Marvel Comics’ Power Pack began in 1984 It featured the eponymous team of super-kids created by Louise Simonson (who would remain the writer on the book throughout most of its original run) and June Brigman (the artist who’d pencil more Simonson-penned issues than anyone else). It was one of my favorite series as a kid, though that was not a fact I frequently advertised because many of the other boys I knew around my age into comics thought Power Pack was pretty wack. I understand why they’d think so. It is a comic about four white siblings, ranging in age from 5 to 12—Alex, Julie, Jack and Katie Power (from oldest to youngest)—getting superpowers from an alien called “Whitey” (seriously). The comic is full of sibling squabbles, childish naiveté, and the kind of earnest do-gooder vibe that went out of fashion in comics back when bell bottoms came in. Nothing is cornier to a kid on the verge of adolescence and its pressures to appear mature than what appears to be “kid stuff.”
Yet, looking back now, 30 years later, it is the very way Power Pack tackles “kid stuff” that make it such a great comic—well-characterized, thoughtful, touching, sad, cognizant of those pressures, and for the most part featuring accomplished and expressive cartooning that render children well. Most effectively Power Pack takes the concerns of its child protagonists seriously. From Avatar: The Last Airbender to Harry Potter, regardless of the relative artistic merits, the “kid stuff” that has been most popular in literature and media is that in which child characters make moral choices with real consequences for them and the people around them—stories that treat the stakes as seriously as kids often see them (and sometimes are).
As such, Power Pack’s willingness to engage with a morally complex world in earnest rings true because they are children putting very elementary ideological understandings of fairness and justice to use. The resulting confusion, despondency, and string of bad decisions sounds like childhood to me, as does the pettiness and the tantrums that drive superhero conflict. Reading now, I am struck at how well Louise Simonson writes children—but, then I wonder maybe that is just the result of writing superheroes, who despite being adults often act like children in their intensity. It makes sense that I would have loved Power Pack then, because the comic rarely talks down to its young audience. I think adults often forget how crucial everything can feel when you are a kid, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It just means that you’ve been lucky enough to have a life where the things that seem petty to an adult are the most important things in your life.
This understanding has led me to come around to the idea that the best superhero comics are the ones about kids, in particular adolescents, because the superhero demand for a just world that makes sense echoes with the child-like belief that such a thing can be possible, clear, simple. Furthermore, to young people the adult world frequently seems mysterious and full of secrets, an experience of knowable pleasures inaccessible to children that makes everything coherent and safe. For a lot of kids adulthood is a well of withheld knowledge that they get to drink from in irregular gulps, and thus it becomes easily conflated with secrecy. Of course, the veil of secrecy draped on the adult world more often than not obscures the degree to which even those who have reached the age of majority and have children of their own, are navigating a world of uncertainty, injustice, and confusing ideological fairy tales. The superhero trope of the hidden identity and its requisite complexities makes a lot sense in that framework. The secrets children withhold from their parents (when not born of insulating themselves from possible abuse) emerge from a desire to handle whatever situation they feel calls for secrecy themselves, like an adult ostensibly would—even if denial is the only strategy to which they have access.
Growing up is far from linear and usually a bit messy. Superheroing can serve as a great metaphor for that miasma of prospective identities, bombastic drama, and real trauma. However, when superheroic narrative trauma (with its metaphoric value) interacts with real world disadvantages and subsequent trauma the result is incoherent, save as a strategy for making false equivalencies between personal and systemic hardships. In what I’ve dubbed the Power Pack “Crack Trilogy,” just such an intersection occurs, undermining the possibilities for the story to challenge simple dichotomous notions of right and wrong.
Power Pack provides a productive site for considering the relationship of childhood to the superhero genre, but where it intersects with race and class it stumbles. I have written this before and I am certain to write it again, but white supremacist capitalist patriarchy pervades the entirety of the superhero genre in myriad ways and to widely varying degrees. It is inescapable. For example, when the alien Whitey comes to Earth to save it, it is because he has studied its literature and he cannot let the people who created Alice in Wonderland or Robinson Crusoe be destroyed. I guess it should be no surprise that in the Marvel Universe it is books by old dead white guys that makes the world worth saving.
