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Saturday, August 12, 2006 

Guest review of MAX Squadron Supreme and Civil War

I am honored to present the following guest comment by blogger Hube of The Colossus of Rhodey, which looks at the political biases featured in J. Michael Straczynski's take on Squadron Supreme, and Marvel's company wide crossover, Civil War. Here is the review as follows:

Hi, all. Hube here from The Colossus of Rhodey.

J. Michael Straczynski, in his "Squadron Supreme" series, has taken "blame America first" to the next level for Marvel Comics. Straczynski's series builds upon the foundation set in the "Supreme Power" series, which detailed (more or less) the origins of the Squadron's main characters. And, of course, both series utilize the heroes (and enemies) which Mark Gruenwald immortalized in his "Squadron Supreme" mini-series from the mid-1980s.

Gruenwald's series was ahead of its time in that it dealt with the situation of a super-group assuming total control of, in this case, the United States, in order to re-establish fundamental order after a world-wide crisis. One of the team's members, Nighthawk (who also happened to be the ex-president of the US), vehemently dissents from the Squadron's decision to take total control, and after failing to convince his fellow Squadders of the folly of their decision, quits the team. Eventually, Nighthawk recruits a bunch of other super-powered folk to battle the Squadron, and after the series' climax, the Squadron realizes their goal of a "utopia" was misguided.

Straczynski's "Supreme Power" details how the US government takes the utmost advantage of a super-strong, eyebeam-shooting alien infant (sound familiar?*) code-named Hyperion. Eventually, Hyperion becomes disillusioned with what the government has done to him, but decides to pretty much "play along" so as to get what he's after -- more knowledge about his origins. The same alien craft from which Hyperion comes also yields a powerful gem, which becomes attached to an American covert operative (Dr. Spectrum), as well as the mysterious woman code-named Power Princess.

In "Squadron Supreme," Straczynski has his team assembled and working for the US government. This conveniently mirrors what is happening in the Marvel Universe proper with its "Civil War," as well as the Avengers-analogue title The Ultimates. (Squadron Supreme takes place on one of the many "alternate earths" of the Marvel Continuum.) Issue #3 is where Straczynski goes overboard with his leftist worldview. The Squadron has been on a United Nations-authorized mission to "take out" a powerful African mentalist whom the US presumes gained his powers via the same alien technologies that produced Hyperion, et. al. After successfully thwarting the bad guy, the Squadron is confronted by a team of African superheroes who proceed to inform the Squadders that the United States and white people in general are responsible for most of Africa's problems, and that this double combination never want to see "a peaceful, united Africa, with a growing economy." When the Blur (what Straczynski has renamed the Whizzer), a black man, requests to speak to the head African hero, he is told that his heart "has a great light," and that he "is a good man, Child of Africa." BUT -- he is "still an American." Thus, the African heroes "will pray for [his] health and soul." Later, aboard a returning flight home, Blur informs readers that, although he doesn't think white people are responsible for all our (black people's) problems, "they are responsible for a lot of them." He holds up his hand and states "This is the world I live in."

Blur references Straczynski's version of Nighthawk when he mentions "all [black people's] problems" as this world's Nighthawk is a wealthy [black] man whose parents were murdered by Nazi-like [white] skinheads (this sound vaguely familiar?**). Consequently, Nighthawk becomes the focal point from which to espouse the evils of racism, especially that found in the United States. Though Nighthawk hasn't really appeared yet in "Squadron Supreme," he was a prominent figure in "Supreme Power."

