Greg Hunter

Late to the Rack: Invincible

In Comics on September 29, 2009 at 12:38 AM

GGARUDS

Robert Kirkman’s Invincible is a coming-of-age superhero comic, in the tradition of the earliest Spider-Man books.  Invincible Ultimate Collection (vol. 1), from Image Comics, collects the first thirteen issues of this series from 2003. Mark Grayson, son of a Superman-like hero named Omni-Man, begins to develop powers of his own, and struggles to balance crime-fighting with college applications and social ineptitude.  Analogues of preexisting characters in Invincible don’t end with Mark’s father; throughout volume one, Mark battles proxies of Spider-Man villains like Rhino, Vulture and Sandman, and dreams of joining the Guardians of the Globe (nearly all of whom are modeled after members of D.C.’s Justice League).

Because of Kirkman and his artists’ heavy reliance on these analogues, Invincible occupies an odd place in contemporary superhero comics, and a place that could only exist after several decades of Justice League stories.  It’s too sincere to be parody, but doesn’t engage Watchmen-style genre commentary either.  The series is unique, in part, for just how frequently imitations of other characters pop up: analogues from different ficitional worlds often occupy the same space. (In one issue, Omni-Man rescues the crew of a faux-U.S.S. Enterprise.)

The appeal of a fictional world where so many familiar characters are in play is self-evident. Watchmen‘s Alan Moore has attempted a version of this himself with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.  The first League story, for instance, saw Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man and others uniting against a common threat; in the third, James Bond pursues Dracula’s Mina Murray at the service of 1984’s government creeps. The difference between Moore’s projects and Kirkman’s (besides League’s period settings and use of actual character names) is a matter of subtlety and depth. Regardless of how much Moore borrows, readers of League books are left with the impression that a world has been built for them–that Moore has looked for the pathways that link one character to another, even if these pathways aren’t given attention in the comics. Invincible‘s analogues, on the other hand, often seem to appear for the sake of novelty, which becomes increasingly problematic as the series attempts to find its own direction.

There is a method to Kirkman’s use of Justice League lookalikes beyond the obvious nerd appeal of seeing them interact with a Rorschach stand-in.  To further explain that method would mean spoiling the most pivotal moment in Invincible.  Suffice to say it involves actions by one character that are decidedly unlike the behavior of his established counterpart.  The twist is dramatically rich, but not terribly surprising—the issues before follow comics formulas so closely and self-consciously that one wonders how Invincible’s first wave of readers could have expected anything but a reversal of its early status quo.

When Kirkman dismantles the (basically borrowed) status quo of Invincible‘s early issues, he effectively removes the tentpoles of an empty tent. Readers are left knowing—or really caring—little about the world Mark inhabits.  The series has continued for over sixty issues now, and over that time Kirkman has presumably filled this world with things worth readers’ interest. But the first volume of his stories, though unique, isn’t innovative, and not more than superficially fun.

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