The Rise and Fall of Marvel’s Supreme Power Universe

Once a strong comic line, the world of Supreme Power fell to pieces and recently got trashed in New Avengers. How could this happen?

New Avengers currently has lots of neat stuff going on as part of the big “8 months later” gimmick Jonathan Hickman’s been working into his books, but ever since things kicked off, I’ve been distracted by something else. New Avengers #24 showed Namor thinking back to how he and his Cabal (which includes Thanos) wiped out another Earth for the sake of keeping the universe alive. The scene is more about Namor realizing how he’s in over his head and by this point, we’ve already lost nearly a dozen alternate Earths.

The thing is, those Earths were made up by Hickman. Most were already similar to the main continuity with a couple changes here and there (Reed Richards and Dr. Doom being friends, Shuri and Captain Britain being members of the Illuminati, a Magneto statue replacing the Statue of Liberty, etc.) and we also got the Great Society’s world, filled with Justice League archetypes.

Yet in this instance, one specific world razed into nothing is a preexisting Marvel reality. It’s the world of Supreme Power.

This is rather shocking because while it’s been three years since the last time we’ve heard from this universe, Supreme Power used to be a pretty big deal!

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The continuity was introduced in late 2003, but the real story begins decades earlier. Since the 70s, Marvel’s had its own alternate reality based on DC Comics and their superheroes. Whether known as Squadron Sinister or Squadron Supreme, the team of heroes were meant to represent Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest, giving Marvel the almost-freedom to write the inter-company crossovers that the fans wanted. It gave us the super-strong alien Hyperion, the martial arts genius Nighthawk, the Amazon warrior Power Princess, and so on.

The concept really became notable in 1985, when Mark Gruenwald and Bob Hall did a 12-issue series based in the Squadron Supreme world. After a previous storyline put the US in ruins, Hyperion comes up with the idea of using their powers and sci-fi resources to fix up the country…whether the people want it or not. This is made even worse when you consider Kyle Richmond – the Bruce Wayne of that world – is President of the United States and thinks it’s a really, really bad idea.

Squadron Supreme came out just before Watchmen and while Watchmen is a better book overall, Squadron is simply a better deconstruction of superheroes in my opinion. A lot of it is because of how the book remains in the ’80s superhero style. The Dave Gibbons art in Watchmen is dark as it is, but when Hall’s superheroes are doing horrible things, it’s far more jarring. They capture their enemies and use a machine to brainwash them into being good people. You can almost agree with the morality of that action, but then Golden Archer deals with Lady Lark’s rejection of him by kidnapping her and using the same brainwashing machine to make her love him and you realize how messed up this situation really is.

After that series, the Squadron characters have never really been able to stick out. They’ve had follow-up appearances throughout the years, but nothing nearly as memorable as their “Utopia Project” adventure.

In the early 00s, Marvel’s Ultimate line was tearing it up. The idea of reintroducing classic characters and stories with a modernized and more down-to-earth style was proving to be a big success. In 2003, they decided to use that format for the Squadron Supreme lineup by giving us Supreme Power. The initial series, lasting 18 issues, was written by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by Gary Frank. Rather than taking established characters and tearing them down like Gruenwald did, it instead created new versions of the Justice League knockoffs and made them poisoned from the start.

The series mainly focused on Mark Milton, otherwise known as Hyperion. Like Superman, his rocket is discovered by a couple out in Kansas (or around there) and they choose to adopt the baby. Only this time, the government shows up at their door and steals the child away. Rather than the kindly couple raising him, the government hires fake parents to raise Mark in a controlled environment. Throughout the series, Hyperion tries to find his place in the world, but comes to realize that his whole existence is a lie and he’s been used from day one.

