Since the Silver Age, Marvel and DC Comics have had one of the most iconic rivalries in the creative industry. This is no real surprise, considering how the two companies have dominated the comic book industry, with no clear third place to even get close to them. Under the guidance of industry luminaries, both companies have satirized and paid homage to the works of their rivals. This has left both companies with pastiches of each other’s core superhero teams.
In 1960, DC Comics unveiled what would soon become their flagship superhero team, the Justice League of America. Just three years later, Marvel had created a slew of superhero teams including the Avengers, X-Men, and Fantastic Four. Though both companies still have numerous teams, the JLA and Avengers both represent the standard understanding of the ensemble superhero team. These collections of their respective world’s greatest heroes, however, aren’t without their share of homages and derivative works. Marvel and DC’s greatest pastiche teams are the Squadron Supreme and the Retaliators, respectively. Relegated to their own unique worlds in the multiverse, these two teams have never dueled in fiction but they have a lot in common. That said, they also have their own strengths and weaknesses and weird histories.
The Long Lineage Of Superhero Teams
In 1940, DC Comics brought together some of their best Golden Age heroes in the Justice Society of America. This team, which included mantles like Doctor Fate, Sandman, Green Lantern, and The Flash, debuted in All-Star Comics #3, by Gardner Fox, Sheldon Moldoff, Bernard Baily, and other greats. However, as the Golden Age mutated into the Silver Age, many of these heroes were phased out and were later moved to Earth-2 in DC’s multiverse. In 1960, DC had the idea to revive the concept of a superhero team for a new generation and approached Gardner Fox to replicate his team-up comics in a new era. The result was the Justice League of America, who made their debut in The Brave and the Bold #28, where they famously battled Starro the Conqueror.
Stan Lee has famously recounted his own origins of his debut superhero team, The Fantastic Four. Originally conceived of as ordinary Joe-type heroes, Lee wrote the book in 1961 partially out of frustration with the established, superficial look at superheroes. His family-style superhero team proved a massive hit, and two years later he and Jack Kirby replicated the team formula in the X-Men and Avengers. Though modern mainstream pop culture has helped the Avengers reach stardom, this actually wasn’t always the case. Most of the Avengers had far more successful stories in their solo books, like Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk.
Fans have often held up the Justice League and Avengers as natural counterparts and it was inevitable that their fates would intertwine. Setting aside the two pastiche teams either company created of the other’s team, their crossover in JLA/Avengers showed how they’re a great fit for one another. When it came to their pastiche teams, the Squadron Supreme and the Retaliators, great creators like Roy Thomas, Mike Friedrich, and Grant Morrison went to great effort to rework the themes of the other company’s heroes. This led to teams of characters whose inspirations were obvious yet were written to be distinct teams of morally compromised heroes, as most of the best deconstruction and pastiches are.
The Squadron Supreme And The Retaliators, Explained
In 1971’s Avengers #85, Roy Thomas and John Buscema created the Squadron Supreme as the Marvel multiverse’s answer to the Justice League. They were created initially as a jingoistic parody and homage to the Justice League and were the light alternative to their villainous Marvel counterparts, the Squadron Sinister, created in 1969. The original version of these heroes, found on Earth-712, wound up bearing a closer resemblance to DC’s Injustice world. The team’s Superman, Hyperion, pursued a vision of utopia, which caused a rift with Nighthawk, his world’s answer to Batman. Predictably, the team came to more closely resemble a band of superhuman dictators, rather than the altruistic heroes they were meant to be. In the end, Nighthawk formed a new team, the Redeemers, and battled the Squadron Supreme, resulting in many deaths on both sides.
The Retaliators were initially introduced as the Champions of Angor, heroes of the planet Angor. They were created by Mike Friedrich and Dick Dillin. Interestingly, both teams were introduced in 1971 at around the same issue number in their respective series; the Champions made their debut in Justice League #87. Initially, these heroes actually existed in Prime Earth, where they encountered the JLA when both teams were attacked by enemy robots. When they first met, much like the Avengers and Squadron Supreme, they assumed they were each other’s enemies and battled. This original team was made up of Wandjina (Thor), Silver Sorceress (Scarlet Witch), Blue Jay (Yellowjacket), and Jack B. Quick (Quicksilver), each of which borrowed elements of Avengers’ designs and powers. They appeared in some post-Crisis Justice League stories under names like “The Justifiers” and “Meta-Militia,” and like the Squadron Supreme, they were cast in a more antagonistic light.
