I’ve been made to understand over the past year that it’s considered extremely gauche to bring your own personality or experience to the table when writing comic book criticism, so I’ll try and get that part out of the way as quickly as possible. Almost immediately following the April release of its first issue (it came out on my birthdayyyyyyy), I became aware of the rather negative general reaction to Jupiter’s Legacy, the new creator-owned superhero maxiseries from Mark Millar and Frank Quitely. While I wasn’t entirely surprised — Millar, especially, engenders a knee-jerk dismissal — I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little taken aback, given that I found the comic to be quite entertaining, and at the very least solid as a rock on a pure craft level. The gripes against Jupiter’s Legacy are legitimate: it’s derivative of Millar’s past work (particularly The Authority and The Ultimates), almost completely devoid of rhetorical subtlety or nuanced characters, and generally redolent of superhero comics clichés. Still, there’s a lot more to like than hate about Jupiter’s Legacy, and I’ve spent fragments of pretty much every day since that first release wondering why I have so much genuine love for something everybody else seems not to care for, if not outright loathe. Here’s a list of what I’ve come up with.
1. Jupiter’s Legacy is the most relatable superhero comic to come along in years. With the ascendancy of Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns to the top of the cape game over the past decade, a process long in the making has come full flower. Superhero comics are no longer designed to feature relatable situations, but relatable feelings. Instead of stories about the heroism to be found in buckling down and overcoming workaday problems in addition to world-conquering archvillains, a la the best of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Marvel and DC product today is more likely to feature people with the fragile emotional makeup of the average comic book buyer (these things certainly aren’t talking to anyone else) juxtaposed against events that bear exactly zero resemblance to anything that’s ever occurred on or off of this planet — or ever will, for that matter. The effect of reading these comics is uncomfortably close to that of listening to the emo music of the mid-2000s, in which groups of handsome, designer-clothed grown men professed to speak for a generation of gross-looking, socially retarded, often economically disadvantaged adolescents. (It’s little surprise that My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way has made a home away from home in comics with off-brand imitations of Morrison’s early DC efforts.) The insides and outsides of today’s superheroes simply don’t match up. No doubt, hero comics are intended as escapism, but to be truly effective, escapist fiction needs to contain the germ of the real world it’s meant to serve as transport away from. After all, to a prisoner, The Shawshank Redemption is going to be much more powerful than 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So it’s good we have Jupiter’s Legacy, a superhero story that the mass audience beyond every-Wednesday comic book shoppers stands a chance of relating to, a comic about people being dealt an increasingly disastrous hand finding the psychological grit to pull through it and survive. There are no alien invasions or vengeful gods of evil providing the threats here. A realistic look at the possibly world-remaking effect of a super-powered family’s domestic disputes set against the all-too-familiar disaster of contemporary geopolitics is more than enough drama to go around, and it leaves the characters room to encounter familiar problems that are immensely entertaining to watch them battle with. The twenty-something children of the Great Depression-spawned original superteam careen wildly from drunken accidents to unintended pregnancies to drug debts and overdoses, while their parents face the very real possibility that they’ve raised a generation incapable of taking care of itself, let alone the dissolution of the capitalist system that we watch out our windows when we don’t have a comic book in front of our face.
Whenever things threaten to get too real, though, there’s always a shot of superheroic razzle dazzle to keep the book enjoyable. A post-overdose hospital visit turns into a demolition derby that any monster truck driver could be proud of; a visit from a few heavies to collect drug money lets Quitely showcase his best gore splattering for a few panels via a special-delivery shark attack; and the basic setup of a group of drunk-driving bros getting into a smashup is amplified to superheroic proportions as cargo containers rain down from the skies onto the Port of Oakland. Don’t hit the Jack London house, homies! This is one of the things that makes superhero comics so very charming when they’re done right. They turn depressingly realistic scenarios into spectacle, and make us laugh or ooh and aah at misfortunes that just make our stomachs feel a little deeper when we think about them anywhere else.
