Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Project Superpowers

In the past few days I have been doing a lot of re-reading of stories from a fairly new comic book universe: Project Superpowers from Dynamite Entertainment. The line kicked off in 2008.

The line is still young, and the publisher is not averse to controversy, especially as much of its business model is founded on collectiblity with variant covers, but nonetheless I really like what is happening in the stories of this emerging universe. I say emerging, as there is more to it than that.

In a nutshell the premise is that almost all of the Golden Age superheroes were trapped beyond time and place and released into the modern day; they emerge into a world that is changed with the US and the world being policed by technologies that owe a great deal to the first generation of superheroes. And all of those heroes who emerge have been changed in some way great or small. Amid all of this it emerges that a cabal - the Supremacy - is a hidden power, with self-interests on a vast scale.

The primary architect of Project Superpowers is Alex Ross - one of my all-time favourite artists. Fans of comic book movies but not so much comic books themselves may recognise his work from the title sequence of Spider-man 2; he did the 15 paintings recapping events from the first movie. Ross is credited as co-plotter on every issue and provides a cover for each issue (most if not all have variants as well). His main collaborator has been writer Jim Krueger, and others have helped with this ongoing project.

I described Project Superpowers as an emerging comic book universe earlier. In some ways this is both true and untrue. The Project Superpowers Universe (PSU) has been founded on characters freely available for use as they have fallen into the 'public domain' with no individual copyright holder. Ross has gathered together a great swathe of such characters - with names such as the Black Terror, Death Defying 'Devil (originally Daredevil), the Ghost, Masquerade (formerly Miss Masque), Samson, the Green Lama, the Twister, the Target, and dozens more besides. The cast is huge. But that is one of the things I really like about the PSU.

The line has featured a number of interlocking series. The spine of the PSU are the various 'chapters' of Project Superpowers. Chapter 1 comprised 8 issues (0-7) and has been collected in hardcover (top image) and softcover editions. Chapter 2 is still being told, and the first half has been collected. Parallel to these are series focusing on particular characters, although each features a plethora of guest stars from the main series and background, lending the feel of a real tapestry being woven.

Chapter 1 sees the return of these time-lost heroes, altered by the time and place in which they have been gone. The heroes are scattered and slowly begin to gather in factions, trying to make sense of a new world. Lines are drawn and some of the heroes rise to face a grave threat in the Middle East as secret powers (the Supremacy) deploy resources to achieve their aims.

The Black Terror is the PSU's righteous-angry-man. Bullet-proof and strong and powerful, the Black terror is like Douglas Fairbanks with superpowers (not an allusion I can claim as my own). His first story concerns his search for his former sidekick Tim/Kid Terror, and sets him on a collision course of conflict with the US authorities. There is a lot of action and the character is great in that he is both flawed and recognises his major flaw, and highlights the effects of the metaphysical interment the Black Terror suffered in the preceding decades. There are great plays on the imagery of the pirate which is evident from the costume (a great glowing-ethereal skull and crossbones effect), and a good few surprises along the way. I really enjoyed some cracking adventure scenes as well as the more thoughtful moments, and so think it is a great compliment to the main series. Issues 1-4 are collected in a trade paperback (cover right), and more issues are due for collection soon.

Death Defying 'Devil is the renamed Daredevil (probably done to avoid any possible legal hassle from Marvel Comics); it is an interesting series as we learn nothing factual about the hero, whether he is who he purports to be (an antagonist thinks not), or indeed what his motivations are. Athletic and acrobatic, the 'Devil in action is all about action, and has a great costume that has inspired others in later years (Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt from Charlton, who in turn was the template for Ozymandias from Watchmen - see how these things work?). The plot is basically a prelude in my view: setting the stage for the real emergence of a big threat at a later time. This series worked less successfully than Black Terror for me, and his co-stars Silver Streak and the Ghost arguably steal the show, as the 'Devil simply gets entwined in a very specific personally-orientated plot. Not as strong or well-rounded a series as Black Terror.

Masquerade is another collected series of 4 issues; focusing on the heroine formerly known as Miss Masque; the updated look works really well, giving a real 40's look. The story is very fragmented, intentionally so without doubt, as the titular hero is herself a rather fragmented personality. She has gained the power to possess others but is losing sight of herself in the mean-time, and is also able to reflect on her past experiences to guide her present actions. While I can see what the creators were aiming for, the story takes too long to get any real direction as Masquerade tries to connect her past with her present. It is in essence an origin story, yet as such could have benefited with a stronger narrative pull, and focus, and threat in the present. That said, in the comic book medium, and particularly the super-hero genre, it is a story that has a more literary narrative than most works, so is pretty sophisticated fayre in that regard.

Meet the Bad Guys is a markedly different series to the others. Each issue (except the last) show-cases a brand new villainous threat, pitting them against one of the stars of the PSU with whom they have a connection: the Revolutionary is a somewhat rebellious and destructive - possibly even anarchic - individual whose path intersects with the Fighting Yank; Bloodlust is a beautiful and bloodthirsty revenge-driven woman (no surprise given that code-name) who collides with the meditative Green Lama - the Bloodlust character seems very much a pastiche of 90's comic book bad girl cliches which I am sure was the plan; Dagon is an ancient evil returned to plague mankind (well a part of the US coastline at any rate), and is met by the mighty Samson; and most intriguingly for the wider plot-line of the PSU, in the final part The Supremacy, and particularly the Black Baron, face the Scarab in an indirect confrontation - a great chapter showing the politics behind the superhumans of the PSU. Each chapter of Meet the Bad Guys is a self-contained story, and I would highly recommend it to anyone trying the main series.

If anyone is intrigued enough to try dipping a metaphorical toe into the PSU waters, the core recommendations I would make are the main series collections, Black Terror and Meet the Bad Guys. Each series can be enjoyed alone, but more is gained by reading everything.

Cover images © Dynamite Entertainment

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