1. The book came out in a simpler time when comic creators were encouraged to actually be, you know, creative.
The way creator and then-Marvel editor Louise Simonson remembers it, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter had just hired a batch of new editors, cutting everybody’s workload in half. “I got bored,” she said, and started hashing out an idea for a team of superheroes who were also siblings, with the oldest being 12 years old and the youngest in kindergarten. “He looked at me,” Simonson told the authors of Comics Between the Panels, “as if I’d lost my mind.” While the self-styled House of Ideas had always prided itself (in those days at least) on its ability to make stars out of the most unlikely characters — this was a company that had only just recently put out a book about a bionic truck driver — it’s easy to see how a book chronicling the perils of a pack of prepubescent powerhouses would have been a tough project for Simonson, a longtime editor but rookie writer, to sell. But sell it she did, and Shooter gave it the green light with the first issue cover-dated August 1984. To be sure, there were a few concessions made — an abundance of special guest stars in later issues come to mind — but to this day it’s hard to think of another Marvel comic set in the “official” Marvel universe that was so distinctly unique.
2. It defied the conventional wisdom that said comic readers wouldn’t accept stories about “babies in Spandex.”
Understand this: then as now, most comic readers (in North America, anyway) were teenage boys and men in their early 20s, and the comic publishers knew who buttered their bread. The ’80s was a gung-ho decade were action-movie heroes ruled the land and enough was never enough; Marvel clearly saw its future built on teens and testosterone, and it started promoting violent anti-hero types like Wolverine and the Punisher to pump up sales. The idea that Marvel’s typical customer would buy a book starring children who were as likely to use their powers to retrieve a lost baby tooth as they were to save the planet from aliens… well, “optimistic” doesn’t begin to cover it. But Marvel took a chance and somehow it worked. Never quite ascending to the top tier of Marvel’s titles, sales-wise, the book managed a rather respectable run of 62 issues, not counting a handful of mini-series over the years, and the team has retained a cult following to this day.
3. It was a big leap forward for female comic creators (and realistic body proportions).
I’m happy to stand corrected on this, but to the best of my knowledge Power Pack was the first-ever Marvel title to debut with both a female writer (Simonson) and a female artist (June Brigman) at the helm. Simonson was writing up her ideas for the book when she ran into Brigman and asked if she could draw kids; as it turned out, Brigman’s summer job sketching children at amusement parks made her a natural choice for her first-ever comic assignment. Looking back, one of the nice things about those early Power Pack issues is how Brigman succeeded in making the children look like actual children, and not shrunken adults. She was also adept at both action sequences and quieter moments, and there’s little doubt her pencils were a large part of the reason why the book was a popular seller among girls and grown-up comic fans hoping to induct their own young readers into the club.
4. The title’s set-up was right out of a Disney live-action movie.
The first issue of Power Pack opens with an alien ship high above Earth’s atmosphere trying to outrun its pursuers. While laser fire “SKRA-KKOW”s across their hull, two unseen aliens talk about the reason they’re coming to Earth: because a scientist and family man by the name of Dr. Power has “discovered the annihilation effect,” and they must stop him before he sets off a chain reaction that destroys Earth. Their shop crash-lands right in front of the scientist’s Long Island beach house without anyone noticing but the Power children, and before you know it, powered up and involved in intergalactic intrigue while also trying to save their parents. Admit it — if someone at Marvel hadn’t come up with something like that, you just know Disney would have gotten around to it sooner or later (come to think of it, I’m surprised Disney hasn’t already greenlit a Power Pack sitcom for the Disney Channel, if only to make us forget that awful Zoom movie they made a few years back).
5. The children acted just like actual children would.
Aside from the oblivious parents, power-granting aliens, and guest-starring aliens, the book’s cast consisted of Alex, 12, the oldest and the bossiest of the bunch; Julie, 10, the family bookworm and resident Lisa Simpson prototype; Jack, 8, the sports fan who can also be a bit bratty at times; and Katie, 5, who holds a special place in my heart for saying this when her brother tries to tell her to go back home after the four of them find a spaceship on the beach:
“I’m not leaving it and you can’t make me.” Just try to imagine any Teen Titan or X-Man saying anything like that. Bless you, Ms. Simonson, wherever you are.
