Sovereign Seven: The Saga of Cascade and Maitresse

Earlier this month while recovering from nasal surgery I started a re-read of Sovereign Seven, the comic book series written by Chris Claremont that was published by DC Comics between 1995 and 1998.  Sovereign Seven ran for 36 monthly issues, two annuals, a Sovereign Seven Plus Legion of Super-Heroes special, and two short stories in the Showcase anthology.

Sovereign Seven was unusual in that it was a creator-owned series, yet it was set firmly within the DC Universe, with appearances by numerous established characters such as Darkseid, Superman and Power Girl.  I cannot think of any other comparable arrangement before or since at either DC or Marvel.

I hadn’t looked at most of these issues in almost a decade.  Reading them again, I found the series is still interesting and entertaining.  Claremont did some good work with pencilers Dwayne Turner (who co-created the characters), Ron Lim, Jeff Johnson and Tom Grindberg on these stories.  Inking was provided by Jerome K. Moore and Chris Ivy on most issues.

The Sovereigns are a group of aristocratic refugees from different parallel Earths whose worlds had all been conquered by the mysterious Rapture. They were gathered together by Rhian Douglas, aka Cascade, who was fleeing from her seemingly-tyrannical mother Maitresse.

We never learn the precise nature of the Rapture, but in issue #15 Cruiser describes it as “the bliss of blind, unreasoning submission, without a soul to call your own, without the responsibility that comes of making a moral choice.”  That actually brings to mind the Anti-Life Equation from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World epic.  Whatever it is, the Rapture has conquered & corrupted innumerable worlds across the continuum.  As explained by Reflex in S7 Annual #1, “The Rapture has cost us everything and everyone we hold dear.”

The main setting of the series is the Crossroads Coffee Bar, situated at the intersection of three states, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. Living up to its name, Crossroads also contains portals to other dimensions. Crossroads is run by enigmatic, immortal sisters Violet Smith and Pansy Jones. It is here that the fleeing Sovereigns find sanctuary and employment.

One of the most intriguing aspects of S7 was the relationship between Cascade and Maitresse.  Claremont is rightfully recognized as one of the first comic book writers to script three-dimensional, strong, independent female characters.  His work with Rhian Douglas and her mother Morgan continues in that vein, resulting in pair of fascinating characters in a deeply dysfunctional family dynamic.

Rhian and Morgan come from an Earth in a reality where the entire solar system has been imprisoned behind an impenetrable barrier, all to keep Maitresse from escaping.  Cascade first learns of other realities when telepath Taryn Haldane, aka Network, makes contact with her.  Cascade uses her teleportation power to join Network. Exploring the multiverse together the pair locates the other five Sovereigns, rescuing them from the Rapture.

Cascade’s greatest fear is that her mother will find a way to follow her and escape imprisonment.  As seen in Annual #1, the entire fabric of reality on Rhian’s Earth is subject to the moods and temper of Maitresse.  An outraged Rhian lectures her:

“The world’s not some toy, created for your amusement! You can’t just change things – alter peoples’ lives beyond recognition, even destroy them – on a whim. It’s cruel and wrong and I won’t be a part of it any longer!”

Later on in issue #3 Cascade describes her mother as “the essence of all that’s evil” with seemingly only the Rapture itself a greater menace in her mind.

Indeed, at first the evidence appears to back up Cascade’s claim.  We do see Maitresse completely rewriting the fabric of reality on a continual basis on her Earth, and in the first issue she casually immolates her trusted adviser Morgrin for disagreeing with her.  Maitresse, believing that her daughter has betrayed her and become corrupted by the Rapture, is more determined than ever to escape her imprisonment, no matter the cost.

However eventually we begin to see evidence that Cascade’s perception of her mother is not entirely accurate.  In issue #27, during the cosmic upheaval of the “Genesis” crossover, Cascade and Maitresse have their locations swapped, with Rhian imprisoned behind the barrier on her alternate Earth and Morgan joining the other Sovereigns at Crossroads in the DCU.