The Retaliators were reintroduced in a more expansive way on Earth-8 in The Multiversity, the series that introduced DC fans to the Justice League Incarnate. The two teams were natural allies considering how both were active explorers of the multiverse, and Machinehead (Retaliators’ Iron Man) even eventually joined Calvin Ellis’ team. Unfortunately, however, the team’s activities beyond their own world made them a target for some of the multiverse’s biggest threats. In the end, the Retaliators became multiversal isolationists and wound up making a deal with Darkseid for protection. Predictably, however, the supervillain sold them out to their arch-enemy, Tartarus, who all but destroyed their Earth.
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Marvel’s And DC’s Pastiches, Compared
Both the Squadron Supreme and the Retaliators have their pros and cons that set them apart from their inspirations. The Squadron Supreme does a great job of making it clear who each character is based on and has a distinct Trinity of heroes. It also did a good job of playing on the relationship between Batman and Superman through Hyperion and Nighthawk’s ideological differences, though these were somewhat reversed in their iconic 12-issue series. In DC, it’s typically Batman unveiling his latest scheme for a better world and Superman is more hesitant to impose his views on others. However, when seen through the lens of Injustice, the Squadron Supreme was essentially anticipating DC’s future. The Retaliators, by contrast, originally played more on the idea of being an alien team of heroes and had a relatively recent makeover. This recent imagining of the team and their unique Earth deserves some exploration.
Although Marvel has done a better job of fleshing out iterations of the Squadron Supreme, the Retaliators’ designs stand out. Their colorful reinventions of Marvel characters feel closer to homage than satire or parody. Where the Squadron has always felt more like a dark parody (in part because they were originally designed as villains), the Retaliators more closely resemble a genuine team of heroes. They’re also one of the very few Avengers duplicates in comics and the Justice League has been emulated across comics by teams like The Authority, the Guardians of the Globe, and even The Zoo Crew. Unlike the Squadron Supreme, however, the Retaliators have had barely any interactions with the Justice League outside a few stories and the Squadron has had many run-ins with the Avengers. Putting it simply, the Retaliators just haven’t had the opportunity to stand on their own two feet yet.
Why The Superhero Pastiche Is So Fun
Parodying, copying, and satirizing rival characters and teams has been the foundation of some of comics’ greatest stories. Everything from The Boys’ The Seven to Dark Horse’s Black Hammer shows how, with enough creativity, the template created by other companies can be adapted into great and unique new adventures. For the big two, this method of storytelling offers a great way of poking fun at their rivals, while also showing readers how they’d handle the other company’s superheroes. In fact, the idea is hardly unique, even at DC and Marvel. In the early 2000s, Stan Lee created his own answer to the Justice League through his Just Imagine imprint. Here, he reimagined characters like Batman, Superman and Shazam as nearly unrecognizable versions of themselves, later forming their own League. Likewise, Marvel created pastiches of their own heroes through the Squadron Supreme reboots, and even Rob Liefeld created his own version of Superman with Supreme.
In the Squadron Supreme and Retaliators, DC and Marvel have the freedom to playfully satirize, parody, and explore their competitors’ best heroes. After all, this has worked out very well for series like The Boys, Invincible, Black Hammer, and even Spawn’s Scorched. These works let creators bring readers something familiar and relatable to the page while enjoying the creative freedom to take characters in directions readers aren’t used to. Although Injustice and the evil Superman trope are commonplace today, 1986’s Squadron Supreme series basically introduced these ideas, even replacing Hyperion with a wicked doppelganger, and it even played out similarly. Not to mention the fact that these series play directly into the corporate and creative rivalries between the companies. Using this device, Marvel and DC can break and deconstruct one another’s characters without the headache of legal troubles.
Why The Squadron Supreme Trumps The Retaliators
The Retaliators, as a team, have a great deal more going for them than the Squadron Supreme. However, they simply haven’t been given the same opportunities that Marvel has given their Justice League pastiche. Where the Retaliators have largely relied on backdoor cameos and multiverse-themed books, the Squadron Supreme has had four different limited series to their name. This has allowed for an exploration of the team’s characters that, unfortunately, DC just hasn’t given to its Retaliators heroes, who boast better designs but less depth.
The attention Marvel’s given to the Squadron Supreme has made them more than just interesting antagonists, and their characters are complex and varied in ways the Retaliators aren’t (yet). The Squadron Supreme’s current incarnation is part of a 40-year-long saga that sowed the seeds for Injustice and the Evil Superman trope. Their many incarnations are distinct and nuanced while the Retaliators have barely even used the same name twice in DC Comics. The Retaliators have tremendous untapped potential but, unless DC commits to their place in Multiversity, they’ll always be The Avengers’ shadow, while the Squadron Supreme has a legacy that rivals the Justice League’s.
Marvel created its pastiche of DC’s Justice League, the Squadron Supreme, in 1971, and DC’s Retaliators cropped up that same year. Who did it better? Read More