1 · TEEN TITANS - My need for colorful, clean-cut super heroics and my obsessive habit to hunt back issues in bulk met at the intersection of Wolfman & Pérez. My enthusiasm was destroyed by troubling story elements but was resuscitated by the excellent Titans Hunt storyline.
2 · JSA/ALL-STAR SQUADRON - A Roy Thomas appreciation. Character archaeology as expression, especially to pin a moment in time. This led me to "map reading" info-dumps.
3 · JUSTICE LEAGUE of AMERICA - A Mike Sekowsky & Dick Dillin appreciation. Two underrated workhorses who defined the adventures of the world's leading superhero group for decades.
I fell in love with a stack of old comics over the holidays and now I understand what being a "DC person" really means. Okay, so maybe it wasn't love. Let's settle for infatuation. It was definitely a newfound fondness for the well-behaved, well-groomed do gooders we all know from cartoons and toy lines. As I was picking up what they were laying down, I caught a familiar scent of organization. Everything had its place and function in these bright comics. One name kept bouncing back to me as I read this modestly drawn entertainment: Mark Gruenwald.
Known for being one of the leading creative spirits for Marvel Comics in the 80s and a top ranking executive overseer in the 90s, in addition to being a freelance writer during the entirety of his tenure, Mark Gruenwald never hid the fact that he was a DC person.
What's a DC person anyway and what does that entail? And how's it so different from being a Marvel person? Not to be glib but isn't it all the same? Sure, DC was stuffier & proper and Marvel was gloomier & flawed, but those traits weren't mutually exclusive, so these unspoken differences always baffled me a little. But as the years rolled on and I studied the works of Gruenwald in particular, I grokked his sense of management, his employment of grouping and transparency. For some reason, as I read these new/old JL comics, I recalled the mega-project Gruenwald spearheaded: the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. This super categorized juggernaut of information left no stone unturned at Marvel... and it came from a DC brain. The same brain, it dawned on me, created the seminal story that featured - who else - Justice League analogues.
Squadron Supreme. I knew this series. I liked it, even. Hell, issue seven was one of my very first comics. Got it from a 3-pack at a supermarket. We have history, me and the Squadron. They were actually created as a one-off goof from another dimension by Roy Thomas in an Avengers comic as a faux-company crossover, but they would occasionally return with new members, new allegiances, and new reasons to get mind controlled. It wasn't until Gruenwald developed a 12 issue mini-series years later that the Squadron's potential started to show. Gruenwald's concept: what if super-heroes took matters into their own hands to make the world a better place, whether the world wanted it or not? What would happen if these powerful beings took realistic measures to their logical extremes?
Does that sound familiar to you? Does it sound played out and overcooked? That's because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons tackled similar subjects in their groundbreaking Watchmen, a series which came out a little over a year after Squadron Supreme. Taking superheroes to this "realistic" extreme (not to be confused with writing superheroes realistically, a fine distinction), especially the fascistic tone of the material, has been milked beyond recognition. Back in '85, it was still largely unmarked ground. (Not to forget that Marvel set itself apart by being rooted in the real world early on.) Gruenwald gets bragging rights for being ahead in exploring the theme to such depths around this time, but Watchmen - also made up of analogous characters - eclipsed the industry, a powerhouse project as influential today as it ever was. As great as it is by its own merit, Watchmen is such a DC product, it is so very DC, while Squadron Supreme is so very Marvel. Watchmen had one consistent creative team, zero ads, a self-contained story. It got special treatment, it was designed carefully, it's a sophisticated item. Squadron Supreme had three different art teams, tons of ads, deeply connected to dangling plots of older continuity. It got the standard treatment, was designed typically, it's a crude counterpart. And that's precisely the advantage Mark Gruenwald's opus has in this fight. It's a scrappy, unpretentious treatise on super teams that's locked into the language of traditional comic booking. It was released the year when the industry was bubbling, and it came from the same publisher who was releasing things like Born Again. Those are tough odds, man. The tide was turning, but how was Gruenwald to know? All he wanted to do was take a crack at writing his ultimate Justice League story. I'll put that passion up against any perennial comic. Well, within reason.