It is hilarious to me that the degree to which superhero comics are dominated by white people was so naturalized that it never struck anyone at Marvel that to name the alien “Whitey” was to also name the invisible force that shapes the powers of all of the Marvel Universe’s denizens. All of which is to say, that it is because of this naturalization of white supremacy that even well-intentioned PSA type storylines, reinforce negative stereotypes and the narrative of “personal responsibility.” It is baked in.
In 1987, Power Pack featured a three-issue arc about the crack epidemic in New York City. In it, the Power kids interact with “tough” urban kids whose everyday experiences involve the dangers of the drug world. Through this storyline, readers are forced to weigh the superheroic narrative trauma suffered by the Power kids (the secrets and lies, kidnapping, fear and violence of their adventures) against the poverty, ill-funded schools, corrupt institutions, crime and violence of “regular” kids who don’t need to have superpowers to have misfortune find them.
In Power Pack #30 (October 1987), Alex Power, the eldest of the Power children makes friends with a local bullying tough from his school named Johnny. In the previous issue, their fight was interrupted by Spider-Man and the Hobgoblin doing battle, and the two kids end up bonding over their adventure. However, it soon turns out that Johnny’s brother, Rip, is a small-time crack-dealer with his own pressing crack habit, who is planning a stick-up job to make up for money he lost when denied his crack trade. This is set against the backdrop of Alex falling in with Johnny’s “tough” friends—including a kid named Duane who dies of a crack overdose in gym class—and the rest of the Power kids objecting to Alex hanging out with the wrong crowd. Simonson does a good job of developing Alex’s complex feelings about these kids. In one way he likes the element of danger and maturity that he feels from hanging with them. This crew of kids provides him with a sense of cool and individuality that even being a superhero cannot provide, especially since that identity is tied up with his familial identity. At the same time, Alex is concerned about his new friends’ choices. He feels loyal to their best interests, but this endangers their relationships, since acting on that concern is the equivalent of being “a chicken.” When Alex stops Johnny from warning his brother that the cops are arriving, because he too would end up arrested or worse, Rip is killed by the police. Julie, Jack and Katie arrive on the scene in their school play costumes, and the visuality of the medium provides a sharp contrast between the tragic conclusion of the relationship between brothers with tough lives and the lives of the Power kids. Jack is in his over-the-top “Frenchman” costume, wearing a red beret and a long spindly fake mustache, Katie in the stereotypical garb of an eastern European immigrant, and Johnny wearing the grief he feels over his brother’s death.
This issue’s story has an after-school special feel to it, and the dialogue’s usual ring of authenticity turns into a shrill kind of righteous didactism when the rest of the Power kids confront Alex and his friends. While the clunkiness of some of the dialogue may be off-putting, the self-righteousness sure sounds like some kids I remember growing up with. Hell, sometimes it was me, vile little hypocrite that I could sometimes be if I thought it’d win me favor with someone I admired. The shifting sympathies of the story make for moral complexity. Alex’s loyalty to his friend runs against his burning desire to act, to do something about the crack epidemic, and judge the people involved as beneath him. In fact, Alex’s sympathy seems to run only as far as people in his immediate community, a shortcoming that echoes his own parents’ middle-class solipsism. At the end of Power Pack #31 we get to see Power Pack’s parents voice their dismay at “how close” the crack house is to where they live in their doorman building paid for by their dad’s ample Columbia professor’s salary, and their mom’s job as a freelance artist and illustrator. Notice how the concern is not so much with the scourge of the drugs, but with its surprising proximity to their own middle-class bubble. If it were up in the Bronx, or down in Brooklyn, it would not be so perilous! Alex (and all of Power Pack) is driven by this middle-class value system in a way that is more explicit than it is for adult superhero characters because of his age, and the liminality of adolescent (and pre-adolescent) experience. Thus, he simultaneously has a penchant to uncritically recapitulate the attitudes of his bourgeois parents, while also rejecting as meaningless the social rituals of his class in light of the suffering of other children who are rendered invisible to that system except as scum and criminals.
