“People want their superheroes to be whiter than white.”
–Blue Bolt (Mark Millar, Jupiter’s Circle)
Mark Millar has had a terrific year.
First Starlight and then Chrononauts were both splendidly entertaining titles with briskly moving plots and likable characters. And now Jupiter’s Circle completes a rock solid trio of books from Millarworld and Image Comics.
Jupiter’s Circle is a prequel to 2013-2015’s critically acclaimed Jupiter’s Legacy which examined both what it might be like for children living under the shadow of their iconic superhero parents as well as a nightmarish dystopian future in which well-intentioned superheroes became the proverbial evil overlords.
Quite wisely, Jupiter’s Circle, while technically a prequel, takes a different approach to its subjects and world. While Legacy had an action-oriented plot, Circle instead zooms into the public and private lives of the aforementioned parent superhero generation, peeling back the layers of their public personas to expose the damaged, neurotic and frightened individuals hiding behind the glossy, Norman Rockwellian surface.
As befitting any Golden/Silver Age-esque superhero mythology, our heroes have to contend with cosmic, Lovecraftian monsters, maniacal geniuses, and inter-dimensional dopplegangers. But such cataclysmic threats merely serve as the backdrop for their personal dramas. Every two issues in Volume 1 of Jupiter’s Circle focus on a different member of the superhero team at the comic’s center. #1 and #2 focus on Blue Bolt’s double life as a closeted gay man selling a pasteurized, conservative American ideal of heterosexuality. #3 and #4 are about The Flare’s mid-life crisis and fling with a blonde nineteen-year-old despite being a married family man. And #5 and #6 look at how the Tony Stark-like playboy Skyfox’s drunken shenanigans lead the love of his life to leave him for another.
While Legacy hinted at the semantic connections between superhero mythology and the American Dream, Circle, by taking place in the late 50s and early 60s, is able to delve into those connections and explore them more deeply, revealing the hidden truths and hypocrisies underlying the nostalgic wholesomeness of that era. In this respect, Jupiter’s Legacy owes a lot more to Mad Men than the other comic from Image that’s also about a superhero union and takes place in the 60s, C.O.W.L. Both in its gritty aesthetics and grim sensibility, C.O.W.L. draws more from the Dark Knight trilogy and Hoffa than AMC’s long-running show about the lives of Madison Avenue ad executives. Legacy, however, just like Mad Men, visually presents the 60s just as we love to imagine them – prim and beautiful – while at the same time exposing the inconsistencies with that image. And just as in Mad Men, booze, tobacco and sex are ubiquitous.
In the way it peels back the veil of superhero wholesomeness, Watchmen is another book that may come to mind. There are echoes even of Millar’s own Civil War in how we see that Walter, brother of Superman-esque superhero The Utopian and one of the chief antagonists of Jupiter’s Legacy, already exhibits his obsession with order and control and a desire to merge superhero vigilantism with government authority. Contrasted to this is The Utopian’s Captain America-esque love of the ideals of autonomy and freedom. They don’t clash significantly over this yet, but as in both Civil War and Jupiter’s Legacy, we know they eventually will.
As much as I enjoyed Frank Quitely’s work in Legacy, I can’t imagine a more perfect artist for Jupiter’s Circle than Wilfredo Torres whose clean, European-looking style and bold, uncluttered lines are an ideal match for the subject here. In medium and wide shot panels the characters often resemble vintage cartoon characters like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. But the art probably would not be as effective as it is without the absolutely gorgeous colors by Ive Svorcina whose soft, eye-pleasing pastels and neutrals are so soothing that I found myself lingering inordinately long on individual panels. The power combination of Torres’ pencils and inks with Svorcina’s colors amount to something like having your brain massaged. Occasionally, mostly in outdoor action scenes, the colors become a bit more vibrant as if reflecting the larger-than-life personas of these superheroes. Behind closed doors the colors revert to softer shades, again as if reflecting the subtler nuances of these characters’ inner lives.
In sections of issue #3 as well as the entireties of issues #4 and #5, Davide Gianfelice takes over drawing duties, with both himself and Francesco Mortarino sharing the task of inking. They do a fine job but I did find myself missing Torres’s sharply-defined lines. Fortunately, Torres returns in issue #6 to wrap up Vol. 1.
My only hope for Vol. 2 is that Millar turn the examination light to the only two characters in Jupiter’s Circle whose lives, as of yet, seem to actually reflect the whitewashed ideals of 60s American virtue: hard-working, monogamous and heterosexual with no apparent scandals or inconsistencies to hide. One wonders what skeletons they have to hide.