by Pedro Moura
Ethan Crane, a.k.a., Supreme, the biggest superbeing of this storyworld, seems to be missing. Crane’s disappearance is related to a strange phenomenon that took place in a small village, Littlehaven, just outside the city of Omegapolis. A tycoon named Darius Dax is paying an investigative reporter, Diana Dane, to find out what happened. Strangely enough, Diana was unaware of the existence of either Littlehaven or Omegapolis until recently. As if they just popped out of nowhere. Paradoxically, however, it’s as if they had always been there, just outside Syracuse, NY.
We see Diana Dane doing some investigative work (unlike Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Tintin, or the other “reporter heroes” of comics), meeting other characters, and trying to figure out what crashed in the village, who saw it, what were the consequences, and where the hell is Crane. Also, all the whys and wherefores. So is this your average journalist adventure meets superhero tale? Not quite.
From a non-U.S. reader’s point of view (mine), Image Comics has been producing some of the best material in the North-American mainstream industry over the last few years. Its authors are not afraid to delve into consolidated genres and take them into dangerous, mixed waters, producing both straightforward, focused stories and mind-boggling, world-spanning, sprawling sagas, but all in all engaged in spinning the proverbial good yarn. Additionally, found in betwixt the territories of company-owned properties and creator-owned work, and especially under the guidance of Publisher Eric Stephenson, some of the staple characters of the original 1990s Image have gained a new, refreshing life thanks to the free reign given to the appointed writers and artists, with great teams working together for surprisingly original takes. Such was the case with Prophet by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis, et al., and now with Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay’s Supreme: Blue Rose.
There are several ways one could describe the series. Here’s one: this is Ellis’s take on the superhero Supreme, created by Rob Liefeld in 1993. In a seven issue mini-series, the British writer does what he does best: confuses the shit out of us and in the end provides a breathtaking story about storytelling, somewhat like he did in the first issues of Planetary before going full throttle on superhero mode.
Or one could perhaps describe Supreme: Blue Rose as weird science fiction, a sub-genre arguably shared with Ellis and Jason Howard’s Trees, Stephenson and Nate Bellegard’s Nowhere Men, and Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving’s Annhilator. It sits well, but it’s rather different from Image’s already diverse output of the sci-fi genre (with Alex + Ada, Bitch Planet, Copperhead, East of West, Invisible Republic, Lazarus, Low, Mara, Saga, and The Fuse, they really do have a terrific catalog). Involving quantum physics, multiverse theory, p-brane theory, and higher dimensions, these notions pop out to create a relatable, more or less plausible setting for the fantastic things that happen in these pages. Sure, comics writers such as Morrison, Alan Moore, Jonathan Hickman, Charles Soule, Jeff Lemire, and Greg Rucka have explored this before, but Ellis is able to present these ideas as elegant, poetical elements, leading to a both fragmentary and fluid narration.
But to be more precise, Supreme: Blue Rose is a wonderful exercise of metatextual commentary on some of the most typical processes of creation within the contemporary mainstream superhero genre, namely, the possibility of creating alternative versions of a given character, that which Duncan Falconer dubbed “prismatic versions,” as well as allowing for the coexistence of such versions in a wider structure (i.e., the multiverse), as well engaging in certain textual-editorial practices associated with it, like retconning.
In the hands of Moore, Supreme reached a significant peak in this “prismatic” research, and very rarely did other authors weave an entire series around a character’s own convoluted editorial history and potential variations. Moore, of course, was quoting from Superman’s long history, not a surprising move considering how Supreme was a Superman imitation to start with (other critics have pointed this out). I wonder if we could consider Liefeld’s Supreme original run as “meta” too. Sure, it does not possess the same narrative (or visual) sophistication of the comics that are usually graced with such a highfalutin’ term. More often than not, it’s just called a “rip-off” or a “poorly thought clone” of Superman, and the like (one could go even further and argue that all the original production of the “first” Image was of the same class). But there’s something in these characters that allows us to think about them as “prismatic versions” of their models in their own right.