2. That willingness to make light of the younger characters’ personal problems allows Millar and Quitely to keep things balanced while painting with darker hues where it really counts. The issues the grown-ups are dealing with — the crashing global economy and one another’s spitballed efforts to use their cachet as world saviors to steer a course through it — are treated with plenty of zesty dialogue, but their basic intractability remains a little chilling. Jupiter’s Legacy flirts with the same absurdity that Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ classic “socially conscious” Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics fell victim to, and true enough, seeing a psychic, be-spandexed dead ringer for Karl Marx snarl about “showing Obama what he should really be doing with his second term” or unveiling a manifesto for “a blue skies approach to the relationship between our economy and taxation” rides right up to the edge of camp. But Millar is canny enough to understand that camp has never hurt superheroics when it’s employed with a little cleverness, and throwing the least subtle storytelling genre in modern fiction at the most nuanced problem in modern economic history provides no end of wicked fun. It’s a very British game Millar is playing with his story about an America in decline, lacing the blackest of humor with biting social-realist comment that’s funny only in the context of its baroque, ridiculous surroundings.
If there’s something serious on display here, it’s Millar’s critique of superheroes themselves. The challenge he’s chosen to throw at his band of costumed adventurers is one that nobody on earth has managed to figure out, and given that none of these characters is being presented as much more than a low-watt bulb, there isn’t a lot for our heroes to do once they figure out their interpersonal drama but lose. That alone is reason to keep reading, given the extreme rarity of seeing the heroes of a big event comic go down in defeat, and the generally more-interesting stories that happen when they do (see Watchmen, The Winter Men, et cetera). Millar’s no Alan Moore as far as any question of craft or quality is concerned, but Jupiter’s Legacy has a hint of Watchmen’s timeliness, showing the impotence of superheroes as they take another step down the intra-comics popularity ladder. There’s a very fun metafictional layer to this stuff for all you elitist asshole Comics Journal readers out there: after 75 years of reigning supreme in the wake of the Great Depression, the clock’s run out for the cape and cowl crowd, whose kids would rather party and do drugs and have bed-ruining sex, like they do in (shudder) alternative comics. Millar might be going for an obvious metaphor in linking the fall of superhero sales to the waning of market capitalism’s successes, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch the dominant powers of our lifetimes dither as they wither. Here more than anywhere else, superheroes are revealed as an outmoded idea, one whose time has well and truly passed. There’s no Timothy Leary around in real life telling us we’re all going to be sprouting capes and wings like there was in the high Marvel Age, and in Jupiter’s Legacy the guys wearing trunks and bright colors are drawn to look distinctly like yesterday’s news. Subtle or not, making American capitalism appear worn out and hackneyed by tying it to the superhero as a concept is a very neat trick to use in a comic book.
3. In the capper to the funniest scene in the book so far (ur-hero the Utopian, whose main power seems to be embarrassing his close family members, averting a catastrophe set in motion by his fuckup son’s attempt to get out and do some good works after an all night rager), Millar throws in a bit that seems to nail down the closest thing the book has to an emotional core. “I wanted a successor and ended up with a disgrace!” Utopian roars, before admitting that he worries he’s failed as a father. It’s a reasonable conclusion, given that his daughter is just then finding out she’s pregnant by the son of his arch-nemesis as she wakes up in the hospital from a drug overdose. This is the real stuff, the important conflict behind all the over-obvious politicizing and guilty-pleasure costumed bickering. If the superheroes’ moment in the sun has passed, it follows that what comes next is soon to be born.
So who is to raise him, and who will build the world he inherits? Not the crusty old dickwad who goes around in a white suit with an angel on it being mad at kids! Not some Communist loser who acts all sneaky all the time and carries around an iPad! Definitely not the gothy dewd who gets too wasted to do anything right but hook up with skanky super-chicks in club bathrooms! No, my money’s on the only cool character in the comic — Ryan Gosling better play him in the movie — the unborn child’s biological father. Hutch, a supervillain’s son whose five pages of screen time in issue #2 beat the rest all hollow (he drinks a bunch of booze, kills a dude, and caps it off by banging that asshole the Utopian’s daughter in a roach motel off the 405 freeway), is about to get a nasty surprise from his secret girlfriend, but something tells me that only someone who comes from outside the douchey superhero clique will be able to man up and give a good life to his child in a frightening and perhaps less brave new world.
