Supreme Power was an ambitious attempt by Marvel Comics to flesh out one of the more ingenious concepts of the Silver Age, namely the utilization of characters who would serve as stand-ins for the Justice League of America whenever the Avengers needed an otherworldly punching bag.
The original series, which ran from 2003 to 2005, chronicled the ascent of these ersatz versions of familiar heroes. Written by J. Michael Straczynski, the progression of the characters was horrifyingly believable in its darkness. They gradually develop a keen understanding of the deeply-rooted injustices of a world which far more accurately reflects our own than traditional comic book realities accomplish. It was in this way that Straczyski managed to successfully justify the inevitable evolution of his modern take on the Squadron Supreme towards their traditional representation in Marvel Comics. To wit, the Squadron would eventually take control of the levers of power, creating a world that is very much a utopia, but for its reliance on complete control by the super-powered authorities.
The first steps towards this descent were the subject of the Supreme Power: Hyperion mini-series, which ran from 2005 to 2006, and were collected in the edition reviewed here.
Straczynski is at his best when focusing his pen on the corruption of power and its effects on society, a trait which he employs to great effect in this collection. While Mark “Hyperion” Milton has developed a keen distrust of the government which raised him, as well as its institutions, the series begins with him having adopted a passively resistant approach to society. He has distanced himself from the world, seeking refuge in the arctic, something which long-time fans of his character will readily recognize. It is not until the government which had previously used him a super-human enforcer attempts to reassert its control over him that Hyperion is forced back into action.
In showcasing the core cast of characters assembled to confront Mark, Straczysnki highlights one of the core conceits of his Supreme Power universe: super powers, flashy costumes, and daring exploits do not make one a hero. Each of the members of the government squad are deeply flawed at a psychological level. Emil Burbank, in particular, is shown to be even more brilliantly manipulative than Hannibal Lecter. That this nature is recognized by his government handlers and determined to be both acceptable risk and valued asset reflects the key point of this universe. The powers that be do not care what someone’s motivations are, only that they do as they’re told.
On its surface, the adventure which makes up the core narrative is simple enough. The conflict between Hyperion and the support team led by Burbank results in the opening of a gateway which sees all parties transported to a world where Hyperion and a fully realized roster of JLA knock-offs have taken complete control, just as in the classic Marvel stories. What separates this tale from its four-color predecessors is the commentary by Hyperion on his reasons for doing so. In the meeting of two supermen, the Hyperion native to the world they’ve been transported to explains his reasoning to his counterpart:
There will never be any peace. Not for you. Not for us. Unless things change. Unless we change them. Unless we… save them. Every day, in their temples and churches and mosques and synagogues, they listen to the voices that tell them they are God’s noblest creatures… that they are blessed, special above all others. But we know otherwise. We know because we can hear the other voices. With our powers, we see it all, we hear it all. We have no choice. Moans of despair from bundles of rags and pain. Cries for help that fall on silent stones. And the small voice in all of them that says ‘is this all I was born for? To live in pain and die before my time? To die before I have even lived? The voice that says, THIS IS NOT THE WORLD I WAS PROMISED. And it’s not fair… It’s just not fair.
To hear this sort of critique coming from a character who is, for all intents and purposes, Superman, is both unnerving and telling. It speaks to the core problem that character faces even today. In a real world where so many people are hyper-aware of the injustices perpetrated daily upon them by those in control, how can the world’s greatest hero be blind and deaf to the call to correct them?
The fact that the art on this book was provided by none other than Dan Jurgens, the man responsible for showing Superman’s most epic adventures of the ’90s, makes its message even more profound. While Gary Frank managed to create a great many subtle distinctions between Mark Milton and Clark Kent in the original Supreme Power series, Jurgens’s Hyperion is all but identical to his traditional counterpart. When one looks past the uniform, it is far too easy to see these words being spoken by a disenchanted Superman.
In many ways, Straczynski was ahead of his time. The populist cries of this passage would be echoed, less than a decade later, by the forces that would eventually coalesce into the Occupy movement and various Springs around the world. While the citizens of the world possess none of Mark Milton’s otherworldly abilities, the ability to “hear” the cries of despair from around the globe would find its way into the hands of the multitudes by way of social media, a concept still in its earliest infancy when Straczynski wrote Supreme Power. The idea of a Superman who becomes so disillusioned with the nature of the world around him that he takes control of it is one that has become increasingly dominant in recent years, featuring in Tom Taylor’s Injustice ongoing series as well as being scattered all across the last decade of stories from DC.
Supreme Power: Hyperion is a frighteningly prescient tale which forecast the future of the Man of Steel while aligning one of Marvel’s more ambitious attempts to revitalize a dated concept with its original intent. It’s a jarringly good read and certainly merits a place on your bookshelf.
Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He also hosts the weekly Infinite Crossover podcast in cooperation with Fanboys Inc. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.