Squadron Supreme is a maxi-series detailing the year-long endeavors of superheroes in the real world. Its release in 1985, put it in direct competition with Watchmen. Watchmen‘s publisher DC Comics enjoyed a time of great sales with the title and The Dark Knight Returns. Squadron Supreme‘s publishing by DC’s rival Marvel Comics does not receive the same attention. But maybe the comparisons to Watchmen are what limit this series.
The Squadron Supreme is a superhero team created at Marvel by Roy Thomas and John Buscema back in 1971 featuring pastiches of DC’s Justice League. There’s a whole mess of history including a similar supervillain team, the Squadron Sinister, but it’s not that important. Their entire creation is mainly so that the Avengers could fight the Justice League without legal restrictions. In any case, their clashes with the Avengers are mainly from being mind-controlled. And it’s one of those mind control situations that leads to the plot by Mark Gruenwald. Minor spoilers ahead.
Squadron Supreme: The Imperfect Humanity
After a mind control situation leaves their planet in a broken state, the Squadron Supreme decides to change tactics. Originally they are the only superhero team of their Earth, to the point of being a special military branch of the USA. Now with the planet in shambles, the squadron becomes more proactive by taking a yearlong control of the government. Everything from hunger, poverty, crime, and disease goes under their jurisdiction. Using their home cultures as a basis and their advanced technology, the Squadron set out their Utopia program.
Unfortunately there comes the hard questions like how a perfect society can form from imperfect people. Despite the squadron being the best and brightest of their Earth, they are far from infallible. The first comes from how even the team’s genius Tom Thumb can’t find the cure for cancer. A fate that Tom himself suffers from, likely from nuclear radiation exposure by one of his teammates, Nuke. Nuke in turn goes on a rampage as he caused his parent’s cancer and put all his hopes on Tom, only to be let down. A fight with one of his teammates, Dr. Spectrum, even results in Nuke’s accidental death after Nuke vaporizes his air supply. An act that haunts Spectrum for the rest of the series.
How Dictatorships Warp People
What’s worse however comes from how no one in Squadron Supreme considers the long-term consequences. Tom Thumb and team magic-user Arcanna actually conceal their vulnerabilities rather than share to keep up appearances of strength. This need for physical perfection is actually a factor for dictatorships’ legitimacy. This refusal to show any vulnerability or helplessness puts these heroes and the people they try to help in compromising positions.
The biggest piece is the Behavior Modification machines to remove criminal intent. Just the concept alone feels like a human rights violation as tampering with people’s minds even psychopaths can leave them vulnerable to other acts. One such character Ape X after her brainwashing couldn’t even tell the squadron about a conspiracy as the conspirators use a loophole. And that’s after one of the Squadron Supreme members, Golden Archer uses the same machine to brainwash another teammate into loving him. Despite such a critical flaw, the Squadron plays it off as a minor statistic.
Squadron Supreme‘s one issue stories feature rotating artists who display the comic industry’s changes in art styles. Veteran Bob Hall pencils the first half of the series giving it a distinct design similar to the Silver Age’s surreal but thematic illustrations. All while Sam de la Rossa provides ink to further the consistency and dynamics of the action sequences. When John Buscema temporarily takes pencil control, he demonstrates Bronze Age style depth and focus, with emphasis on closeups. This provides a cinematic take focusing on the emotions going through characters as they make decisions. Jackson Guice providing just the right detail into people’s expressions. Paul Ryan continues the trend of cinematic styles by adding more photorealistic imagery. It’s a sign of changing times in comics in both style and tone.
Do Not Neglect Squadron Supreme
Squadron Supreme is a series about changes happening in the long-term. Unlike Watchmen which features stories within stories with consistent yet experimental artwork; Squadron Supreme is a transitionary piece about bringing Silver Age heroism to a realistic world and how it actually interacts with it. Thus a change in art style and tone as things become more serious. Each issue is a story of its own, but how one issue goes into another is a grand experience. So if you have a chance, this series will be well worth your time.