As I told you last week, now I'm getting copies of comics sent to me to review, and along with 1602 #1, I received photocopies of the first issue of Supreme Power, Marvel's new series about the Squadron Supreme, written by Babylon 5 creator and sometime Spider-Man scribe J. Michael Straczynski, and drawn by Gary Frank.

Sitting down to review Supreme Power reminds me of the time I wrote a preview of the previous Squadron Supreme limited series.

Back in the 1980s Fantagraphics was somewhat more tolerant of mainstream comics, enough so that they published Amazing Heroes, an admirable magazine that covered superhero comics as well as the early alternative books. (This, of course, gave the magazine's sister publication, The Comics Journal an excuse not to cover mainstream titles and concentrate on what it did best: detesting them.) I conducted many interviews for Amazing Heroes in the course of its long run, and once I arranged to interview my friend and colleague Mark Gruenwald about his forthcoming Squadron Supreme maxi-series. Mark agreed on one condition: we could not bring up the very obvious fact, never mentioned in the comics, that the Squadron was based on DC's Justice League of America. It seemed that Marvel thought it best not to publicly rub DC's figurative face in the fact. This condition didn't bother me or the editor, Kim Thompson, and the interview proved to be among my better ones for Amazing Heroes.

And then the magazine got letters from outraged fans: how DARE you not point out that the Squadron is a rip-off of the Justice League!?!

The Squadron wasn't a rip-off. Nobody is really going to confuse Hyperion with Superman or Power Princess with Wonder Woman. If the Squadron characters had really been that close to the Justice Leaguers, DC would indeed have sued. The Squadron were like characters from a roman a clef, a novel whose readers know that the cast is based on real people, and want to learn what the author has to say about them.

And if these infuriated Amazing Heroes readers had had a sense of humor or, for that matter, history, they would have known something else: the Squadron Supreme started out as a joke.

Before the Squadron Supreme ever appeared in comics, there was the Squadron Sinister, who startled readers with their surprise debut on the final page of Avengers #69, written by Roy Thomas. This was part of the story line which introduced the Grandmaster, a virtually omnipotent alien being who obsessively played games. His opponent on this occasion was the Avengers' archfoe Kang the Conqueror, who compelled the Avengers to serve as his champions in combat against the Grandmaster's pawns. Cleverly, and somewhat daringly, Thomas devised the Squadron Sinister as a team serving the Grandmaster: a quartet of evildoers who were clearly based on four of the most prominent members of the Justice League of America. Hyperion was based on Superman, Nighthawk on Batman, Doctor Spectrum on Green Lantern, and the Whizzer on the Flash. (Then as now a passionate fan of the comics of the 1940s, Roy named the Whizzer after Marvel's own Golden Age super-speedster hero, and subsequently revived the original Whizzer in Giant-size Avengers #1.) A further dimension to the joke was that the Avengers themselves were surely created as Marvel's answer to the Justice League: both teams were designed to be organizations of superheroes who starred in their own series as well.

The Squadron Sinister would return from time to time over subsequent decades, either operating as individuals or together, and one member, Nighthawk, reformed and became a mainstay of a longrunning superhero team, the Defenders.

In Avengers #85, Thomas took the Squadron notion further. A group of Avengers journeyed to an alternate Earth, in which they met that planet's leading superhero team, the Squadron Supreme. Some of its roster, like Hyperion, were parallel world counterparts of members of the Squadron Sinister. Other characters were brand new, except, of course, for the fact that they too were inspired by Justice League members. Thus American Eagle (later to be known as the Blue Eagle) was a variation on Hawkman, Lady Lark evoked Black Canary, and the dwarf Tom Thumb, a genius inventor and scientist, was a twist on DC's Atom, a physicist who could shrink to miniscule size. (It just struck me that Thomas may also have been thinking of Dr. Miguelito Loveless, the memorable archvillain of the TV series The Wild Wild West, who was also a dwarf and scientific genius. Roy, are you reading this? Is this true?) There was also the Squadron's own Hawkeye, who shared a name with the Avengers' Hawkeye, perhaps as an acknowledgement that Marvel's Hawkeye was influenced by past archer heroes, including DC's Green Arrow. After the usual contention when Marvel heroes meet, the two teams joined forces against a villain named Brain-Child, whose enormous head, containing an equally enormous brain, was reminiscent of various sci-fi characters from DC stories of the 1950s and 1960s.

