Jan 17, 2013

Alan Moore at Awesome, Day 1: Supreme

Welcome to Day 1 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on Alan Moore's time at Awesome Comics. You can read about this series here.

Today, we focus on the first volume of Supreme, by Moore, Joe Bennett, Rick Veitch, Chris Sprouse, and a host of other artists!

Supreme: The Story of the Year
The Greatest Superman Story that Never Was

The first comic Alan Moore got from Rob Liefeld was Supreme. (At the time, Liefeld was running Extreme Studios under Image Comics and Maximum Press as a separate publishing line. Supreme was published under Maximum Press at first. Both companies would be consolidated later on as Awesome. I'm just going to say "Awesome" for the rest of it, okay?)

Anyway, Supreme was a 90s Superman analogue who at that point had a tumultuous undefined (and soemtimes contradicting) past. Moore decided to use this to his advantage, and when he jumped on the series with issue #41, that basic setup allowed Moore to pull his usual trick of rebuilding a character from the ground up. Moore had used it in the prior series where he took over an existing character, such as Captain Britain, Marvelman, and Swamp Thing, but in this case, he didn't have to tear down the already-existing foundation to build a new one. He just had to go with what was already there, and what he decided to go with was an homage or love letter to the Silver Age iteration (that's around mid-50s to late 60s/early 70s; there's not really a set demarcation) of Superman, as evidenced by the first page of his run.

The blurb, shaped like a scroll and starting with "Beginning a great three-part novel!!" is a distinct callback to the Silver Age, in which stories that spanned a full issue were divided into three parts and hyperbolically called "novels." There is also the use of the thought balloon, a device that Moore himself helped make archaic and outdated with his 80s work, and tried bringing back in his later superhero work, such as here.

The Silver Age flourishes are quite a sharp contrast to Joe Bennett's very 90s art, with the irrationally exaggerated anatomy and the excessive flowing of the cape. You'll see a lot of criticism about Bennett's art on this book and on other books, and some of it is certainly warranted, such as in this panel a few pages later where our hero is met by different versions of himself.

That one in the middle is "Original Supreme," supposedly the first version of Supreme ever, and is supposed drawn in such a way as to evoke the feeling of reading an old comic, presumably one from 1938 because that's when Supermen debuted. Unfortunately, Bennett doesn't seem to be skilled enough, or inspired enough, to truly draw him with distinct features. He does stand out in relation to the others, but not without some dialogue establishing him as "Original Supreme" to clue the reader in.

Going by that same logic, I assume that the black female Supreme, Sister Supreme, is from the 70s, and she's also not drawn in a distinct style. Even when Squeak the Supremouse, the analogue for Mighty Mouse of Supermouse, shows up, he stands out more on account of being a giant mouse rather than actually being drawn in a unique style. Perhaps this would have been better off had Bennett just meant to draw them all in his regular style and distinguished them by adding period-specific elements to their costumes, but as you can see from this next panel, there was a distinct effort in making at least Original Supreme look like he was drawn in a different style. But whether it was a deficiency in skill, effort, time, or inspiration, the end result kind of just looks like a halfway effort, especially compared to the type of style-mixing that JH Williams III pulled off in Seven Soldiers or, to go back even further, the kind Marc Swayze, C.C. Beck, and Mac Raboy were doing in the Golden Age Captain Marvel stories.

Supreme is taken to a place called the Supremacy, where it's revealed that history periodically goes through "revisions," and each revision gives way to a new history. It's essentially the way comic book history works, with its reversals, retcons, and revamps, given a narrative, tangible structure and form. The Supremacy is where all versions of Supreme go when they're written out of existence, and as it turns out, our current Supreme is the first one to know of its existence before his past gets "written in."

Each succeeding issue then follows a similar structure. Supreme visits a place, and has memories relating to that place, thus. The memories are presented in the format of classic comics, complete with narrative blurbs and a retro art style, masterfully provided by Rick Veitch.

Using these flashback sequences, Moore and Veitch are able to craft a history for Supreme that reflects elements from the Silver Age Superman — elements that are twisted to seem new and, in the main story drawn by Bennett and other artists such as Jim Morrigan and JJ Bennett, updated to fit into modern times. For example, instead of a bottled city like Superman has with Kandor, Supreme has a small prism inhabited by beings of "sentient light."  Instead of Lex Luthor, his arch-enemy is Darius Dax. Instead of Lana Lang, his old girlfriend Judy Jordan has grown old, while he's stayed eternally young and superheroic. Instead of an extradimensional limbo to keep supercriminals in (The Phantom Zone for Superman), Supreme has a room full of mirrors, and the other side of the mirror houses his captured rogues. And while it's called The Looking-Glass Leavenworth in the flashbacks, it's called The Hell of Mirrors in the present-day setting. Moore and company really make the attempt to give Supreme the kind of rich history that the source character in Superman has, but not be beholden to that Silver Age type of quaintness in the main story.

The League of Infinity's Time Tower, based on DC Comics'
The Legion of Super Heroes, is the kind of "classic idea given a twist"
that is all over the place in Supreme.