Having been told repeatedly by Cascade that her mother was their “greatest foe,” the rest of the Sovereigns are very surprised when Maitresse saves them from an attack by the Female Furies, and afterwards lays down in a bed of roses, serenely contemplating the beauty of the natural world.

Cascade soon returns to Earth, with Maitresse once again imprisoned behind the barrier.  At first Rhian cannot believe that the other Sovereigns are now questioning if her mother truly is the menace that she claims.  In issue #31 she angrily challenges their skepticism by asking “If she wasn’t so great a villain, why else would she have been imprisoned?!” However, soon after an event occurs which shakes Rhian’s beliefs to their very core.

In issue #35 the Eristoi, insectoid servants of the Rapture, arrive on Earth.  Cascade comes face to face with their leader, who mind-links with her.  Through this connection, Rhian discovers the true, tragic history of her world.

Rhian’s mother Morgan was her Earth’s greatest hero and protector.  Morgan learns the Rapture is coming to claim her world.  Donning the armor of Maitresse for the first time, Morgan flies up into outer space to confront the Rapture.  Unfortunately not even Morgan is able to stop the Rapture, which fires a devastating beam of energy at the Earth.  Every single living being on the planet is killed except for Morgan and her unborn daughter Rhian.  The Rapture, realizing that Morgan is the one foe who might ultimately defeat it, creates the barrier that surrounds the solar system, imprisoning Morgan for all eternity.

Finally coming out of the psychic link, Cascade is horrified at what she has learned.  Chastened, she explains to her friends:

“My mother. I was so WRONG about her. I believed her to be evil because from childhood I watched her play with our world and all its people as if it were her toy. She would reshape everything, on a whim, without hesitation or regret. And I hated her for it. It never dawned on me that everything I saw was a figment of her imagination. She was playing with ghosts.”

And so we learn that Maitresse, rather than a being of “ultimate evil,” is in truth a sad, lonely woman haunted by her monumental defeat, traumatized by her failure to save her world, and now driven by only two goals: to protect her daughter, and to escape her prison so that she can defeat the Rapture and avenge her fallen people.

Several years ago Chris Claremont was doing a signing at Midtown Comics.  One of the books I got autographed by him was an issue of S7, and I told him how much of an impact the revelation of Maitresse’s true history, and Cascade having to reevaluate her entire relationship with her mother, had affected me as a reader.  I forget his exact response, but I believe he mentioned something about wanting to address the the relationships between parents and children.

Thinking about it, I feel that the reason why it is such a moving development in the story is that it feels both authentic and earned.  Set aside the superpowers and the cosmic menaces and you have a mother and a daughter who have a great deal of difficulty understanding one another.  That sounds like a lot of families, doesn’t it?

In the final issue of Sovereign Seven it is revealed that the whole story was apparently a work of fiction written by two women, one of whom is the “real life” version of Morgan Douglas, and that she created it for her young daughter Rhian.  That is an interesting twist, the idea that Morgan would write a narrative in which her own daughter would misunderstand her and believe her to be the villain.

Perhaps Morgan was attempting to work through her own feelings about the role of a parent, her fears about the mistakes she might make, the difficulty she foresaw in trying to find a balance between being a responsible adult guardian to her daughter while still giving her enough independence and room to grow into her own person?

Looking at all of this from my own personal perspective, I realize that when I was younger I did not really appreciate my parents.  I felt they were too strict, too overprotective, and I resented them for being controlling, for trying to tell me how to live my life.

Now, as an adult, I am able to perceive that my mother and father were trying to be good parents, that they did have my best interests at heart, and that raising me and my two sisters was a very difficult task.  Perhaps their failure to understand why I made certain decisions was rooted not in them being uncaring or mean but instead in them having grown up in very different social and economic circumstances.

I can also look back at my own actions and now realize that there were occasions when I probably should have paid more attention to the advice my parents were giving me, to tried to understand the benefits of their own experiences that they were attempting to pass along so that perhaps I would not make the same mistakes.