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There are five other characters based on the core Justice League here. Kyle Richmond is a rich, black man whose parents were shot in front of him by racists as a child. Now he fights crime as the enigmatic vigilante Nighthawk, only he’s just as racist as the men who made him an orphan. Zarda is some kind of succubus goddess, who has been hidden away and cared for by loyal followers for possibly centuries before devouring them and checking out this whole Hyperion business. The Atlanta Blur is a young man with super speed, who uses his powers to become a product-endorsing superhero. Single-minded soldier Joseph Ledger bonds to a mysterious and powerful gem from Hyperion’s ship, turning him into Doctor Spectrum (the “Doctor” nickname comes from his surgical style of taking out enemies in the battlefield). Then there’s Kingsley Rice, a mermaid-like creature otherwise known as Amphibian, who has an emotional attachment to Spectrum.

The series was rated MAX and it made the most of it with an excessive amount of violence, foul language, and nudity. Especially nudity. Hyperion’s clothes get burned off a lot of the time, Zarda spends several issues in the buff, and Amphibian doesn’t wear a stitch throughout the 18 issues. Regardless of the rating, the series was a success and led to a handful of spinoffs. The earliest was a six-issue Doctor Spectrum miniseries by Sara Barnes and Travel Foreman that shows what’s going on in Ledger’s head during a lengthy coma episode.

Supreme Power ends with Hyperion telling the government to go screw, while President Bush drafts anyone and everyone with superpowers. This introduces other reimaginings of Squadron Supreme characters, such as Emil Burbank (Lex Luthor), Shape (no DC counterpart), Nuke (Firestorm), Arcanna (Zatanna), Tom Thumb (Atom), and Inertia (no DC counterpart). It’s worth noting that in this world, all the superpowered individuals have their powers due to the coming of Hyperion’s spaceship. It’s spread some kind of virus or spore that has infected random people and has given them their abilities. Or, in the case of Nuke – who is constantly leaking radiation – cursed them.

Supreme Power: Hyperion picks up right after the main series ends, focusing on Burbank, Arcanna, Nuke, and Shape hunting down Hyperion to bring him back into captivity. Once again, the series is written by J. Michael Straczynski, but with art by Dan Jurgens, Staz Johnson, and Klaus Janson. The five-issue mini takes a very interesting and important turn when the battle between Hyperion and Burbank’s team sends them into what appears to be an alternate reality where Hyperion rules the world alongside most of the other superpowered beings. Not only does it introduce other new versions of old Squadron heroes, but it includes more direct references to the old “Utopia Project” storyline from the ’80s. To be more specific, Hyperion’s been using a brainwashing device to make the heroes more loyal to his cause.

Hyperion and the rest return to the correct reality at the end of the series, but Burbank knows the truth: they didn’t visit an alternate Earth. They went two years into the future. Now Burbank has to figure out how to stop this from happening.

The spinoffs kept coming. Daniel Way and Steve Dillon teamed up for a six-issue miniseries Supreme Power: Nighthawk, which focused entirely on Nighthawk’s side of the world, lacking any reference to Hyperion, Blur, and the rest. I’ve criticized Way a lot on this site in the past, but his Nighthawk story is a pretty interesting read, coming off as “Garth Ennis’ Batman.” Most impressive is the inclusion of Whiteface, an insane serial killer clown. Way had the difficult task of recreating the Joker in a darker and more ominous way. Doing that with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman is easy enough, but the Joker? I mean, they just tried making Joker darker in the comics and it came off as DC’s writers trying too hard to be edgy.

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Here, Whiteface is outright disturbing, while never straying too far away from the idea that he’s blatantly a Joker knockoff. Unfortunately, I can’t really post the panels of him watching the news reports about his reign of terror without cheesing off my editor, but take my word: it’ll give you the jibblies.

There’s also a four-issue miniseries by Marc Guggenheim and Paul Gulacy called Squadron Supreme: Hyperion vs. Nighthawk, where the two heroes (if you can call them that) cross paths when dealing with the Darfur conflict. This one’s really interesting to me because of its timing. While the whole Supreme Power world is incredibly mean-spirited, there is a strong dynamic in how the Hyperion and Nighthawk character arcs tie in with each other. Hyperion begins as a hopeful, young man who wants to be a hero and do the right thing, but experience causes him to become cynical and sinister over time. Nighthawk is mentally-broken at the beginning due to his excessive racism, but over time he begins to realize the errors in his actions and ultimately becomes a more inspiring and heroic person. Squadron Supreme: Hyperion vs. Nighthawk seems to take place at the exact moment when the two are passing each other on their reverse paths. It reads like a calm before the storm.

