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First Contact

  Supreme Power: Contact


J. Michael Straczynski, Gary Frank

MAX/Marvel, 2004

Rating: 3.8



Posted: April 30, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Supreme Power, the ongoing Marvel/MAX series by former Babylon 5 writer J. Michael Straczynski, is shaped by two events, similar but with marked differences, which occurred in the world of superhero comics in the 1980s. The first was the publication of a 12-issue limited series called Squadron Supreme, written by the late Mark Gruenwald. Gruenwald isn't often held up as a visionary in the way that, say, Alan Moore has been -- more about him in a bit. Gruenwald was a classic "company man:" Superhero comics were his life's work, and that kind of outlook isn't generally looked upon as progressive. But Squadron Supreme made a significant advance in the genre, despite the fact that it took place (for the safety of Marvel's continuity) in an alternate reality, and starred a cast of minor Marvel characters who were essentially knock-offs of DC's iconic Justice League of America.

In Squadron Supreme, Gruenwald imagined what might happen in a world where super-powered beings tried to affect real, lasting change. The great conflict of the series takes place between a contingent of superheroes who take it upon themselves to force peace and prosperity on the world, and a hero who takes it upon himself to oppose them on moral and idealistic grounds. It remains a bold and ambitious tale, if a bit dated by its grounding in the plot and character conventions of the mainstream superhero genre.

Which brings us to the second event that shapes Supreme Power, namely the publication of DC's Watchmen, by Moore and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen's starker, more real-world approach to the idea of costumed crimefighters made possible such variations on the superhero theme as Kurt Busiek's Astro City, Moore's work on the Image Comics titles 1963 and Supreme (no relation) and his later creation of the America's Best Comics line, and even the post-modern sensibility of writers like Mark Millar and Grant Morrison.

Contact, the first volume to collect Supreme Power, is caught somewhere between the poles of Gruenwald's and Moore's creations. On the one hand, it feels very post-modern in its approach. It begins with a familiar image: a rocket plowing into a rural cornfield, and the discovery by two human adults of an alien infant inside the rocket. But then shadowy government figures swoop in, whisking the child away to be raised by Uncle Sam under strict supervision with the goal of studying him and, ultimately, turning him into a soldier/weapon. Contact largely follows the gradual growth of that child -- named Mark Milton -- as he learns to adjust to, and operate in, a world from which he's forever removed and about which he ultimately, at least in emotional terms, knows very little. (It's helped along by Gary Frank's arresting, photographic artwork, and a vibrant but realistic palate by colorist Chris Sotomayor.)

On the other hand, Contact suffers considerable drag, thanks to an unmistakable air of déjà vu. Despite Straczynski's tweaks to the original Squadron characters, the ones we spend the most time with here remain a bit too identifiable as variations on very familiar figures. Milton is an obvious analog to Superman, albeit a Superman reared and controlled by the U.S. government. There's also Nighthawk, whose look, methods and origin (right down to the murdered parents) are unmistakably lifted from Batman's; the Blur, an Atlanta resident gifted with super-speed; and Joe Ledger, a soldier who volunteers to be part of an experiment involving a crystal found on the ship that brought Milton to Earth -- the crystal bonds with his skin and puts him in a coma, but we know he's a variation on DC's Green Lantern.

All of which would be well and good, if Contact didn't move at a deliberate, laborious pace that leaves us wondering, after six issues, exactly when Straczynski's going to get to the point. The writer is known for this measured approach to plotting, both in Babylon 5 and in his superhero comic Rising Stars, to which Supreme Power bears a few resemblances. Yes, we know, more or less, what the series will be about; the title gives us an obvious clue. It's about power, albeit a different facet from the one Gruenwald explored: the powers these characters exhibit in a world where super-powered characters don't normally exist; and, more subtly, the government's use of Mark as a power of its own. Clearly, issues revolving around the manipulation of power, and the wielding of it, are central, as is the issue of identity (at least Mark's).

But so far it's all setup, and what unfolds, over time, isn't exactly new. Straczynski's track record alone offers pretty good insurance that a second volume -- or maybe a third -- will deliver a suitable payoff. But judged on its own, Contact is simply a double-echo: It rehashes some "real-world" superhero ideas without yet distinguishing them, and without that clear identity, it resembles nothing so much as its source material -- a book in which characters dress up and act like other, better-known ones.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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