Before They Were Famous: "Supreme" #40

It's been over a month, but I'm back with yet another installment of BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS, the semi-regular WHEN WORDS COLLIDE feature where I take a look at the comic that was released right before the beginning of a famous run. In previous months, I looked at Marty Pasko's final "Saga of the Swamp Thing" issue, the last pre-Wein/Claremont "X-Men" comic, and the Robert Kirkman "Captain America" story that rounded out the volume before Ed Brubaker came to the party.

This time, I'm talking about another comic that Alan Moore took over, though it's not one of his most famous runs. It's "Supreme," featuring a character created by Rob Liefeld and brought to life in the pages of his own series, co-written and drawn by former "Young All-Stars" penciller and now-Hollywood storyboard artist Brian Murray.

Alan Moore's "Supreme," which began in the August 1996 cover-dated issue #41, was mostly a maudlin superhero soap opera with a Mort Weisinger-era Superman pastiche at its core. I'll be rereading it soon as part of my Great Alan Moore Reread for the Tor Books website, but even though I remember it being a relatively simple-minded homage, it still seemed thrilling at the time -- a chance for Moore to reclaim superhero space from his unintended offspring, in a landscape filled with post-"Watchmen" grim and grittiness. Moore's "Supreme" was an antidote to that, with its unrepentant Silver Age absurdity clashing with even its own contemporary-looking superhero melodrama. It's safe to say that Alan Moore's version of "Supreme" is widely regarded as the best version, by a million miles, and it's often considered the best of Alan Moore's superhero work from the 1990s.

And unlike in previous installments of BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS, I don't have much experience with this series before its most famous run. I have only read a couple of the Rob Liefeld/Brian Murray issues -- I lost interest in the series quickly, and never even glanced at another issue until Alan Moore became the writer -- so when I picked up "Supreme" #40, the last of the pre-Moore issues, from a 50-cent bin a month ago, I had never seen it before.

I'm left to judge this one on its own merits, rather than in the context of the thirty-nine issues that preceded it. Of course, as this goes, and as some of you have pointed out in the message boards, it's a rigged game; the comic never stands a chance when held up against the more famous run that follows it.

But that's okay, because my reading of these pre-famous-and-pre-good issues is all about looking at why something is considered not-as-good. Why something didn't catch on as well as whatever followed.

In the case of "Supreme" #40, was it merely the fact that it didn't have Alan Moore's name on the cover? Is it just a matter of prejudice that a comic written by, in this case, Jim Valentino with Tom and Mary Bierbaum, is automatically less interesting that something written by the guy who wrote "Skizz" and "Big Numbers" #1-2?

No. And no.

"Supreme" #40 is a considerably poor comic, in almost every way, and though it wasn't at all what I expected, it does seem to represent exactly what went wrong with "Supreme," the series, and why Rob Liefeld and editor Eric Stephenson would have wanted to bring in someone else to revamp the character and his world.

As I mentioned, I haven't read most of the "Supreme" comics prior to Moore's run, but I did enough research to tell me that within its first three years of existence, the series bounced from writer to writer -- sometimes with creator Liefeld or editor Stephenson stepping in to write or co-write, sometimes not. Besides those two guys, you also had scripts from Brian Murray, Kurt Hathaway, Gary Carlson, and the Jim Valentino and the Bierbaums, the latter trio coming in to wrap up a cosmic mega-war within the series before providing the info-dump, retcon/revamping that stands as issue #40.

It simultaneously feels like an apology and a defiant stare. "This is what has been going on," issue #40 seems to say to its readers, "and it's a complete mess and we know it, but deal with it."

Of course, its defiant confidence in its own story is undermined by the promise of the back cover, announcing Alan Moore's arrival, and the caption on the final splash page which says, "Next: The World of Supreme Changes Forever!"

So much for explaining everything. None of that will matter in a month. Welcome to comics!

"Supreme" #40 is drawn by Valentino too, with inks by Sam de la Rosa, and the visuals are closer in spirit to the Liefeldian look than to Valentino's normal superhero style. It's more exaggerated than even what we see in his "Shadowhawk" comics, with an absurdly muscle-bound Supreme, his thin-waisted and long-legged daughter, and the teeth gnashing and open-mouthed shouts of anger that go along with all the panel-smashing punching.