It’s speculation in the basest form, but I think there’s a reason this material is the stuff with the most bite. The part that stuck out for me in that New Republic interview with Millar that got everybody’s panties in a bunch recently wasn’t the impolitic comments about rape, but this:
“People would say, ‘I joined the army after reading The Ultimates because I wanted to make a difference in the Middle East,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I kinda meant the opposite of that,’” Millar recalled with a laugh.
I mean, Jesus Fucking Christ! If that was me, the only reason I’d be laughing about it is because if I didn’t I’d have to break down and cry. Take a second and imagine the way that would feel. Seriously! Take a second. It’s a weird, laughable thing that popular comic book writers hold such sway over the way people live their lives, but lest we forget, there are dudes walking around out there with Geoff Johns’s signature tattooed on them with the different colored Rainbow Lantern Corps rings next to it. So feeling like you’ve tried your best to make work with a message to it and then having your followers go down the wrong path because of the shadow you’ve cast? Mark Millar isn’t the worst guy to write a story about that.
4. Frank Quitely, meanwhile, is doing a very different kind of work than we’re used to seeing from him. I understand why that’s got some people freaking out, as his usual stuff has been the best in comics for the past 15 years or thereabouts. This Quitely is a more refined, sedate artist than the tripped out visionary who’s worked almost exclusively with Grant Morrison since the turn of the millennium. The effect the filmic quality of Millar’s scripting has had on him is obvious from page one: Jupiter’s Legacy keeps the “widescreen” four-panel grid nailed down in all but the most dire of circumstances, which sounds disappointing until you realize how well Quitely uses it. This, after all, is a guy who was using tiered page-wide panels to brilliant effect years before the Michael Bayisms of Bryan Hitch came into vogue, and keeping it to a set four per page isn’t all that different than what he did with Morrison, which most of the time was basically just switching off between three, four, and five. A fixed page layout is an advantage in any comic with a lot of plot to unload: it makes you forget as much as possible the breaks between panels, the choices being actively made behind the scenes, and lets the story just flow.
And honestly, calling what Quitely does in Jupiter’s Legacy “filmic” isn’t really fair. The swirling, in-and-out framing of the midair scenes is more than even the most talented helicopter cam pilot could pull off, and the center-focused one point perspective shots used throughout have a sparse elegance that’s hardly ever seen on film outside of Kubrick — and even in the master’s most considered shots, the background elements are mere subliminals, whereas Quitely’s still imagery allows the reader to drink in the fashion design on every figure swaying to the beat of a nightclub sound system, the body language of every rag picker and street urchin lurking in a Depression-era alley, or the way he actually draws the tiny marks delineating the window sill behind a set of closed hospital blinds. The level of detail put on display in these drawings is staggering, a reproach to every lazy comics critic who ever accused Quitely of not drawing backgrounds. Occasionally Quitely’s lines are too minute even for today’s digital printing process to quite pick up, and you’re left holding the page a few inches from your face, trying to contemplate a couple milimeters of hazy dots that you know is a line like all the rest in the original art, a detail too finely considered to make its way into the final product. That feeling of being faced with a vision a bit too grand for the fragile pages it’s printed on is de rigueur when you’re reading Golden or Silver Age superhero comics printed in off-register color and faded, blotchy blacks on paper little better than wood chips, but to catch the chill of it from a comic produced with some of the finest printing technology the modern world’s been able to dream up… that’s rather something.
