Comics Time: Invincible Vols. 1-9

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Invincible Vols. 1-9

Robert Kirkman, writer

Cory Walker, artist, Vols. 1&2

Ryan Ottley, artist, Vols. 2-9

Image, 2003-2008

in the 120-144 page range each

$14.99 each

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I don’t know what it says about me that I viewed my re-read of Robert Kirkman’s creator-owned coming-of-age superhero series Invincible largely through the prism of posts by other comics bloggers–probably nothing that isn’t deeply sad–but there you have it. First off, I thought of Tom Spurgeon’s recent post on Kirkman’s other long-running, unlikely-success indie title, the zombie-apocalypse survival-horror opus The Walking Dead, and how reading a massive chunk of it in one go reveals Kirkman’s studious, in-it-for-the-long-haul pacing. There’s certainly more going on set-piece-wise in Invincible than there is in The Walking Dead, but the principle is the same: For example, the titular superhero, teenager Mark Grayson, doesn’t have his series-defining confrontation with a secretly villainous character until the series’ third volume. Meanwhile, Kirkman takes Paul Levitz’s tried and true A/B/C-plot structure and stretches it out like a slow-motion camera filming a hummingbird–major players can spend a dozen or more issues being introduced in one- or two-page snippets before we even have any idea what they have to do with the book’s main character.

Naturally, reading as much of the series as you can in as short a period as possible flatters these aspects of Kirkman’s writing. But moreover, they help mitigate against Kirkman’s major bad habit: His characters either say exactly what they’re thinking/feeling, or they don’t say anything, or say “it’s nothing” when it clearly isn’t. There’s no in between, no subtext–they either come right out and say it or lie about it. To me, his inability to write convincing human interaction in that regard is the thing keeping him from being not just a really good, entertaining writer, but a great one. Which is frustrating, because his storylines and ideas are so engaging and frequently unusual that he’d really be a top dawg if he could master emotional expression. Now, I think this is already less of a problem in Invincible than it is in The Walking Dead, because Walking Dead is relentlessly bleak and serious book whereas Invincible is a much lighter one (albeit with plenty of serious moments); Kirkman’s inability to handle an emotionally charged conversation the way a great writer can has less impact in an action-adventure romp than it does in a character-driven survival-horror story. But (finally getting around to the point) it has even less of an impact when you’re plowing through 47 issues in a row and really letting the slowly unfolding, meticulously planned plotlines drive your reading experience rather than having the one-issue-a-month format dictate that you dwell over every scene. You can see the whole lovely forest without getting stuck on some of the gnarlier trees.

On to another blogospheric touchpoint: In his long series of posts on Kingdom Come and ’90s superhero comics, Tim O’Neil argued that Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come marked the rise of the “momentist” school of superhero writing, which is less concerned with soap opera or traditional plots and more driven by attempts to serve up iconic moments for the characters at regular intervals. His best example of this was from a comic that predated the movement but obviously had a lot of influence on it–Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” and the moment where Superman says “BURN.” and uses his heat vision as a weapon against Mongul. I think O’Neil was right in that this has led to an enormous amount of self-indulgent, hero-worshipping crap. It’s also led to some good stuff–I think Geoff Johns, at his best, does this stuff really well. (One moment I often think of in this regard was the bit in Green Lantern: Rebirth where Green Arrow used Green Lantern’s ring for a second and it totally kicked his ass, giving us new respect for GA and GL all at once.)

Kirkman, by contrast, doesn’t do Momentism at all. Maybe it’s just because these are creator-owned characters he just made up and they don’t have a lengthy history to play off of in constructing iconic moments. But, consciously or no, I think he actually hit upon the fact that iconic moments are a mug’s game for non-legendary superheroes, something pretty much every other indie superhero book misses entirely. Instead, he lets the ideas and the storylines drive the book, usually presenting the action in as flat a fashion as possible, so that he doesn’t distract from the loooooooong game he’s playing. In fact, outside the initial “learning to fly”-type stuff, the book’s big “moments” are almost invariably Invincible being stunned or pwned or both. There are plenty of “BURN.”-style moments where Invincible Finally Lashes Out Against His Enemy, but they almost invariably end in moral or physical disaster for the poor kid. It’s very much not a book about how awesome Invincible is, whereas 90% of corporate superhero comics these days are about how awesome Copyright Man or Team Trademark is. (The problem there is that very few characters actually merit such treatment and very few writers and artists can pull it off.)

