Friday, January 3, 2020

COMICS YOU SHOULD READ: “Squadron Supreme” (1985)

Oh, so that’s what it would’ve been like if Watchmen was written by F.A. von Hayek

By: Jimbo X

“Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, and responsibility for the arrangement of our own life according to our own conscience, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily recreated in the free decision of the individual. Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one's own conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one's own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.”

F.A. von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1943)

All of the things you’ve given the world — behavior modification, gun control, abolishment of the militia, hibernacles — all those things only work for the good of society as long as you basically good-intentioned people oversee them. But what happens when you’re one? Can future generations be trusted to use what you’ve created nobly as you did? I think not. Your utopian society is a failure because it requires beings as powerful and good as you to prevent its abuse. Today’s utopia could be tomorrow’s totalitarian state — all because you gave men the means to create it!

Nighthawk, Squadron Supreme #12 (1986)

Like everybody else who isn’t retarded, I thought HBO’s Watchmen TV show was pretty much the worst thing that’s ever been allowed on television. Even by today’s lofty leukophobic standards, the series felt like hardly anything more than a shameless Caucasoid hate-in using the window dressings of the beloved Alan Moore comic to defecate out a militant Afro-American power fantasy — albeit, the kind of militant Afro-American power fantasy as idealized by scribes of the Hebrew persuasion, who for some reason, really seem to like telling stories about oppressed blacks self-righteously killing the fuck out of a whole lot of honkies in the name of diversity or social justice or what the hell ever.

You know — not that the Tribe has EVER exploited our more melanated brethren for fun and financial profit before. Like, ever.

How curious it is that the masterminds behind HBO’s Wokemen project totally eschewed all of the elements that made the actual comic book source material the gold standard of graphic novels. Rather than posit nuclear warfare paranoia as the unifying civic threat of our times, they replaced the nukes with white prejudice, which I think we can all agree is LITERALLY just as dangerous as megaton warheads that irradiate the shit out of hundreds of miles of real estate and turn everybody within 1,000 miles of the detonation point into tumor-ridden zombies. 

And long gone is that problematic Rorshach, who was OBVIOUSLY a hardcore neo-Nazi who hated the homosexuals and Jews because he called one fat, black liberal character in the comic, well, a fat, black liberal. Rather, the mere iconography of the character was transmutated into a LITERAL symbol of white power hatred, because as we all know, ANYBODY who shows even the teeniest, tiniest shreds of social and economic conservatism HAS to be a closeted nigger-hater, just like Thomas Sowell

Basically, HBO’s malappropriation of the Watchmen intellectual property was nothing more than a thinly, thinly veiled pro-reparations screed, complete with a “reimagined” Dr. Manhattan who looks so much like Handsome Squidward from SpongeBob it almost becomes impossible to write off the resemblance as unintentional. And in the process, the bastardization COMPLETELY erases all of the insightful social commentary that made the original comic the modern masterpiece that is — instead of giving us a grim, dark, cynical social satire about the grave error of vesting power into an unquestionable totalitarian mechanism, HBO’s god-awful TV show is effectively a nine-episode endorsement of government-enforced collectivism. Not only is Wokemen a horrific abuse of the source material, it literally reverses the central political message of the entire story to fit their own, contemporary party line.

Anybody else remember when democrats were the ones opposed to legislating morality?

So for anybody unfortunate enough to get sucked into the morbid curiosity of HBO’s reverse-spectacle, a palate-cleanser is certainly in order. Which is why I recommend checking out one 12-issue comic book series from the mid-1980s that has all of the following elements:

— Superheroes appointing themselves de facto government leaders and forging a utopian civilization based on their own insane despotic ideological leanings

— Characters in positions of immense physical and political power using their supreme talents and abilities to take advantage of the weak, including but not limited to sexaully assaulting one another

— Godlike characters being deconstructed as mental headcases, including one who accidentally irradiates all of his loved ones due to an inability to control his inert psychosis

Subtle and convincing political commentary on the hazards of technological progress and suppressing individualism in the name of collective social embetterment 

— A staunch individualist, non-superpowered crimefighter secretly working to combat the gross overreach of his ulta-powerful superhero brethren, even if it means forging alliances with the various villainous scum

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, Jimbo, after watching that HBO horse shit, now does seem like a good time to go back and reread the original Watchmen comic.”

