Johns & Frank Aim for 'Surprising and New' in Latest "Batman: Earth One" Volume
I am fond of saying that the strength of DC’s superhero line comes from its diversity. Ideally, the line would maintain a good mix of traditional and progressive characters, styles, and storytelling approaches. It would be a place where each such approach could carve out its own spot and set its own “local rules”: things are a lot less grim around the Marvel Family, for instance. Perhaps the best example of this heterogeneity was Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. I’m not talking about the fully-assimilated New Gods of today, or even the Grant Morrison-ized New Gods of Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis. No, the pure Kirby of the early ’70s (and maybe even The Hunger Dogs) was its own animal, different enough that DC’s high sheriffs ordered Superman’s and Jimmy Olsen’s heads redrawn just so the squares wouldn’t totally freak out.
Now, most of the time these work out pretty well, both in terms of artistic merit and lasting contributions to DC’s stable.
And then there was Sovereign Seven….
Sovereign Seven was a monthly superhero series which ran for thirty-six issues (cover-dated July 1995-July 1998), two Annuals, a “Plus” one-shot (guest-starring the Legion of Super-Heroes), and a short story in one issue of the Showcase ’95 anthology. (A collection of the first few issues, plus the first Annual and the Showcase story, is apparently still in print.) The Sovereigns were a collection of teenaged royals cast out from various alternate Earths* as a result of something called “the Rapture.” Landing in the little town of Crossroads, Massachusetts, they found work at the local inn-slash-coffeehouse (also called Crossroads) — and, of course, trouble soon found them.
Oh, and one other thing: Sovereign Seven was a creator-owned title, with that creator being none other than Chris Claremont.
Thanks to the X-Men/New Teen Titans special and a handful of Star Trek stories (including the Debt Of Honor graphic novel), this was neither Claremont’s first work for DC nor his first opportunity to work on DC’s characters. However, it did represent Claremont’s first full-scale entry into DC’s superhero line. Considering that Claremont was virtually synonymous with the X-Men, who in turn were synonymous with Marvel’s stranglehold on superhero comics, this was not an insignificant development.
Indeed, Sovereign Seven established itself firmly within the DC universe right from the start, with the team fighting the Female Furies and running into Darkseid all in the first issue. Batman, Robin, Impulse, Lobo, and Big Barda each showed up within the first year, and Power Girl joined the book (and, later, the team) in issue #25.** Because Claremont was fond of alluding to other works of fiction, DC’s superheroes were not the only guests. Crossroads’ nature as a nexus of realities allowed him to bring in various celebrities (both living and dead), NPR reporters, Pinky and the Brain,*** Neil Gaiman, and, of course, a handful of X-Men. Superman showed up towards the end of the second year, Saturn Girl and Network became BFFs in the Legion team-up, and the third year featured cameos from Hitman, Guy Gardner, Kyle Rayner, and Fire. Even the main characters from the Michelle Pfeiffer/Jack Nicholson movie Wolf were incorporated into the series, as the town’s schoolmarm and her faithful canine companion.
And, jeez-loo-eez, Crossroads itself was just chock-fulla quirks. It was located at the intersection of three states. The inn was run by quasi-mystical versions of the Flash Girls, one of Claremont’s favorite folk duos. The local sheriff had a mysterious, multilayered past, and eventually donned Sovereign armor herself. The woods around the town were protected by a mystical deer-like Huntsman. Just outside the town was a military base, Camp Camelot, with a super-secret history. The place made Twin Peaks look like Main Street U.S.A.
Sovereign Seven‘s original artist was Dwayne Turner, who also received co-creator credit (although Claremont alone held the Sovereigns’ copyright). During his year-and-change on the title, Turner’s detailed work gave the series an energy and vitality which was somewhat lacking in his successor, Ron Lim. Turner’s faces were especially expressive, which of course complemented Claremont’s emotive dialogue.
All this and I haven’t gotten to the Sovereigns themselves. Their leader, Cascade, could teleport herself and others to anyplace she’d been before, or to anyplace she could see through her friend Network. Cascade was fleeing her mother Maitresse, who ruled her Earth so ruthlessly that its entire solar system had been encased in an impenetrable globe. After Network (see below) showed Cascade how to get out, she lived in fear that Maitresse would follow. (And by the way, Maitresse and Darkseid were connected indirectly through that X-Men/Teen Titans crossover.)