This tension arises in part from the reverse trajectory of the Power family, moving to New York City from suburbia at a time when white New Yorkers were still fleeing urban neighborhoods, due in large part because of the very crack epidemic being put to use here to fuel the comic’s action. Alex chafes against what he sees as twisted priorities when it comes to the danger posed to kids by drugs, but his simplistic attitude towards drug culture and drug crime are the result of his childish grasp of values impressed on him by his race and class privilege. This point of view is not changed by Alex’s exposure to the complexities in his friend Johnny’s life, and when he is faced with a group of super-powered kids participating in the drug trade who have even fewer choices than he and his siblings. He remains unsympathetic to them. Alex’s challenge to the value system of the dominant culture is a reactionary one, because it relies on an even more conservative perspective that functions to erase the social and economic contexts that influence moral choices, even as it tries to address the resultant crisis. In short, his problem is the problem of most superhero narratives dealing with urban crime, it just makes more sense for him since he’s still maturing.
The introduction of Trash— a gang of not-quite-supervillain kids—in Power Pack #31 (November 1987) complicates things. Trash are the dark and misshapen counterpart to the Power Pack’s clean white beauty; forced to live on the street and turn to shady dealings to survive in a world that doesn’t want them. This tragic and problematic group of superpowered kids are: the unfortunately named, Brute—a big black kid with super strength who is not very smart. There is no attempt to make this character anything but the tired stereotype of the slow-witted and strong black brute. Kind-hearted, but prone to anger when he doesn’t understand something, kept in check by his adoptive family, Trash. Airhead is a pale young white girl whose head inflates like someone suffering from hydrocephalus, except it lets her fly and carry others. Crazy Legs reads as Latino—light brown skin, dark brown curly hair, accent. He wears a basketball uniform complete with headband for some reason. He can stretch his legs to insane lengths lending him the ability to reach high places, leap in great bounds and kick people pretty hard. Blasting Cap is probably the youngest of them. The red head appears a bit mentally disturbed, prone to tantrums and deep insecurity. He has an ill-defined concussive power that makes things blow-up. It is never explained very well, but is tied to his emotions. Finally, there is Razorcut, who appear to be of Asian-descent, given the fact that he is drawn with the exaggerated slanted eyes and narrow eyebrows of cartoon Asians, and his skin is that inhuman color they used in comics for so long to identify Asian people. Razorcut has sharp scaly skin that makes it painful to touch him and protects him from most damage, and his hands and feet are clawed. His appearance occupies the space between Asian caricature and demonic creature.
The race and ethnicity of Trash is never mentioned outright in the two issues in which they make an appearance. We never even know their real names, but they certainly come across as poor street kids, marked in part by their racial difference and sharply contrasted against the Powers kids, with their school plays, ice cream socials, and being friends with Beta Ray Bill and the Fantastic Four. Speaking of school plays, it is during his sister Julie’s performance of some pro-American immigrant narrative school production that Alex decides to go check out a crack house on his own and not wait for the rest of Power Pack. His thoughts are juxtaposed with Julie dressed as the Statue of Liberty, reciting “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus—you know, “Give me your me your tired, your poor…” As his sister extols the virtues of America, Alex thinks “An’ right this minute in America…kids are dying from crack overdoses! And here I am enjoying myself! And going for ice cream afterwards!” Alex sure seems to be aware of his privilege, but his sympathy for those overdosing kids also seems limited. When he bursts into the crack house, crackling with the energy of his Destroyer identity—yes, his superhero name is “Destroyer;” I love that the ridiculousness of superhero monikers makes sense when it is a kid that is choosing the name—he cries out, “Eat Energy Crackheads!” Trash are there delivering drugs from their boss, Garbage Man, but at first are reluctant to fight, because they are deliverers not enforcers. Alex is confused by the fact that Trash are also kids and tries to appeal to their compassion—kids are dying because of these drugs!—but Razorcut who is the most mercenary of the villains and their de facto leader is unconvinced. Alex’s siblings soon arrive to join the super-kid rumble, leading to an explosion and fire in the crack house. It is destroyed, and all escape safely, the two teams losing each other in the confusion.
In Power Pack #32 (December 1987), Power Pack and Trash end up teaming up to fight Garbage Man, Trash’s abusive crack-dealing boss, who tries to convince Trash to kill the Powers kids after they’ve been defeated. Even the usually vicious Razorcut refuses to obey the boss, claiming to not want “a murder rap,” while his companions all balk at killing little girls (remember, Katie is 5 and Julie is 10). When Garbage Man turns his murderous rage on Trash, they free Power Pack to help them fight the seemingly invincible apish-man. It becomes clear that Garbage Man has been exploiting Trash, as they have nowhere else to go and no means of getting honest work.
