Last week, the comics community commemorated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Action Comics #1, which is most notable for containing the first appearance of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's character Superman. As Superman became a cottage industry within the comics industry. As the decades have worn on, there's been much discussion of what makes Superman, and by extension the superhero character type, "work" not only for readers, but for the fictional setting he exists in. One impression is that Superman works as an inspirational figure; he works because in his world, he makes others want to do more and better themselves. Another is that he is aspirational, in that people want to be more like him.
Still, in the most practical sense, the superhero genre falls apart when applied to too much real-world scrutiny. After all, what good does the ability to fly or throw an automobile like a football do in the face of economic collapse or the spread of disease? Superheroes fight crime, but never the root causes of it. They're a treatment, not a cure. It's hard not to think about Superman when reading Jupiter's Legacy #1, and much of that almost certainly is by design. Writer Mark Millar pretty much specializes in using familiar superhero tropes and filtering them through his own darkly shaded lens to present his own spin on the "superheroes in the real world" subgenre. Millar seems to have some affinity for superheroes, but he has no problem undercutting their effectiveness in his stories. Here in Jupiter's Legacy #1, an argument breaks out between two aging superheroes, the twin heads of a superpowered dynasty, about what the role of people like them is. Sheldon Sampson, aka The Utopian, is all for the status quo. He just wants to punch out supervillains and let the people of the world, and their governments, carve out the way forward. His brother Walter, however, wants to do more. He thinks the superheroes need to be more proactive, and need to reach beyond fighting ("don't you think we could help more directly? Doesn't this give you a horrific sense of impotence? How bad does it have to get before we finally admit that the system doesn't work anymore?"). He sees ineffectual politicians, greed and corruption pervading global financial systems, and a populace that's struggling and on the brink of even more suffering. He wants to do more, but he brother doesn't see that as their place.
The argument shows how far this particular family has grown apart. The first scene of the comic sees the Sampson family in 1932 take a mysterious voyage out to a remote island, their heads full of dreams about them pulling their country, which was at the height of The Great Depression, out of the muck and back out into the light. It's rendered by penciller Frank Quitely and color artist Peter Doherty in a bright, barrel-chested, hopeful manner, with characters full of optimism who hold their heads up high as they venture with noble intentions into the unknown. In this, the brothers Sampson are united. They're at their most idealistic here, brimming with confidence that they'll be the ones to save their country. When we see them again seventy years later, their idealism has become twisted into viewpoints that they dig their heels into, with no room for any sense of compromise or common ground. Doherty's colors give the optimistic prologue section a real sense of organic warmth; the cooler palette used in the present day sequences make things a lot more cold and sterile. It's a look at dreams gone wrong, or at least unfulfilled. Quitely representational art gives the comic a clean, intricately-detailed look that conveys a lot of weight and texture, and his of character designs and proficiency with expressiveness are as strong here as they ever have been. The art tells the story so clearly that it's worth reading the issue multiple times just to experience the artwork over and over again. It's a comic that's just gorgeous to look at.
The familial conflict that takes place in Jupiter's Legacy is more than just fraternal, it's also generational. We spend time in this first issue with the descendants of Sheldon and Walter. The story was originally titled Jupiter's Children, and it's an apt title. Much like the children of that deity, the offspring of the Sampson brothers are pretty, self-absorbed, jealous, and indolent. In Jupiter's Legacy #1, the children are adrift and directionless in the superhero culture created by their parents. Sheldon and Walter ushered America through the twentieth century, and now their kids feel like they don't measure up. "My dad's always telling me to do more superhero stuff," states one son, "but this isn't like the old days. There's nobody cool to fight. All the great battles are well and truly over. All the best villains died ten or twenty years ago." It's the clarion call of kids who grew up with everything, but feel like they have nothing. Also through these characters, Millar gets another chance to visit another of his favorite tropes: the superhero as celebrity. For just over a decade, Millar has made a lot of hay with this heavily media-saturated modern day landscape we live in, and how a superhero would react to it. The super-children spend their time in the public eye via endorsement deals and highly-publicized charitable foundations.
Frankly, this material is kind of familiar. In fact, one early nightclub scene is almost paint-by-numbers Millar. Jupiter's Legacy #1 is a nicely-paced, engaging issue (though some of the exposition can be a bit of a chore), but it feels a bit warmed over. Millar is revisiting a lot of what he's done in the past, with a new coat of narrative paint. Where it is strong is in presenting its ideas. Millar and Quitely use the first issue to do all the heavy lifting in terms of establishing its tone and setting. While the story opens up and reveals itself to the reader, Millar saves any forward-driving plot for the last couple of pages, which lead to a cliffhanger ending.
Certainly, the concept is a strong one, and worthy of exploration, but a first issue really needs to hook a reader with something they can latch onto, and story-wise, there isn't much here that hasn't been seen in comics since 1987. The issues it raises are good ones. They're big and important and hard-hitting, and they're all conveyed smartly and with dialogue that leaves nothing uncertain. Millar is hardly a nuanced writer, but he is about as restrained here as he ever can be. His knack for writing cynical characters shines here, and the comic is as provocative as one would expect from Mark Millar. In fact, his biggest fans would enjoy Jupiter's Legacy #1 the most. So too would someone who's never encountered his work before.