Saturday, January 26, 2013

Recommended Reading for 1/26: Invincible

One of the great arguments about superhero comic book fandom is whether or not fans want change, or simply the illusion of change. There are complaints that superhero titles just rehash the same ideas over and over, but the trouble new characters and ideas have of gaining a foothold in the market indicates that no matter what many say, new isn't what they're actually seeking. This is, due to the nature of the beast that is writing for a corporate entity, mainly a problem in comics from DC and Marvel, since the characters are as much brands as they are characters. So to get superhero comics where characters grow beyond who they were when they were crystallized in public consciousness for more than six months, or to see real change in your superheroes, you have to look to other publishers. And Image Comics, despite now being more a boutique publisher than a traditional superhero comic company, still has a stable of superhero comics, and first and foremost among those is Invincible.

Invincible  was created by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker at about the same time Kirkman created another little comic called The Walking Dead. The series is the story of Mark Grayson, the teen superhero called Invincible, as Mark grows up and learns what it means to be both a hero and an adult. I've said this before in previous recommended readings, but while I do try to steer clear of spoiling important plot elements of series that I'm writing about, certain twists are integral to the structure of Invincible, and not discussing them would make for a particularly shallow discussion. I'm going to try to stick to spoiling only events early in the series, but if you really are completely spoilerphobic and have any interest in reading a great superhero comic, then stop right now and go and buy volume one in trade. Otherwise, keep reading.

The first six issues of Invincible seem to be nothing more than your typical, if very well written, teen superhero comic. Mark Grayson is the son of Nolan Grayson, known the world over as Omni-Man, an alien who came to Earth to help all mankind. Mark had been waiting for years for his powers to appear, and finally they do. Mark gets a costume and join his father as a hero under the name of Invincible. Mark meets other young heroes of the Teen Team, including Atom Eve, Rex Splode, and Robot, goes on adventures with them, and works with his father. But issue seven changes everything. That issue introduces the Guardians of the Globe, a team of Justice League analogues, who are called together at their meeting place and, over the last couple pages of the issue are brutally massacred. By Omni-Man.

 Mark learns that his father's race, the Viltrumites, are not a peaceful race who want to bring enlightenment to the galaxy. They are instead a race of brutal conquerors who send an advance agent to prepare a world for conquest by the Viltrumite Empire. Omni-Man tells Mark all of this, and asks him to join him, Mark refuses, and the two fight. Omni-Man beats Invincible to within an inch of his life, but can't deliver the killing blow. He leaves Earth, and his family, behind.

Before that twist, this could be just another comic that was trying to be the new Spider-Man. But now Mark is thrust into a world that knows his father was a monster and he is now one of its most important heroes. Beyond all the trappings of the superheroic, Invincible really is about a young man growing up and learning that there's very little in the world that is black and white, especially when it comes to right and wrong. The fight with his father is one of the last simple choices Mark makes. After that, each story gives him more and more complex moral decisions.

The complexity of Mark's character is one of the things that makes Invincible a great read. He's a fully realized character in a fully realized world. When Mark's work as Invincible starts interfering with his school work, he doesn't have a magic out. He fails. The only reason he and his mother are able to stay above water financially once his father is gone is money provided by the government for his services as a superhero. He has girl trouble, his friends get annoyed with his constantly having to run off and be a superhero. And since the series is a continuing epic, a cape opera (like a soap opera, but with superpowers. That's my new description for books like this and I'm sticking to it), these events can be played out over months, if not years.

But beyond the character complexity, I have to return to the moral complexity. When Mark is next confronted by his father, it is on an alien world where he has to work with the man who hurt and betrayed him to protect this world from the coming Vilturmites. It seems his father has really changed, and Mark needs to learn to reconcile the man he knew with the man he has come to fear.

