This is the second article in my series spotlighting lesser known, but excellent comic books. This week I’m going to tell you guys about some fantastic superhero comics that may not be as well known as the JLA or The Avengers, but they’re wonderful Comics nonetheless. So, let’s get started…
Somewhere between the late 1990’s and the beginning of the 21st-century, the superhero genre as a whole begin to exhibit a dramatic stylistic change. The superhero movie explosion had yet to occur. Publishing giants like Marvel we’re on the verge of bankruptcy. (It’s crazy to think in a time when Superheroes and comic books permeate our pop culture, Marvel almost went belly up). The 90’s was a cynical decade, the decade of conspiracies and The X-Files. That cynicism coupled with the approaching Y2K paranoia produced a landmark era of comic storytelling. Some of the books published at the time were the best deconstructions of our most famous superhero archetypes since Watchmen. All of the books and stories below feature characters that are very deliberate analogues for our most famous superheroes. Specifically the DC superheroes, like the Justice League.
This is not a coincidence. I often say that, unlike Marvel, the heroes of DC Comics are MYTHIC, larger than life, they are the modern day gods. They’re our Zeus, Apollo, Mercury, Hera, and Hades.
However, from all of our superheroes there is one that rises above the rest. The first and arguably the greatest superhero. Every single book on this list either centers on an analog of this character or features one prominently. I am of course talking about the Last Son of Krytpton, The Man of Steel… SUPERMAN. Every comic book writer wants to play with Superman at least once, and they all have an idea that wouldn’t quite fit in a traditional Superman comic.
After all, Superman has rules. He upholds truth, justice, and the American way. He works at The Daily Planet newspaper with the love of his life, Lois Lane. He always does the right thing and, with a few notable exceptions, he doesn’t kill.
The stories below are fantastic because you have some of the greatest writers and artists in the industry taking characters that are very much like our most beloved heroes and doing things with them that they could never do in 1 million years in a normal comic book. These stories prove that sometimes when you take risks with old ideas, you get some damn fine storytelling as a result.
Now you’ve got to understand, some of the stories are almost 20 years old, so when you read them they may not seem as new or exciting because a lot of the tropes present in the stories were revolutionary at the time. They reinvented the genre, so of course everyone copied what they were doing. A lot of theses ideas have been adopted into mainstream comic book storytelling as the culture has changed. Regardless, it’s important to understand that at the time these tales were revolutionary and mind blowing. They were risky, they made you uncomfortable, and they made you look at your favorite heroes in the whole new light. Some of the stories are better than others but they’re all great reads and essential for any comic book reader new or old.
The Authority writer– Warren Ellis & Mark Millar/artist – Bryan Hitch/Frank Quietly/Some Shitty Fill-Ins
This book popularized the concept of “Wide Screen Action” in comics. “Wide Screen Action” basically refers to superhero action on a scale and scope that hadn’t been seen up to that point. They were trying to devise action set pieces like something out of the coolest 90s blockbusters. The book was first launched by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in the late 90s. The Authority, led by chain smoking British bad ass Jenny Sparks and her mega powerful team consisted of Apollo, Midnighter, Swift, Jack Hawksmoore, The Engineer, and The Doctor. Between Ellis’ unique vision and Hitch’s incredible artwork the book was a sight to behold. The book also tapped into the late 90’s fear and mistrust of the government I wrote about earlier. Because of shows like The X-Files, conspiracy theories were big. The book was groundbreaking at the time for another reason, in that it featured a gay couple prominently on the team, Midnighter and Apollo, who were analogs for Batman and Superman, were lovers. Smartly, this never defines the characters. The books didn’t exploit the characters sexuality and they made it clear that these two were very much in love with each other. They were two of the most bad ass superheroes on the planet, their sexuality didn’t matter one damn bit.