Yes, there are definitely still things about my parents that I disagree with, but I do feel like I have a better understanding of and appreciation for them.

That is one of the qualities of Chris Claremont’s writing which I appreciate, that his characters who are real, believable people. His stories offer the opportunity to examine my own thoughts and actions, as well as the world I live in, through a different lens, an alternate perspective.  That is a valuable gift.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 13

Welcome to the 13th edition of Comic Book Coffee. I previously posted these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

(I has nasal surgery a couple of days ago, so if any typos creep into this I apologize. My head is pretty stuffed up right now!)

61) Gene Colan & Tom Palmer

Daredevil #90, penciled by Gene Colan, inked by Tom Palmer, written by Gerry Conway and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1972 cover date.

It’s not all that surprising that during his career Daredevil has encountered four different criminals who assumed the costumed identity of Mister Fear.  What would be more natural that for the self-proclaimed “Man Without Fear” to cross swords with a villain whose modus operandi was the creation of fear?

Here we see Daredevil, hit by Mister Fear’s powers, has crashed through the window of an office building, and is now cowering in terror at the little old lady who cleans the building.  The next panel finds DD a guest of the local precinct, with the cops offering the still-unsteady crimefighter a cup of coffee.

Gene Colan had a style that was generally not an especially good fit for superheroes, yet he is regarded as one of the all-time great Daredevil artists.  Perhaps that is because DD is a non-powered acrobatic character, as well as the fact that, no matter how weird and jokey the series sometimes got, it usually still had one foot planted in gritty noir.  Both these elements made Daredevil an ideal fit for Colan’s unconventional layouts and shadowy penciling.

Colan was reportedly a somewhat-challenging artist to ink.  Tom Palmer is usually classed as one of the best inkers of Colan’s pencils.  They definitely worked extremely well together on Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula.

62) John Rosenberger

“What’s Ambition, Anyway?” drawn by John Rosenberger, written by Richard Hughes, and lettered by Ed Hamilton, from Confessions of the Lovelorn #81, published by ACG in May 1957.

Beautiful, talented Jill Sanders dreams of becoming an actress.  She auditions with famed producer-director Carl Rogers, who agrees to see how she works out in rehearsals for his upcoming musical.  While having coffee with Rogers and the rest of the cast, Jill thinks to herself “He’s a real professional — and a swell guy!”  Unfortunately for Jill, her high school rival Marion Major has also joined the cast, and pretty soon the ambitious, arrogant blonde is sinking her claws into Rogers himself.  Due to budget cuts Jill is squeezed out of the chorus and finds herself back waiting tables, and the despairing young woman believes she has lost out on both show business and Carl Rogers.  However, when Carl’s investors back out on him, Jill convinces her restaurateur boss to help finance the show.  It’s a success, and Carl has fallen in love with Jill.

Artist John Rosenberger’s career stretched over 30 years, from 1946 to 1975.  He worked for several different companies, drawing stories in various genres.  His style was definitely well-suited for romance, as he had an aptitude for rendering beautiful, fashionable women.  Towards the end of his career he penciled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane for DC Comics, where once again his knack for drawing lovely ladies was a definite asset.  Rosenberger became the regular artist on Wonder Woman in 1975, but sadly only completed two issues before taking ill.  He passed away in January 1977 at the age of 58.

The entire story “What’s Ambition, Anyway?” can be read on the Comic Book Plus website.

63) Ron Lim & Chris Ivy

Sovereign Seven #36, penciled by Ron Lim, inked by Chris Ivy, and written by Chris Claremont, published by DC Comics with a July 1998 cover date.

As the final issue of Chris Claremont’s Sovereign Seven comes to a close, the Sovereigns, after a long, hard-fought conflict, have finally emerged triumphant against the insidious Rapture.

And then we see that, apparently, the entire story of S7 has been nothing more than a comic book series created by Casey and Morgan, two young women who are customers at the Crossroads Coffee Bar that appeared so often throughout the series.

