MAX (Marvel), Supreme Power #3, 5, 6, 7, 9-17, written by J. Michael Straczynski, drawn by Gary Frank, 2003-2005
The first time I read Mark Gruenwald’s brilliant Squadron Supreme I was disappointed. Mind you, I was young and accustomed to the ways of my day—I mean, these 80s comics had thought balloons! From panel to panel actions took place and in a single issue you might get to see a complete story unfold. Things happened at a rapid pace and in 12 issues I got more story than I’d ever digested before. No, it didn’t sit right at first, but after a long gestation period I think I finally got it. In fact, I loved it. It was a jazz song finding room in my head full of pop tunes. I could tell there were a million little great ideas being thrown around, but my mind heard a single complex solo without discerning each note.
And you know what? It wasn’t even that complicated! It was classic superhero storytelling from a bygone era—perhaps one of the best examples of it, in fact.
J. Michael Straczynski’s Supreme Power is a grim, gritty, cynical revamp of the classic Squadron. Or, more accurately, it’s a grim, gritty, cynical play on Justice League stereotypes. What if our world was suddenly introduced to people with unbelievable powers? Well, the military would most assuredly screw it all up, a few would be evil, a few would be racist and even fewer would actually mean well. It’s a dark outlook that’s for sure. This isn’t a fun series, ladies and gentlemen—it’s pitch black.
That being said, I did enjoy it. It’s deeply set in the storytelling tradition I was comfortable with in my youth—long story arcs, little progression, endless scenes with plenty of dialogue and little substance. Despite this, it never feels too drawn out or overly slow; the pacing is just right for a modern book.
The writing is pretty good too. I thought the dialogue was very believable and the characters were all very unique. There were a few story decisions I wasn’t crazy about, but overall the package was tight. Whereas Gruenwald’s original Squadron series was very plot based, Straczyski’s is more character oriented. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many likable characters. It was interesting to watch the plot unfold, but there was nobody to root for. Almost every single character in here is angry, brooding and holding a grudge. Still, it keeps you engaged.
I’m proud to report that Gary Frank’s art here is very consistent. He’s got a nice, detailed style that proves a winner on each page. Honestly, it’s high caliber material and I was impressed to see it remain so throughout. Not even the later issues look rushed. Things aren’t pretty, mind you, with all the bloodshed and “adultness” of everything, but nothing negative can be said about the crafting of the pictures, that’s for sure.
I liked Supreme Power and I’ll be happy to read Strazcynski’s follow-up Squadron Supreme when I get the chance. It’s nowhere near as good as Gruenwald’s seminal work, but for a dark, depressing, pessimistic reimagining, I found this series worthy—and you might too, if you’re into that sort of thing.
DC, The Shadow #1-3, written and drawn by Howard Chaykin, 1986
Now here’s a series that couldn’t get much darker. The Shadow was never a fun, cartoony, children-orientated character. Since his days as a radio serial staple he’s been a gun-toting maniac, cutting down his enemies in a hail of bullets. His stories weren’t just about crime; they were about the evil in man’s heart. The Shadow would stalk his prey, manipulate minds and laugh feverishly before talking out the trash. But I can’t speak much to the original version, whether it’s from the old pulps, radio or comics. I never experienced the original Shadow much. My version will always be the Andy Helfer/Bill Sienkiewicz/Kyle Baker version that followed this Howard Chaykin 80s reboot. In fact, Helfer’s Shadow is probably one of my favourite series of all time (and I’ll never stop telling you about it).
I figured it was probably time I read Chaykin’s version, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though, it’s nothing compared to the brilliance that would follow.
First things first, this series takes place in the 80s. The Shadow’s agents from back in the day are all old and grey—and are being picked off one by one too! In fact, by the end of the first issue, only two are still alive. Well, The Shadow may have been out of commission, but having all his former friends murdered is a pretty good reason to take up the mantle once more. Here’s the kicker, Mr. Shadow is still in his prime—he hasn’t aged a day. It’s a neat set-up that’s bolstered by an interesting new villain and a great retelling (or reboot?) of The Shadow’s origins.
