Thanks to Humble Bundle, I got to read a hefty chunk of the graphic novels that make up Project Superpowers. I’ve been interested in reading it for years. It isn’t quite a tribute or a deconstruction of super heroes but it has elements of both.
Alex Ross, the comic book artist famous for basically creating near-photo realistic artwork of superheroes, took a bunch of public domain super heroes from the 40s and weaved a story that almost literally recasts them as mythic heroes. Ross already had written the Earth X series for Marvel so the fact that the guy could write wasn’t a surprise.
Here’s the basic concept: after World War II, the Fighting Yank’s dead ancestor convinces him to trap all the world’s other heroes in Pandora’s Box. The idea being if hope is locked away, all the other evils will be too. Decades later, when the ghost of the US Flag points out that the world is now a dystopia, he sets out to free them. Then things get wild.
I’m not going to go into much more detail for the sake of spoilers. However, I found the story arc to be pretty good with tons of moral ambiguity and nifty twists. The ending was a little pat and upbeat compared to the rest of work but I was still glad that read it.
But even without spoilers, there is a lot to unpack.
Earth X clearly showed that Alex Ross is really, really into comic book history. Small wonder that he and Kurt Busiek have collaborated a lot. In many ways, Project Superheroes is a love letter to the forgotten heroes of the 40s, a time when publishers were churning out superheroes like crazy. But... these characters are so obscure that Ross effectively completely reinvented all of them and just kept the costumes.
This means that any interest and emotional connection I have with the characters comes from what Ross has done with them. He could have created whole new characters and it would have been the same for me. And I’ve read enough encyclopedias of comic books that I’d actually heard of a lot of them. I think this would be even more so for more casual readers.
This had the side effect that I kept thinking that some events should have more weight than they did. Captain Future’s story arc, for instance, would have had a lot more impact if I had known there was another character from the 1940s called Captain Future who wasn’t the Buck Rogers-style guy.
It also made me ponder why these characters for languished in obscurity. Some of them were in print for ten or more years, which isn’t bad. I suspect that legal issues actually have a lot to do with it. Companies are going to spend their time developing properties they actually definitively own. The most well known character is in probably the 1940s Daredevil (renamed the Death Defying Devil to avoid confusion) and that’s probably because he had a really cool costume design. (I have heard it touted him being mute adds to his significance but multiple sources say that lasted one issue before being dropped)
I have to note that Alex Ross’s interpretation of the Black Terror, who got his own title, is particularly entertaining. Superman as a pirate, the character combines an unshakable moral compass with poor impulse control and anger management issues. Flawed and scary (I wouldn’t want to be near him!) but means well.
Project Superpowers was fun to read and Alex Ross does manage to create a mythic, epic feel but I feel like I came in halfway through the story and missed all the introductions.