Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, and I can prove it.
I know, I know. You're probably thinking that it's Alan Moore, right? Or Frank Miller? Or maybe you're a bit more old school and point to Denny O'Neil, or maybe even Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. Heck, you might be such a neophile that you look to Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis. But whatever you're thinking, if it is not that Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, it's wrong.
Mark Gruenwald was the ultimate fanboy-made-good success story. Gruenwald's fan treatises and fanzines show the same level of ruthless attention to detail and desire for rationalization that were hallmarks of his later professional work. In the late seventies, it seemed that his fan writing had gained him some attention, as Gruenwald went to work for Marvel Comics, where he worked in one capacity or another for the rest of his tragically short life.
Well, in addition to editing and co-plotting while at Marvel, Gruenwald turned his hand at writing, as well. In addition to a long run as scripter on Captain America, he wrote Spider-Woman, Marvel Two-in-One, DP7, Hawkeye, and Quasar, among others. It was in his Squadron Supreme that Gruenwald had the biggest influence on later superhero comics.
The Squadron Supreme was a thinly-veiled Justice League of America homage / pastiche/ parody that was introduced by Roy Thomas in the pages of The Avengers in the early seventies, and who turned up a time or two over the years in the pages of The Mighty Thor, The Defenders, and others. Instead of Superman, the last son of Krypton, the Squadron Supreme had Hyperion, explorer from the sub-atomic world of Yttrium. Instead of Batman, the dark knight detective, they had Nighthawk. Instead of Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash, they had Doctor Spectrum, Power Princess, and the Whizzer. Yes, yes, the Whizzer. The Squadron Supreme lived in an essentially Marvelized version of the DC Universe, with their own villains and supporting casts.
In short, until they fell into Gruenwald's hands, not much interesting had been done with the Squadron Supreme. They were most often used to poke gentle fun at the Distinguished Competition, or to allow the creators to play with a new set of toys for a short while. When Gruenwald took over the characters in 1985, though, that was all set to change.
Gruenwald had always been a fan of the Justice League of America, apparently, but the fact that he was an editor at Marvel Comics meant that he wasn't likely to get the chance to write them. In Squadron Supreme he was given the opportunity to write the JLA in a way that DC Comics would never allow. He was allowed to change them, and more than that, allow them to change the world around them.
A conceit of superhero comics, from the Golden Age onwards, is that the presence of beings with superpowers just doesn't change the world all that much. The fictional worlds of the DC and Marvel universes map to the real world, the one that the readers inhabit, too closely for the worlds to diverge too much to be recognizable.
Which is the first way that Squadron Supreme differed.
In the first issue of the twelve-issue Squadron Supreme limited series, Gruenwald establishes the tone of the book right off the bat. The superheroes of the Squadron (all except Nighthawk, who had by this point retired in order to run for, and be elected to, the office of President) unmask at a press conference on the steps of the nation's capital, and announce their intention to eliminate hunger, poverty, crime, disease, pollution, and oppression in exactly one year.
Nighthawk, of course, can already see where this will go terribly wrong, and only barely avoids assassinating Hyperion on the spot with an argonite bullet (argonite being Hyperion's, well, kryptonite).
The second issue picks up the baton and runs with it, and introduces the second way in which Squadron Supreme differed from other books. A month had passed since the first issue appeared on newsstands, out here in the real world, and exactly a month had passed in the fictional reality of the book, as well.
Squadron Supreme played out in real time. Twelve issues over twelve months, with a month gap in the story between each monthly issue. Readers of DC Comics' recently concluded 52 weekly series will recognize this gimmick. And though it had been used in other media before, this was the first time the trick had been employed in the pages of a superhero comic book.
As the series progresses, it becomes clear that the status quo had been left far behind. The characters' aggressive campaign to end the world's ills almost immediately brings them into conflict with segments of the population, when they round up all firearms in the world and destroy them.
Then, when one of the characters creates a behavior modification device that could brainwash a villain into abandoning their evil ways, it is immediately perverted by a lovelorn hero who uses it to make a fellow hero fall in love with him. Heroes die, heroes kill, and heroes compromise their principles. Meanwhile, as the Squadron increasingly sets itself up as the dictatorial rules of Earth (albeit with the best of intentions), their former colleague Nighthawk begins assembling a team of dissident heroes and villains to act as a counterrevolutionary force.
In the final issue, the dissidents led by Nighthawk face off against the heroes led by Hyperion (the thinly-veiled Batman waging war on the thinly-veiled Superman), and in the end neither side truly wins as both sides lose. With most of their colleagues dead, the heroes are forced to admit that their tactic of saving the world through domination is doomed to failure.
In recent years, the United States of the DC Universe elected Lex Luthor to the presidency, while in the Marvel Universe, Tony Stark has taken command of SHIELD in the interest of identifying and controlling all of the world's superheroes. Each year DC and Marvel restructure their fictional worlds in line-wide crossovers that owe their format to Gruenwald's Contest of Champions, and in at least one case their structure to Squadron Supreme. And the sweeping changes to the status quo, which push these fictional realities farther and farther away from the real world familiar to the readers, resembles nothing so much as Gruenwald's masterpiece, Squadron Supreme.
Mark Gruenwald passed away in 1996 at the tragically young age of 43. He left the request that his body be cremated and the ashes mixed in with the ink of a trade paperback collection of his landmark work, Squadron Supreme. The first edition of the trade, published in 1997, fulfilled this request.
The current state of superhero comics, with its obsessive attention to continuity and rationalization, line-wide crossovers, multiple realities, and increasing divergence from the real world, resembles nothing so much as a Mark Gruenwald comic writ large. Everything that Gruenwald pioneered, from the late seventies through the mid-nineties, has now become industry standard. And the mainstream superhero comics of today resemble Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme more than they resemble the mainstream comics of the day.
And that is why Mark Gruenwald is the father of modern superhero comics.
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