In a way, it's Veitch's flashbacks that really make Bennett and company's art the right kind for the main storyline, because there's such a contrast with the old style and the 90s style, and it really feels like the book has decades behind it, as a result. Like Silver Age Superman, with Supergirl and Krypto, Supreme has a female sidekick, Suprema, and a canine one, Radar. But they are fully realized modern characters, although Suprema is a walking  anachronism, spouting off 60s logic and phrases and values, but that's the point, not quaint throwbacks set in the modern day to prove that the good old days were better. Moore extrapolated what these characters would be like in the present day.

Creating correspondences to classic Superman concepts didn't stop with the flashback sequences though. Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen, often turned into a stretchable hero named Elastic Lad. Moore took that a step further and made Supreme's not-a-pal-at-all, Billy Friday, an uncontrollable force known as Elaborate Lad, who would expand in a fractal configuration by the second.

Billy Friday is a comic book writer for Dazzle Comics,where Supreme works as Ethan Crane, comic book artist. Together, they work on Omniman, another Superman-like hero. So there's layers of metatext upon metatext in Supreme, because with Omniman, Moore is able to make comments on the comics industry just as the Supremacy lets him make comments on comics history. For example, check out this Omniman splash page, which emphasizes gore and overintellectualism. (Since Billy Friday was British, there was talk of him being Moore's shot at Grant Morrison. I don't buy it for a second; I think it's Moore's shot at all the British writers, including himself.)

This page was drawn by Dan Jurgens.

And it's not just the history of Superman comics that Supreme covers; in a way, via the flashbacks, it covers a selective history of comics as a medium, starting from the Golden Age. The first flashback scene, featuring Supreme's origin, where he as a kid made contact with the element Supremium (his kryptonite, which gives him powers rather than weakens him), utilizes a Golden Age style layout (note the curved panels in the third tier).

Later on, Moore and Veitch pay EC Comics their due, with the Mayhe-Maniacs in place of the GhouLunatics.

The Maniacs take the Allies (Supreme's Justice League) on three separate trips, where Veitch channels EC's crime comics...

...as well as EC's most enduring product, MAD.

"Melvin" is a MAD thing. MAD is also Alan Moore's favorite comic
ever, and was a big influence on Watchmen.

As Supreme's history reaches the late 60s, Moore and Veitch also pay tribute to the more experimental comics, such as those of Jim Steranko.

And in something that I think is interesting, in the chapter that focused on The Allies, Supreme's version of the Justice League, they only showed covers, which makes sense because Moore is on record as saying that he didn't think the Silver Age Justice League was very good, just that the covers were excellent.

All of these elements come together in the final chapter, where Darius Dax returns, revealed to have transferred his consciousness into Judy Jordan's body decades prior, which he then transfers to Magno, Supreme's version of Amazo, the Justice League robot villain who can mimic all of the League's powers. Dax captures Supreme, necessitating the return of the Allies and the League of Infinity as fully realized contemporary characters rather than the throwbacks seen in the Veitch sequences. The final chapter has no flashbacks, and it's really a quite satisfying wrap-up, seeing how everything converges and successfully launches Supreme into the modern day, ready for more adventures.

All in all, Supreme is a comic about comics in general and Superman comics in particular. It's a love letter to that particular iteration of Superman, and provides a nice contrast with Moore's other love letter to that iteration of Superman, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Given those themes, it may be quite insular, appealing only to hardcore comics fans who would appreciate the metacommentary (a popular theme these days, but which I wouldn't be surprised if new fans find it off-putting) and the nods to old comics and old Superman tropes. But like I said, I think the main story is tight and satisfying as is.

I find it difficult to read Supreme without just imagining Superman in his place, though, along with all the various analogues being replaced  by the original articles. And when I do, I'm convinced that this must be the best Superman story that never was (not that there is much competition). And the next volume, Supreme: The Return, would only be better, even if only because Chris Sprouse would get on art duties. In Sprouse's one issue in The Story of the Year, he handled a low-key, personal story featuring Ethan and writer Diana Dane (his Lois Lane) collaborating on a comic book. Right off the bat, Sprouse's figurework, body language, and sense of drama are evident, and in The Return, we'd see more of that skill on display as Supreme has his episodic adventures, now that his world had been set. But we'll get to that on Friday.

Like I said before though, it's probably actually for the best that Bennett and similar artists drew the main story in Story of the Year, because it did give it a 90s feel and was a sharper contrast with Veitch's flashbacks. He wouldn't have been my ideal choice, but it did provide a stark contrast that, I thought, was effective.

A few notes about the collected edition: The production quality is pretty fragile, and it does look as if they weren't working off the original art, so the coloring seems kind of drab. Also, it doesn't show the covers to the series, nor does it have the extra features that were in the original issues, like The Daily Supreme. It collects only the main storyline, but the collection is still the easiest way to find it.

To cap this off, I'll give you guys two treats. First, here's Chris Sprouse drawing the League of Infinity.

And here's a not-very-often-seen Alex Ross lithograph of the Supremacy.

Tomorrow: It's Awesome's one and only big event, Judgment Day!

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