Sovereign Seven was a creator-owned series that nevertheless took place in the DC universe, with appearances by Darkseid, Superman, Power Girl and other mainstays.  Presumably this ending was conceived by Claremont to allow the series to end with a clean break, so that in the future he could have his characters return in an entirely different venue.  It’s certainly a metatextual scene, with Casey and Morgan standing in for Claremont himself to reflect on the series’ cancellation.

Of course, as Alan Moore once famously observed, “This is an Imaginary Story… Aren’t they all?”  And so I like to think that in some corner or another of the multiverse the events of Sovereign Seven “really” did happen.  Ah, well, real or not, it was a fun series.

Ron Lim was the second regular penciler on S7.  I have been a fan of Lim since he drew Captain America way back in the early 1990s.  I definitely regard him as underrated.  On most of his S7 issues Lim was inked by Chris Ivy.  They made a great art team, wonderfully illustrating Claremont’s stories.

So, anyone know where I can snag one of those big S7 coffee cups?

64) Frank Bolle

Golden and Silver Age artist Frank Bolle passed away on May 12th at the age of 95.  “Outlaw Gold” was penciled & inked by Bolle. It appeared in Tim Holt #29, published by Magazine Enterprises with an April-May 1952 cover date.

Tim Holt was a Western movie star during the 1940s and early 50s.  The comic book Tim Holt featured a fictionalized version of the actor who assumes the guise of the costumed vigilante Red Mask in the post-Civil War “Old West.”  Tim Holt ran for 54 issues, being re-titled Red Mask with issue #42.  Frank Bolle’s artwork appeared in every single issue of Tim Holt / Red Mask.  Bolle really excelled at drawing Westerns, and his work on this series was definitely impressive.

“Outlaw Gold” sees beautiful dancehall girl Della Martin enlisting the help of Red Mask to locate a treasure which she says her father hid out in the desert, west of Bald Rock.  Pursuing Della are members of Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch” gang, who are all too ready to murder the lovely singer so that they may claim the buried fortune.

On this page, en route to Bald Rock, Red Mask and Della are pursued by a trio of Wild Bunch thugs.  Red Mask makes short work of them, knocking all three out.  He and Della then bunk down for the night, brewing up some hot coffee to keep warm.

Bolle does nice work on this page.  The action flows well.  I like how Bolle has Red Mask’s fist swinging out of that third panel, really highlighting the punch.   Della is beautifully drawn.  And since this is a Western, of course we have horses.  I guess this is another crossover with Jim Thompson’s 1000 Horses series!

The entire issue can be read on the Comic Book Plus website.

65) Jerry Ordway & George Perez

Here is a double dose of Da Ordster!  First up is Adventures of Superman #428, penciled & inked by Jerry Ordway, written by Marv Wolfman, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Tom Ziuko, published by DC Comics in May 1987.

Here we see Clark Kent and Cat Grant at the offices of the Daily Planet, discussing Perry White’s ongoing investigation of organized crime in Metropolis.  Clark is having his morning coffee, and as we can see from his choice of mug he’s a fan of The Far Side.

This page is a good example of both Ordway’s storytelling and inking.  He does a good job laying out the conversation between Clark and Cat, presenting it from different angles, making it interesting.  I like how Ordway inks Cat on this page.  Panel four is especially beautiful.

I know that it’s undoubtedly a function of my having gotten into DC Comics in the late 1980s, but I definitely regard Ordway as one of the definitive Superman artists.

Jumping forward a dozen years we have Avengers volume 3 #18, written & penciled by Jerry Ordway, inked by George Perez, lettered by Richard Starkings, and colored by Tom Smith, published by Marvel Comics in July 1999.

Ordway wrote & drew a really fun three issue story arc on Avengers to give Kurt Busiek & George Perez a chance to catch their breaths.  This is the final page of Ordway’s last issue.