Speaking of Network, because she was the first to contact any of the others, not much was revealed about her past. Toward the end of the book’s first year she got one of the more intricate subplots, when she apparently turned against the team in order to lead them to a distant island run by pirates where they needed to rescue a telepathic infant. (At first I thought this would turn out to be Network’s baby, but no dice.) This produced some angst, causing Cascade to quit the team (and flee to NYC, where she met an on-assignment Clark Kent); but it was all resolved by issue #24 or so. (Network still kept her “evil” outfit around, despite it being heavy on the fishnets.) Her telepathy allowed Network to link the various Sovereigns together and thus augment their powers. She was also fairly handy with her “scepter-sword,” which had a blade at one end and a whip at the other.
Also wielding a mean sword was the perpetually-masked Finale, a warrior woman from a vaguely Hawaiian ocean world who was forced to kill everyone on her planet when the Rapture overtook it. Before that she was at home in the water; afterwards she was deathly afraid of getting wet. She filled the Raven role of “character whose unchecked emotions could destroy the world.”
The pansexual Indigo was as outgoing as Finale was introverted, and also served as the group’s infiltrator and tactician. Like Cascade, Indigo had a braided ponytail (remember, it was the ’90s). Rampart was a Muslim who could project Invisible Woman-style force fields. Cruiser, who hailed from an alt-New York City, was a telekinetic, but he had to stay chubby because using his powers burned a lot of fat.
Finally, Reflex was a Viking super-speedster who looked like a refugee from an Image book circa 1993. Dwayne Turner’s design made Reflex about eight feet tall and seven feet wide, with a head smaller than one pectoral muscle and (ironically) thin little legs and feet. Turner’s work wasn’t overly stylized, at least not in the Image-caricature way, but every shot of Reflex in action looked like an exercise in forced perspective.
It was all wrapped in a fun-loving package and sprinkled generously with whimsy. In fact, every issue of Sovereign Seven was so heavy with emotional content that it landed with the focused totality of a thousand exploding anvils. (And yes, Claremont did occasionally combine the words “focus” and “totality,” even trotting out the old “best there is at what I do” chestnut.) This was especially true for the non-powered teenaged characters Casey and Conor, who were just so full of youthful vigor, spunk, and pep it made me want to throttle them.
Since this post’s sarcasm level is starting to go critical, I will say that I had read only a handful of Claremont comics — the Star Trek stuff, plus the Dark Phoenix paperback and “Days Of Future Past” — before picking up Sovereign Seven #1. Later, I read all of Claremont’s Fantastic Four work, mostly because I like the FF. Meantime, though, I stayed with S7 from beginning to end, showing up every month for the latest issue. The characters must have had some appeal, because this wasn’t mere inertia. Re-reading the series over the past few days, it strikes me now as fairly middle-of-the-road superhero fare, with Turner’s work a bonus, dressed up with a too-cool ’90s attitude.
However, re-reading it now also makes the various Claremontisms — and there are a lot of them — much easier to spot. At various points in the series, Cascade and Power Girl were each possessed by an evil spirit which favored very skimpy outfits. Similarly, “Dark Network” stripped Cascade nude and dressed her and Conor in harem-slave outfits complete with chains. Snowball fights and training sessions got several pages each. The dialogue tended toward symmetry, as in “No _________, no ___________” and “Your _________, your ____________.” In fact, the dialogue was so arch it was practically St. Louis. Accordingly, as much love as he showed his characters, I got the feeling that this series was more interested in selling Chris Claremont than it was the Sovereigns.
Still and all, isn’t that a reasonable strategy? I’m sure DC didn’t care why people bought Sovereign Seven, as long as they bought it. Besides, S7 was creator-owned, so Claremont was probably getting something substantive in exchange for DC’s exploitation of his name. Again, look at Jack Kirby, whose creations have been used and abused by the publisher for almost forty years. In a sense, Claremont was doing what Kirby did not: playing as much as he wanted in the DC sandbox, and able to take his own toys with him whenever he wanted to leave. If we want diversity of styles, approaches, etc., shouldn’t we encourage these kinds of arrangements?