And perhaps it’s obvious, but pretty much everything in the real world simply doesn’t look as nice as when Quitely draws it. His draftsmanship has never been stronger. With the stylization of the pictures as the most noticeable difference between the comic’s imagery and what we’ll no doubt see in the eventual movie adaptation, the reader is invited to enjoy the immense beauty in the way Quitely observes things, his delicate but dramatic way of posing a figure, the rotund yet muscular loveliness of what must be the most hand-cramping line in comics to produce — and is far and away its most elegant. Here is escapism, if one insists upon finding it in Jupiter’s Legacy. If only I could live in a world drawn by Frank Quitely, I’d give everything I’ve got out here away in seconds.
Peter Doherty’s coloring doesn’t do much to stand out, but that’s the entire point, and the job he does is deserving of high praise. “Realistic” coloring is one of the worst ways a comic can hamstring itself, but perhaps Jupiter’s Legacy is the exception that proves the rule. This stuff just looks nice — depictive realism that never comes close to devolving into the muddy brown sludge or ‘90s CGI plasticity that every other mainstream comic going for a naturalistic look ends up with. Basic flats with a single offsetting tone for shadowed areas and perfectly placed, subtle modeling adds dimensionality to Quitely’s lines without upsetting the cartooned, slightly fantastic feel of the world being put forth. The hue choices are inspired, with each scene given a distinct color identity and the whole spectrum brought to bear, but no single shade blazing off the page with its brightness. It’s harmonious without being bland, a rare thing in comics color. When Quitely ditched the psychedelic All Star Superman colorist Jamie Grant for Doherty I thought he was nuts, especially when I saw the sober, too-quiet recoloring the two created for the hardcover rerelease of the (originally) technicolor Morrison collab Flex Mentallo. But for this project, Doherty is absolutely perfect, saying more with less in every panel. I’m glad the dude from the Libertines has finally found a seemingly stable and productive outlet for his creativity.
5. I think a lot of the push back against Jupiter’s Legacy has to do with a very specific problem: comics has a long memory and little patience. It’s seen as almost necessarily bad to repeat the themes or ideas of older works — first, because of how much emphasis fan culture puts on turning one’s brain into a back issue encyclopedia so as to better nitpick this week’s stories, and second, because in a medium with as much untapped potential as comics innovation is encouraged above pretty much everything else. So when Millar returns to many of the basic themes of Authority and Ultimates, it’s seen as regression, or at least stagnation. I think a good comparison to bring people from the trees to the forest here is the work of William Burroughs, like Millar a writer who mixed profundity and prurience in more or less equal measure while never being anything less than resolutely sensationalistic. One of the great pleasures of reading Burroughs is seeing him return again and again to characters, bits, and plot devices from novels past, slowly refining them until they best reflect the germ of the idea they were created to express. It’s like that with Millar. If it took him three passes at the same epic superheroes-remaking-the-world story to get to a solid expression of why we should all care (because our children are our world’s inheritors — an obvious idea, but one that the ageless, childless corporate superheroes will nonetheless never be able to touch), I’m glad he finally got here, and I’m glad this one has the prettiest artwork of them all.
I’m also glad that Millar continues to buck an even more absurd convention of comics, this one fully in force on both sides of the alt-mainstream divide: the refusal to take on topical subjects at just about any cost. In a perfect world, the best comic about the Iraq invasion wouldn’t star Samuel L. Jackson tracings, the best comic about the 21st century schism between red-state and blue-state America wouldn’t be about Iron Man kicking Captain America’s ass, and the best comic about why Communism failed wouldn’t feature Lex Luthor leading mankind to a technocratic golden age… but until the superheroes make it over, this ain’t a perfect world. So for now I’ll savor those goofy references to the fiscal cliff, those reactionary and over-generalized jabs about politicians who just like, can’t figure it out. I like alternative comics because they do the hard work of presenting characters whose personal drama I can sympathize with, and I like superhero comics because they show me a world that lives beyond the pale of any reality I’ll ever experience, and I like all the comics because they have beautiful drawings in them. Jupiter’s Legacy has all three of those things. And I like it the most.