Sunday, January 17, 2016

Avengers Versus JLA - Squadrons Supreme!

The Squadron Supreme has been a sturdy and reasonably successful concept for Mighty Marvel over many decades now. Their success of course is doubtless their specific and unusual relationship to one of DC's flagship titles, The Justice League of America. Their creation is a convoluted yarn which goes to a simpler time in comics and bespoke of the first time the Avengers and the League clashed...sort of.

Roy Thomas (then a boy phenom slowly but steadily taking the reins of the Marvel Universe from the hands of Stan Lee) was the regular writer on The Avengers and had been for several years. A friend of his, Denny O'Neil had just been appointed writer of DC's Justice League of America after Gardner Fox was removed following many many years of devoted but admittedly somewhat old-fashioned writing.

Roy and Denny apparently concocted a scheme to cross their titles over (unofficially) by Roy creating a doppleganger team of JLA members and Denny doing likewise. Roy, effectively the editor of his book, followed through and gave the world the Squadron Sinister. Denny, forced to go through Julie Schwartz was unable to follow through, and in JLA #75 had a tiny scene with a trash can lid supposedly filling in for Cap's shield and that was it.

Over a year passes and Roy decides to try it again. This time he has the Avengers travel to another parallel dimension and there they meet not the Squadron Sinister, but the larger Squadron Supreme, the heroes of their world .

We first meet new members Lady Lark, Hawkeye, Tom Thumb and American Eagle.

And then along comes Nighthawk, Doctor Spectrum, The Whizzer, and Hyperion. As it turns out these Squadron Supreme members were the template for the Grandmaster's creation of the Squadron Sinister to begin with.

The Squadron members are under the mental control of a child-genius named Brainchild and the Avengers help to defeat him and free the Squadron from his control. Weirdly, the Squadron Supreme did not appear on either cover of this exciting two-part adventure. In all likelihood that was to limit the exposure to criticism from DC should they object to these unusually familiar counterparts.

At that same time, new JLA scribe Mike Friedrich concocted a team of heroes called "The Heroes of Angor" who resembled some of the Avengers cast. (More on them later.) So at last Roy had accomplished his stealth crossover, and this kind of insider wink-wink-nod-nod type of event would be all we'd have for many years to come.

But the Squadron Supreme was now officially part of the Marvel mythology and that allowed Steve Englehart to dig up the team and face them off against the Avengers once again. This time they get cover treatment and two dandy ones they are too.

This one by Jack Kirby is one of my favorites he produced on his return to Marvel in the mid 70's. Some new members such as Amphibian were added to the ranks and American Eagle became Cap'n Hawk and Hawkeye became the Golden Archer. Once again the Squadron was under mind control, this time because of the Serpent Crown. The battle was furious and despite their heroic status on their own world, the Avengers became all too familiar with the Squadron's propensity to fall sway to outside forces.

Ironically this was the first time that George Perez ever drew a crossover between the two teams, even though officially it never happened.

It happened again in the pages of the Defenders when that team traveled across the dimensional barriers to face off against the Squadron. This time they were controlled by the Over-Mind, a villain from the pages of the Fantastic Four.

This exposure though led to perhaps the Squadron's finest moments. When Mark Gruenwald, a notorious historian of comic lore, took on the team in a twelve-part maxi-series the intent was clearly to do something serious and lasting with a superhero story. Similar in many ways to Alan Moore's Watchmen, this was an attempt to take doppleganger heroes and explore some of the darker aspects of being a hero. Gruenwald though was more sympathetic to the general notion of superheroes though. Also sadly, the book was not as powerfully visually as it could have been with several artists stepping in before the end.

The Squadron did though rate a Graphic Novel of their very own when some time later plot threads dangling from the series were wrapped up, at least partly.

Many years pass and then Kurt Busiek and George Perez make me downright giddy when they revive the Avengers after its moribund year in the hands of the Image boys. I absolutely adored everything about this fan-favorite explosion of superheroes, with Busiek writing concise stirring stories and George Perez at the absolute height of his skills. The Avengers rarely looked better, even (gasp) in the days of John Buscema.

The two brought back the Squadron again and refurbished them for the modern world. And of course the Avengers immediately suspected their minds were not their own.

They even rated a special or two along the way as we explored further the distinctive characters who made up that team. This was a universe in which things could and did change, forever. It made for great storytelling.

Then Michael Stracynski and Gary Frank took advantage of the brief MAX imprint to give the world a more robust "adult" version of the team. They were re-imagined top to bottom and many of the "heroes" proved to less so. It was often a brutal read.

Howard Chaykin and artists I don't even recognize revived the series again but I did not read a single issue of this and know nothing of how good or bad it might be.  This Squadron Supreme universe has recently been eliminated save for a few survivors.

Currently the team has been revived yet again. This time we have heroes from many different universes allied to bring a distinctive justice to a world they feel needs a heady dose of it.

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