The whole Supreme Power line was doing pretty great, all things considered. Then it all came crashing down.

In the aftermath of Supreme Power: Hyperion, we got a new ongoing by Straczynski and Gary Frank called Squadron Supreme. The series was about a new government team put together, made up of Hyperion, Zarda, Blur, Spectrum, Amphibian, Burbank, Arcanna, Nuke, Shape, Inertia, and Tom Thumb. Add in Nighthawk, who refuses to join and is off doing stuff on the side, and you have an ongoing with a cast of twelve characters. Yikes. While it has its moments, the series isn’t nearly as intriguing as Supreme Power.

The seventh issue is about Hyperion fighting Redstone, a villain introduced in Supreme Power. The final page of the issue shows Hyperion, Blur, and Nighthawk about to throwdown with him. Then…nothing.

JMS is notorious for leaving books out of the blue and this is one of the more famous instances. Squadron Supreme #7 would be the final issue and to this day, we never got to see what happened at the end of that fight. People with subscriptions to the series were instead given issues of Moon Knight in hopes that it would tide them over. JMS later explained that the series going from MAX to Marvel Knights meant that he lost creative freedom and he couldn’t hack it anymore. Which is weird, considering the violence stayed the same, so I guess having to refrain from f-bombs and no longer being able to show Zarda’s pubes crippled the creative process in some way.

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Still, the show must go on. Not Squadron Supreme, though. That was swept under the rug. The line would keep going in the form of Ultimate Power, a nine-issue crossover between the Ultimate Universe and the Supreme Power Universe. With Greg Land on art, the writing would change after every three issues. The first three by Brian Michael Bendis, the second three by JMS, and the third three by Jeph Loeb. It was also met with lots of delays, taking well over a year to be released.

Ultimate Power was the Greg Landiest Greg Land book of all, featuring all sorts of copied art and repurposed drawings of porn and pro wrestlers. The cover for the fourth issue even includes the exact same drawn face on both Hyperion and Spectrum. The writing’s no picnic either, telling a story about Ultimate Reed Richards accidentally destroying the Supreme Power world’s US, giving us an excuse for heroes on both sides to fight it out again and again and again. Then the original Squadron Supreme shows up because why not? Everything turns out to be a big conspiracy between Ultimate Dr. Doom, Ultimate Nick Fury, and Emil Burbank. While Doom is still on the loose, the Squadron Supreme takes Nick Fury into custody and Zarda decides to stay in the Ultimate Universe to search for Doom and keep an eye on the Ultimates.

And that’s a pretty cool idea, all things considered. Switch two characters. Marvel and DC wanted to do this back in the ’90s, but it got nixed. Might as well try it again a decade later with in-house universes.

Hyperion’s world got another shot with another series called Squadron Supreme, this time an ongoing by Howard Chaykin, Marco Turini and Marco Checchetto. Chaykin went in a very different direction, which could have worked, but he spent far too long getting to the point. In the first storyline, almost all of the Squadron Supreme heroes have gone missing. The only ones around are Arcanna, Fury, and Burbank. The latter two have been able to spin their ways to freedom and have climbed up the political ranks. Nighthawk and Blur share a quick cameo a few issues in and Hyperion and Spectrum show up at the end of the sixth issue, but for some reason characters like Nuke and Amphibian would still be on the cover.

So if the first six issues aren’t about the Squadron Supreme, what are they about? Four astronauts come back to Earth and accidentally bring in another spore infection, much like Hyperion did. More superpowers pop up, only this time, they aren’t DC Comics-based. Rather, they’re Marvel-based. What we get is essentially Ultimate-Ultimate Marvel. There’s a teenage girl who can transform into some kind of spider creature. A young man in his early ’20s has mastered nanite technology and has made a suit of armor out of it. Those four astronauts have gained fantastic abilities from their trip into space. There’s an altruistic soldier from the past, clothed in the American flag. There’s a rage-filled, blue beast and the only one who can fight him off is a self-proclaimed god of the winds. Then Emil Burbank starts wearing a mask over his face to cover up some scars that only he can see for the sake of completion.