Moore, paired with artists like Joe Bennett, would give quiet interpersonal scenes involving characters in street-clothes, and reserve most of the superheroics for the throwback styles of Rick Veitch, as an antidote to the chiseled and over-rendered bombast of what came before.

"Supreme" #40 seems to be a pretty good example of everything that came before.

The basic plot of this issue is the trial of Loki. Loki and the other Norse gods are public domain characters, but Valentino and the Bierbaums present them in a Marvelously familiar way. Only their overtly-muscle-popping appearance keeps them from being a lawsuit waiting to happen. Loki is no lithe green-clad petulant demigod here. He's a silver-armored goateed petulant demigod. And Odin is spelled Woden, like the guy from the Viking stories. And Thor is, I don't know, clean-shaven I guess. And angrier than usual. You can tell, because when he yells, his rib muscles grow more rib muscles.

Loki's on trial for messing with humanity and causing the rise of Nazism. True fact.

Valentino and the Bierbaums explain all of this as a mysterious, blank-helmeted figure called Enigma tells us everything that Loki and Supreme have been up to in, presumably, previous issues.

My sense is that the writers are trying to pull everything together in this finale, but also to explain all the inconsistencies that have popped up over the three-plus years of the "Supreme" series. I don't know how far this Loki stuff goes back (well, it goes back to World War II, so that's pretty far back, I guess), but issue #40 gives us explanatory captions from Enigma that say things like "I'd completed a hugely complex maneuver, delivering a superfluous Supreme from an alternate time-strand into this one" and "Ripples of change, beyond even your control, do permeate this existence, and Supreme in particular."

It surprised me in how cosmic and inter-dimensional and unabashedly epic it all was.

Of course, it loses something when it's all told via exposition and flashback, but that's likely the nature of this wrap-up issue more than anything else.

This thing is full of crazy ideas and gods warring with each other and Supreme fighting versions of himself from parallel dimensions. Alan Moore didn't take Supreme and layer in all of the multiple-reality stuff. That was there, apparently for a year or two already. He just made it more overtly Silver Agey.

So if "Supreme" #40 fails, and it does, it's not for lack of ambition. This is no decompressed story about a sort-of-Superman. But it also barely features Supreme -- except in flashback. Supreme doesn't do much in the narrative present, besides have a chat with his sad super-daughter-from-the-future, and then fly off into space with a heroic pose. Everything else is Enigma holding court in front of Woden, describing all the things that have already happened in previous issues (I'm guessing) and then explaining how they were connected.

Short version: Loki was messing with everything, and Enigma was trying -- though we don't really know why, or what his deal is -- to counteract Loki's wicked troublemaking games.

It's the old saw: "These two basically omnipotent forces were using humanity -- and superhumanity -- for their insane cosmic chess game, it turns out." Deus ex machina all along, and Supreme didn't even know it. He never knows it, because he's not even at the Loki's trial. He's off hugging his inappropriately-clad future-daughter on the rooftops.

It makes me wonder what Erik Larsen's talking about when he describes his version of Supreme, in the new ongoing issues. He references the initial incarnation of the character, as "Superman with a real twist in that he was kind of a dick." That may have been true (though anyone who has read the Weisinger-era Superman comics knows that's not much of a twist) in the very first appearances of Supreme, but if issue #40 -- and its exposition -- is any indication, the status quo for the majority of the "Supreme" series was dimension-hopping/time-travelling cosmic insanity. Supreme-as-a-jerky-Superman seems to ignore not only Alan Moore's run, which Larsen wants to keep his distance from, to prevent comparisons, but also almost all of the pre-Alan Moore issues.

Or maybe Larsen will just bring in Loki and Thor and Woden and cosmic it all up again, but with Supreme saying really rude things at the dinner table or farting or something. We'll have to wait and see!

Maybe "Supreme" #63, the last of the Moore-scripted installments, will pale in comparison to what Larsen has planned, and it, too, will get the BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS spotlight someday, joining "Supreme" #40 in a moment of glory.

What do you think?

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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