In issue #6, we finally see more of Nighthawk, but not before Straczynski has team members doubting their role as peacekeepers -- that is, for a single nation. Blur's mother informs him that various athletic companies have dropped him as a spokesman, but others have made offers -- all those with lucrative government conracts, including -- you guessed it (noted in a separate word balloon) -- Halliburton. Next time use a sledgehammer, eh J. Michael? It's apparent that Straczynski is setting it up for the Squadron to assume the role Gruenwald had them play, but the lopsided left commentary keeps a'comin'. When Blur dashes off to request that Nighthawk join the Squadron, he pleads with him that, in so many words, his guidance is needed. He states
Where they're using us is mainly to control people of color in Africa , in the mid-east ... you say you're against that kind of oppression. Well, why stop at the border?
There you have it, folks. American politicians, the people, even its superheroes now -- all puppets of the Halliburtons who disrupt Third World nations (that exclusively contain people of color, of course) at will so as to prevent them from solving their own problems and becoming an eventual threat to the American corporate order. Of course, just don't tell countries like Japan and Germany, to name two -- a duo of exemplary democracies with thriving economies and prodigious standards of living. This, after a mere 60 years of being utterly obliterated by ... the United States in World War II. The catch for the Straczynskis is that that "evil corporate plutocracy" known as the United States actually assisted those two countries in getting back together. Not so that they could "own" them. But because it was the right thing to do. Hell, Japan's thriving businesses have crushed US competition over the last quarter century or so. So much for "control."

But maybe these two examples don't count because their countries' populations aren't "people of color." Well, maybe Japan is. But, well ... Asians as a group aren't usually considered "minorities" in the United States because they tend to thrive as a group, economically and academically. They're not "victims" in need of a "saving" by the mindset that Straczynski brings us.

Speaking of the aforementioned "Civil War" series, New Avengers #21 had to contain the most disgusting out-of-character version of Captain America I've ever read. As you may be aware, "Civil War" has torn asunder the Marvel Universe's heroes, dividing them into two camps: One in favor of "registering" with the United States government (led by my personal favorite hero, Iron Man) and those in favor of remaining independent, non-affiliated "free agents." In a nauseating soliloquy which could have been written by perpetual Bush protestor Cindy Sheehan, Cap thinks to himself (courtesy of writer Brian Michael Bendis)
"They want superheroes to be controlled by the government. They want us to be puppets to a corporate shill structure, like their politicians and everything else on the planet. What do you expect from a society that gets all its news from late-night comedy shows? Of course they don't care! Everything is a punchline. Everything is just -- no. That's not true. They care. They just care about themselves more than they care about the world they live in. They want to be comfortable, not safe. They don't want to fight for their freedom. They want someone like me to fight for it for them."
It is, to say the least, astonishing to read Captain America uttering (thinking) these words. If Cap truly feels this way (Bendis sort of gives Cap an "out" as he occasionally interrupts his self-tirade by stating that he's tired), then why not ditch the role of the Star-Spangled Avenger -- like he's done in the past?

Back in the mid-70s, Cap did just that on his own, after discovering (in a not-too subtle analogue to the Watergate Crisis) that a "highly placed government official" was a bigwig of the Secret Empire. He became "The Nomad" for a short time while he re-evaluated his role as a superhero. (A trade paperback collecting these relevant issues has been printed.) In the 1980s, Cap faced a similar situation to "Civil War" where the US government wanted him to work directly for them -- as he had back during World War II. He refused, reliquishing his costume and shield, which was later used by replacement John Walker (who eventually became the US Agent). Cap assumed the role of "The Captain" while Walker played Capt. America.

As I noted in a post over at Colossus of Rhodey, Cap, in the later case above and when he once contemplated running for president of the United States, gave impassioned speeches explaining just what his role as Captain America stands for. Turning down the offer to become a presidential candidate, he said
[A president] must be ready to negotiate -- to compromise -- 24 hours a day, to preserve the Republic at all costs! I understand this ... I appreciate this ... and I realize the need to work within such a framework. By the same token -- I have worked and fought all my life for the growth and advancement of the American Dream. And I believe that my duty to the Dream would severely limit any abilities I might have to preserve the reality. We must all live in the real world ... and sometimes that world can be pretty grim. But it is the Dream ... the Hope ... that makes the reality worth living.
Similarly, when turning over his costume and shield to the government "Commission" (and John Walker) Cap alter-ego Steve Rogers noted
Captain America was created to be a soldier. But I have made him far more than that. To return to being a mere soldier would be a betrayal of all I've striven for, for the better part of my career. To serve the country your way, I would have to give up my personal freedom ... and place myself in a position where I might have to compromise my ideals to obey your orders.