Except one thing, amigo — I ain’t talking about Watchmen at all. In fact, I’m talking about a lesser known limited-series that was published by Marvel a full year before Alan Moore’s more famous, genre-defining comic hit the presses. 

Enter Squadron Supreme from 1985. 

Before you hop into the series, you might need just a little bit of background here. The titular Squadron had actually been a canonical part of the Marvel mythos since the early 1970s, when they showed up in The Avengers as a poorly, poorly-veiled jab at the Justice League. And when I mean these Squadron Supreme jabronis are SHAMELESS swipes of D.C.’s bread and butter, I mean they are SHAMELESS. Instead of Superman, you’ve got a palette-swapped imitator called Hyperion. Instead of Batman, you’ve got a guy with the SAME background and a lawsuit-baiting costume named Nighthawk. Instead of Wonder Woman, you have Power Princess, and instead of The Flash, you’ve got this one prick named The Whizzer. I mean, it keeps going on and on like that, right down to BRAZEN clones of the Green Lantern, Aquaman and Green Arrow named, respectively, Doctor Spectrum, Amphibian and The Golden Archer. 

So basically, all of those jabronis dicked around in Thor camoes for the better part of two decades before Mark Gruenwald came around in the mid-80s and said “Hey, howzabout we make a year-long story about the Justice League becoming self-appointed dictators of Earth and taking away everybody’s guns and forcing people to get lobotomies as part of their grandiose, hyper-liberal utopian hellscape?” And since this was before women were allowed to work in comics, of course the upper brass at Marvel said “sounds fab, Mark!” and let him run wild with the idea for 12 fuckin’ issues. 

Now, the graphical line-up for the series fluctuated quite a bit — Bob Hall and John Beatty started the first three issues, then Beatty got replaced by Sam De La Rosa, then Hall went vamoose and in came Paul Ryan (but not THAT Paul Ryan) and Keith Williams, then John Buscema and Jackson Guice got the load for a single issue —but the final four issues, at least, were the handiwork of Ryan and De La Rosa. And that’s worth noting, simply because this series starts strong and finishes VERY strong, and all of these fellas deserve their proper recognitions. But ultimately, this is Gruenwald’s story, and it’s a damn good one that’s even more impressive considering all of the content restrictions Jim Shooter and pals surely placed on him at the time. Whereas D.C. gave Al Moore and Frank Miller virtual free reign to show as much blood and titties and rape and cursing as they wanted, Gruenwald had to work well within the acceptable PG-constaints of the contemporary Marvel product, and with that in mind, the frankness and maturity of Squadron Supreme is downright amazing. With so little to work with, thematically, he was nonetheless able to tell a stark, intellectual and non-preachy story that, in many ways, does a better job of comic bookizing Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism talking points than even Watchmen did. Of course, it’s not as in tune with the social consciousness of the era, but in a way, that actually makes Squadron Supreme feel a little more timeless than the more popular (and, certainly, more celebrated) Alan Moore book that followed it. 

Apparently, Power Princess' secret identity
is Nancy Pelosi.
The thing that I really dug about Squadron Supreme was that it struck a nearly perfect balance between being traditional comic book tomfoolery and surreptitious social commentary. Yes, it’s a series that hits upon a lot of big, overarching cultural themes — running the gamut from gun control and women’s rights to euthanasia and right to privacy — but it never gets too full of its own bullshit like a lot of modern comic books do and starts patting itself on the back for having a pointed political opinion on things. Thankfully, Gruenwald and pals never sought to turn the series into some frothing, preachy, quasi-libertarian rant against the ills of socialism, and the oblique winks to real world cultural issues always takes a backseat to the super-powered malarkey about villains going into comas and nearly drowning the entire planet in interdimensional vomit they keep barfing up and bearded elf-midgets using time machines to travel into the future to find a cure for death — which, in a rather crafty plot twist, turns out to be nothing more than penicillin, ‘cause everybody’s immune systems have gotten so powerful by then that such basic-ass drugs are all that’s needed to ward off the Grim Reaper.

I don’t want to use the term “Orwellian” to describe Squadron Supreme, but the term I would use is “Hayekian.” In some ways, it almost feels like Squadron Supreme is an illustrated version of The Road to Serfdom, albeit with WAY more spandex, considerably less vehemence of E.H. Carr and substantially less dick sucking of Lord Acton, unfortunately. But the general premise of that long standing pillar of conservative literature is practically identical to the great, overarching political message of Gruenwald’s book: that a centrally planned-economy is a really, really bad idea, and that a centrally-planned society is even worse.

