menu

Friday, April 14, 2017

Super Powers by Erik Tramontana

As everybody reading this website surely knows, the Super Powers Collection was an action figure line by Kenner, based on the Justice League of America comics. Super Powers merchandise was everywhere in the 1980s and still shows up today, like on this sick t-shirt I bought at Target:

Target Shirt.jpg
Dope t-shirt I got at Target

Even though I was a huge fan of the Super Friends TV show as a kid, I somehow missed out on the toys. Here is a picture of the Hall of Justice that I got at a yard sale for my kids, as modeled by Michael Keaton Batman and Swamp Thing:

Hall of Justice.jpg

"So, uh, you ever see Mr. Mom?"

But we don’t care about toys, t-shirts, or lunchboxes, we are here for the comics. And brother, were there ever comics!


DC put out three series of Super Powers comic books between 1984 and 1986. The first series was plotted by Jack "The King" Kirby and scripted by Joey Caliveri, with Adrian Gonzalez pencils and Pablo Marcos on inks. Kirby also did the covers for this series, and both wrote and drew the concluding issue, #5.

Fist of Doom.jpg
Super Powers - Kirby on covers and plot

For a long time the Super Powers series was ignored by fans -- Kirby was past his prime, it was based on a toy line, it was "out of continuity" (more on this later). I bought nearly the entire run in quarter bins over the years and they never seemed to be in short supply. And, to be fair, the first series isn't really all that great.

Darkseid grants great cosmic powers to the survivors of the gladiator games of Apokolips. These "Disciples of Doom" are sent to Earth to distract the superheroes while Darkseid’s armies take over the planet. The Disciples grant super powers to the world’s worst super-villains: Lex Luthor gets time distortion, The Penguin gets mind control, Brainiac receives the power to activate "racial memories" (yikes), while the Joker gets his own psychoactive dimension to play with. The newly-empowered villains pick fights with the superheroes (Hawkman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin) and lose badly.


Dead Superman Cover.jpg
Luthor using his brand new powers.


There are some good bits in this series, like Superman the Barbarian...



...and The Joker trapping Batman and Robin in a crazy-town dimension, but there is an awful lot of filler before we get to the main event in issue 5.

The concluding issue of the first series is raw, unfiltered Kirby and it undoubtedly blew some little kids' minds back in the day (Spaceship Earth -- We’re All On It!). Stranded in Apokolips, the Super Powers team touch a mysterious object that transports them to several bizarre worlds. The machine is "The Worlogog, a physical manifestation of time and space itself!". The Worlogog was built and controlled by Metron of the New Gods. Metron bounces the super guys around the dimensions to cover their tracks so Darkseid can't follow. Metron is going to use the Worlogog to boost the superheroes' abilities and wreck up Darkseid’s armies. Darkseid uses Boom Tubes to attack Earth at different points throughout history: Metropolis 80,000 AD, Ancient Asia, Atlantis...all defeated by Metron and the Worlogog. Metron sends the super-guys home in Brainiac’s ship, while Darkseid lives to scheme another day.

While it managed to transcend its origins as a toy tie-in at times, series 1 was just a warm up for Super Powers series 2, where things get really crazy. For the second series, Paul Kupperburg takes over as writer, while Kirby pencils and Greg Theakson inks. If you've ever wondered what a Jack Kirby JLA story would be like, you've come to the right place. This is the good stuff.

The first page has a footnote: "Takes place after The Hunger Dogs OGN". This is all the proof I need that this is 100% in New Gods continuity and therefore an official part of the Fourth World saga. After the events of The Hunger Dogs, Apokolips is no longer under Darkseid's rule and the huddled masses want to track down their former ruler and kill him. Darkseid kills some peasants and monologues that the universe will pay for this travesty. Darkseid meets up with Kalibak, Desaad, and Steppenwolf in an underground bunker. They take one last trip in a broken Boom Tube and leave Apokolips behind for good, setting down on Earth’s moon. Darkseid plans to get his mojo back by conquering Earth.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice, Batman informs the Justice League that five "seeds" from outer space have landed in England, Rome, New York City, Easter Island, and the Arizona desert. These space seeds are burrowing into the planet’s core, which surely can’t be good. The League splits into teams, Gardner Fox style: Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, and Wonder Woman travel to Easter Island; Superman and Firestorm head to Rome; Red Tornado, Hawkman, and Green Arrow go to Times Square; Martian Manhunter and Aquaman travel to England; and Batman, Robin, and The Flash haul ass to the desert.

The heroes learn that the seeds are, in fact, evil, and when you so much as touch them they open up a time portal and whisk everyone back into the past. This leads to great bits like Martian Manhunter and Aquaman fighting the Knights of the Round Table, Wonder Woman and Dr. Fate accidentally creating the Easter Island statues (they’re aliens turned to stone! Oh Kirby), and Superman and Firestorm fighting Roman gladiators.