I cannot represent the American government; the president does that. I must represent the American people. I represent the American Dream, the freedom to strive to become all that you dream of being. Being Captain America has been my American Dream. To become what you want me to be, I would have to compromise that Dream ... abandon what I have come to stand for.
There is none of this excellent writing -- and characterization of what Captain America is -- in the current "Civil War" story arc. Cap has become just another cheap method of infusing a writer's personal politics into the story. And for Marvel, this means yet another left-of-center point of view. Here it's Bendis. In the "Civil War" title proper it's Mark Millar, an admitted leftist who also writes the "updated" version of the Avengers, The Ultimates. On Squadron Supreme it's Straczynski. Volume 4 Iron Man's first six issues featured Warren Ellis, another left-leaner who featured a barely concealed analogue of radical Aussie journalist John Pilger (named John "Pillinger." Yeesh.) And so on.

And what's further interesting is that Cap's "disillusionment" backdrop always seems to come when there's a conservative Republican in the White House. "Secret Empire" came during Richard Nixon's administration (although it's highly debatable he was conservative). "The Captain" was written in the middle of the Reagan years. Now, there's "Civil War" during George W. Bush's presidency. Even the tone of Captain America (as well as other comics) reflects a nastiness and condescension that you didn't see during the 1990s (coincidentally, when Democrat Bill Clinton was in office). Reagan, Bush #1 and the current White House occupant were (are) all depicted as buffoons quite oftent. The "Secret Empire" story is certainly the most "legitimate," for lack of a better term, as Nixon's heinous crimes were widely known and you didn't have to be a partisan to realize this. And even writer Steve Englehart, despite the obvious parallels, didn't mention names.

New Avengers #22 takes "Civil War" to the next level: comparing the registration of super-powered individuals to the Jim Crow South of the American early twentieth century. Bendis does this through New Avenger Power Man (Luke Cage), and what makes the comparison even more ridiculous is that Iron Man and Ms. Marvel just stand there, offering only rebuttals along the lines of "It's not the same!" all the while Cage pontificates like an experienced debater with a PhD in Rhetoric. I long ago signed up to receive [New] Avengers in my collection box at my local comics shop; I put this issue back on the shelf for some other hapless individual to buy. I haven't been purchasing the Civil War series (I've been reading the issues that a friend is buying) and I'm this close to dropping Squadron Supreme. The promise of "Civil War" was supposed to be a balanced debate on the registration of people with extraordinary abilities. It has turned out, thus far, to be quite UNbalanced -- the pro-Capt. America forces (against registration) being scripted by the likes of Millar and Bendis to have the [much] better argument. And, it royally pisses me off that my favorite superhero -- Tony Stark/Iron Man -- is being made out to be a quasi-fascist simpleton.

So? What's the point of all this?

Do I want a return to the 1960s where Stan Lee invoked the simplicity of the east-west Cold War to rouse American patriotism? Certainly not. But even Lee only used that backdrop as a plot device to tell a fantasy-laden superhero story -- a reality break, if you will. Contemporary comics, thanks to their overtly political writers, have done a 180 degree turn: they have made the fantasy subordinate to the political theme. Readers have nowhere to go now to escape the world around them. Marvel's current crop of storytellers keep hitting their comics' purchasers over the head with it. And it more and more represents only one side of the political and cultural story.

As a quick aside, former talk show TV host Mike Douglas passed away August 11. It was on his show that I onced watched guest Stan Lee in the late 1970s. Douglas told Lee "I've read some of your comics. You use a lot of big words. How is a young kid supposed to know what they mean?" Lee didn't waste a second: "If a kid has to look up a word in the dictionary, what's wrong with that?"

Indeed. I greatly credit Lee for my winning a spelling bee in 6th grade -- because I spelled "grotesque" correctly. I remembered it from a mid-1970s issue of The Hulk where he battled the "Grotesque Glob."

(* Superman, maybe?)
(** Batman, maybe?)