I'm a Squadron Supreme fan, warts and all. For years, I thought it was pretty okay, as it definitely suffers from the rotating chair of artists. Bob Hall was a fine choice for a meat 'n potatoes superhero guy, but he lasted 5 issues before Paul Ryan and John Buscema came in for two respective guest spots (you know things were dire when they called Big John in to get it out the door.) Hall returned for one more issue, but then Ryan (a rookie with a handful of credits to his name) finished off the series. It's a depressing last issue, too, and very unsentimental. It features a lot of death, but the impact is strong only if you care about the characters at all, and I hadn't, really, until I re-read the series post-JLA appreciation. It held together a little better for me, but the first half of the series is definitely the stronger part. I'm just not a huge fan of Paul Ryan's work. At best, the style carries zero ego, things simply look the way they look, and clarity is god. That might sound appealing to the post-modern eye, but there's nothing else there; it's all stock. It's well meaning in all the ways a cartoonist should convey basic information -- Ryan won't abandon you to show off his latest technique and I love that trait -- but it definitely didn't give the final Squadron Supreme issue the extra push it could've used.
All in all, I was very satisfied at this SS re-read. It was a pleasant experience. I was left curious as to what happened to the characters, and I vaguely knew they continued to make subsequent appearances. I hunted these things down.
That egoless Paul Ryan style was starting to grow on me, and Paul Becton's painted colors in this graphic novel album format are really nice. The story itself is pretty brutal in the cleanest, non-gratuitous way possible. The Squadron Supreme normally inhabits a universe similar to the Marvel Universe. This is the story of -- well, it's in the title, Death of a Universe.
There's a mild sense of panic running through the story. It's never subtle but it's never overplayed, either. It's pitch perfect. It's got a touch of time travel which I'm not crazy about, but it works as a high stakes event. It ties up nicely, but not entirely, as the Squadron ends up stranded in the real Marvel Universe.
Now I was even more invested. I had to find out more. Gruenwald made me care about these carbon copy knock-offs more than I ever did the real things. I was hooked. So hooked I had to pull the trigger on a Quasar deep dive because that's where the Squadron's adventures continued.
I could've just bought the Squadron Supreme appearances, but you know me. I wanted to earn my way into those stories. Cutting in line would lessen the journey. Even though I wasn't over the moon with Paul Ryan's art, I liked Danny Bulanadi's inking and was eager to give another one of Gruenwald's passion projects a second (third?) chance. So I got every Quasar issue. First few were straight up info dumps, which thankfully I was prepared for by having conditioned myself through reading Roy Thomas comics. [See Overword 2.]
I was so hungry for additional context and commentary that I followed along, issue by issue, this fan-made archival site until the spoilers kept ruining storylines for me. The general thrust of that community's POV on Quasar is that it had lots of potential but it never quite reached it. Gruenwald had been trying to get the series off the ground for years, but the circumstances were never right. Finally, this was his chance, yet Gruenwald wasn't sure how Quasar would succeed in the marketplace. "So I hope this lasts longer than ROM," declared Gruenwald in Marvel Age #78. It's a series that is fondly remembered by a few. Very few; Quasar is usually the butt of a joke. Whether it's because of its vanilla lead or its underwhelming sales, Quasar was never guilty of being cool.
He was a young adult dude with wholesome intentions who looked up to Captain America, had daddy issues, and lacked a killer instinct. (The latter being integral to his donning his sole weapon, a pair of Quantum Bands.) He was shy around girls but brave, naive but strong-willed... I liked all of those qualities in Quasar a.k.a. Wendell Vaughn. His niceness wasn't phony or forced. His self-deprecation could be a bit much at times, but he had a good heart and was determined to better himself. All this went against the grain of the day, when even the big blue boy scout had more "edge" in comparison.
Those graphs up there, by the way, are amazing. I love that Quasar was a safe space for science-heads. The title itself had a lot going for it. Gruenwald set up a strong premise with a blank slate of a character, created a solid supporting cast including a romantic interest in the character of Kaylan Ballantine, and came up with compelling plots and villains for our hero to fight. Quasar was doing everything right, and yet something was missing.
Let's be real: serviceable art by nice guys with no deep interest in the material is not a potent combination. There's gotta be some exceptional drawing skill that can be beautiful even when churned out (Buscema) or some fan-driven passion (Pérez) or some level of vision (Moore/Gibbons) to push even the thinnest of concepts into decency. If the concept is sound, even better. And I sympathize with the plight of production: things need to get out the door no matter what. The majority of the comics we revere are products of last minute scrambling. So you made the product good enough, and you made the deadline, then you repeat it all again and hope you land with something decent. Maybe even good. Something great would be aces!