Indeed, the following quote from Serfdom seems to sum up Squadron Supreme to a T — “it is indeed those who cry loudest for the New Order who are most completely under sway of the ideas which have created this war and most of the evils which we suffer.” By the way, the war he’s talking about is World War II; you know, the one Lincoln waged to free the slaves and shit, if I remember correctly. 

Without getting too thick into the philosophical weeds here, Squadron Supreme is a comic that shows us what happens when the people who think they know what’s best for everybody is given free reign to dictate their rationality upon the masses. The “heroes” of the series effectively grant themselves the power to overtake the government, based, of course, on some highfalutin sense of moral responsibility. I.E., they have the capacity and wherewithal to mandate positive change, so it’s only humane for them to go through with their mass social reorganization strategy. 

Of course, such isn’t effectuated because it’s the most humane course of actions, or the most logical or the most compassionate. The “heroes” never acknowledge it themselves, but they obtain such widespread power simply because they already HAVE the power to begin with. Like a certain contemporary political party that shall remain nameless, the titular characters in this series have no qualms about slowly stripping citizens of their freedoms and, ultimately, self-sufficiency, since they determined a long time ago that THEY are better caregivers than the individuals themselves. And why should we let anarchy reign when the government, as we all know, can certainly do a much better job of managing people’s lives than conscious individuals?

In another way, Squadron Supreme is sorta’ like an inverted Miracle Man. You know how that one canonically ended with a mega-apocalypse ushering in a true utopian age based on reason and logic and steadfast adherence to science and technology? Well, in SS, the equation gets flipped, with the push for utopian idealism based upon all of those progressive standards ultimately paving the way for total and utter civil breakdown

One of the great things about SS is how the superheroes never consciously address how Machiavellian their tendencies actually are. How fitting it is that the most human of the titular superhero group — our Batman analogue, Nighthawk — is the only character who picks up on the might is right nature of the Utopian Program, that such is a construct designed not to liberate, but to perpetually disempower. They impose their will upon unapproving subjects by threat of violent force, but always find a way to cloak it under some veiled ideal, like “progress,” or “liberty,” or, my personal favorite, “the greater good.” When it comes to deconstructing the hyper-fasicist roots of the modern superhero mythos, very few series have done as thoughtful and subtle a job as Squadron Supreme, which, simultaneously, posits the super-powered as psychosocially-corrupted tyrants more than willing to abuse their positions for personal gain (such as the Green Arrow stand-in who uses a machine intended to zonk the antisocial tendencies out of murderers to brainwash his ex-girlfriend to fall in love with him again) and naive idealists who have no grasp of the value of free will and individuality. 

You know, Machiavelli just isn't one of Tupac's alternative stage names ...

Perhaps the big philosophical takeaway from the series is that “the greater good” isn’t greater or good if it’s something that has to be forced upon unwilling people. Indeed, throughout the series, the titular heroes more or less have to threaten the masses into accepting their pie-in-the-sky public policies about state-enforced lobotomizations and government-mandated cryogenic freezings because, subconsciously, they realize that said plans aren’t benefiting who they claim, but simply safeguarding their own social power from interior challengers.

You … might be seeing some parallels here. Just a little.

But like I’ve been saying all article long, Squadron Supreme is no anti-collectivization agitprop. Indeed, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable little mini-series with a lot of great subverted Silver Age tweaks, and really, it’s all of that cloudcuckoolander nonsense (the brilliant gorilla scientist, the retarded taffy monster, the intergalactic clone battles to the death, etc.) that gives the title a sense of endearing charm and levity. Thankfully, it’s not a comic that thinks it’s all self-important, and Gruenwald never lets the inherent sociopolitical message interfere with the utmost goal of any creative work, and that’s detract from telling a great story.

All in all, this is a fun, thought-provoking series that touches upon sociopolitical morality through a lens you almost NEVER see in comics, and really, most forms of ANY media nowadays. If you’re looking for something that’s gripping, cognitively-rewarding and culturally conscious without celebrating itself for its own “wokeness,” then you DEFINITELY need to give Squadron Supreme the old look-see. Even now, it’s an immensely innovative little series that still doesn’t get the love and admiration it deserves — and it’s certainly a refreshing palate-cleanser from the utter dreck being shat out by WarnerMedia Entertainment, that’s for damn sure.


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