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Now listen to Spider-Man, you superpowered little brats. He speaks from experience. – Power Pack #6

January 30, 2012

Power Pack. It’s definitely a book that can generate different reactions. When I was little, I hated it. HATED IT. I couldn’t stand that these kids, the same age as me, were gifted with such incredible abilities. That they could fly and stuff. I was green with envy, and couldn’t even manage a vicarious thrill in seeing fictional peers soaring and fighting evil over the New York skyline. At least with other characters, like the red and blue champion above, I could dream of growing up to be just like them. But these Power rugrats had a head start. It wasn’t fair.

Hell, I even begrudged them their stylized alien-made feety pajamas/costumes. Which just looked SO COMFY.

Now, as a grownup, I can appreciate the series a little more. Louise Simonson’s scripts were solid, and dealt with a number of sensitive topics, weighty stuff that told you, in big bold letters, THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS, MISTER. Who can forget that omnipresent child abuse awareness ad alongside this issue’s guest star, Spider-Man (no stranger to that milieu)? It was the Gordon Jump Diff’rent Strokes episode of comics. (Even though it didn’t really make me aware of much, because I didn’t quite get that their were adults out there that might want to fondle my genitals. Youthful ignorance is bliss.)

Well, that ad might as well have been for the whole series, because it seemed like every month there was a new downbeat dirge. There was some quality material in the run, but my God, it could get depressing. It sure as hell wasn’t all gumdrops and Fiddle Faddle with the Pack. There’s another issue that’s been sitting on my desk for months, one that guest-starred a barrel full of Marvel characters, one that I’ve planned on writing about for a good long while. That is, I’d write about it if I could ever get up the strength. BECAUSE IT’S ONE OF THE MOST DEPRESSING COMICS YOU WILL EVER READ. It has some poor little mutant monster that gets beaten and abused and who at one point is locked in a kitchen cupboard. Where it cowers as a cat mews outside the cupboard door. It’s enough to make you go all nihilist and Goth.

I won’t say more about it, because maybe I’ll get around to writing about it one day. Plus, I don’t want you to kill yourself.

Anyway, there’s no acute downer material in this issue, but there is a sobering, rather touching moment shared with Marvel’s resident web-slinger. One tangentially about, yes, Great Power and Responsibility, bullet points that your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man has had drilled into his head since 1962. It’s an obvious sequence, one that pretty much writes itself, but it’s effective. I like it, and it’s representative of the latter-day respect I’ve developed for the title and it’s meaty topicality.

Simonson, co-creator June Brigman and Bob Wiacek brought us this issue, entitled, appropriately, “Secrets.” I say “appropriately” because the parents in this nuclear family are still operating in the dark about their changed offspring, and the kids are still working through, in a childish way, the hazards of a double life. And they’re still very much feeling out their alien abilities, which you can see in this small slice of bedroom domesticity between the Power fils:

The boys have superpowers AND bunk beds. Do you see now why I was so jealous of them? DO YOU SEE?

Here’s the whole brood gathered around the breakfast table, where they can’t escape that bane of all children, a mom-bidden errand:

This issue was actually published within a year of the Hobgoblin’s first appearance, and Spider-Man battled him in the next month’s Amazing Spider-Man (#249). So that newspaper is quite current, apart from clueing in the kids to the “Fire-Breathing Monster” on the loose.

The boys decide to help track down the monster while out on their milk-run. They’re still working through that whole “secret identities” business:

The first Halloween costume that I can remember ever donning was a Spider-Man number. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, even though it was a rather half-hearted store-bought affair with a stifling plastic mask. What I’m getting at is that, though my verdant envy of the Pack remains, I do feel a tie of kinship with young Alex here.

And off we go to the cover-promised action, where a (misunderstood) dragon-thing has kidnapped its creator and is dragging a once again in over his head Spidey about. That’s when Alex gets to not just be the hero, but the hero that saves his hero:

That’s like if I fed Magic Johnson for a game-winning lay-up while wearing a Magic Johnson jersey. Or drove in Don Mattingly on a series-ending double while wearing a pinstriped 23. Or, yes, caught a free-falling Spider-Man with that old mask. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Spider-Man tells the kids to head home — the nerve! — and heads off to find the dragon, but the female half of the Pack, jealous of the boys being out doing their thing, have actually tamed the beast and sequestered him in their garage (Can we keep him?). Later on, Spidey re-unites with the boys and has a brief heart-to-heart rap with them:

That last panel is a goofy comic book equivalent of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.

What do you think — will Spider-Man’s counsel register? Maybe yes, maybe no:

They got the milk, if you were worried.

Secrets. Responsibility. These were ongoing themes in the series. There was always tension among the kids on whether or not they should tell their parents what they were sneaking out and doing, and also how they should be using their abilities. Was it right to keep their parents out of the loop? Could they use their powers to help their friends? It made for good reading, totally apart from the battles with their oft-enemies, the Snarks. Whatever bad things you can say about Power Pack, I imagine that it’s about 1000x better in the “young people with powers” genre than that Chronicle movie that’s coming out. You know, the “Bro, we’ve got superpowers bro!” thing (“What if there were multiple Superboy-Primes, and what if they were all frat-boy douchebags?”), which looks positively dreadful.

I’m sure minds greater than mine have pointed out and mulled that Power Pack was created and crafted by two women, not the most common thing in this y-chromosomed industry. My bringing it up might make me a sexist pig. Possibly — Gloria Allred press conference and lawsuit to follow. But I have the feeling that the unique perspective that only women can bring had a positive impact on the book, with family taking on a central, critical role in the overall dynamic. The dialogue and rivalries between the kids ring true, and the art goes a long way towards capturing the shared space of a close-knit family. At the very least Simonson and Brigman shook things up in this small corner of the comics world, and got something fresh and good going.

Once again, I’m trying not to sound inadvertently sexist. Maybe I should just drop this line. Okay, I will.

I’m sure of one thing, and that’s that I like Spider-Man as he’s presented here, a kind of tights-wearing camp counselor. His age — though unknown to the Pack boys (they probably think, like I did, that everyone over 20 is ancient) — makes his words all the more poignant. He was a teen when bitten by the spider, but he knows of what he speaks. And it’s a different aspect of the character. He’s usually a young guy surrounded by heroes older, more powerful and/or more experienced than himself, but here the tables are turned. This is a fresh view of him: Spider-Man as mentor, and one that doesn’t want these kids to have their own tragic Uncle Ben moment.

It’s a touching little interlude. We can thank the Power Pack — and their feety pajamas — for it.

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