Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 39th installment.
As year one of Alan Moore’s Supreme run slid into year two, a few changes were required. Maximum Press gave way to Awesome Entertainment as Rob Liefeld joined a new business partner behind-the-scenes. And Chris Sprouse, an artist as capable drawing quiet emotional living room scenes as he was drawing supervillain attacks on the White House, joined the series.
A few issues earlier, Sprouse’s work could be seen in Supreme, but only teasingly so. He was the artist on Eric Stephenson’s New Men series, and a preview of his work was provided in the back pages of early Alan Moore Supreme issues. And, as even more of a tease, Sprouse drew all of the modern-day sequences in Supreme #50, then he disappeared for three issues before coming back for Supreme #53 and sticking around as the regular guy for a while.
But wait, how could three issues have been released between #50 and #53? Wouldn’t that only be two issues? What kind of math is that?
Because the double-sized issue #52 was released, by Awesome Entertainment, as two separate comics, labeled #52a and #52b, both cover-dated September, 1997, and both with Chris Sprouse covers but not-Chris-Sprouse art on the inside. I distinctly remember being double-tricked by this approach when the comics originally came out. First, I completely missed issue #52b, leaving it behind at my local shop, thinking it was just a variant cover (comics used to do that a lot in the 1990s, and the “b” designation on the cover didn’t signal, to me, that it was an actual different issue entirely), and didn’t realize it until I read issue #53 (also cover-dated September, 1997) and discovered, “wait, I missed something!” And, the issue #52a I did pick up had that Sprouse cover and yet J. Morrigan and Mark Pajarillo on the inside.
Reading comics is sometimes like watching a James Bond marathon where they keep repeating the Roger Moore and George Lazenby installments while promising Sean Connery during commercial breaks. And all the movies are out of order. And they repeat Moonraker three times in a row.
It’s often like that, actually.
But this is Supreme! Alan Moore’s greatest longform superhero comics run of the 1990s. And Chris Sprouse is about to arrive.
Supreme #50-56 (Awesome Entertainment, July 1997-Feb. 1998)
Issue #50 is the “Many Loves of Supreme” story. That’s one of the flashback titles, with a story, as usual, drawn by Rick Veitch, but the whole issue centers around that theme. The frame story, drawn by the (yes, finally!) excellent Chris Sprouse, sets Ethan Crane and Judy Jordan on the couch in her apartment, as they discuss upcoming story ideas for the Omniman story she’s writing and he’s drawing. The subtext is that he wants to make a romantic move, to bring their relationship to the next level, and she’s caught up in her brainstorming session, and ultimately frustrated by the idea of a superhero with a secret identity who would lie about that to someone he loves.
There’s a bit, straight out of a John Hughes film or something, where Ethan Crane is about to reach over and put his arm around Judy Jordan, but when she says, in reference to Omniman, “You can’t keep secrets from somebody you respect…Omniman couldn’t do that, could he?” his suave move turns into the old-fashioned fingers-through-his-own-hair move. Chris Sprouse sells the moment in a way that no previous Supreme artist would have been able to, and makes it more than just a cliché.
Issue #50 ends with a moment of defeat for our hero, denied affections because of his duplicitous life, and then we get a classic cliffhanger, as Judy Jordan’s young granddaughter reveals herself to be not what she had seemed. And, as we learn soon enough, Judy Jordan isn’t Judy Jordan at all.
She turns out to be Darius Dax, Supreme’s super-science nemesis, who had possessed Jordan’s body with “micro-machines” she accidentally inhaled after Dax’s “death.”
Moore doesn’t go to any length to make it plausible, other than the bit about the nanites, but it provides for a shocking surprise for Supreme when the elderly Jordan invades his Citadel Supreme and traps him inside his own Mirror Penitentiary (the Supreme version of the Phantom Zone).
It’s a simple plot: an old villain revealed as a formerly-trusted ally, pitting the superhero against his formerly captured adversaries. Moore provides little depth beyond that in the main narrative, but he doesn’t have to, because it’s a story that works well when properly told, and even though Chris Sprouse isn’t on board to draw the pictures as the story unfolds in issues #51-52a/b, it’s still a satisfying climax and conclusion.
The best moments, though, which is often true for Moore’s Supreme run, are the flashback episodes, and future League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collaborator Kevin O’Neill is the unlikely choice to draw the side story of Squeak the Supremouse in a story that could only be called “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses!” from Supreme #52a. It’s a condensed tour through Squeak’s adventures with other versions of Supreme, as he tries to rally the gang for the annual 1950s vs. 1960s baseball game. The genius moment of the brief episode is when Squeak confronts the umpire, grim 1980s Supreme, who is drawn in a near-perfect parody of Frank Miller’s Sin City style, and gives us lines like, “Life is the game. We play. We don’t have a choice. It’s what we do,” with a pause after each pithy sentence.
