In the fall of 1986, DC Comics published the first issue of a comic that would change the industry forever. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (with a solid assist by colorist John Higgins) took a long, hard look at the history and format of superhero comics and took it apart piece by piece like a watchmaker studying their trade. The book, WATCHMEN is the greatest selling graphic novel of all time and lauded as one of, if not the, greatest comic book stories ever told.
And rightfully so, WATCHMEN is a dense, well told story about humanity, power, and fear. As much as it looks into the format of four color stories, it also looks into the format of civilization and what we, as a society, consider “right”. There have been endless discussions in comic shops about what Ozymandias does, and if he is a hero or a villain. DC Comics has, for decades, taken pride in the story, reprinting it over and over again, much to the dismay of Alan Moore.
I imagine all of this was a bit of an annoyance for Mark Gruenwald, who told a very similar story a year earlier in SQUADRON SUPREME. First, a bit of history…
In 1969, Roy Thomas was writing AVENGERS for Marvel, and Denny O’Neil was writing JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA for DC. The two men conspired to do a secret JLA/Avengers crossover in their books. Thomas pulled off his half in AVENGERS #70 when he introduced the Squadron Sinister – basically an evil Justice League for the Avengers to fight. O’Neil’s editor was quick to figure what he was doing in his Avengers story and put the kibosh on it. Still, the two writers had a good time doing this, so they tried again. This time, O’Neil was successful, but Thomas really changed the game…
In this second secret crossover, Thomas had the Avengers meet Squadron Supreme, a heroic version of Squadron Sinister. Now, Marvel had good alternate versions of the JLA to play with whenever they wanted:
The Squadron existed in a different universe, Earth-712, where they battled enemies like Squadron Sinister, Scarlet Centurion, and other random baddies. Their world was more like DC, with the heroes being loved by all. After a few appearances in various Marvel comics, the Squadron Supreme were, for the most part, forgotten. Their “final” appearance was in a few issues of DEFENDERS – in the story, the Squadron have been brainwashed and their Earth is now nearly destroyed. The Defenders freed the Squadron from the brainwashing, then cut out back to Earth-616. For years, no one gave a crap about the Squadron Supreme.
That’s when Mark Gruenwald showed up. Three years after their appearance in DEFENDERS, and for reasons we may never know, Gruenwald convinced the powers that be at Marvel to let him do a new Squadron Supreme series. The book would pick up where we last saw the team – on a post-apocalyptic Earth that now feared its heroes.
Hyperion, leader of the Squadron, comes up with a plan that he calls “The Utopia Program” which, essentially, will turn Earth into a utopia. The Squadron vote on the plan, and it is almost unanimous – only Nighthawk and Amphibian (Batman and Aquaman) vote against the plan. Amphibian gives in to peer pressure, and Nighthawk quits.
Oh, I should tell you what the Utopia Program is – basically, the Squadron Supreme decide that the nations of Earth can no longer take care of humanity, so they will take over the world themselves. So, in essence, SQUADRON SUPREME starts where WATCHMEN ends – the heroes deciding that they will stop mankind from destroying itself once and for all.
As you can imagine, things don’t go so great. Nighthawk goes and forms his own team, the Redeemers, to battle against the Squadron – this is the major arc of the story told through 12 issues, but the power of the comic, and the ramifications it has had on comics in the decades since, are the smaller bits…
The philosophical argument between Hyperion and Nighthawk – power and who has the right to control it – is very similar to the debate/battle between Captain America and Iron Man in CIVIL WAR. The Squadron’s resident smart guy, Tom Thumb, creates a behavior modification machine that is to be used on prisoners to “fix them”. Golden Archer later uses the machine to make fellow team member Skylark, love him. DC would later use a similar concept in IDENTITY CRISIS.
More and more, it becomes clear that the Utopia Program has turned the world into a totalitarian state. Guns are outlawed across the globe in order to keep rebels from rising up. Amphibian, no longer able to stomach what the Squadron is doing, leaves the surface world and returns to the ocean.