Hank Pym is in his lab late at night, studying the technology of the cyborg Doomsday Man, one of the threats the Avengers faced during Ordway’s storyline.  Hank has obviously been working for a while, because he disgustedly thinks to himself “*GAH* Coffee’s bitter! ‘Course that pot’s only been on all night…”

Before Hank has a chance to brew some fresh java he is interrupted by the violent arrival of several leering metal monstrosities, servants of his mechanical “son” Ultron.  And so Ordway segues back into Busiek & Perez’s own ongoing storylines, with Perez himself inking this last page as part of the transition.  Ordway must have been working closely with Busiek, Perez and editor Tom Brevoort to get everything to line up so smoothly.

Jerry Ordway is one of my favorite comic book creators, and I enjoyed his short stint on Avengers.  As much as I liked Busiek & Perez, I really wish Ordway could have done more work on this title.  He latter penciled the Domination Factor: Avengers and Maximum Security miniseries, on both of these once again doing excellent jobs depicting Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

I don’t think Ordway’s had any ongoing assignments in the last two decades, instead bouncing around between various short guest runs, fill-ins, miniseries and specials.  That’s a shame, because he’s a very talented artist.

Remembering Mark Gruenwald

Twenty years ago this week comic book writer & editor Mark Gruenwald passed away.  He was only 43 years old.

A longtime comic book reader, Gruenwald was active in fandom during his teenage years. In 1978 he was hired as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, where he would remain for his entire career.  He was the editor on Avengers, Iron Man and Thor in the 1980s.

During his tenure at Marvel, Gruenwald worked on a number of projects. A master of comic book continuity, he conceived the encyclopedia-like Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, with extensive biographies & descriptions of powers for many of the company’s characters.  Gruenwald had decade-long run writing Captain America, which began with issue #307 (July 1985) and lasted until issue #443 (September 1995), missing only a single issue during that time.  He also had a five year stint on Quasar, and wrote the well-regarded Squadron Supreme miniseries.

Captain America 322 cover

Gruenwald also occasionally worked as an artist. In 1983 he both wrote and provided pencil breakdowns for a Hawkeye miniseries, with Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi doing inks / finishes.  It was in this story that Hawkeye first encountered the lovely ex-SHIELD agent Mockingbird, and the miniseries ended with them tying the knot.

Growing up, Gruenwald was one of the first comic book creators whose work I followed. In 1985 my father got me a subscription to Captain America.  That happened to dovetail with the start of Gruenwald’s stint on the book, working with penciler Paul Neary.  That year’s worth of comics that I received in the mail were read by me over and over again.  They definitely played a major role in my becoming a lifelong fan of the character.  Four years later, when I began going to the comic shop on a regular basis, Captain America was one of the first comic book series that I collected religiously.

There were some great storylines written by Gruenwald during his decade on Captain America. He penned a lengthy arc that lasted from #332 to #350.  Steve Rogers, rather than become an agent of the shadowy government entity known as the Commission of Super-Human Activities, resigned as Cap.  The Commission recruited the glory-seeking, egotistical John Walker, who was already operating under the guise of Super-Patriot, to become the new Captain America.  Now literally walking in Cap’s shoes, manipulated by the Commission, and facing numerous deadly foes, Walker came to realize just how difficult the role was.  Becoming mentally unstable after his parents were murdered, Walker finally decided he wasn’t cut out to be Cap.  He turned the costume back over to Rogers, having developed a grudging admiration for him.  Walker would soon after adopt a new identity, U.S. Agent.  Over the next several years he and Cap would continue to butt heads over tactics & ideology.

Captain America 350 pg 44

In 1989 Gruenwald penned the action-packed, globe-trotting storyline “The Bloodstone Hunt,” working with penciler & co-plotter Kieron Dwyer, who was just beginning his career in the biz.  A year later, now paired with penciler Ron Lim, Gruenwald wrote the seven issue “Streets of Poison,” which had Cap becoming embroiled in a drug war being fought between the Kingpin and the Red Skull.