During Ellis’ tenure on the book, the idea that Superheroes could be quasi-fascist popped up from time to time. The Authority were the most powerful superheroes on the planet, when the world was at stake, they felt like they didn’t have a time for democracy, committees, due process, or international borders. In fact, they viewed these things with contempt. With beings this powerful who’s to stop them? These are themes that would be ratcheted way up when Mark Millar took over after Warren Ellis departed after the second story arc. Along with Millar came genius artist Frank Quietly. Though Ellis and Millar are quite different writers, there was a pretty smooth transition. In my opinion this was Millar’s best work. Similar to some of Ellis ideas, Millar attempted to answer the question that we’ve all asked: If Superman and the Justice League were real why wouldn’t they topple dictators and evicirate terrorists? Shouldn’t they be solving the problems that really matter instead of engaging in silly fights with supervilains? What’s to stop them from drastically changing the world? Of course, when you start messing with the establishment at that level, the establishment begins to push back.
The Authority: Book One (Warren Ellis & Bryan Hitch) and The Authority: Book Two (Mark Millar & Frank Quietly) are available at your local comic book store and online on ComiXology.
Rising Stars writer– J. Michael Straczynski/artist-Various
On paper a lot of these stories sound very similar as they’re all basically deconstructions of superhero stories. However, if you read them, you’ll see that they all have their own unique feel. Rising Stars perfectly exemplifies this. Rising Stars was really the first comic book I read that showed me superhero stories can be more than traditional conflicts of good vs evil. They can be complex and adult. As you can imagine Rising Stars was a revelation to me. Created by J. Michael Strazcynski, also the creator of the groundbreaking sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, who was famous for his intricate story planning. He new the beginning, middle, and, end of Rising Stars before he sat down to script the first issue. The story is all the stronger for it. Here’s the basic set up without going into spoilers: It all began with The Penderson Flash, 10 years before our story begins a strange ball of energy that was dubbed The Penderson Flash dissipated over the small town of Penderson in the heart of America. When the Flash hit Penderson, 113 children were in utero at the time. Of course this being an extremely bizarre incident, the United States government decided to keep their eye on the town of Penderson and its residents. For years there was no apparent effect. No one was any closer to figuring out what the Flash was or what it did to the populace. Until one day, one of those 113 children in utero at the time of the Flash, now around nine years old, saved hundreds of people at his school when the roof of the gymnasium collapsed, dropping hundreds of tons of concrete and rubble. The boy was able to hold the debris over his head like it weighed nothing, so everyone could escape. One by one, each of the 113 Penderson children began to exhibit various abilities, some very dramatic, some relatively benign. One or two of them seemed not to develop an ability at all. But each time one of the kids discovered they had a power, it was a brought about by a trigger event of some kind. So perhaps the kids who didn’t have abilities, simply hadn’t experienced their specific trigger moment? Fast forward more than a decade later, the children have grown up and been dubbed the “Specials” by the public. A few of them chose service and protection like traditional superheroes. But most of them went on to do a variety of different things. The main character of the story is Poet, a private, introverted Special who’s also a struggling writer. One day, seemingly out of the blue, the 113 Penderson Specials begin to be murdered one by one. For reasons I won’t go into here, Poet believes it’s his responsibility to catch the killer.
That’s the basic set up and I’ve only scratched the surface of the story. It becomes so much more than a superhero murder mystery. These children were given these abilities for a reason. They were meant to change the world. The question is, is the world ready? At the time, the only thing that had ever been done with superheroes that was even vaguely similar to this was Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Of course, Rising Stars is no Watchmen, what could be? However, despite that unfair comparison, Rising Stars an is excellent read. The story asks, and not in a dark or cynical way, what would you do if you truly had the power to change the world for the better? It’s a real gem if you’ve never read it before. Though it does it enjoy a cult following, Rising Stars deserves a higher status in our pop consciousness.