6. The series had to rely on a few well-worn tropes to get the story ball rolling.
For all the inventiveness that went into the initial concept, it was a Marvel superhero comic, and that meant a few clichés had to be deployed to move the kids into the superhero business. Their father was your typical Lone Scientist Working on a Big Discovery That Attracts the Wrong Kind of Attention®, a UFO manages to crash right in front of the Power family’s beach house without anyone but the children seeing or hearing it, the good aliens were pleasant-looking (think Han Solo crossed with a My Little Pony) while the bad aliens were literally hissing reptiles, questions about costumes and costume changes conveniently waved away, little things that kept anyone of voting age from noticing the kids when they were using their powers… to be fair, it required a certain suspension of disbelief to get into the story, but if you were able to wake up your inner child and activate his or her sense of wonder, the early issues were rewarding.
7. “Tonight, on a very special episode of Power Pack…”
Despite (or because) the main characters were children, Power Pack stories would often deal with sensitive topics, with a lot of the big issues of the ’80s working their way into the book. Homelessness, drugs, pollution, teen runaways, gun violence, physical abuse of kids by their parents, they were all in the book — there was even a special promotional comic written by Simonson and starring Spider-Man and Power Pack that focused on preventing sexual abuse. In one storyline that saw the evil Snarks return and kidnap the children back to their home planet, the writers used the book’s letter space to highlight the issue of child abduction, even printing the photos of actual missing children.
8. The writers kept things fresh by rotating the powers among the siblings.
When the kids first received their powers, they were your standard mixed bag of cool powers: Julie could fly and move at high speeds; Katie could turn matter into energy and convert it into blasts; Alex had anti-gravity powers; and Jack could transform into a human weather front, altering his density to resemble a cloud. One of the running gags of the series was that, through one means or another, the four kids found their powers randomly switched up. There was even a brief time when Alex somehow ended up with all four siblings’ super-powers, leading to him joining the New Warriors team of young heroes for a brief time in the 1990s. (I guess after you let someone like Speedball in the gang, you leave that clubhouse door swinging wiiiiide open for everyone else.) Speaking of which…
9. The kids somehow had adventures with everyone in the Marvel universe, and all the adults they met were okay with minors fighting crime.
Marvel being Marvel, there was simply no way that one of its comics wouldn’t end up featuring a constant parade of guest-starring heroes, and Power Pack was no exception. Spider-Man was their first big-name guest-star, with Cloak and Dagger, Kitty Pryde, Wolverine, and even the Punisher (“you know.. for the kids!”) putting in an appearance. While the editors’ hearts were probably in the right places, as they were doing what they could to keep the title’s sales numbers up, the stories with the greatest impact were the ones in which the children are left to their own devices, facing the fears and disappointments we all must on our way to adulthood (like the one where Jack discovers his baseball hero isn’t as heroic as he once thought).
10. The kids never really went away.
As I said, Alex made appearances in The New Warriors in the 1990s, and later mini-series brought the kids out of retirement for a few more all-ages adventures. The kids have made a number of appearances since then; last time I checked, they were showing up in issues of Fantastic Four and FF, where Alex was invited to join Reed Richards’ Future Foundation. And while the original series was never one of Marvel’s biggest sellers, it was just unique enough to gather a sizable cult following, so much so that Marvel greenlit a TV pilot in 1991 based on the comic that never went to air (search “Power Pack TV pilot 1991” on YouTube to see why). Is there a comeback in Power Pack’s future now that Disney is holding the reins? Anything’s possible, and Power Pack was one of the titles tossed around in 2010 when Marvel Studios talked about projects considered for future development. Let’s just hope Kevin Feige doesn’t subscribe to W.C. Field’s beliefs in working with children or animals.