In the end, the Squadron faces off against the Redeemers, and it is real bad. Many of the heroes are killed before Hyperion sees the error of his ways.
When it was first out, SQUADRON SUPREME was a failure. The first issue came out while comic fans were all focused on DC’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, and then DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and Marvel was gearing up for SECRET WARS. The final issue of the series came out a month before WATCHMEN hit stands.
It took ages before anyone bothered to look at SQUADRON SUPREME in the same way that we all look at WATCHMEN. When readers did, what they found was a story that reads almost like a warning of what could happen to comics. A story that has been told again and again under different names, and each of them praised for their deeper meanings. KINGDOM COME. CIVIL WAR. IDENTITY CRISIS. Each of these comics, loved by fans, are telling the story SQUADRON SUPREME told, just not as well. Well, maybe KINGDOM COME tells it just as well. The other two aren’t even close in my opinion.
With SQUADRON SUPREME, Gruenwald, along with amazing art by Bob Hall, gave the comics world its first major “superhero deconstruction” story. They did it a year before WATCHMEN, they did it well before Rick Veitch’s fantastic BRATPACK, and they did it within the confines of the superhero genre. SQUADRON SUPREME plays with the same concepts as these books, but it is written for all ages; there’re no moments of extreme gore, no nudity or foul language. There are no allusions or attempts at being “great literature”. Gruenwald and Hall did their deconstruction of the superhero myth without ever stepping outside of the myth, which may be why SQUADRON SUPREME isn’t given more credit. The colors are bright – it doesn’t try to run from the brightness of the four color page. The characters speak like comic book characters – in weird monologues and often with too much exposition and exclamation points. Where Dave Gibbons drew the characters of WATCHMEN in a more realistic fashion and plain page layouts, Bob Hall stayed with the superhero style of big muscles and dramatic panels. When you put WATCHMEN in front of someone who knows nothing about comics, they can tell right away that it is different. SQUADRON SUPREME would blend right in with your basic issue of SUPERMAN or IRON MAN.
Mark Gruenwald had a long career in comics. He wrote CAPTAIN AMERICA for a decade. He wrote all but one issue of QUASAR (a personal favorite series of mine). Above it all, Gruenwald always felt that SQUADRON SUPREME was his best work. When he died unexpectedly in 1996 at the way-too-young age of 42, Marvel earned that Gruenwald had requested, in his will, that his ashes be put into the ink used to publish a SQUADRON SUPREME trade paperback. Marvel gave Gruenwald his wish, and published the trade with his ashes mixed in. It was the first time SQUADRON SUPREME had been collected. Because of the oddity of the printing process – not many comics are made with human remains included in them – the collection received a good amount of attention by the comic book press as well as readers. SQUADRON SUPREME was finally discovered a decade after it had originally been released.
Gruenwald’s work in comics continues to be overlooked by most readers, but what he did for the medium, and more specifically for Marvel, can still be felt today. Tom DeFalco, a legend of the Marvel bullpen, named Gruenwald “The Patron Saint of Marveldom”. Gruenwald’s knowledge of Marvel history was unmatched, to the point that when Marvel introduced the Time Variance Authority – a group that watches all the various realities and timelines of the Marvel universe looking for discrepancies, every member was shown to be a clone of a single person – that person was Mark Gruenwald. You may not even have realized how often you saw the work of Gruenwald yourself. The Captain America shield that hung on the set of THE COLBERT REPORT, given to Stephen Colbert by Joe Quesada, originally hung in Mark Gruenwald’s office. Even DC Comics has honored Gruenwald, naming a building set in Gotham City in his honor.
Do yourself a favor, pick up a copy of SQUADRON SUPREME. Read it. See for yourself just how good it is. I don’t expect you’ll agree with me that it is a better look at superhero comics than WATCHMEN; that it does a better job deconstructing the myth than Alan Moore did, that it captures the true essence of what ultimate power will do better than KINGDOM COME, but I do think you’ll agree that it is a shamefully overlooked story that deserves better.
*All Images: Marvel Comics