************************
Thanks again to Hube for writing!

Labels: , ,

Thanks a lot for the forum, Avi! Much appreciated, my friend!
Hube | Homepage | 08.12.06 - 6:40 pm | #


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Politics have always been present in comics. Ever since Captain America was punching Hitler or Superman told readers to "slap a Jap" to O'Neil/Adams' corny and silly speches of Green Arrow. When people criticize politics in comics is always because the side presented is other than their own.

But subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at sitting presidents aren't always directed at Republicans. Read Chuck Dixon's comics during the Clinton years and you'll see he's portrayed as a whipped moron more than once.

Despite what the critic may make it appear, Civil War is surprisingly balanced in the philosophical differecies between the two sides. In fact, the other side (Iron Man's) have better reasons, and more plausible reason for their actions than the Anti-Registrations side. It has many faults, but at least Millar is trying.

I really have no defense for JMS' Supreme series, though. They make The Ultimates seem as brilliant and deep political commentary.
Jeff Albertson | 08.12.06 - 8:18 pm | #


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Jeff: Dixon is but one conservative in a sea of liberals. Orson Scott Card is another, but he's not a true (and regular) comics writer.

And, you obviously didn't read closely what I wrote if you believe I am merely dissatisfied with what is being said. (I am dissatisfied, sure, but not merely so.) Aside from what I noted about the former high quality of storytelling in CAP (despite its politics) I also said this, with emphasis:

Do I want a return to the 1960s where Stan Lee invoked the simplicity of the east-west Cold War to rouse American patriotism? Certainly not. But even Lee only used that backdrop as a plot device to tell a fantasy-laden superhero story -- a reality break, if you will. Contemporary comics, thanks to their overtly political writers, have done a 180 degree turn: they have made the fantasy subordinate to the political theme. Readers have nowhere to go now to escape the world around them. Marvel's current crop of storytellers keep hitting their comics' purchasers over the head with it. And it more and more represents only one side of the political and cultural story.
Hube | Homepage | 08.13.06 - 10:29 am |

This is spot on and again why I am less and less interested in Marvel and JMS.
I loved Babylon 5, there really was a mixture of views, both JMS's liberal athiestic leanings, and conservative views as seen through Jerry Doyle's right leanings coming out in his fictional persona. (Electric bleechers as opposed to electric chair, was straight from Doyle's mouth.)
However as he has grown into writing comics and such his "balance" has gone overboard. As Robert Sawyer has begun to push his Canada is great and the U.S.A. is bad, garbage more and more in his books. I find myself no longer caring to read how I am a bad person for living here in the U.S.. SO has JMS with his hatred of our current goverment where nothing is good no matter what. I have realized that folks at Marvel think that entertaining folks is not the job. It is telling us what is wrong is job #1.

I knew B5 was better than Trek when I saw the episode "Believers" where Religion beliefs won over the Doctors, "I know better than those Nutty religion nuts". (He saved a kid by performing an operation after he was told not to, this caused the parents to take the life of the child anyway so the outcome was the same.) Remarkably I believe this episode was written by David Gerrold!

I guess playing in a smaller playground he no longer sees the need to do a good work of art that appeals to a wide base.

No wonder the comic share is shrinking every year.
Bobb | 08.13.06 - 1:17 pm | #



It's sad how JMS has been virtually the only writer on Amazing Spider-Man for at least five years now, save for a couple of issues written by Peter David when House of M went to press, and it seems as though no other writers are being hired to replace him. But that's probably because Quesada and company are making it almost impossible for anyone else to do so!

For Marvel to get back on its feet again, not only does Quesada need to step down, but fantasy elements need to take the front seat in storytelling for comics again.
Avi Green | Homepage | 08.13.06 - 3:32 pm | #



Hube: I did read it. I just disagreed with it. Have you read the O'Neil/Adams issues I spoke of? Now *that* is subordinating the fantasy. yeah, there was a supervillain here and there, but who were the bad guys? stereotypical Republican politicians, big bad company owners and plastic. And that was the definition of one sided. Only Green Arrow's liberal views were given any credence, and Lantern was essentially a brainless moron. So much those series pretty much f---d up the character until Johns was able to restore it.