(It bears noting that while Garbage Man is depicted as white within the pages of the comic, on the cover, his dark brown skin makes him read as black, out-bruting Brute to the point of appearing like a monstrous caricature out of a World War I recruitment poster. The cover underscores the inescapable racial politics of this story even as Simonson attempts to craft as difficult and nuanced a view of the crack epidemic as she can within the context of a comic book about kids with super powers granted by an alien. While the interior penciller and the cover artist were the same, the colorist for each was different. It is not uncommon for the art on a cover to not quite match up with the interior story, but in this case the difference suggests a problematic assumption on the part of the colorist, and a failure on the part of the editorial staff.)
After Trash and Power Pack manage to defeat Garbage Man—the latter being reluctant to team-up at first because of their narrow idea of good guys and bad guys—they have a long discussion that perfectly captures the degree to which Power Pack operates in a bubble of privilege. The scene is one I am not sure how to read. At one level I love its characterization of the conflict between these two sets of kids with significantly different circumstances and ideological environments. There is a sense that Simonson is trying to make Trash, not only feel real, but provide some ambiguity regarding the degree to which they are right about their limited choices. On the other hand, the fact that this is Power Pack’s book and we never hear from Trash again gives the protagonist’s perspective a degree of weight and tacit approval that the five outsiders can never hope to have.
Well, Razorcut, Crazy Legs and Blasting Cap would appear five years later in the pages of the forgettable Cage series, that saw Luke Cage, and apparently Trash as well, relocated to Chicago.
The heated exchange occurs when Alex tries to stop Trash from leaving the scene, calling them “villains” and objecting to overhearing their discussion about going into the arson protection racket using Blasting Cap’s powers. Naïve little Katie, begs them not to be super-villains anymore, showing her 5-year old’s understanding of the world, which is amazingly a lot like other superhero comics’ general view of the world: Trash had saved them and helped fight off the “real” bad guy, couldn’t they just stop being bad guys from now on?
Crazy Legs explains that the combination of their childhood and their current circumstances deprives them of any agency. “You call us villains, dude you think again! Some of us got no parents…some of us that do would be better off without ‘em!” Even if the system let their constructed family stay together, the best they could hope for is a group home, which he explains “is as bad as jail.” Crazy Legs goes on: “You li’l well-fed white kids – you don’t know nuthin’ o’ what happens to kids in this world! Society – the system is the villain, dude!”
Power Pack isn’t hearing any of it though. Katie has a tantrum, essentially the “You don’t know me, I’ve had it tough, too” speech that some white people trot out when they can’t grasp systemic inequality. As I suggest earlier, Katie’s speech is one where superhero narrative trauma—the alien kidnappings, the supervillain violence, the severe danger and collateral damage—that Power Pack frequently suffers through is made to measure against the trauma of what Marvel calls “the world outside your window.” Fantasy trauma, the elements of adventure itself, loses its aura of pleasure when put into conversation with real life loss, especially when its victims are children. But this rupture in suspension of disbelief is quickly patched over with the convenient middle-class moral framework that treats all decisions as equal across social contexts, ignoring its own privileged position in order to make its own circumstances universal. Alex comforts Katie and tells Crazy Legs he’s full of it. “Society is made up of people and people decide,” he says, adding an echo of Nancy Reagan’s facile catchphrase, “Sometimes all you have to do [to be a hero] is say ‘No!’” Admittedly, Trash’s excuses themselves are oversimplified and convenient, but Alex’s perspective grants them nothing. According to him, even if they aren’t “villains” they are cowardly “wimps.”
The fact that the comic ends focused on Trash—not being sure what to do next, cursing Power Pack as “snotty baby hero geeks,” bemoaning their lack of options, wistfully declaring that the world would never let them be heroes—gives me reason to think that Simonson wanted her readers to have sympathy for these characters. Airhead’s dismissal of Alex’s advice—“Say ‘No,’ huh? Th-they don’t know m-my old man!”—reinforces Crazy Legs’s claim that the reasons for Trash hustling however they can are rooted in familial and social dysfunction. The way Airhead is depicted, her arms wrapped about her body, her words shivering out, heighten that sense of pity. I can’t help but agree with Trash’s evaluation of Power Pack in that moment. Those kids can’t see past their own privilege and the particular circumstances of their strange superhero life and its dangers.