Much of Supreme: Blue Rose‘s plot involves thinking about the typical narrative structures entailed with the industries’ practice of having an author playing with a previously existing character, and Ellis, as in many other of his projects — again, Planetary, but also Supergod — shifts to a higher gear, reaching a post-post-meta condition. Supreme Blue Rose is not only the recuperation of the Supremeverse’s diegesis, but also a ransacking of its very history of production, as much a commentary on past runs as well as on many of the most outstanding traits of superhero comics from the bigger “universes,” through the notion “revisioning”: namely, the rebooting of a previously existing universe into a new “instantiation.” That is to say, within the story it means something cosmic and immense, but from a comic-book perspective it means the usual practice of changing creative team. The word “rewritable” appears every so often, pointing out the possibility that the universe within these pages is referring to itself as a universe-on-paper. Perhaps in this story, the “p” in “p-brane theory” could stand for “page.” So all the characters, these four-colored flatlanders, are slowly coming to terms with the mechanisms of shifting textuality, materiality, and style.
Readers of the previous “instantiations” of Supreme will recognize the names of all these characters. Darius Dax, for instance, will trigger the alarm for the “supervillain.” Many of them appear with some significant differences, typically of the “prismatic” kind. Dax is a black, handsome man, Doc Rocket is an older African Einstein lookalike, Professor Night is an Asian man, and so on. These changes are not because of cultural inclusiveness — as we find in the recent Ms. Marvel or Thor, for instance — but to signal the reshuffling of Supreme’s universe.
Under the guidance of Stephenson, many authors engaged by Image, and to the contrary of other mainstream publishers, are allowed to take their time in establishing their storyworlds. Ellis, although one of the most brilliant mainstream writers of “singles” — i.e., standalone comic books or complete stories within each issue of a series (the first arc of Planetary, Secret Avengers, etc.) — is also known for taking his time, choosing a slower pace to his longer projects. To stick to recent titles, check Trees and his Moon Knight run. And this is necessary, for if there are many other convoluted stories set in superhero universes — The Multiversity is being published right now — most of them are ultimately subsumed into linear narratives, or at least more or less clear-cut explanations. Supreme: Blue Rose does have a framing story, as well as a clear narrative resolution, but it maintains throughout a beautiful freeform quality.
One of the reasons for this is the elegance created with all the multiple strains of narrative. Even though there is one central line of inquiry (Diana’s investigation), we also have access to her dreams and, through them, to the experiences of other characters (such as Doc Rocket, Storybook Smith, and so on) as they contact the mysterious red-headed woman. Moreover, there is also the story-within-the-story with the episodes of “Dr. Night,” apparently some sort of fragmented storytelling form available through digital means (TV meets Twitter meets Instagram?). Most of the dialogues are, at least in the beginning, quite elliptic, and will probably warrant a second (or third) reading after everything is completed. But it is a beautiful, puzzling ride as we go along.
Above all, we have Tula Lotay’s stunning artwork. She brings to North-American comics a strong sense of design that is more typical in fashion illustration, where her figures are swiftly delineated by a minimum number of colored lines, somewhat reminiscent of people like René Gruau and David Downton. If some of the panels seem a little static, at least when compared to most of the art in these kinds of comics, it is perfect for this slow burner. Its underwater quality is even more stressed by the seemingly excessive lines and color bolts that crisscross the images.
Supreme: Blue Rose is probably not an immediately popular title. On the one hand, it helps if one is a little familiar with superhero fare and Supreme in particular. On the other hand, it demands a stout engagement, considering how it was presented in short monthly bursts (I have read this in comic book form, and perhaps reading it as a trade will change its reception).
Nevertheless, it is an outstanding contribution to the actual expansion of what can be done within this genre. I previously mentioned Multiversity. In one of the issues that make up that series, some of the characters try to argue that comics (and superhero comics at that) could or should be considered Art. But throwing a tantrum about this lack of recognition and keeping business as usual is not enough. One must do something towards that end, must unlock new ways of creating stories, or exploring the expressive tools affordable by the specific ingredients of a given territory. I believe Supreme: Blue Rose — even if you want to corral its efforts within a specific genre — reaches those aesthetic goals.
All seven issues of Supreme: Blue Rose have been released. The trade paperback will be published in July of this year.
Get your copy of Supreme: Blue Rose as well as other Warren Ellis titles referenced: