Kurt Busiek puts it well in the introduction when he says that he didn’t give Invincible another look when it first came out as it didn’t look like anything new. I agreed and didn’t try it. Good reviews, and the insistence of Clandestine Chum Logan, finally wore me down and I got the first trade, collecting issues #1–4.
And, here was the strange thing: I kept coming back to it.
I read it, enjoyed it, put it down. Then I picked it up again and read it again, and enjoyed it again.
It’s rare that I do this; I have a good memory, so find it hard to reread something as I already know the story beats, and only do it if the book is particularly information-dense or for a review. Invincible isn’t text-heavy but I couldn’t stop enjoying the damn book. What gives?
I think it’s because Invincible is a pure slice of comic book delight.
The story is lean, no fat, but not decompressed. The art is sleek and cool. The characters are strong and defined. The themes are resonant. And the whole package is a sheer pleasure.
You know you are in for a treat when you start off with a masturbation joke; our hero, Mark, is spending too long on the toilet reading a comic, which gets his Mum worried about all the time spent in the bathroom. There’s a smile on my face as we begin.
Mark Grayson is the son of Omni-man, a super-hero who is basically Superman, an alien from another planet, and his Mum, an Earth woman. They take it in their stride when Dad is out, by watching the TV news: ‘Well, now you know where he is,’ says Mark. Mum replies, ‘I hope he brings back something nice for me. I’ve never been to Taiwan.’ This demonstrates a playful sense of a comic book world without the intensity that seems prevalent in some books I could mention.
Mark discovers he is developing super-powers; his facial reaction alone is priceless, as is his response: ‘It’s about time.’ This casualness is reflected in the family dynamic; Dad casually chatting about stopping dragons and averting an enchanted flood. When Mark reveals that he is getting superpowers, Mum simply says, ‘That’s nice. Can you pass the potatoes?’
When Mark decides to fight crime, Dad watches casually while leaning on a wall as his son tackles some bank robbers before introducing him to the tailor who made his costume. When asked what sort of suit he wants, Mark asks for iconic. The costumier replies, ‘Everyone wants iconic costumes but no one knows what that means.’ Kirkman is having fun with the genre, playing with tropes, but without ridiculing or parodying, and indicating his feel for the material, as well as his love.
I’ve talked about the writing aspects, but I shouldn’t ignore what Cory Walker brings to the book. His artwork (Busiek gets it again: ‘his clean, clear storytelling, his deadpan characterisation, his sleek designs, his distinctive, stylised rendering …’) is able to handle everything – the super-heroic, the family, the talking heads, the variety of different faces and body shapes in school. He has a lovely touch and tells the story well, with precision and clarity. I even like the way he draws little curls in people’s noses and in their knuckles. Bill Crabtree’s colours are an unusual but entirely appropriate palate – somehow muted and bright at the same time, a variation on the traditional use of the primary colours to indicate a hint of reality with the undeniable fact that this is a comic book.
Mark discovers his super-hero name by having a talking-to from the principal after he sorts out a bully during school hours. For this, we should be grateful to Bulletproof Monk, which is something I thought I’d never see myself type. Originally, he was going to be called Bulletproof, which is a stupid name. Fortunately, Bulletproof Monk was just coming out at Image, so it was decided to change as it would confuse things. Hence, Invincible was born.
The second issue sees Dad telling Mark about his origin – how he came from the planet Viltrum (where all men seem to have the same large moustache as he does), a utopia that looks after the evolution of others. He volunteered to be sole protector of Earth when his planet decided not look after it, even though it meant he might never return. He reveals that it is highly likely that Mark will inherit these powers. It is only then that we are shown that it is quite a young Mark who is being told this story; his response is stunned silence, followed by, ‘Wow. I’m going to be able to fly?’ You’ve got no choice but to adore this book.
This cuts to Mark flying at night, simply revelling in the wonder of flight. He notices a crime in progress and, in dealing with it, he comes into contact with Teen Team, a group of teenage super-heroes, consisting of Robot, Atom Eve, Rex Splode and Dupli-Kate. (There is a nice visual of one of Dupli-Kate’s duplicates waving during the introductions.) Mark thinks he recognises Atom Eve, and vice versa, a feeling that is confirmed when they realise they are in the same physics class, which adds a great dynamic into the story, as well as humour; when Mark yawns after the late night, Sam (Atom Eve) replies: ‘Teen super-heroes start drinking coffee at an early age.’
Mark & Sam change around the back of a dumpster and fly to the Teen Team HQ, where Robot has set plans to find the leader of the criminal that Mark stopped last night. They tag along and apprehend him, leading to an invitation to join the team. If only all life were this simple … To counterpoint this, the book ends with a teenage boy waking in a mall, confused and discovering he has a bomb for a torso – which explodes.
The next issue is a full issue. We learn that there are three kids missing from the school Mark attends (Reginald Vel Johnson School – Reginald is perhaps best well known as Sgt. Al Powell in the Die Hard films; someone must be a fan …). We learn that Mark’s Dad is a semi-famous novelist. Mark quits Burger Mart (His only worry? ‘My Dad’s going to kill me.’) but Dad tells him he doesn’t need to work there anyway, what with being a super-hero, and goes on patrol with him: ‘I think we’re about due for a team-up.’ ‘Eh. You said “team-up.”‘ There then follows a lovely couple of pages of father and son flying side by side in essentially the same panel down the page, with the occasional ‘whoooosh’ as Dad zips off to save someone. It’s a joyous and touching scene, with real emotional resonance.
While having lunch, Dad has to fly off for an emergency, but he returns to ask for Mark’s help. The three panels express it the feeling succinctly, from the look on Mark’s face to the empty panel with a half-eaten hot-dog suspended in mid air. There is an alien invasion, an endless stream of soldiers through a portal but time here affects them differently and they start to age rapidly, causing them to withdraw. But not after Dad explodes with anger at the aliens: ‘Get off my planet!’ Is this something Mark should be worried about?
There is mention of Guardians of the Globe and Megaforce, hinting at a world of super-heroes and a world full of the fantasy of comic book universes. These nice little touches make the book seem even more real, even though this is the third book in the series.
Another living bomb in a mall is seen by Omni-man, who throws him into the sky before he explodes. Mark recognises him as one of the missing students, just before one of the aliens appears out of nowhere and disappears with Omni-man. When Mark goes home to tell Mum that Dad is missing, her reaction (‘… Well, that’s more pork chops for us’) is dark humour hiding the deep worry and love she feels, that helps to make her character feel more real.
The concept – what would it be like to be Superman’s family, basically – is not treated lightly but with thought about the relationships and interactions that might occur in a more-complex realisation of the Silver Age concept, and is one of the focal points of the book that make it different and ring emotionally true.
Another is the dialogue that exists between characters, which plays with familiar ideas in comic books but in a knowing and sly manner: ‘Curses … foiled again’ and ‘Off to the cafeteria dumpster’ are very funny used here.
The fourth issue sees the revealing of the bomber, the return of Omni-man (the tear of thanks by Mum at his return hits more emotional wallop than a big scene), and finishes with the normality of the family dinner: when Mum asks, ‘Anything interesting happen to either of you today’ and Mark and Dad give a précis of their time, she replies, ‘That’s nice. Who’s ready for dessert?’
This is a book about a super-hero and family but it has humour, a lightness of touch and a hint of reality that makes it well worth your while seeking it out. Don’t be like me and wait too long to get in on something really good.
(Hope that keeps you busy for a while. See you in a week – holiday, here I come…)