Friday, 30 August 2013

Sidesteps: Power Pack Classic volume 3

Power Pack Classic volume 3 contains issues #18 to #26, plus Thor #363. Almost all the Power Pack issues are written by Louise Simonson, with the exception of issue #21 which is by Terry Austin. They are drawn by a mix of Brent Anderson, Jon Bogdanove, Bob McLeod and Scott Williams. The Thor issue is written and drawn by Walter Simonson.

There's still a strong element of the rest of the Marvel universe at the start of this volume, but after issue #20 the guest appearances drop away to cameos except for issue #26. But in the first three issues we get in succession a Secret Wars II crossover that is also half of a crossover with Thor (although Thor himself doesn't appear until his own series), then a double-sized Thanksgiving special that sees return appearances for Cloak and Dagger, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde (billed on the cover as such - did she ever get a consistent identity?), Beta Ray Bill, and Annalee and Leech from the Morlocks. Then issue #20 sees a team-up with the New Mutants Cannonball, Mirage and Wolfsbane. After that the guest appearances drop away to cameos, even though some are highlighted on the cover such as Spider-Man (#21) and the Fantastic Four (#23), but the final issue in the volume sees Cloak and Dagger appear once more. Some of the intervening issues take the children away from Earth, but even those set on it are focused on the regular characters rather than endless guest stars. As a further step towards giving all the Power children plenty of space there's a somewhat rotated reduced usage of Franklin, Kofi and Friday. What's also nice about the Secret Wars II crossover is that it actually has repercussions on the series as a whole, with the Powers' mother badly injured by the rampage of Kurse, and subsequent issues explore how the family react to this.

A common theme throughout these issues is of the development of powers and self-confidences. Kofi steadily learns how to refine his ability to teleport and take others with him, as well as finally learning why his father Yrik is hostile towards him. Franklin's powers steadily develop to the point where he has occasional precognition even while awake and is successful at preventing the foreseen disasters. He also proves able to use control his dream powers to the point where he direct himself, see the present and even interact with others via astral projection. At the same time he continues to feel abandoned by his parents (though in part because they go off searching for him) but comes to be ever more part of the Power Pack family. But Alex and Katie get some of the strongest material. Their mother was injured whilst buying materials for Alex's school project, and he blames himself, getting angrier and angrier with himself and with others. To add to the tensions is his poor handling of his relationship with fellow school pupil Allison, and the rivalry from Johnny Rival. It climaxes when sledding in the park when Alex saves Allison from going under ice, but then uses his gravity powers in a fight with Johnny. Alex's attitude to the others is poor at times, especially Katie who feels pushed around at often used as little more than a gun, making her hate her energy powers. Things climax on the Snark homeworld in issue #25.

Before then we see the Power family coping with the shock of Margaret's hospitalisation with Professor James Power particularly hard hit and the children left over more to their own devices. This contributes to a number of stories such as a hospital vigil when they encounter monsters from the realm of Limbo and Mirage of the New Mutants fights off the arrival of death for Margaret. Issue #19 is a double-sized special for Thanksgiving, in which Katie organises a party for the team's friends, to the annoyance of Alex and Julie who think it inappropriate, and Katie also successfully diverts a parade balloon to the hospital in the hope that it will cheer up her mother. Meanwhile Leech has annoyed Annalee, who has the power to project her emotions onto others. Cue much chaos all round. Another tale sees the author of Katie's favourite books kidnapped and it falls to Jack and Katie to rescue her.

However there is one major storyline steadily built up to and it pays off well. The Snark Empire is consumed by a power struggle as the Emperor's health fades, and one of the Queen Mothers (a title that here indicates the mothers of the princes who struggle to become Emperor, rather than the widow of the previous one) is seeking weapons to ensure her son will win the conflict to succeed him. Issues in the earlier volumes have already touched upon the struggle, including the origin story, but now we get a strong struggle on Snarkworld itself as the four Power children are kidnapped with the intention of stealing their powers to transfer to Prince Jakal. In the ensuing conflict everyone, including Franklin, Kofi and Friday, have to face the ultimate challenge but they eventually win through. However in the process they lose their powers and gain different ones.

This was the first of several power transfers throughout the history of the team and offers a degree of diversity. Although new codenames aren't used in these issues, Alex now has the energy powers, Julie the density powers, Jack the gravity powers and Katie the lightspeed powers. This resolves the problem of Katie hating what she can do with her energy powers and Alex feeling he has to bully her to use them, but also offers new possibilities for the issues to come. However the storyline also sees the destruction of Friday, and it's uncertain if he or she can be repaired, whilst Kofi reconciles with his father in the epilogue and returns to the Kymellian homeworld. Meanwhile the Power children return to their parents, with their mother now out of hospital, for a warm welcome home - and a meal of James's much hated lentil soup! It's a good moment on which the volume ends.

I previously wrote that I had no information about the series' sales and in particular any indication as to whether it was especially popular in channels most traditionally associated with children. So it's surprising to see at the end of issue #25 a note announcing the series will be "in a new bi-monthly format available only in comics specialty [sic] shops and through subscription!" Dropping in frequency is usually a sign of weak sales all round, whilst abandoning the newsstands would suggest that the title didn't have a particular reach amongst younger readers. I stress "suggest" because I still have no information about subscriptions and this was a general period when the overall American comics market was shifting so that comic shops rather than newsstands were the primary source of sales (for a whole load of reasons beyond this post's scope, this didn't really happen with British comics although many specialist shops existed here for imports of American comics) so a book going direct market only meant less then than in earlier years. And a common criticism is that comic shops were, and some still are, inaccessible to younger children, often being located away from the main shopping centres where they're unlikely to be seen and frequently doing little to encourage children, or some parents, to go inside.

(Although the note at the end of issue #25 suggests the series was in trouble, it would last until issue #62 and some of the changes were at least partially reversed. From issue #33 onwards the frequency was increased to nine issues a year. The cover design from issue #40 onwards indicates that the series had returned to newstands.)

The art for the most part in these issues holds up well and manages to remember that the stars are children, not tiny adults. However at times John Bogdanove draws Franklin a little too young for my liking, and in some long shots he is rather cartoony. Otherwise the art brings everything to life vividly. There is one standout error in page order when two pages in issue #24 (pages 209 & 210) are printed in reverse order but I don't know if that was an error in the original issue or created by the tradepaperback. Otherwise the reproduction is excellent.

Overall this is a petty solid volume that shows the series at what should have been its height, but sales had other ideas. Nevertheless this is a good set of adventures featuring a highly likeable set of characters in a diverse set of situations - what should be a natural combination but which takes real talent to pull off. Never once does the series forget that it stars children but there's no dumbing down - instead the world and universe they're in is shown to be a place of both joy and fear, of wonder and terror, of tragedy and triumph. The series is very underrated.

(Unfortunately this may be it for Power Pack issues. A fourth volume was due to be released earlier this year, taking the series up to issue #36 and over the half-way point, but it was cancelled late in the day. This probably also means the series won't be Essentialised anytime soon even if Marvel didn't have a policy of trying to avoid overlaps between the Classics and Essentials. However a number of individual issues from later in the run have been included in various collected editions handling crossovers.)

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