That short Squeak story ends with the Supremouse getting whacked in the head by a bat, and grim 1980s Supreme coming to grimly mourn his grimly slain comrade. “Death claims even you,” he declares. But no, Squeak’s fine. He bounces up out of his deathbed and declares, with awful puns, that he’s ready for yet another adventure.
That’s the kind of playfulness that’s typical of the series, with Moore poking fun at other kinds of comics – at the history of comics – but not condemning any of it. The satire that exists is witty, but not particularly barbed. Enjoyable, though.
Alan Moore’s first year on the series ends in Supreme #52b, with the hubris-filled Dax absorbing Supremium (aka Kryptonite) into his body, with a chain reaction causing space-time to cave in around him, causing him to become a kind of singularity thrown back into the past where he crashes as a meteorite, just in time to give young Ethan Crane his childhood powers. The end is the beginning and all that.
But Moore wasn’t done, for he had, by then, signed on with Rob Liefeld to continue the adventures of the metafictional superman for yet another year and with issue #53, finally, Chris Sprouse became the regular interior artist for the series.
Finished with the story he set out to tell, the second year of Moore’s Supreme is more freewheeling and adventurous. If year one was an homage and commentary on the comics of the past and the present, year two is a pure celebration of superhero comics, giving Supreme and the supporting characters stories that give them a bit more dignity as characters. Reading it, I don’t get the sense that Moore started to take these characters seriously all of a sudden, in the way that Watchmen is so viciously serious about the genre, but I do get the sense that he wanted to actually tell stories about these Supreme characters rather than just tell stories with them.
It’s also where Moore begins his reconstruction of the Awesome Universe. I don’t know where the plans fall in the timeline of the release schedule of Supreme, but somewhere around the time he signed on to continue the series for another year, he also began work on the Judgement Day event for Awesome Entertainment which was billed, with straight faces by all, as a Watchmen for the 1990s. And out of Judgement Day, Moore would redefine the Awesome Universe – relaunch it – and go on to write the newly rebranded Youngblood and Glory comics. It didn’t quite work out that way, as we’ll see, but at the time of Moore’s starting work on year two of Supreme, that seemed to be the plan, and on a few occasions we can see Moore planting the seeds for what was supposed to come, like mentions of Youngblood on trial, and the cutaway to show the revamped costume of Twilight – the female Robin analogue – for no greater purpose other than her later appearance as a new cast member in the new Youngblood series.
So even though Moore’s master plan for Supreme year one had wrapped up and some of the bits of pipe he was laying for future stories in other comics were not necessary to what was going on in this comic, year two is still, in many way, the highlight of his run. Because it’s Moore and Chris Sprouse telling good stories in a universe he had already rebuilt in the previous year. The foundation was firmer now, and he was less inclined to do another, fluffier take on the kinds of things he was doing in Marvelman and more inclined just to tell intelligent but fun genre stories. It’s no surprise that Moore immediately followed this era of Supreme with the genre storytelling at Wildstorm with “America’s Best Comics.” Year two feels like a strong transition in that direction.
Some highlights from issues #53-54: the arrival of Szasz, the Mr. Myxzptlk variant, who brings Omniman to life to battle with Supreme. Supreme beats the imp with absurd comic book reasoning, which is what’s needed in that kind of story. Then there’s “The Ballad of Judy Jordan,” where the former love interest, now in a synthetic body after her mind transfer post-the-Dax-problem, dons a Supreme Woman costume and plays the role of a superhero (with Moore’s Lost Girls collaborator and future significant other Melinda Gebbie providing the art for part of the story).
Honestly, what this sequence of issues reminded me of most was the structure and execution of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s critically-acclaimed All-Star Superman series from the 2000s. It’s not that any particular scene felt identical, but that well-regarded Superman series – which some would call the best twelve issues of Superman ever written – uses some of the same kinds of moments as this second year of Supreme. Both series have an overarching plot, but each single issue provides a tour of one part of their respective universes in a poetic way. And since both series rely on the Superman comics of the 1950s and 1960s as their main inspiration, the echoes between the two shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but they are impossible to ignore.
The final two issues of this part of the run, Supreme #55-56, give us a racist alternate reality where Wild Bill Hickock uses future science – from his affiliation with the League of Infinity – to help the south win the Civil War, and the beginning of a massive villain outbreak and the return of Brainiac analogue Optilux. The former is accompanied by some art by the legendary Gil Kane, and the latter is left on a cliffhanger.
There never was a Supreme #57.
And the cliffhanger stayed hung until a year and a half later, when the series would restart with a new #1 issue and a new title: Supreme: The Return.
Moore and Sprouse were back, at least for one issue, to conclude the Optilux mini-epic. But that’s the topic for next time, as Moore finishes his run – or, I should say, stops writing it – and the saga of Supreme is left to others to finish.
NEXT TIME: Moore’s final Supreme comics, with more than one delay before the end.