Squadron Supreme (Mark Gruenwald) - C or D?

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(Sorry if this has been done; search function doesn't seem to work...)

I just finished reading a TPB collection of this 1985-86 Marvel miniseries. I was vaguely familiar with the background, but missed it the first time around. It's notable not just for Gruenwald's unique style, but also because it was apparently the first big DC or Marvel series to feature a dystopian alt-universe and to "explore the link btw. superheroes and fascism" (followed closely by "Watchmen," "The Dark Knight Returns," etc.).

The series involves an Earth where a JLA-like super team (Squadron Supreme) has fucked up big time, and decides that the only way to make things right is to institute a "Utopia program" involving population control, loss of free will, suspension/elimination of civil liberties, etc. The Squadron characters were apparently already in play in Marvel -- the core team members are each explicitly modeled on a famous DC character -- and Gruenwald got free reign to use them in this very unconventional saga, which is pretty awesome.

The storyline plays out over the course of a year (in "real time"), with around a month passing for the characters between each issue. The first few issues are very effective and unsettling, as the Squadron rolls out their program with very little dissension in their ranks. It doesn't make much sense how eagerly most of them embrace the agenda -- some of them question it just a bit, while others are whole-hog proponents -- you certainly wouldn't expect the actual JLA characters to act that way! But that's part of the unsettling "feel"; you don't know these characters or this world (even though they're very similar to ones you do know), and so you can accept moves from "Hyperion" and "Power Princess" that you wouldn't accept from Superman and Wonder Woman.

Gruenwald's style is really interesting -- he's one of the more distinctive superhero writers I'm aware of. His dialogue has a terseness and "realism" that you don't usually find in mainstream comics, and that realism carries through in his situations and action (even though certain aspects of the "SS" plot, such as technical details, require a major suspension of disbelief).

Unfortunately, the story begins to sag around the middle -- starting with an issue played almost for "comic relief," where a dissident Squadron member visits the "main" Marvel Universe to seek help from the Avengers. And most of the series' back end is somewhat soft, focusing mainly on relationships and issues between the Squardroners, and less on their impact on the world and the implications of their agenda.

But everything comes together in the final issue, with a big superhero fight that is absolutely the most "realistic" and brutal I've ever read. Gruenwald has a way of making most other comic-book action feel silly and cartoony in comparison to his own... his combat scenes play out with chilling, precise clarity. This feels like how it would "really feel" if superheroes fought each other, and the results are devastating.

In some ways, I suppose "Squadron Supreme" falls short when it comes to exploring the ethical and philosophical angles that it takes on; Gruenwald seems to set up more than he can handle (or is interested in handling). For better or worse, "Squadron Supreme" lacks the "literary" pretensions of "Watchmen," and its treatment of its underlying themes can feel somewhat clunky and obvious (I'm not the biggest "Watchmen" fan, but Moore's is clearly the more elegant and sophisticated approach). And when it comes to the "superhero/fascism" nexus, I still think Frank Miller explored it better with a few Superman scenes in "DKR" than anything else I've read (sometimes, "less is more"...).

But when considered on its own -- as a "mainstream" but highly unconventional superhero series that goes places and does things that still feel startling, 30+ years later -- "Squadron" feels like a classic and a real accomplishment.

morrisp, Wednesday, 8 February 2017 18:34 (two years ago) link

I remember this when it came out but didn't pay too much attention - never connected it to the subsequent Watchmen/DKR but that makes sense. might see if this tpb is available from the library...

Οὖτις, Wednesday, 8 February 2017 18:38 (two years ago) link

Ooh, tantalising writeup. Will check them out and report back.

Chuck_Tatum, Wednesday, 8 February 2017 23:31 (two years ago) link

Reading back over what I wrote, one quick adjustment for accuracy: not sure what I meant by "population control," as the Squadron doesn't try to keep down the birth rate or anything (in fact, they do the exact opposite... they invent and mass-produce hibernation chambers that everyone's corpse can chill in, until your cause of death is "cured" in the future!).

morrisp, Thursday, 9 February 2017 01:14 (two years ago) link

A longtime lover of comics, Gruenwald made it known amongst his friends and families that his one desire was to have his ashes used in part of a comic. In accordance with his request, he was cremated, and his ashes were mixed with the ink used to print the first printing of the trade paperback compilation of Squadron Supreme.