The second arc is pretty great and focuses on the return of the Squadron Supreme, giving us the not-quite-DC-heroes vs. the not-quite-Marvel-heroes. We even see some knockoffs of Sabretooth and Venom tossed in there. The problem with the comic is something that hurts a lot of ill-fated comics these days. It takes so long for it to get to the point that by the time the series hits its stride, nobody’s left to read it. This volume of Squadron Supreme was never going to last, but if the first arc was merely three issues (or, hell, maybe even squeezed into two), they might have had a ghost of a chance.

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The series ends with a plot device removing the powers from most characters, namely the Marvel-based ones. Emil Burbank loses his powers (I should point out that being super-smart is actually a superpower to him and not a natural skill) and becomes a raving lunatic. On one hand, there’s the fact that he’s an egomaniac and this ruins his life. On the other hand, perhaps he may have just realized that he was the only one capable of preventing the Hyperion-ruled future and now that’s up in smoke. We’ll never know for sure.

As for Zarda, she appeared in various Ultimate books for a little while. Ultimate Hulk Annual, Ultimatum, and New Ultimates to be more specific. All of them were written by Jeph Loeb, who never really understood the character. Rather than being a subdued, rambling, insane woman who would occasionally take great pleasure in gratuitous violence, Loeb’s Zarda was instead just a really angry Wonder Woman. Ultimatum brings Nick Fury back to the Ultimate Universe and by the end of New Ultimates, Zarda returns to her Earth. In all her time in the Ultimate Universe, she did a big pile of nothing. She punched Hulk in the wang at one point, but otherwise, she was completely forgettable.

The Supreme line had one more gasp of air in its system. In 2011, Kyle Higgins and Manuel Garcia gave us a four-issue Supreme Power miniseries under the MAX imprint. The story ignores much of the universe and only includes Hyperion, Doctor Spectrum, and regular antagonist General Alexander. Hyperion has been gone for years after destroying the White House and killing the President. Spectrum has taken up the role of being the hopeful superhero the country needs, though there are two major problems. One, he knows that he may be walking the same path as Hyperion and two, the gem that gives him his power is slowly taking over his mind.

Hyperion tries to live life in the wilderness, eventually finding a home with a nubile hermit who has no idea who he is. Some reporters find out he’s alive, then the government goes back and forth between wanting him on their side or wanting him dead. In the end, we get a rather abrupt Hyperion vs. Spectrum battle that ends with Hyperion in captivity and the reveal that his people are on their way to conquer Earth.

There would never be any follow-up to that plot thread because nobody ever read it. It fell so far under the radar that even the Wikipedia entry for Supreme Power doesn’t reference it. I’m genuinely surprised they even released it in trade. By this point, Supreme Power had become toxic and forgotten.

And now look at it. Wiped out by Namor, Thanos, and the rest. Not even mentioned by name. They’re just afterthoughts, killed in the background of Namor’s flashback. Sure, you can argue that it might not be the Supreme Power world. Hickman chooses not to mention the exact Earth they’re on and it’s very possible that it’s just a completely separate group of superheroes who happen to be exactly the same as the ones JMS wrote about. This is more likely now that they’ve released the cover for the upcoming Secret Wars event with Supreme Power Hyperion in the mix, though that might be for the sake of show and not have anything to do with the actual story. Still, this victimized world might as well be the real deal.

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At this point, the Supreme Power concept is dead in the water and I can’t see it ever making much of a comeback. What’s the point? Back in 2003, the Ultimate concept was fresh, unlike now, where Miles Morales is the only thing keeping Marvel from pulling the plug. The idea of creating a mean-spirited and cynical mirror of the DC Universe meant more then than it does now, when the DC Universe is nearly as mean-spirited and cynical.

Now that I think about it, perhaps unceremoniously destroying a pessimistic line like Supreme Power without paying it any attention is the most perfect way it ever could have ended.

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