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 38th installment.
Featuring a Joe Bennett cover with an absurdly muscle-bound superhero, tight-lipped and scowling off into the distance, the copy I have of Supreme #41 looks like standard-fare Image comics from 1996. The art and logo alone wouldn’t be enough to differentiate this from any number of relatively awful Supreme issues that had come before.
But this one did have something different. Alan Moore’s name in big white letters over the glowing yellow title.
So began a new era for Image Comics’ angry, hyper-violent Superman pastiche.
Originally created by Rob Liefeld and then brought to life in his own series in the early days of Image Comics with the help of original artist Brian Murray and then nearly a dozen other writers and artists before Alan Moore joined the team, Supreme was conceived of as a kind of Superman without a mid-western moral code. Imagine someone with Superman’s powers without any of the restraint or goody-goody humanity holding him back. That was Supreme.
The series never truly found its voice in the preceding 40 issues. It probably didn’t help that no single writer stuck with the book for very long, and, in the 40th issue, we’re given a story that seems to try to wrap up loose ends and explain away inconsistencies by bringing the logic of Norse mythology into play and adding another deus (in the form of a mysterious character called Enigma) to perform the ex machina of explaining everything away via reality ripples.
All of which is a long way of saying that Supreme wasn’t of much interest until issue #41, when Alan Moore arrived with a completely different approach to the character, and what would result would be Moore’s best sustained superhero work of the decade.
Supreme #41-42 (Image Comics, August 1996-Sept. 1996)
Though previous issues of Supreme had played with alternate realities and doppelgangers, Alan Moore’s approach would be more comprehensive and directly metafictional. Immediately, he declared Supreme to be a comic in which he would explore the history of comic books, a tribute to the kinds of Superman stories he read as a boy, and a parody of trends in the superhero genre.
In the opening scene of Moore’s first issue, drawn by Joe Bennett in a beefy but angular style, Supreme meets other versions of himself, like the jive-talkin’ Sister Supreme, Young Superion, and Squeak the Supremouse. They take him to the Supremacy, to the Hall of Supremes, where the hero learns that he’s just the most recent version of the archetype.
“I guess all this must seem pretty strange to you, like a hoax or a dream,” says His Majesty, the ruler of the Supremacy, himself a variant of Supreme. The line is an allusion to the Mort Weisinger-era Superman comics of the Silver Age, which would offer a preposterous situation on the cover and declare it “Not a hoax! Not a dream!”
By now, the idea of multiple Supremes who know they are variants of one another is far from an unusual idea. For decades, DC Comics would publish annual stories about the Justice Society teaming up with their Justice League, parallel-Earth selves. And the milestone Crisis on Infinite Earths event of the mid-1980s was about heroes from different universes fighting against the same terrible doom. Even much of Alan Moore’s 1980s superhero work was about variations on archetypes, and his two-parter to close out the Pre-Crisis Superman continuity, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was a tribute to the same Weisinger-era comics he pays homage to in the Supreme issues.
Still, he goes even farther with Supreme and the exploration of comic book characters as commentary on the history of comics and the state of the industry as he was writing the stories. He frames all of it in a larger, action/adventure mold, more straightforward than most 1990s comics which tended to revolve around posing heroes and task-force type missions, rather than megalomaniacal villains, secret identities, trying to do what’s right, and saving the world.
Alan Moore brought the latter back to comic book prominence while telling tales that were very much of the present in their knowing glances at the past.
At the end of Supreme #41, Supreme heads back to Earth, realizing that he’s basically a blank slate, a new revision of a classic character, and wonders what future awaits. Turns out that he’s Ethan Crane, a Clark Kent variant, who draws a superhero book called Omniman for Dazzle Comics. Moore has embedded his Superman variant inside a reality in which he draws a Superman variant in comic book form.
Yes, he’s playing with the archetype, something he would later refer to in the series as the “Wylie,” in tribute to Philip Wylie, author of Gladiator, the 1930 novel that seems to have been a direct inspiration for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman. But it also appears that Alan Moore is more comfortable playing on this nostalgic jungle gym than he was when he was working on other Image Comics in the years before.
Moore’s second issue would add Rick Veitch to the creative team, and Veitch’s retro-flashbacks would be an essential part of the series throughout all of the remaining issues until the very end. Basically, the Supreme issues that followed would all have a similar kind of structure, with a plot (and subplots) in the narrative present, with Ethan Crane as Supreme learning more about the world around him and growing into the role of the ultimate hero, and with faux-old-fashioned flashback sequences in which we’d learn more of the character’s fictional (but real to him) past.