Shame the artwork on this series is so lousy, btw.

Bongo Herbert (Ward Fowler), Thursday, 9 February 2017 12:01 (two years ago) link

that is metal as fuck, respect to mark gruenwald

for sale: steve bannon waifu pillow (heavily soiled) (bizarro gazzara), Thursday, 9 February 2017 12:03 (two years ago) link

I was furious that I was not able to get an initial printing of that trade

ornate orchestral arrangements (DJP), Thursday, 9 February 2017 17:26 (two years ago) link

looking at this on comic vine I realize I had #1 but remember almost nothing about it

Οὖτις, Thursday, 9 February 2017 17:57 (two years ago) link

I had an Gruenwald ash printing and sold it about 15 years ago for around $200.

EZ Snappin, Thursday, 9 February 2017 18:34 (two years ago) link

Shame the artwork on this series is so lousy, btw.

It's not awesome, but I think it's serviceable enough '80s-style artwork. I wonder why Gruenwald didn't do the art himself (like with his earlier "Hawkeye" 4-parter). Lot of work, I guess.

morrisp, Friday, 10 February 2017 06:38 (two years ago) link

Always meant to get around to reading this. Apparently they printed a new HC omnibus last year... $125 NOPE.

Nhex, Friday, 10 February 2017 08:35 (two years ago) link

this is on marvel unlimited fyi

for sale: steve bannon waifu pillow (heavily soiled) (bizarro gazzara), Friday, 10 February 2017 11:03 (two years ago) link

Looking it up, the actual comics are only going for $1-2 bucks an issue on My Comic shop's site. So it isn't an expensive series to get.

earlnash, Friday, 10 February 2017 14:21 (two years ago) link

i should get back on MU at some pt, good call

Nhex, Friday, 10 February 2017 17:35 (two years ago) link

I wrote this comment on another site a while ago on the first SS maxi-series, might as well repost it here:
I'm not sure if it was intentional, but even though Squadron Supreme are ultimately the bad guys of the story, they sure come across much better than Nighthawk and his crew. Yes, the whole brain-washing thing is quite dodgy, but it's made clear in the story no one is forced to go through it, it's voluntary. (When Golden Archer forces it on Lady Lark, he gets condemned by everyone.) And with most of the criminals we see in the story, the behaviour modification certainly seems to be way more beneficial than harmful. Some of the supervillains even like their new lives so much, they decide to side with SS even after they've been de-brainwashed!

Other than that, everything SS is shown doing in the series is totally beneficial. They get rid of guns, provide the cops effective, non-lethal mean of handling criminals, repair the economy, get rid of hunger, come up with the cryosleep chambers for those with an incurable disease... We see some people protesting against the cryo thing, but again, it's made clear the process is voluntary, and no one is forced to do it if they don't want to. At the end of the series they hand the power back to the civilian government, and it never seems anything they did caused any significant harm to anyone, except for some fringe gun nuts being offended that they can't shoot people anymore.

Compared to that, Nighthawk sides with known killers and rapists, and his action result in several people (including himself) getting killed at the end of the series. But ultimately SS seem to agree Nighthawk, and they promise to return everything back to the way it was, which includes destroying the cryochambers and bringing back guns! How the heck is that gonna benefit anyone? And what if the civilian government (which is never shown to opposes SS’s point of view) thinks those changes are actually for the good? Will SS still destroy all the technological advancements they brought to people and force gun factories to open again?

To be sure, I’m a left-wing anarchist, and I take the issue of personal liberty very seriously, but in my opinion Gruenwald fails to convince the reader that Nighthawk’s libertarianism is commendable, since most of what SS does appears to benefit the people. Gruenwald has some lofty goals for this series, but ultimately it fails as a thought experiment. He puts way to much focus on the interpersonal ethical conflicts between SS members, but we never properly see how those ethics affect ordinary people. The Squadron become a bunch of authoritarians, for sure, but the potential negative effects of their authoritarianism are never properly explored, besides some super-villains being kinda inconvenienced by their behaviour modification. That’s hardly enough.

