1987 And All That: Power Pack #28-33

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Power Pack #28-33 (Marvel) by Louise Simonson, Terry Shoemaker, Jon Bogdanove, Val Mayerik, Hilary Barta, Dan Green, Glynis Oliver, Christie Scheele, John Wellington, Petra Scotese, Joe Rosen, Ken Lopez

Kids want to be adults. And there is a tendency among adults to respond to this desire hand-wavingly, because kids aren't given the credit they deserve. At the same time, there are absolutely aspects of life that children are not ready for and should not have to deal with. The massive, unsolvable problems of the world, the unfairness and bottomless cruelty, can’t even be handled by many grown-ups. I’m not one to advocate over-protection or needles sheltering, but it’d be nice if people’s childhoods could be unsullied by such despicable things. Of course, that’s not always going to be the case, which is at the center of Louise Simonson’s Power Pack. Dealing with extremely adult problems in believably childlike ways, the kids of the titular team prove themselves to be more mature than the adults of their world may think, but not yet as grown as they’d like to believe.

If you’re unfamiliar, Power Pack consists of Alex, Julie, Jack, and Katie Power, four elementary-to-middle-school-aged siblings. Their superpowers were given to them by an alien who told them they must use their abilities to save the world. So their powers and the accompanying responsibilities were thrust upon these kids by an external source without preparation, training, or experience. Just a group of four average, underage brothers and sisters who’re suddenly expected to know how to be superheroes. On top of that, they stubbornly refuse to tell their parents about it, as a group, anyway. Individual members of the team often think that revealing the truth would be the right move, but nobody ever pulls that trigger because they can’t agree unanimously. That means they're entirely on their own, relying on Alex to lead them by default since he’s the oldest, though even he only just started junior high.

Point being, these kids aren't exactly qualified for the job they have. Possessing power does not necessarily mean you know how best to use it, and Power Pack often end up tackling obstacles they’re not entirely fit to deal with. Drug epidemics, kidnappings, disturbed teenagers…all of these things are beyond the scope of a group of children their age, yet they charge in headfirst and try to save the day anyway. Noble though their intentions may be, they have at best mixed victories, doing but a small bit of good in places of immense evil. Heroes, no doubt, but tragic ones.

Most of these issues (#29-32) are connected through a storyline about the Pack attempting to get crack cocaine out of their neighborhood. It is primarily Alex’s cause, and what he’s forced to learn over the course of the arc is that it is a futile one. Though he and his siblings make a few solid blows against nearby dealers and producers of the drug, they cannot stop it in any permanent fashion, even locally. In the meantime, other kids die, and our heroes meet a team of child villains called Trash that serves as a smaller example of the Pack’s tendency to bite off more than they can chew. Trash are the guards at the first crack house Alex decides to demolish, and they work for a dealer/super-villain called Garbage Man. A team of poor, broken-down street kids, Trash do not necessarily want to be working in the drug trade, but they feel like crime is their best or only chance at making a real living, and Garbage Man has them thoroughly intimidated and controlled. Not until Power Pack show up as part of their anti-crack campaign are Trash able to push back against their maleficent leader and get out from under his thumb. And in that moment when the two young teams join forces against a larger evil, it does feel like a win for Power Pack. They take down a big-time dealer, and rescue a group of kids in the process. Or so it seems.

Once Garbage Man is out of the way, though, Trash are less willing to keep playing hero. Their individual circumstances and histories have not been improved merely because they defeated their former boss, which means that they are still stuck with no money or support. The lives that pushed them to become drug runners and guards are still theirs, and though Power Pack makes a sincere attempt to convince Trash that continuing their criminal activity is the wrong decision, ultimately nothing changes. Just as the Pack hasn't wiped crack off the face of the planet simply by taking out one dealer, they fail to improve Trash’s world in any lasting way. Even when they have won a battle, the war continues on without them.

These are the kinds of half-successes Power Pack regularly has to live with, and so do their readers. In issue #28, the kids return from being captured by aliens, reunite buddy Franklin Richards with his family, and are returned to their own parents as well. Seems likes a cut-and-dry victory, no? Yet their unwillingness to tell their parents the truth about their superhero activities means the Pack can’t tell the whole story of their kidnapping, which in turn means they don’t get to heal properly or fully after the experience. Keeping such big secrets, and keeping track of them all, is a lot of pressure for the young siblings, and the downside of their ongoing deceit is evident throughout these issues. Jack begins to enjoy the act of lying as its own reward, to the point that his brother and sisters openly voice their concern over his behavior in issue #33. And all four of them strain under weight of their lies, but are too afraid of losing their parents’ trust, respect, and love to say anything. As with their attempt to solve a widespread drug problem, this familial drama and dishonesty are too adult for the kids to handle. But they stumble their way through them all the same in the name of heroism.

If their age makes them somewhat inept, it is their continued and deeply earnest efforts to use their powers for world-saving good that turns this ineptitude into something endearing. We root for these kids in spite of their lack of experience and because of their wealth of sincerity. The combination of these attributes is what sets this series and its stars apart from other cape comics. It’s plain to see these children have the powers and personalities to make truly great heroes, but they aren't quite there yet due only to their youth. Watching them grow into their potential, even with mistakes along the way, is a compelling journey to follow. Their accomplishments, however small, are still impressive for a group of unsupervised kids, and though their failures can be rather disappointing, their unflappable hope is twice as inspiring.