Gruenwald revamped the Red Skull from a scheme-of-the-month Nazi war criminal. Taking on the trappings of a late 1980s uber-capitalist, operating out of Washington DC itself, the Skull sought to destroy America from within by financing numerous subversive and terrorist organizations.

While he was updating Cap’s arch nemesis, Gruenwald also set out to expand the Sentinel of Liberty’s rogues gallery. His most notable creations were super-villain trade union the Serpent Society, the anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher, the fanatical vigilante the Scourge of the Underworld, the reactionary militia group the Watchdogs, and the brutal mercenary Crossbones.

Gruenwald also introduced Diamondback. A member of the Serpent Society, Rachel Leighton was a magenta-haired bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks who found herself unexpectedly attracted to Cap.  At first merely hanging out with Cap in the hopes of convincing him to have a roll in the sack, Diamondback came to develop feelings for him and she began to ponder going straight.  Likewise Cap, who originally considered Diamondback to be a major nuisance, eventually came to appreciate & care for Rachel.  Gruenwald chronicled their extremely rocky relationship throughout his time on the series.  “Cap’s Night Out” in issue #371, with artwork by Lim & Bulanadi, which has Steve and Rachel going out on a date, is one of the best single issues of Gruenwald’s run.

Captain America 371 pg 1

In hindsight, there are aspects of Gruenwald’s work on Captain America that do not hold up too well. To a degree Gruenwald’s sensibilities were rooted in the early Silver Age, and his conception of Cap was of a “man in a white hat,” extremely ethical and scrupulously honest.  At times I feel Gruenwald overdid this, such as his insistence that, despite having served in the armed forces during World War II, Cap never ever killed a single person.  I realize that Gruenwald very much wanted to draw a line in the sand between Cap and such hyper-violent anti-heroes as Wolverine and the Punisher who were starting to become very popular, and I do appreciate his intentions.  I just feel that at times he wrote Cap as someone given to too much moralizing and hand-wringing.

The last few years Gruenwald was on Captain America were hit & miss. There was “The Superia Stratagem,” which saw the militant feminist Superia organize an army of female villains as well as attempt to transform Cap into a woman.  This was followed a year later by “Man and Wolf,” which saw Cap actually transformed into a werewolf.  Neither story was well-received by readers, although I do have a certain fondness for Capwolf.

Captain America 405 cover

Towards the end, it appears the changes taking place throughout the comic book industry were affecting Gruenwald’s outlook. The whole “grim & gritty” trend became prevalent throughout superhero books.  Hot young artists with flashy styles who were weak in storytelling & anatomy were now superstars.  Marvel itself was much more corporate, making a number of decisions to drive up short-term profits, something that would eventually lead to the company into bankruptcy.

All this seemed to be very much reflected in Gruenwald’s final year and a half on Captain America. Paired with penciler Dave Hoover, Gruenwald wrote “Fighting Chance,” which saw Cap succumbing to a complete physical breakdown as the Super Soldier Serum finally wore out.  As the dying Cap sought to take down his cutthroat adversaries, he found himself at odds with brutal vigilantes who mocked him as naïve and ineffectual.  In Gruenwald’s final issue, Cap lay on his deathbed, overcome with despair, believing that he had not fought hard enough to make the world a better place.

Captain America 443 pg 20

A year later, on August 12, 1996, Mark Gruenwald passed away. It was already a dark time for the comic book industry, and his death made it all the darker.  Yes, Gruenwald had made certain missteps, both as a writer and in his role as an editor.  But it was clear that on the whole he was very talented and intelligent.  Gruenwald possessed a genuine love of comic books, and he was committed to ensuring that the work he and his collaborators did was of a high quality.  His loss certainly left the industry much poorer.

Twenty years later, many of the characters & concepts introduced by Gruenwald are still in use in the Marvel universe.  More importantly, as the anniversary of his passing approached, it was readily apparent by the kind words of his friends & colleagues that he was still both highly regarded and much missed.