Rising stars is spread out over three graphic novel trade paperback’s that include the entire series:
Rising Stars vol.1 Born in Fire
Rising Stars vol.2 Power
Rising Stars vol.3 Fire & Ash
Buyer bewear! Rising Stars also put out two compendium editions that collect the whole story across two massive volumes. I can’t stress enough to not waste your money on the compendiums. The binding is flimsy and hard to keep open and the pages and binding come apart almost instantly after you start reading it. So, grab Rising Stars vol. 1-3 at your local comic book store or on your device at comiXology
Supreme Power writer– J. Michael Straczynski/artist– Gary Frank
This one may be my personal favorite on this list. J. Michael Straczynski is such a gifted writer it should come as no surprise he appears on this list twice. This is the story that’s most directly parallels Superman and The Justice League. This is a brilliant execution of the question: “What would happen in the real world if superhumans began to appear?” It begins with a familiar setup. A young couple driving their pickup down a back country road. Something streaks across the sky and crashes into the field down the way. They investigate and find a small baby in the wreckage of what appears to be an alien ship. They bring the baby home, but instead of being raised by the kindly couple, black helicopters and blacks ops soldiers are taking the baby and hushing up the couple. The child is then taken to a government research facility. Even as a baby, when the government scientists first test him, they see his strength and durability are off the charts. There’s no telling how powerful he could become. After deciding not to just kill the child out right before that becomes impossible, the U.S. government decides to raise this boy to be the quitenssential American Hero. They hire government agents to play his parents. They use focus groups to pick the perfect dog he should have as he grows up (it goes bad). They’re very careful about what they show him of the outside world. Above all the instill him with a deep love of America, or at least they try to. The boy is named Mark Milton (another name chosen by focus group to sound the most “American”) and he will become the superhero known as Hyperion.
But when Mark’s ship crashed on earth, it released something into that the atmosphere, something that affected other people, giving them extraordinary abilities like Mark. There’s The Blur who can move with superspeed, Doctor Spectrum, a former special forces officer with a Crystal from Mark’s ship fused to his hand that will act as a weapon that responds to his mind. You can see where this is going. Slowly but surely were introduced into an entire real world Justice League analog, including versions of Batman (Nighthawk), Wonder Woman (Zarda), and Aquaman (A girl named Kingsley who eventually gets the lame code name Amphibian). What makes this story so compelling is that it has a real ripped from the headlines kind of feel, in the sense that this is what it really would be like if beings like Superman came into our world. Everything from the abilities of the characters to how their potential destructive power is measured is presented in a really cool way you haven’t seen before in most Comics. There’s a dread that hangs over this entire book that permeates the story with tension. Especially when it comes to the character of Mark. This is a man whose entire life has been a lie. He’s been raised to believe he’s this perfect American weapon, never told his true origin. But what happens when he finds out the truth? How does somebody with truly no limits look at the world and its problems? And then of course is the old classic: does absolute power corrupt absolutely? These are the ideas that lie at the heart of Supreme Power. I’m not even coming close to doing this story justice, but I can’t recommend it enough. Unfortunately for reasons I’m not certain of, JMS never finished his superhero epic. I heard it came down to disagreements with Marvel. It’s a shame we’ll never get to see JMS complete one of the all time great superhero stories.
The series did eventually continue, picking up months after where Straczynski’s cliffhanger book departure left off. I haven’t read the follow up series myself. I’m sure I eventually will out of curiosity. I’ve heard it’s…fine. But YOU dear reader! YOU only read the Supreme Power stories written by J. Michael Straczynski. For some reason, the trade paperbacks for Supreme Power are a little more difficult to find than some other books. They can be easily found on Amazon or ComiXology. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to call your local comic book store to see if they have any copies (local comic shops can be a treasure trove of hidden gems). Regardless, here is the reading order:
Supreme Power Reading Order
– Supreme Power vol.1 Contact
– Supreme Power vol.2 Powers and Principalities
– Supreme Power vol.3 High Command
– Supreme Power: Hyperion
– Squadron Supreme: The Pre-War Years
If you like these books here are a few more that you may want to check out:
Invincible writer– Robert Kirkman/artist– Ryan Ottley
The Ultimates writer- Mark Millar/artist- Bryan Hitch
Anyway, as usual thanks for reading guys. I hope you enjoyed it.