Power Pack themselves act as a nice metaphor for the common childhood desire to grow up as quickly as possible, and it makes this series excellent if approached as a kids’ book. It’s a good enough comic no matter how old you are, but for younger readers, there are a lot of relatable characters and some very valuable lessons to be learned. If nothing else, Power Pack are realistically childish. They see things in black and white, play imagination-based games, tease each other, and try to act more mature than they really are. Even almost thirty years later, that’s a lot for a real-world kid to connect with, but more than providing a cast to latch onto, Power Pack offers some very subtle but important advice for its younger readers. It is a book about accepting the things you can’t change, living with the achievable victories. Kids want everything their way, and they want it now, but Power Pack shows the impossibility and frustration of that kind of thinking. Growing up means, in a lot of ways, learning what you can’t do, what isn't possible. Power Pack are superheroes, so it’d be nice to think nothing is beyond their reach, but what the book shows is that, powers or no, some things remain always outside of our influence and control. That’s an important if harsh reality, and one that actual children wrestle with in much the same ways as Power Pack. The specifics are obviously different, but the larger truth applies.

I think Louise Simonson knew, somewhere in her mind, that Power Pack worked best as a children’s book. Her dialogue has a tendency to be repetitive and overly expository when discussing the plot, which is due in part to the time in which she was writing, but is also indicative of aiming at a potentially younger audience. It’s helpful to reiterate story points for children to make sure no one is lost or confused, even if it slows things down a hair. Simonson still has plenty go on in every installment, and even when there is a multi-issue throughline like the team’s battle against crack, each chapter is a self-contained tale as well. All of this works well if you want children to read this title, which was, I think, the right call to make with these characters. If they’re going to be the believable kids of the Marvel U, might as well target them at readers of similar age, fans who can more directly identify with these particular heroes.

The other thing Simonson makes sure to do, and a technique that improves the comic’s quality for readers young and old alike, is the inclusion of humor. Even when discussing its most serious topics, Power Pack has a lightness to it, an air of goofiness and fun that never entirely goes away. So, for example, the youngest Power children put on their school play while Alex goes rogue and attacks a crack house. There are also jovial family pancake breakfasts, make-believe and dress-up games, parents flirting with each other while the kids are away, fake tummy aches, etc. Again, it’s all very childlike, finding the funny and the opportunities for play in the midst of more serious business. Simonson keeps the book enjoyable and well-paced, and keeps the kids sounding like kids, by including these scenes or even single panels of levity to soften the more intense stuff. And she gets assisted deftly by her various artistic collaborators.

Jon Bogdanove is the penciler for most of these issues, with #28 drawn by Terry Shoemaker and #30 by Val Mayerik. What all three of these artists have in common, and the thing that Bogdanove does best, is the blend of grounded and more exaggerated visual elements. Largely, this book looks fairly real. It’s still a superhero comic, so when people’s powers are going off there is a fantastical side to things, but the figures and the settings are generally more down-to-earth. Bogdanove in particular packs in a lot of tiny detail to his backgrounds and costumes, and tends to keep the action relatively restrained. Where he goes bigger and broader are the moments of most heightened childishness. Not necessarily the emotional peaks of the stories, but those places where the Pack are most like kids and least like superheroes. That’s a fitting choice, and one that does a lot to help Simonson’s scripts connect. By having the visuals go their craziest when the characters get their most immature, we are reminded of the fact that this series is, at its heart, about exploring what it feels like to be a kid living in a grown-up world.

While on their own the three pencilers do bring a cohesion to the style, five of these six issues are inked by Hilary Barta, so his work is clearly also a major factor when it comes to the series looking consistent. It is Barta who allows the lines to get a little looser when called for, and who keeps them more rigid on the rest of the pages, beefing up the realism of the series overall. He helps the pencilers walk the line between caricature and more lifelike figures, amping up the exaggerated moments and downplaying the others. This back-and-forth in the art is key to maintaining the childlike mood and outlook of the stories, and Barta is an important ingredient in that effort’s success.

That a superhero lifestyle would be damaging to children is an old idea. The violence, deceit, and danger inherent in costumed crime-fighting are not suitable for kids, no matter their backgrounds, which has been explained and examined in the various iterations of Batman’s sidekick Robin, books like Brat Pack and Runaways, and countless other stories from various series and creators over time. But what Simonson does in Power Pack is not so much make this argument again, but offer a counterpoint to, or perhaps more accurately, an enjoyable spin on it. She accepts, without saying so out loud, the fact that these kids are leading lives that are far from age appropriate. But their goals and motives are so pure, their points of view so innocent and noble and genuinely, altruistically heroic, that you end up being glad they’re superheroes, even while acknowledging how much it’ll mess them up in the long run (and how haphazardly they pull it off in the present). They are realistic, relatable, admirable children who’re trying to make the best of the adult situations in which they find themselves.

NOTE: An earlier version of this review appeared on The Chemical Box.

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