It’s an extension of what Moore did with Marvelman, only the flashbacks in those stories were much less significant to the overall narrative and were only artificially-induced fantasies concocted by the evil Emil Gargunza. In Supreme, the flashbacks are often the most interesting parts of the stories, with Alan Moore providing stronger pastiches of old techniques than he did in the entirety of the all-pastiche project 1963.
Supreme #42’s first flashback gives us the concise origin of Supreme, who, as a child, finds a meteorite that grants him tremendous power. The rest of the origin is like that of Superman, where he lives a small town life and hones his powers as a super-lad and later constructs a Citadel Supreme as his sanctuary.
The second flashback introduces Darius Dax and Judy Jordan, the Lex Luthor and Lois Lane analogues who would remain as central characters throughout Moore’s run on the series. We also meet the League of Infinity, a time-hopping superteam that’s part Legion of Super-Heroes and part precursor to Moore’s later work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The notion of heroes from throughout time, real and fictional, is the core of the League of Infinity, and though Moore would later streamline it for his work on “America’s Best Comics,” the germ of the idea seems to occur in with Supreme’s chronologically-charged companions.
In the present, Ethan Crane meets an aged Judy Jordan and his memories begin to return (hence the Veitch-drawn flashbacks), but even with some of the pieces in place, he admits, in his closing narration, “I still can’t see the big picture.”
Supreme #43-49 (Maximum Press, October 1996-May 1997)
By the third issue of Moore’s run, Rob Liefeld spun his line of comics out of the Image Comics umbrella and released everything through his new Maximum Press publishing company. It didn’t change anything besides the cover design the series continued to come out monthly with now-Image-Comics-Publisher Eric Stephenson acting as editor of the series whether it was at Image or Maximum but the troubles with Maximum Press’s finances would eventually lead to an aborted ending. But that’s a long way off, and even with the lack of a final, Moore-written issue of Supreme, we still have 23 solid issues to reread. With some of the best yet to come.
Issues #43-49 aren’t the “best yet to come,” by the way, but they’re pretty good. The biggest problem is the inconsistency of the art. When Chris Sprouse joins the team in the second year of the series, the present-day narrative looks as good as the flashbacks. Until then, we’re left with a book that has stellar Rick Veitch retro art on a third of the pages, but all the other pages are filled with garish mid-1990s art from less-than-top-flight Image talent. It almost works as a parody of itself, in a, “hey, this modern-day art sure is ugly, isn’t it?” kind of way, but the problem is that we still have to read those pages and a little of that era’s Joe Bennett or J. Morrigan or Mark Pajarillo go a long way. And no matter who colors the issues, the bold, flat colors of the Veitch sections look far less dated than the garish hues of the present day bits.
But there’s plenty to enjoy in these issues, from Supreme’s pal Bill Friday reimagined as a British comics writer with attitude (“I’ve still got to talk to Lucas about Omni-Dog’s rape ordeal in #247,” says young Mr. Friday, with Moore satirizing the entire mainstream superhero comics industry of the last 15 years in a single sentence), to the secret of Judy Jordan, to the history-hopping flashback sequences that provide a tour of E.C. Comics highlights to Curt Swan memories to Neal Adams relevance.
A young reader in the mid-1990s would have learned a lot about comic book history just by reading these Supreme issues and not have known they were getting an insightful history lesson, because Moore and Veitch weave the flashbacks into the story in such a way that the allusions to the stylistic devices of the past seem less important that the bits of plot that relate to the characters and situations of the present. Or maybe it’s just an extended in-joke, for readers who knew all about Wally Wood and Dick Sprang and Denny O’Neil already. Either way, it’s a quite enjoyable batch of issues, if you allow yourself to skim over the weakness of the present day artwork.
Moore was reportedly hired on for twelve issues, and the plot threads from the first two issues weave through everything that follows in this first year, leading up to a big confrontation by the end of Supreme #49. Mysteries still abound, though, particularly involving the larger villainy at work, and what nefarious schemes Moore has planned for Ethan Crane and Supreme.
But what’s great about this series is that it truly works on three levels. First, as a straightforward story about a traditional superhero with a secret identity, trying to save the world. Second, as a celebration of the comic books of the past. And third as a statement about what’s ridiculous about the comics of the then-present. None of those three levels are masterpiece-quality on their own, and they don’t quite add up to anything extraordinary, but they do add up to something quite good, and compulsively readable. With, as I said, even better stuff soon to come.
NEXT TIME: Some better stuff! A Supreme romance and the secret of Judy Jordan, revealed!