In theory, absolutely. However, Sovereign Seven started out emphasizing not just Claremont, but Claremont’s history with Marvel and the attendant cognitive dissonance that Claremont-at-DC would produce. Other than Funky Flashman and the suggestion that the “old gods” were Thor and his colleagues, Kirby did relatively little of that in his Fourth World books. He surely didn’t dress up the backgrounds with coy teases of the Thing or the Inhumans. The comparison may be vastly unfair, but I didn’t sense lofty intellectual aspirations for Sovereign Seven coming out of Claremont’s scripts. Bulky speedsters and pan-dimensional folksinging innkeepers aside, much of S7 was just too familiar. What emerged instead was a strong desire to entertain the readership in new ways, be they DC stalwarts new to Claremont or Claremont fans new to DC.
And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, even when enriching the library of a soulless corporation, a creator has to contribute something more than variations on his previous work. To be sure, the Rapture turned out to be somewhat intriguing — a sort of cosmic mediocrity-enforcer, attacking superheroes first because of their great capacity to inspire the rabble. That’s a very DC-type notion, especially since the Sovereigns are all hereditary rulers-in-waiting, not traditional Marvel-style underdogs; and the mystery surrounding the Rapture was always good for some chills. Regardless, around the same time the Rapture came to Earth, Claremont had a character transform into a flaming entity while speaking a version of the old Phoenix Force mantra about “fire … life … passion [and] creation” — and things like that make it hard not to think it had all been done before.
In any event, whatever influence the Sovereigns had on the larger DC universe was gone by the end of the final issue (#36), where it was revealed that they and all their adventures were just comic-book stories, told by a pair of women (who weren’t even the Flash Girls) to entertain themselves and their friends. I suppose this was Claremont’s way of making his creations completely portable (as if his ownership weren’t enough), should he ever decide to have them surface somewhere else. It’s hard to argue with the conceit, especially under the circumstances. At the same time, though, it feels a little odd to have a superhero comic which ran for a respectable three years suddenly pop out of existence, at least in relation to the rest of the DC line. It’s one thing for a series to be ignored (or perhaps just left alone) after it ends, but it’s another for it to be taken off-limits for good.
For better or worse, fans expect a series which is part of a shared universe to be there forever. Even if we never see Jack Knight, Morpheus, or Daniel again, we know they “existed” alongside the Justice Society, Captain Marvel, Cain and Abel, Dr. Destiny, etc. Trouble is, only DC’s goodwill keeps “retired” characters like Jack from being relaunched by … well, anyone DC wants. That’s why Kevin Smith can bring Silver St. Cloud, a Bat-girlfriend seldom-seen apart from the work of Steve Englehart and/or Marshall Rogers, out of “retirement” for his latest Batman miniseries. DC owns almost seventy-five years’ worth of comics, but the key word there is “owns.” The problem with a creator-owned book in the context of a shared universe is the hole it can leave. That’s a prospect which probably doesn’t sit well either with publishers or, I bet, with a significant number of fans. Claremont could plug the Sovereigns into the Marvel Universe without much fuss, but it would surely frustrate readers who want another Reflex/Bart Allen story.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether a reader is a fan of the particular shared universe or the particular creator. Most of the time, given the arrangements between comics pros and publishers, readers don’t have to make that choice. In the case of Sovereign Seven, I didn’t find the series memorable or innovative enough to care one way or the other. (Of course, I may be in the minority.) As far as I know, DC hasn’t tried anything similar with any other creators,**** being content to let big-name pros like Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison play with the existing toys for an event or two. Since that seems to have worked out well enough, I don’t think DC is particularly eager to experiment with another creator-owned DCU book. That’s a shame, because a more successful Sovereign Seven might really have been a game-changer. It was a shared-universe title which still played by its own rules, and it could have shown the way for other creator-owned books to do the same.
* [For reasons which became obvious at the end, Sovereign Seven pretty much ignored the fact that alternate Earths shouldn’t have existed in DC’s post-Crisis, pre-Hypertime cosmology.]
** [At the time, PG was thought to be the granddaughter of Arion, the ancient Atlantean wizard from the above-water days, and therefore was a princess of Atlantis.]
*** [Yes, Pinky and the Brain.]
**** [From what I remember, Peter David’s Fallen Angel wasn’t nearly as tied into the DCU as S7 was.]