But as a fan, as a kid buying Quasar from my local 7-11, what did I care about the plight of production? All I cared about was whether it looked cool. I saw firsthand what Quasar was competing with for my couple of bucks: Walt Simonson's FF, Erik Larsen's Amazing Spider-Man, John Byrne's Wolverine, Rob Liefeld's New Mutants, Ron Lim's Silver Surfer (and that's just from Marvel). I bought Quasar because of the Acts of Vengeance crossover and stayed with it for about a year out of loyalty. I never really liked it. Too wordy. The art didn't help. Too stiff. No offense to then-rookie Mike Manley, who took over Ryan as series penciller. In this re-read, I was more forgiving with the art, but it still lacked spark. I barreled through to get to those Squadron stories.
It was worth the wait. The Journey Into Mystery storyline was fun and fast-paced. It tapped into my excitement for Gruenwald's excitement. Since Quasar was a title that was set up to be the place where obscure characters and dangling plot threads can be examined and propelled, seeing the castaway Squadron mix it up with Quasar was a genuine treat.
It also had some legitimately funny moments, sometimes at the expense of suicidal Watchers.
There was even an issue where all the Marvel speedsters entered a cosmic race and it's basically a jogging comic and I cannot tell you how much I love it. Holy god, it is excellent. Gruenwald taps into some Manga-level psychological warfare in it. And it doubles as a love letter to DC's Silver Age Flash comics. There's a new speedster introduced called Buried Alien. Not to be confused with Barry Allen, the Flash's alter ego. The Kirby-created Makkari becomes a regular cast member and serves as the Flash to Quasar's Green Lantern. It's almost too saccharine, this quasi-fan fiction, but it's deeper than that. It plays into Gruenwald's profound adoration of DC's Justice League; he's shaping this into his ideal series.
Enter: Greg Capullo, another then-rookie who became the series' third regular penciler. His first story, issue #18, is a standalone meta-story, trippier than it has a right to be. Again, Gruenwald channeling the Silver Age by way of Grant Morrison. According to his Fat Man on Batman/Fatman Beyond interview (episode 38 at the 1:00:20 mark), Capullo describes Quasar as being a title that was "on the chopping block" but his art caused sales to spike around 20,000 copies.
Something immediately clicked between Gruenwald and Capullo. For the 7-part "Cosmos In Collision" storyline (issues 19-25), Gruenwald's narrative ambition was running high, the pulp formalisms were sharper than ever, and it all looked really pretty. It's fascinating to see Capullo develop issue by issue. Rough around the edges at first but with a modern energy to it, Capullo's art is traditional at its core. He's big on the fundamentals with enough cartoony bounce to get him into John Romita Jr. or Ron Garney territory. His growth complemented Gruenwald's stability.
There's a reason this storyline is a sleeper hit, it's a really fucking good comic story. But it never, ever gets talked about. With great art, guest-stars galore, and a terrifying big bad, Quasar survived the chopping block with the same survival instinct as the concurrently published "Titans Hunt" storyline. [See Overword 1.]
This is where things get interesting. Drawn by yet another newbie Dave Hoover, Quasar #26 is a the first non-Capullo fill-in issue and it almost immediately falls apart. Gruenwald does his best to hold it together while crossing it over with the Infinity Gauntlet event, but it's on shaky ground. Capullo returns in the next issue, and he arrives fully formed. Something happened to Capullo in that absence (other than his marriage/honeymoon as stated in the letters column) that unlocked something I cannot describe precisely. I can only see the surface upgrades: the layouts, the expressions, the sheer rendering, it was all more dynamic than ever before. It's similar to peak George Freeman, or Todd McFarlane as inked by P. Craig Russell (doubly ironic because 1. Capullo had a crushing distaste for Todd's work back then and 2. Capullo would eventually end up working for Todd and embracing his aesthetic for many years.)
As a story, Quasar #27 kicks all sorts of ass. It resolves major plots, ushers in a new era, and features more guest-stars than ever, including my beloved Squadron. It's clearly a result of a well-oiled machine.
Capullo drew two issues before the next guest artist drops by. Here's a neat way Gruenwald explained a discrepancy in how other artists might've drawn the wrong costume during Quasar's transitional period.
Above: a Hyperion appearance as part of a storyline involving the character Her (Adam Warlock's female counterpart), who Gruenwald developed for a long while and re-named Kismet.