Once again Thomas was poking affectionate fun at the Justice League by creating these counterparts, but now it was clear he was also paying homage. Indeed, this cross-dimensional teaming of the Avengers and Squadron Supreme evokes the annual team-ups between the Justice League, the heroes of DC's Silver Age, who were based on "Earth-1," and their predecessors, the Justice Society of America, the greatest heroes of DC's Golden Age of the 1940s, who had been established as inhabiting "Earth-2," a parallel version of Earth in an alternate dimension.

The Squadron Supreme returned in the 1970s in Avengers #141 thanks to one of the best and most innovative superhero writers of that decade, Steve Englehart. To set Englehart's work with the Squadron in context, I want to digress into another topic I've been thinking about over the last few months.

Recently, the Independent Film Channel telecast a documentary, A Decade under the Influence, about the generation of filmmakers who transformed Hollywood in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s. The great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age had died, retired, and lost touch with what the marketplace wanted. Much of Hollywood's older audience was staying home and watching television instead of going out to the movies. A new, young generation was becoming the dominant audience for movies, and they had different tastes, and different attitudes towards politics and sexuality than their parents. The studios, clueless about how to deal with this generational shift, were turning out elephantine epics and musicals that fell flat. Some of the new, rising generation of filmmakers were greatly influenced by classic Hollywood films of the past, and still more of them had their sensibilities shaped by newer forms of cinema: the foreign art films of the 1950s and 1960s, and the earliest American independents. When some of the movies made by these new American filmmakers began making large amounts of money by tapping into the sensibilities of the new generation, the studios gave many of these directors a surprisingly free hand. The studios didn't know how to appeal to the new audience, but realized that these newcomers might. The new generation of moviemakers, even when working in the old familiar genres, put the stamp of their artistic personalities on them, and were willing to address the political, social and moral issues of their time.

It strikes me that there was a similar movement going on simultaneously in comics. DC was the equivalent of the big Hollywood studios: after the brilliance of DC's reinvention of the superhero genre in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it had run into a creative drought by the decade's end. There was a new audience for comics, now, and it wasn't just the little kids that traditionally had read the books. The Marvel of the 1960s was in its own way the counterpart of the French New Wave and the foreign innovators in film: Marvel was pioneering new methods of comics storytelling and characterization, addressing more serious themes, and in the process keeping and attracting readers in their teens and beyond. Moreover, among this new generation of readers were people who wanted to write or draw comics themselves, within the new style that Marvel had pioneered, and push the creative envelope still further.

Their stories would simultaneously be true to the new Marvel tradition (or, if published at DC or Charlton, recognizably influenced by it) while also clearly serving to express the individual writers' ideas and sensibility. Roy Thomas was the first of comics' New Wave, and was instrumental in bringing in many of the others. Thomas was to comics as Peter Bogdanovich was to movies at that time: the critic and scholar turned creator, who was primarily influenced by the classics of the past, but took them more seriously as art than their creators had. And there were others: Archie Goodwin, Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Doug Moench, Don McGregor, Walter Simonson, Howard Chaykin, and more; Chris Claremont was probably the last major figure to come in as part of this movement, and he would inaugurate another period in comics through his early work on the X-Men. All of them, to a greater or lesser extent, turned their work into a vehicle for personal expression, as indeed Stan Lee had starting in 1961. Some of them, like O'Neil and Gerber, revolutionized comics by using familiar genres, like superhero adventure and horror, to express their views on the political and social issues of that time.

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