Tuomas, Saturday, 11 February 2017 11:07 (two years ago) link

Basically, the main difference between the "what if superheroes were real" approach between SS and Watchmen is that while Moore deconstructs the sort of righ-wing libertarianism inherent in vigilante heroes like Rorschach, Gruenwald totally agrees with Rorschach's point of view. Of course Moore was/is a leftist, but he's respectful enough of the reader to make both Rorschach (the libertarian "realist") and Ozymandias (the left-wing utopian) come across as villains, and let the reader himself decide who (if anyone) was right.

But Gruenwald has no such ear for nuance, in his story Nightwing (the Batman/Rorschach analogue) is completely justified, to the point that when the SS realise their utopia was "wrong", they even promise to bring back guns, which they'd previously destroyed. So Gruenwald's right-wing point of view goes as far as saying that it can't be utopia if people aren't allowed to shoot each other. It's just ridiculous.

Since SS was published so little before Watchmen (the last issue of SS came out a month before the first issue of Watchmen), I don't think Moore was much influenced by it when writing his series, but it's certainly interesting to think of Watchmen as a corrective to SS. They have a lot of the same themes, but Moore treats them with more nuance and goes much further than Gruenwald, who still has one foot in traditional superhero fiction while writing SS, so you get typical supervillain schemes and hero-vs-hero misunderstanding fights in midst of the more groundbreaking political themes.

Since Gruenwald continued writing mainstream Marvel comics afterwards (with the exception of the SS one-shot "Death of a Universe", but that one is much more in line with stereotypical superhero fiction than the maxi-series, with no politics in sight), I think it's fair to say that despite adding some "realism" to the genre, he wasn't really the person to take it to its darker extremes, he had too much love for its traditions and conventions. It took non-American outsiders like Moore and Pat Mills to do that, presumably they had less problems in tearing the genre conventions down and making superheroes look really ugly.

Tuomas, Saturday, 11 February 2017 11:33 (two years ago) link

Sorry, I meant Nighthawk of course, not Nightwing.

Tuomas, Saturday, 11 February 2017 11:35 (two years ago) link

The behavior modification is "voluntary" only insofar as convicts are told they'll have to stay in jail if they don't submit to it... pretty heavy externalities acting upon that "choice" there.

morrisp, Sunday, 12 February 2017 05:05 (two years ago) link

Also btw I don't think it's at all so clear that Gruenwald "sides" with Nighthawk or portrays the band of criminals and misfits he assembles as the "good guys." In fact one of the things I think G. does really well is make everyone look deeply "compromised" at the end.

morrisp, Sunday, 12 February 2017 05:17 (two years ago) link

In fact (thinking about this a little more), Ione of the most skillful moves MG makes is to have you rooting for / "liking" the Squadron members most of the time, despite the deep sketchiness of some (but, importantly, not all) of what they're up to. And then he shifts focus to Nighthawk, and has you "rooting" for him and his team, as well... so when the final showdown comes, the reader is torn in both directions, and no one comes out "the winner." This ambiguity around the protagonists is very well executed.

I also thought the very end of the story (literally, the final panel) is very nice, and a welcome counterpoint to the deeply cynical (to me) ending of "Watchmen."

I didn't come away with any particularly strong sense of Gruenwald's politics; and while his handling of the series' politcal/ethical ideas may often be somewhat facile, I thought he did every bit as good a job as Moore when it comes to complicating the reader's identification with the characters, and sense of "who's right." And in some ways, I think MG is more "honest" (with the reader) than Moore... (without wanting to turn this into "SS vs. Watchmen").

morrisp, Sunday, 12 February 2017 05:53 (two years ago) link

three weeks pass...

A+ panel


Chuck_Tatum, Monday, 6 March 2017 12:14 (two years ago) link


Chuck_Tatum, Monday, 6 March 2017 12:14 (two years ago) link

Tinypic is safer:


Chuck_Tatum, Monday, 6 March 2017 12:21 (two years ago) link

startling revive

frankie r. failson (bizarro gazzara), Monday, 6 March 2017 14:34 (two years ago) link

lol, how does that even happen?

morrisp, Monday, 6 March 2017 18:43 (two years ago) link

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