Video ad.jpg
Pretty expensive for a VHS tape!


One terrific bit has Kalibak strapping Green Arrow to the hood of the Boulder Bomber, which -- if you're going to do a toy commercial in your comic -- is absolutely the way to go.

The two best parts in the whole series are undoubtedly the Times Square and Arizona chapters. I have an ironclad rule when it comes to purchasing comics: if there is a dinosaur or a Frankenstein on the cover then I MUST own it. Issue 2 features Martian Manhunter fighting a Tyrannosaurus in the middle of Times Square and it's the Devil Dinosaur sequel we never knew we wanted.

Mnhunter vs Dinosaur.jpg
If the Supergirl season finale doesn’t feature J’onn punching a T-Rex  I am never watching the CW again.


And then there is issue 5. If you ever wondered where Grant Morrison got the inspiration for Rock of Ages, look no further. In this issue, Batman hits the seed with a batarang and hordes of Parademons emerge from a time portal. The portal takes the heroes into a dark future where Darkseid has won and converted Earth into a new Apokolips. "New Las Vegas", in what used to be the Arizona desert, has become a shrine to Darkseid. If you have ever seen images from this series on Tumblr or Twitter or wherever, they are probably from this issue, because it is trippy as hell.


Darkseid Future.jpg
Rock of Ages trial run


Trippy Darkseid.jpg
Black light poster? Yes please.


Civilians attack Batman and Robin for wearing forbidden superhero costumes and the Parademons take the heroes to the Arena, where they have to fight The Hulk -- I mean Mongo "Crusher" Monsoon.

Batman v Hulk.jpg

I wonder what would happen if Batman fought the Hulk and Jack Kirby drew it?


After defeating Crusher, the JLAers are about to be killed by Parademons when The Flash intercedes in the nick of time. They escape the arena, steal a time travel device, and get back to the past.

In the finale, issue 6, the superheroes handily defeat the henchmen and Parademons before tracking down Darkseid. A giant hologram Darkseid offers to make the heroes part of his chosen Elite Guard, but of course they refuse. The hologram hand shoots the good guys with an agonizing neural disruptor ray and traps them in a power-disrupting holding cell. Darkseid monologues that he is going to activate the seeds with an Omega Effect Amplifier and add their super powers into the mix. J’onn J’onnz shapeshifts himself into some kind of freaky non-sentient being without a central nervous system, allowing him to escape the pod and the neural disruptor ray. Once out J’onn is able to shift back to his normal form and free the others. Superman and Dr. Fate race to Earth to deflect the Omega beams, blocking them from making contact with the seeds. Desaad betrays Darkseid by sabotaging the machine. Darkseid disappears thanks to his own Omega Effect, while the other Apokoliptikans escape through the star gate. Earth is safe once again!

Proving you can’t keep a great concept down, Super Powers has seen a revival at DC this year. In addition to the Aw Yeah series for kids, Super Powers has come back as a backup strip in Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye, part of the Gerard Way-led Young Animal line. Written and drawn by Tom Scioli, the auteur behind Transformers vs G.I.Joe, Super Powers uses the toyline and Jack Kirby comics as a jumping-off point for an idiosyncratic and offbeat take on the DC Universe.

When taking notes for this write up, I spent three pages trying to summarize the plot, which is pretty impressive considering each installment is only two to three pages long. The series provides new origin stories for The Wonder Twins and Green Arrow, a look at Etrigan's past as an angel before the fall, a glimpse of Flippa Dippa’s future as an underwater archeologist with the Sea Devils, Captain Marvel Jr. crucified on the Rock of Eternity, an army of Superman clones, the arrival of The New Gods, and a Morrison-esque shattering of the fourth wall.

Arrow.jpg
Best Green Arrow origin.

I want to say more about the Scioli series (plot summary, spot-the-reference, theories, you name it), but it's still available and well worth reading on your own. On my blog JLA Classified I have gushed about the Young Animal imprint and called Cave Carson my favorite comic of 2017, and I think you will agree. If you are into 1980s DC and Vertigo comics (and I know you are!) then you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Batgirl.jpg
Batman 89 also Dark Knight and Killing Joke with a bit of Animal Man thrown in.

You can get both Kirby Super Powers series in the Kirby Omnibus cheap on Amazon, and Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye is available wherever fine comic books are sold.

-Erik Tramontana


Erik Tramontana is a teacher, a dad, and a lifelong Batman fan. He blogs about 1990s DC comics at jlaclassified.tumblr.com


1 comment:

  1. Great article Erik. 24.95 was good for a VHS back then. Some would go for 80-100$ because they just wanted stores to buy them and though the home market would ruin the rental market.

    ReplyDelete