Civil War is hardly something new.

It also doesn't fit with your notion that "only one side is represented" claim, at least when it comes to CW (I've already said that the Supreme series is anything but even handed) The 'conservative' side is, in fact, the side which truly makes sense.

Hell, I don't even like CW. I think the premise is weak, the execution faulty and the characterization spotty at best (otherwise known as a regular comic book written by Mark Millar) but it's not the best example to make your point.

I'm sure there must be many others around.
Jeff Albertson | 08.13.06 - 4:54 pm | #



One thing I thought of last night after posting my previous comment. I'm, wondering if Quesada, and JMS are suffering from the same disease as Ellen Degeneres did when she "came out". That's when her sitcom went from being a comedy to being a rant on being gay. She learned soon enough that line from Mary Poppins about a spoonful of sugar.
At least some of the relevant GL/GA, and Spider-Man drug issues were somewhat entertaining. The Cival War and the Squadron Supreme (I read the first 6 issues of S.S., and my Comic Shop has let me look at most of the C.W. issues)come off as trying to teach us how wrong what we believe is happening with our goverment is wrong.
Bobb | 08.14.06 - 12:59 pm |

Jeff: I have not read the GL/GA issues of which you speak, but I've heard about them. What I heard is pretty much in line with what you wrote.

I'm sure there are better examples to make my point than Civil War, but CW does enough to make said point, in my opinion. You might be interested in this post I wrote back in January which addresses more about Mark Millar's work, as well as some of what I mention in this post about Squadron and Cap (but with a bit about the Cap series "The Truth" as well).
Hube | Homepage | 08.15.06 - 6:40 pm | #



There's also this post of mine dealing with The Ultimates.
Hube | Homepage | 08.15.06 - 6:43 pm | #



A big difference between the comics of the Bronze Age and those of today is that, back in the late 60s-early 70s, while there were plenty of human interest stories, they weren't clogging up every single book, wall to wall, being published by DC and Marvel at the time. Nor did they largely blot out the leading superhero themes either.

Now, we've got much more political biases than ever before, sometimes concealed behind metaphorics and allegories. And while allegories may have been more welcome years before, today, even they're starting to rub the wrong way, and yep, it's getting as annoying as can be, with the political biases either subordinating the superheroics, or worse, tearing them down and attacking what made superhero comics work in the first place. It's gotten so awful that that's exactly why just focusing on fantasy entertainment for maybe several years would be a real blessing.
Avi Green | Homepage | 08.16.06 - 3:09 pm | #



Hube: I do think CW is a good example of politics taking center stage in comic book storytelling, if not of the one-sided category you're taling about. After all, if you like Marvel Comics, you *can't* escape Civil War. It's everywhere.

But barring CW, those kind of comics are still in the minority. DC just finished his huge mega crossover, couldn't be more apolitical. With the exception of the books written by the poster child of social causes (Judd Winnick) all the One Year Later (and 52) barely deal with political causes. Once CW is over, politics will again be in the background of only a few books.

I read your earlier posts, and similar criticisms about the books you mentioned elsewhere and being a liberal myself, I can't say I'm much bothered about the points you raise. Curiosly, I still don't liked most of the books you mention, for other reasons.

The post about Ultimates 2 brings up something interesting, we all know how Millar is pretty much anti-US, but for all his talk about US politics in that book, the Ultimates are still *the good guys* and they are going to win. For all his talk about 'shades of grey', there are few comic book more black and white than Ultimates.
Jeff Albertson | 08.16.06 - 5:50 pm | #



Jeff:

Oh, I'm aware of the more black-white nature of Ultimates. But it's not as black and white as you appear to say. It certainly offers much food for thought about the US's role in the world, and (preposterously, in my view) offers up the governmental views of pariahs like North Korea as actually being a "sane" voice worthy of being heard.

The repercussions of the unified attack against the US in Ultimates 2 will surely be played out in myriad political ways ...
Hube | Homepage | 08.17.06 - 8:45 pm |

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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