The most interesting example of Kirkman's examination of Mark learning about the facts of life has to do with his interactions with Cecil Stedman, the head of the Global Defense Agency. Cecil is the person in the government who calls in Mark when the government needs help. Mark learned that Cecil had taken one of the mad scientists that Mark had captured and was employing him. Mark didn't see the good that the scientist could do, but instead attacked Cecil and threatened him. Over the course of the next couple years of the series, Mark goes to war with the Viltrumites, fights other villains, and begins to see shades of grey. Mark eventually meets with Cecil again, tells him he understands what he is doing, and begins working with the government again. But Mark takes things even further. He eventually frees Dinosaurus, a supergenius man/dinosaur hybrid (love that concept!) who believes his duty is to save the planet no matter how many lives it might cost, and begins working with him, trying to temper the monster's more homicidal urges so they can do good. Whether this compromise will be the world's salvation or Mark's undoing remains to be seen.

The world of Invincible is filled with a wide variety of interesting superheroes and villains. Atom Eve, Mark's sometimes love interest, can control non-living things on a molecular level, is herself torn by a difficult home life and feelings for Mark that never seem to happen at the right time. Allen the Alien is an intergalactic champion trained and bred to fight Viltrumites. but who has developed a friendship with Mark and his father. Robot is the seemingly robotic leader of the Teen Team who has secrets of his own. And Kid Omni-Man, Mark's half-brother Oliver, the son of Nolan and an alien bride, who was not raised among humanity and has a difficult time understanding them and very little sympathy for most. Oliver is what Mark would be if raised in a very different culture, one where life is not held quite as precious as it is in America on Earth. Mark has many of his own assumptions about morality questioned by Oliver, and Oliver is key to Mark's moral evolution.

While Invincible is a traditional superhero comic, I should warn new readers that it is by no means an all ages comic. Violence is portrayed graphically, and fountains of blood and gore are not uncommon. Sex is discussed, never graphically, but in the way it would be between teenagers and their parents and among each other. And as I've discussed throughout, the world of greys that Invincible exists in is close to reality, and might be a very good place for adults to talk with teenagers (or to consider themselves) about being a person in a world where no decision is as simple as it might seem, it's not something that would be easy to discuss with younger readers who are used to Batman locking up the Joker at the end of the story and good triumphing over evil. In the worlds of Robert Kirkman, it's often the lesser of evils that wins the day, and not necessarily the good.

The first issues of Invincible were drawn by cocreator Cory Walker, who does reappear to do the occasional story, the series has been drawn principally by Ryan Ottley. Ottley has a great superhero style, with big bold panels and a great feel for action scenes. He also can do justice to Kirkman's more intimate bits, the character moments that make Mark and his cast so engaging. I admit that I am always amused at the faces of Ottley's characters when they are embarrassed; the expressions are both hilarious and painful, the perfect comedic look of a character who just stuck their foot in their mouth or walked in at exactly the wrong moment.

Kirkman has a lot of pop culture references in the series, and Mark is a comic fan, so Kirkman talks about comics a lot through his characters. But my favorite pop culture reference is not in the series itself. On a particularly fun note each of the Invincible trades, save one, are named after sitcoms, so classic (All in the Family) and some less so (Out of This World).

Being a hero isn't easy, and I think that is what is really central to Invincible. Mark does his best to do the right thing in every situation, and meets with mixed results. But despite his failures, despite the wounds he might have taken, Mark keeps getting back up and fighting the good fight again. And that's what makes him a hero and a compelling character, his quest to do right. As we near the hundredth issue of the series, though, things looks pretty bleak for Mark. I can't wait to see what Kirkman has lined up for the next hundred issues.

There are currently seventeen Invincible trade paperbacks, but since this is a series by Robert Kirkman, there are numerous ways to read it aside from single issues and trades. There are currently eight hardcovers, called Ultimate Collections, each collecting twelve to thirteen issues, and the first of the omnibus editions, collecting the first forty eight issues of the series. Invincible #100 comes out this Wednesday.

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