewise, the death by cancer of the midget genius super-hero Tom Thumb just doesn’t have the shock it otherwise might have because we’ve seen deaths so often in comics during the last quarter century. Tom Thumb’s death is an intriguing element of the story, but the vast numbers of comics that have been produced in the meantime mutes its effect.
The only aspect of the story that’s genuinely strange and interesting is the presence of a character named Ape X–a legless female ape with a human brain who wears a one-piece swimsuit, travels around in a tank-like chair, and has an unrequited love for Tom Thumb. Ape X is a legitimately strange character, a being whose apparent complete randomness makes her seem odd and upsetting. I found I was completely baffled by this character every time she appeared on the printed page–a feeling I wish I’d had more often in this comic.
Right there is the real problem I had with this book: It wasn’t nearly as unique, odd, or thoughtful as I was hoping it would be.
The book wants to take on big themes– the nature of heroism in a compromised world, the nature of what it means to be an American, individuality versus groupthink, the needs of the society versus the needs of the individual, atonement for past evil, the rebuilding of a destructive world–but it never fully embraces those themes.
In fact, despite the fact that the series pays lip service to many themes, it never delves deeply beneath the surface the way that greater works of comics art have done. For instance, in considering the first three themes in Squadron Supreme, Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman does a much more interesting job of exploring true heroism in a morally compromised world; Alan Moore’s Watchmen does a much more interesting job of exploring what it means to be an American; and Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck does a much better job of exploring the nature of individuality versus groupthink—and Gerber’s masterpiece preceded Gruenwald’s while Moore’s was contemporary to Gruewald’s, so this isn’t just a case of Gruenwald laying the foundation that others built upon. Thus, this book can’t make a claim for needing a deluxe edition due to its “historical significance.”
Now you may say that that my comparisons are unfair, that Gruenwald was never the writer that Gerber was–or that Grant Morrison or, especially, Alan Moore are–that Gruenwald’s only aspiration was to write really good Marvel comics. After all, he wasn’t a rebel or a transgressor looking to explore his own individuality through comics in the same way that Gerber did–but saying that is missing the point.
This book collects a series of comics that are intended to be deeper and more thoughtful than the average comic, with themes and concepts that are intended to make an adult pay attention. However, the book achieves these intentions in such a shallow and pedestrian manner that this adult found himself wanting to read other, more truly thoughtful comics rather than this one.
Honestly, it all comes back to the price I paid for this book. I guess the concept I’m striving for here is story value–which is to say, the price I paid for this book in comparison to the pleasure I received from reading it.
For thirty-seven and a half dollars cash American, I wanted something to knock me out, to have me screaming at the top of my Internet voice that this was a comic that MUST be read. I’ve done that for most of the other books for which I’ve paid this kind of money, but this one is just not the same caliber of comics.
Yeah, if this was a $10 TPB then I would have smiled and enjoyed the goofiness of it all. If I’d checked the book out of my local library, I would have found it intriguing. However, as a super-deluxe hardcover, it simply fell short of my hopes and expectations.