The Prehistory of Supreme
by Christian Roberson
If someone had told me just a few years ago that my favorite book one day would feature a Rob Liefeld creation, I would have sued for slander. But here we are.
The character of Supreme was created (if that’s the right word) by Rob Liefeld for use in his Image title Youngblood. Along with six other “hot” creators, Liefeld had left the fold of Marvel Comics to create his own titles, first under the aegis of Malibu Comics, and then as a separate publishing entity. Called Image Comics, this group functioned more as a collective of separate studios than as a business, with each creator running his own stable of writers and artists (the majority of whom judiciously emulated their respective employers). Jim Valentino had Shadowline, Jim Lee Wildstorm, Marc Silvestri Top Cow, and Rob Liefeld had Extreme.
Somewhat understandably, each of these creators began writing and/or drawing titles featuring characters very similar to the company owned characters who had won for them their acclaim. Todd McFarlane, who had gained his name doing Spiderman for Marvel, created Spawn, a supernatural character who bore a striking physical resemblance to the wall-crawler. Jim Lee, who had made his fortune penciling the X-Men for Marvel, created a team of superheroes who would have felt right at home in Professor Xavier’s mansion. Likewise, Liefeld, who had gained his reputation penciling X-Force (an X-Men spin-off), created a team of superpowered mutants who looked more than a little like those featured in his previous assignment.
This return to previous images and themes, though criticized roundly by other members of the comics community, was understandable from a certain vantage point. These seven creators, and the others who would later join them, had made millions for the large companies for whom they worked, presenting the adventures of characters owned by those companies. While these seven where well compensated for their work (much better than their predecessor’s had been in most cases), they felt, perhaps justifiably, that they were entitled to a larger share of the profits. After all, they reasoned, without them the company wouldn’t be pulling in those numbers. When the company, Marvel Comics, refused to see the logic of their arguments, the creators walked. They would create their own characters, similar enough to their previous books to be comfortable, both for themselves and their young book-buying public, and they would retain ownership of everything. Put another way, all the money would go to them.
This is, naturally, a gross oversimplification of the issue, but the essential points are true. Liefeld, who had made his living drawing books about angst-ridden young superheroes, continued doing just that. When, further down the line, he wanted to have his characters interact with other established characters, he must have found that he had to create his own versions of them as well. Therefore, if he wanted to use Wonder Woman in a story, and knew full well that DC Comics wasn’t about to use her, he did the next best thing: he created his own (Glory). And when he wanted to use Superman, the first and greatest of the costumed superheroes, along came Supreme.
From the beginning, then, Supreme was little more than a copy of Superman, filtered through Liefeld’s own imagination (and please, withhold all jokes out of respect). He looked like Superman, or rather how Liefeld thought Superman should look. And he acted like Superman, or again how Liefeld thought Superman should act. The following is the description of the character presented in “Image Illustrated,” a special published by Hero Magazine in September of 1994 which was essentially all of the company’s press releases masquerading as a magazine.
“Supreme “First Appearance: Youngblood #3 “Background: He’s the Image Universe’s most powerful hero, and he’s got an ego just as big. Supreme was one of the original heroes fighting in WWII, and while teaming with other heroes such as Glory and Super Patriot, almost single-handedly beat the Nazis. After the war, Supreme left the planet for space. Upon his return 50 years later, he found the world had changed radically and was very displeased.”
That, in a nut-shell, was the characterization of Supreme. He was the first and mightiest of the heroes, but he was also a mighty ass-hole. He sneered at the younger heroes, and periodically beat the crap out of them. He lost his powers or some such nonsense, had a teen sidekick named Kid Supreme, and a female counterpart name Lady Supreme. He was angry, he was morose, and he had little lines inked all over him that did not correspond to any aspect of human anatomy.
This was all par for the course for Extreme Comics. They were produced with a certain angry vitality, true, but the ideas behind them were not always the most original. During one special cross-over, all the male characters in the various books were turned into women. The readers were delighted to learn that, even with miles of cleavage among them, their favorite heroes could still utter pithy one-liners and kick ass.
It was during this period that Rob Liefeld earned a reputation for being one of the lesser talents in the comics community. His art had always been criticized by certain factions as sub-par, with a weak grasp of anatomy and a poor sense of design. Now, as the creative force behind a half-dozen books, his writing skills were likewise called into question. Nevertheless, readers continued to purchase his books, and if they were primarily younger readers, inexperienced and with exposure to little else beside Liefeld products, that made no difference when it came time to deposit that month’s take into the bank.
In 1996 came a big shake-up, as Marvel Comics approached certain members of the Image group with a surprising offer. After several years of management by people with little to no knowledge or interest in the comics field, Marvel was listing badly. After going on the public market some time before, Marvel was now obligated to show a profit each quarter to it’s stockholders, or else face the consequences. Thus, more than before, profit and quantity were winning out over prestige and quality. Creators were leaving Marvel in droves. The company was left with only two cash cows, the Spiderman titles and those featuring the X-Men. They had to change their strategy, and change it fast.
What they did was a shock, and looked upon by various members of the community as either a vindication or a betrayal. Several of the walking wounded, titles on their last legs, were farmed out to members of the Image group. Jim Lee was given control of the Fantastic Four and Iron Man, and Rob Liefeld was given Captain America and the Avengers. Lee and Liefeld were allowed complete control (to an extant), allowed to bring on writers and artists as it suited them. To the Image creators, this was a success, to be granted so much of what they had originally wanted. To others, who promoted creator ownership of comics, saw this as a betrayal, that the Image creators had failed on their own and were running back to the safety of the big company. Whatever the truth of the situation, it didn’t last.
Liefeld made some questionable decisions during his tenure on the books, and ruffled the feathers of more than one of the creators he had brought on. In the end, Liefeld was pulled from the books, and their control given to Lee. At the end of the agreed upon year, the books reverted to Marvel’s control, and the experiment was done.
Meanwhile, bad blood between Liefeld and his fellow Image founders was on the rise. Liefeld, not content with partial control of Image, had previously launched yet another company, Maximum Press. Under the aegis of Maximum he published several titles that he could easily have published with Image, including a licensed adaption of Battlestar Galactica. The other Image members complained that he was using the shared resources of Image to launch his own company, and to promote it’s titles. In the end, Liefeld left Image. Whether he resigned, or was ousted, is a matter of debate, as the decision to fire him had been reached before he presented his letter of resignation. However, as he had not yet been officially relieved of his duties, the actual cause is unclear. Nevertheless, the truth remains that the experiment that was Image, at least for Liefeld, was over.
Liefeld, without pausing for a breath, shifted all of his books from Extreme Studios to Maximum Press, and so while one months titles had the Image “I” on the cover, the next were emblazoned with the emblem of Maximum. This continued on for some months, until massive corporate restructing brought the creation of a new entity, Awesome Comics.
To be honest, all of this fenagling and conniving might just have meant the end of Liefeld career. His books were no longer bringing in the numbers that they had before, and he had lost much of hte cache his name once carried. He talked alot about his deals with bigwigs in Hollywood, and though several properties had been licensed, a finished product had yet to emerge. Since first entering the comics field as an unknown pencilling a lagging DC title, things for Liefeld had never been bleaker.
Luck was with him, however, or else a surprising bout of good judgment, as shortly before the blow up at Image Liefeld had brought onto Supreme a talent that would change everything: Alan Moore. And, if I might lapse into hyperbole, nothing would ever be the same again.