All that being said, my own perspective on Power Pack’s adventures has changed since my own childhood. I still love the comic book series, but what I love about it is something I can only appreciate with some perspective of age and experience. These days I can’t help but think about the degree to which their parents are near-criminal negligence of their kids allows Power Pack to lead double lives without their knowledge (a central conflict among the Power siblings is whether or not they should tell their parents about their powers). And I appreciate much more in my adulthood the degree to which the very superhero adventures that gives the series its impetus are depicted as scary and traumatizing to these kids. A serialized story allows for opportunity to explore the consequences of the jam-packed action of this kind of story—even if the children can never be saved from their dangerous lives without abandoning the comic book’s superhero conceit. For example, in issue #18, Margaret Power (the children’s mother) is severely injured by a rampaging supervillain (in a simultaneous crossover with The Mighty Thor and Secret Wars II). In the issues that follow, she remains hospitalized and their father nearly loses his mind contemplating the possibility of his wife’s death. He is so distraught that he essentially ignores his children for days at a time. It is disturbing subplot that captures the trauma of nearly losing a parent, and the children blame themselves for their mother’s condition. It also provides them the opportunity to engage in more superheroics without adult supervision, but rather than be a reason for joy, the new found freedom and resultant need for maturity comes at the possible cost of the life of someone they love, and the definite deep emotional distress of another. I am not trying to romanticize childhood—just the opposite—but the freedom of adulthood comes with a burden of a responsibility inextricably entwined with the lives of many others, and the process of learning that as we grow up frequently hurts and can leave psychological scars.
Power Pack was cancelled a couple of years after Louise Simonson left the book. Her frequent artistic collaborator on the series after June Brigman’s departure, Jon Bogdanove, took over the writing duties for a year, but in the final issues the comic underwent a dramatic tonal shift under a new creative team, and soon afterwards was cancelled. The strange turns that followed Louise Simonson’s absence would eventually be undone in a one-shot Holiday Special that saw Simonson and Brigman return, but none of the subsequent Power Pack iterations ever lived up the promise of the original series. The stories in those first 40 issues really hold up well. It was a deep pleasure to re-read them. There is probably more to be written about the depiction of childhood in this series, and I hope to return to the topic of the ideal superhero being a kid, but for now I just wanted to excavate a little bit of Power Pack’s attempt at complexity—a reasonable attempt at nuanced point-of-view that is undercut by the severe shortcomings in racial and economic representation in superhero comics.
For example, I’ve already mentioned the cover to issue #32, but all three issues center on abject blackness. Issue #30 features a distraught Alex, eyes closed, holding a dead or dying black boy in his arms, a crack vial in a circle with a line through it watermarked behind him. The issue features no dying Black children. The victims of crack in the story are white. On the front of issue #31, Alex is being held by Brute, who is the biggest figure on the cover, while the rest of Trash bears down on him. Regardless of the story within’s push towards some complexity, the comic still uses images of blackness as victim or victimizer as a banner for the crack epidemic, even as its central concern is the drug’s spread to white communities.
For a decidedly adult approach to the complexities of urban space, freebase cocaine, race and superhero identity, you should read Jonathan Lethem’s fantastic 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude. When the superhero paradigm meets the real world intimacy of local crime and the influx of drugs, it is a lot messier, and inextricable from the power of the narratives of racial domination and belonging to shape experience.
The current arc of the new Ms. Marvel has Kamala Khan combating the villainous forces of gentrification and urban displacement in a comic that can never even attempt to eschew the ethnic dynamics of economic geographic restructuring because of her identity as a young brown Muslim woman. In many ways, Ms. Marvel feels like a descendant of Power Pack because of the generous way G. Willow Wilson voices young Kamala and renders her concerns. Alphonse Alphona’s art captures teenage awkward expressiveness perfectly. I think superhero comics (and comics in general) can benefit from skewing young again. The legacy of Power Pack and the popularity of Ms. Marvel suggest that Marvel can profit from a little bit of the Young Adult literature market, where narratives about young people can be popular across varied demographics. I mean, what is Katniss Everdeen, if not a superhero? And hopefully, the move towards more diverse representation in superhero media can overcome the shortcomings of something like Power Pack while accomplishing what that series did with elastic metaphorical possibilities of childhood.