Mark Millar has a very distinct style and voice; how much you like his work really depends on your affection for the pulp comics/movies/serials of the 1930s-1950s. Millar titles tend to keep the spirit of the era but reinvent the tales for a new age. Goofy idealism, silly costumes, gungo ho optimism, and especially the difficult transition of the innocence of the first half of the 20th century into the pessimistic self delusion of the me generation leading up to fin de siècle 2000. As a contrast, another ‘Miller’ (Frank) will translate classic 1940s Batman into a Dark Knight; Mark Millar instead chooses to retain the super hero innocence in a world that no longer treasures or respects it. The answer throughout all of Millar’s works is that the world will be saved only when our heroes embrace that antiquated romanticism again.
Story: In the 1930s, a young man, Sheldon, is given a vision of a hidden island and a promise of superhero-like powers to help a depression-weary America regain its strength. He takes a small group to find the island – only to discover aliens willing to give his group abilities – which they will use in the coming decades to build a better America. Cue the current time, with another recession coming on and Sheldon married to his superhero partner and with two grown kids. Is America sinking down under the corruption of its politics as Sheldon’s superhero brother purports? And what about his kids: Chloe and Brandon – two disappointments (along with nearly all the other children of the superheroes) lost in a haze of drugs, groupies, and an indolent lifestyle? When Sheldon’s brother convinces emasculated Brandon to take out his all-powerful father, a pregnant Chloe and her lover end up in the crossfire and run. After years of hiding out under “Uncle Walter” and Brandon’s rule, Chloe realizes she and her family will have to regain their parents’ idealism and fix what has become so broken.
What stuck me first while reading is that this is definitely written by someone who is not American (but also making interesting statements about the US). Young Sheldon is so sure that the aliens want to save America by giving him superpowers; it’s only later that someone offhandedly wonders why the aliens would bother with just one country? It all ties back to the American arrogance of Wonder Woman and Superman of the 1940s – protecting “Truth, Justice, And The American Way!”. It’s subtle, bu the observations (jibes?) are there: that the US took down the world with its depression and was about to do the same again with the corrupt politicians of 2015. There’s always an American who thinks he/she knows how to rule the world best, I guess. But that ‘unbridled capitalism gone awry’ theme underlies a lot of the story. It’s a shame that Millar stopped there and surely a lost opportunity exists: more could have been made of corporate domination machinations (rather than politicians) other than subverting the children of superheroes into endorsement icons.
And really, a lot of points in the book do seem to fall short of the mark. I found it frustrating that the characters were statements rather than people. Uncle Walter, for example, could have been very interesting; but his motivations were too hard to read. At first, it is that he has a true vision of how to make the world a better place and is genuinely idealistic. But then we’re given the impression he’s just an ego maniac. Then by the end he’s just a short minded manipulator or self delusional (not sure which). I didn’t get a handle on him as a villain and too many scenes felt lifted directly from Star Wars (Palpatine subverting Anakin). It didn’t work for me at all.
Similarly, Chloe and Brandon’s story arcs felt flat. We’re given too much tell and not enough show for their character developments. Brandon doesn’t grow at all and Chloe suddenly morphs into her mother (which doesn’t make sense that having a child forced her to grow up and embrace her mother’s idealism – her mother had that idealism well before she had children). I needed more to really believe the plot.
Frank Quitely’s artwork is engaging but I was puzzled why modern America is fully inhabited by young women in hot shorts and tight tops? It’s only when Chloe moves to Australia that women wear t-shirts and sweats. The guys tend to look like scruffy bikers or extras from Flash Gordon – there’s no middle ground. I couldn’t help but feel there wasn’t a smooth melding of ideas here into one cohesive visual formula. The art also becomes very inconsistent by the end, feeling very rushed and several characters looking ‘off’ and lacking better color decisions.
So yes, despite the reservations above, I did enjoy Jupiter’s Legacy (much more than I did Starlight, for example). There is a lot of imagination here but always the pastiche never veers into parody; the underlying themes of the 1930s pulp heroes remain intact. At the same time, too often the work can feel like retreads, and bland ones at that. Missing a spark or truly unique perspective to elevate the work from enjoyable to wow. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.