Which reminds me: Invincible becomes much more interesting as a character the more he gets his ass kicked. I once wrote, back when the book was young, that the difference between Invincible and other teen superheroes like Spider-Man or the original X-Men or most of the Runaways is that while those kids were all geeks or outcasts, Invincible seemed like the kind of kid who’d pull into the high-school parking lot in his SUV blasting Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” But that was actually giving the character too much credit–he wasn’t a Popular Kid anymore than he was a freak or a geek. He starts out as just sort of Generic Teen: He’s good-looking but apparently never seriously considered approaching girls and never seriously approached by them, he’s smart but doesn’t seem to be considered a geek by anyone, he’s got a crappy job but only because his dad insists he take one to gain a work ethic, he has no brothers or sisters, he reads comics but probably only because he’s a character in a comic book, he’s got one friend who’s sort of like a more high-strung duplicate of him, etc. Even when he finally starts developing the powers he’s waited most of his young adulthood to have, there’s zero angst about it, and nothing illicit either–he knew it was coming, he doesn’t hide it from his mom and dad, he instantly starts fighting crime. The wildest he gets with them is taking his buddy for a flight or two.

Then that series-defining confrontation occurs, and suddenly the superhero aspect of his life is the source of immense emotional pain, while at the same time he realizes that his name is far from accurate. The rest of the series, which by and large corresponds with Mark’s graduation from high school and entry into college, is basically about how fast he’s forced to grow up, the way the stress and danger of superhero life slowly chips away at his attempts to have a normal life, the high stakes of emotional involvement between godlike super-people, and so on. Oddly enough, Invincible is benefited in this regard by an art switch a lot like the one that happened in The Walking Dead. In that book, the clean cartoon line of co-creator Tony Moore gave way after an arc or two to the scratchier, edgier work of Charlie Adlard, just in time for the series to take a definitive turn for the darker. Here, the comparatively minimal. angular look of co-creator Cory Walker’s art is swapped out for the fuller, livelier stylings of Ryan Ottley. Ottley’s stuff is cartoony in a way you just don’t see from the Big Two and their SERIOUS BUSINESS books anymore, outside of books like The Incredible Hercules that manage to dance between the raindrops of the Momentist events and the realists and Image Seven disciples who draw them. But more importantly, it livened the book up in a big way, just as Invincible developed more of an inner life to display.

I think this change really hit home in that aforementioned series-defining confrontation (no, I’m not going to spoil it even though I can’t imagine anyone reading this deep into this review who hasn’t already read the damn book). What had been the sort of light-hearted “let’s make superheroes FUN again!!!” romp you see so many creators attempt, so many bloggers applaud, and so many readers ignore suddenly got ultraviolent. It was a huge tonal shift, one that the series occasionally reproduces, though it does so infrequently enough for the move to retain its ability to shock. (The book even has some meta-style fun with it in one issue, prudely cutting away from multiple sex scenes only to end the ish by depicting a horrendous beating and dismemberment in full, bloody, intestine-ripping detail.)

In these moments Ottley’s good-natured art suddenly feels like it’s being used as a weapon, while Kirkman demonstrates that he’s ready, willing, and able to completely upend the book’s status quo. Following his mutually unsatisfactory sojourn at Marvel, Kirkman would be the first to tell you it’s his total control over the book and its characters that enables him to pull off stuff like that, that enables him to tell you “anything can happen” and mean it and convince you that it’s true. That’s probably the greatest pleasure of reading nearly 50 issues of Invincible in a row: You’ve watched Kirkman grow as a writer, Ottley grow as an artist, and Invincible grow as a character (though you haven’t watched Bill Crabtree grow as a colorist, because he started off awesome and stayed that way–pastels! Brilliant!), so by the time you get to one of those anything-can-happen moments, you’re so attached to the character and the book he stars in that you just race through the pages hoping that whatever happens isn’t so bad.

10 Responses to Comics Time: Invincible Vols. 1-9

  1. Tim O'Neil says:

    I’m not up on Invincible but it seems as if many of your statements could also apply to Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon – a book that’s obviously different in many respects, but shares with Kirkman’s work an understanding of how to avoid shoehorning faux-iconic poses onto blatantly non-iconic characters. (Although, at this point, I dare say the Dragon has been around long enough that he actually *has* accrued a few “iconic” moments, such as the famous “curled up asleep in a burning field” image that began the series and recurs every so often – which is, now that I think about it, a far more powerful image than I ever gave it credit for, and Larsen’s occasional return to the motif is pretty deft thematic pacing.)

  2. Tim O'Neil says:

    I’m not up on Invincible but it seems as if many of your statements could also apply to Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon – a book that’s obviously different in many respects, but shares with Kirkman’s work an understanding of how to avoid shoehorning faux-iconic poses onto blatantly non-iconic characters. (Although, at this point, I dare say the Dragon has been around long enough that he actually *has* accrued a few “iconic” moments, such as the famous “curled up asleep in a burning field” image that began the series and recurs every so often – which is, now that I think about it, a far more powerful image than I ever gave it credit for, and Larsen’s occasional return to the motif is pretty deft thematic pacing.)

