Friday, 19 July 2013

Sidesteps: Power Pack Classic volume 1

Power Pack Classic volume 1 contains issues #1 to #10 of the original series. As bonus material it reproduces a page with biographies of the creators, presumably from issue #1, and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for all four children and the team as a whole. (This is potentially confusing as the individual entries cover the children as they are here but the team entry includes details from issues in later volumes.) All the issues are written by Louise Simonson and most are drawn by June Brigman with individual fill-ins by Mary Wiltshire and Brent Anderson, and layouts on one issue by Mark Badger.

All too often attempts to create different types of heroes instead just produce grown white men with breasts/different skin colours/different sized bodies. It can make the resulting strip disappointing. But here we get a series that looks and feels like it features ordinary children. Louise Simonson's brief biography in the first issue mentions both her love of children's literature (to the point of spending much of her childhood with her nose in a book - a trait passed on to Julie) and her daughter Juliana (presumably the source of Julie's name unless someone else came up with that) suggesting a strong understanding of children and it shows. Similarly, June Brigman's biography mentions her work drawing quick pastel pictures for the public, with portraits of children commonly requested. This combined experience shows as the Power siblings look and sound like real children - maybe slightly rounded and idealised as with much fiction, but a far cry from the "little adults" that so often appear.

The first four issues also feel different in another way in that they're set in an undefined (unless I've missed a caption), almost idyllic location. Again, this feels reminiscent of a lot of children's literature that is set in a place that could be many readers' own homes or else a holiday destination. The Power family home may be a house by a beach with the surrounding settlement not shown until issue #5, but it's not hard to see elements familiar to many readers that brings the story close to home in a way that setting it in a world famous city with familiar landmarks wouldn't necessarily do so. Unfortunately issue #5 initiates that very such move but more on that below. In the meantime, we have a take on a familiar tale of children on their own discovering something incredible and being drawn into the excitement and magic of it all. But this is no mere retread of stories by the likes of E. Nesbit though it's not hard to spot the influence (several siblings in an undefined by real place encountering the fantastical within that environment). Instead the series has a surprisingly hard edge, shown most vividly in the first issue where the children find themselves in the middle of conflict between two alien races, and the kind alien who rescues them dies in the process.

The opening storyline is pretty self-contained and may have been conceived as a standalone mini-series to try out the characters before committing to an ongoing title (in the same year this was tried with the West Coast Avengers whilst immediate popularity saw the Transformers limited series converted into an ongoing title). As a result the origin story worked well when I first read it in the earlier Origin Album trade paperback and it holds up just as well here. The first issue introduces all the characters and situation and so we embark on a journey as the kids learn about their powers and face repeated danger. It's also a clever move that the children don't immediately gasp the full extent of their powers and subsequent issues show them learning how to control them better, particularly Alex whose powers don't come with directional controls.

What's also surprising about the opening four issues is the complete absence of guest stars from the rest of the Marvel universe, especially as none of the characters had been seen before. It helps to add to the novelty and freshness of the series. Unfortunately as the series progresses this point is tossed to the wind when the family move to New York at the end of issue #5, with issues #6-8 featuring a team-up with Cloak & Dagger and also a guest appearance by Spider-Man, whilst #9-10 feature Marrina, from the pages of Alpha Flight. Yes the Marvel universe is a shared one, and such encounters a regular part, but they don't need to happen all the time. And in what is still a new series they can cramp the space needed for the star characters to develop and grow. And with the exception of Spider-Man the guest stars are all relatively obscure so it's hard to see any of their appearances as being motivated by boosting the series's exposure and sales. So just why are they needed?

The situations and foes are a mixture of the familiar and the new, with the siblings and allies facing threats such as hostile aliens, militaristic businessmen, agents of a government body, would be crime lords and monsters with enhanced powers. It's a strong mixture of scenarios and the series doesn't kiddify itself when presenting a drug lord or covering the origin of Cloak and Dagger. We also see the four siblings handling the problems of ordinary kids - keeping secrets from their parents, enduring boring trips with relatives, adjusting to a new school and so forth. It all helps to round them out.

As for the children themselves, we get four well-rounded siblings who each have distinctive personalities. Katie/Energizer is the youngest and most innocent but also the most optimistic; she's also wound up with the most difficult to control power. At the other end of the scale Alex/Gee also has powers that are hard to control and some of his attempts are quite amusing. Then there's Jack/Mass Masters, the grumpy younger boy who can control his powers but initially thinks his are the most useless; however over time he discovers more and more uses for them. Finally there's Julie/Lightspeed, the older girl who almost always has her head in a book and who can move and fly fast. With separate personalities and powers each is clearly distinctive and offers more than their own. In most of their adventures they have help from Friday, a sentient Kymellian smartship (a running gag is that no one is sure what Friday's gender is, leading to arguments about the correct pronouns). The main supporting cast are their parents, who are supportive and caring but ignorant of their children's powers.

These first ten issues show a bold new idea hit the ground running. Unfortunately some of the early momentum is wasted when the series moves to New York and begins a run of guest stars who often distract rather than enhance the stories they're in. But the basic concept is quite novel for Marvel and the execution works well. This is a title that may evoke themes from children's literature but it isn't written purely for readers the same age as the stars. Rather this is a title that can be enjoyed by all ages and fit alongside other, more convention superhero series.

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