Chaykin’s writing is solid. His dialogue keeps you hooked, characters all have their own voices and the story moves along at a reasonable pace. I didn’t find this dark reimagining particularly controversial (as many did), but then I wasn’t a diehard fan of the original. I was, however, confused by the 80s punk vibe that seeped into every issue. All of the henchmen are over-the-top punks with blue mohawks and such. Chaykin seems to play up the scene as something of a plague. It’s rather strange and distracting.
Oh, and apparently fans were getting up in arms about The Shadow wielding uzis instead of his trademark pistols. What’s up with that? In this series, The Shadow is basically taking on the 1980s, he’s got to arm himself for the times. I thought being able to wildly fire a storm of bullets went great with his signature, terrifying laugh. For me, it all seemed to fit.
Now I was never able to grab the last issue of this four issue mini, but I can say these first three books are quite good. If you’re familiar with Chaykin’s art, this is a key series. It’s essentially the turning point from his accessible, detailed-yet-familiar impressive early art to his signature style that he’d been developing with American Flagg. His art these days doesn’t even compare to what he could do back in the 80s.
DC, Challengers of the Unknown #1-7, written by Jeph Loeb, drawn by Tim Sale, 1991
I feel like Jeph Loeb can only write well when’s he’s teamed with Tim Sale. I mean, don’t you love everything they’ve done together? Daredevil: Yellow, Superman for All Seasons, Batman: The Long Halloween… they’re a dream-team when it comes to the character-driven mini-series. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever liked anything else Jeph Loeb has ever written. Such a shame!
So here’s where it all began. Before this “dark reimagining” (there we go again) of the Challengers of the Unknown, Jeph Loeb was simply known as “that guy that wrote the script for Teen Wolf”. Yeah, not exactly you’re A-list type. Tim Sale wasn’t much of a star either, being known for not much more than a few issues of Grendel. These guys were newbies and armed with a dated concept like the Challengers, what could go right? Well, quite a bit, actually!
Seems the Challengers had made a name for themselves as adventuring icons. They had their own little town built around their mountain headquarters with tours and gift shops and everything—like a faded theme park built for heroes of a bygone area. So Loeb kicks off the series by blowing the place up and seemingly killing off two of the Challengers.
We’re quickly introduced to tabloid writer Harold Moffet who’s made his living covering (and exaggerating) the Challenger’s exploits. He’s slimy but lovable and a great addition to the cast. Then, each remaining Challenger drops their nicknames. No more “Rocky”, “Red” and “Ace”—now it’s Leslie, Ryan and Kyle. They go on trial for the destruction of their headquarters/town and the murder of Prof and June, their fallen Challenger associates.
When Jack Kirby created the Challengers (with the help of Dave Wood, probably), he gave us the old-timey sci-fi exploits of non-powered adventurers. Loeb does the grim and gritty thing and throws his characters to the proverbial comic book winds. “Rocky” becomes a movie star, and then gets caught up in the seedy underbelly of fame and fortune with the return of a classic Challengers character. “Red” decides to go the Punisher-style vigilante route. “Ace” goes all Dr. Strange and delves into the mystical realms. If I was a classic Challengers fan, I’d probably be pissed. But I had no previous connections to these characters, so throwing them into completely new (though well-tread) areas was welcome.
I’m not sure how I feel about the writing. The story is interesting, the dialogue is great and the pace is just right, but everything is steeped in an almost untasteful amount of cliché. It feels like every other page Loeb is winking at the reader, being uber-proud that he’s writing a comic book and proving he knows a thing or two. I never found an issue unenjoyable, per say, but at times it feels like Loeb is drawing more attention to himself than the story.
The art is early Tim Sale, so it’s brilliant but only a hint of what he’d be capable of. Everything is very loose and cartoony but also expressive and perfectly structured. The only downside is the colouring, really, which is rather dark. There’re no pretty watercolours here, and even the moodiness of The Long Halloween is absent. It’s all just rather muddy and unpleasant. Still, my eyes were never disappointed.
I encourage you to read Challengers of The Unknown, but I can’t necessarily guarantee your enjoyment of it. I liked it, but I can see some readers getting downright angry at the story. I have no doubt we’ll all agree on the art, though. Buy it for that, at least.