  3. I think you’re probably right. Heck, I’d say you’re DEFINITELY right, but there’s a lot about Savage Dragon I barely remember. SD is a big part of my comics-reader origin story. When I was in college it was my roommate’s favorite superhero book, and at first glance I thought he was crazy, but then I remember some issue where Larsen used some ridiculous Mars Attacks crossover as a reason to permanently wipe out a goodly portion of his supporting cast. I was really pleasantly surprised that a writer would use an absurd cash-in to actually change his book around. So one weekend, I sat and read every Dragon thing from the first issue to whatever they were up to at that point (some big fight with Powerhouse I think), including all the miniseries and tie-ins. I fucking LOVED it and remained hook until, I think, after the big This Savage World mega-arc wrapped up. (I remember a little of the Mr. Glum stuff, and that he ran for President with a guy who’s last name was Urass, so I must not have quit right after that big postapocalyptic storyline wrapped, but a few issues down the road after that.)

    Anyway, I think I have all the individual issues in a longbox someplace, but I’ve been trying to track down all the trades for the express purpose of giving it a read-through just like I did with Invincible. I think SD is an obvious antecedent to Kirkman’s approach; moreover, Kirkman has talked about what a big influence it was, and one of his first big gigs was doing Superpatriot minis for Larsen, so my guess is he learned a lot from SD’s way of doing business. Certainly the ballsy status-quo and tonal shifts are something SD has been doing for years.

  4. Charles says:

    What made you give up on Savage Dragon?

  5. Invincible again

    * There are a few interesting responses to my review of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible the other day. First up, in the comments, Tim O’Neil points out that many of the book’s virtues are shared (and pre-dated) by Erik Larsen’s Savage…

  6. I just didn’t think it was all that good anymore. The Savage World thing cut off a lot of the book’s most interesting storylines at the knees, and the stuff he introduced to replace it, you just couldn’t shake the memory that all these people lived in a horrible monster-filled apocalypse a few months ago. It all just seemed too pat.

    I’d be perfectly happy to grab whatever collections exist of that period and give them a read to see if I’m wrong or what, though.

  7. Charles says:

    No, I’ve never read SD aside from a few issues when I was a kid. I did think those were kick ass, though, and maybe someday I”ll look into them.

    It just struck me that you LOVED the book so much, and I was curious what made it diminish in your eyes.

  8. Leigh Walton says:

    I would always phrase my gripe with Kirkman as “his characters are too reasonable,” though you may have described it more accurately. I lost track of the number of times he writes dialogue like:

    A: “I see what you’re saying and I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m respectfully asking you to let me handle this.”

    B: “Okay, if you really think that this is the best way to handle it, I’ll leave it in your hands, but I remain skeptical, and don’t come crying to me if it doesn’t work.”

    Combined with his tendency to carefully eliminate ambiguities and fully explain every ambiguity, it really makes him seem like a long-time fan who’s now trying to write the perfect comic. He writes comics for THAT GUY – the one who’s always pointing out plot holes and complaining that characters never act rationally.

    That makes him stand out, and honestly it’s refreshing to see characters saying more than just cryptic proclamations, but when taken too far it gives every character the same voice and deflates a lot of potential drama.

  9. Leigh Walton says:

    I would always phrase my gripe with Kirkman as “his characters are too reasonable,” though you may have described it more accurately. I lost track of the number of times he writes dialogue like:

    A: “I see what you’re saying and I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m respectfully asking you to let me handle this.”

    B: “Okay, if you really think that this is the best way to handle it, I’ll leave it in your hands, but I remain skeptical, and don’t come crying to me if it doesn’t work.”

    Combined with his tendency to carefully eliminate ambiguities and fully explain every possible question, it really makes him seem like a long-time fan who’s now trying to write the perfect comic. He writes comics for THAT GUY – the one who’s always pointing out plot holes and complaining that characters never act rationally.

    That makes him stand out, and honestly it’s refreshing to see characters saying more than just cryptic proclamations, but when taken too far it gives every character the same voice and deflates a lot of potential drama.

  10. Leigh Walton says:

    Sorry for the double post above! I also think Kirkman is really interesting as a generational figure, insofar as his superhero work has shown him to be an unabashed child of the 80s & 90s. Ultimate X-Men saw him literally reintroducing all the big characters and storylines from about a 10-year span in X-Men history: Apocalypse, Bishop, Cable, etc.

    The funny pacing that you noticed in Invincible also strikes me as derived from late X-Men, where new characters and storylines get introduced gradually, in a mysterious stray page here and there over a period of several issues. Also Simonson in Thor, with Surtur hammering that anvil a page at a time for months…

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