Monday, November 2, 2009
The credit doesn’t all go to this single issue, but really to the work of writer and creator Robert Kirkman, and artist Ryan Ottley, over the course of the INVINCIBLE series. This is a superhero comic, which fully embraces all the craziness that comes with that: bright costumes, aliens, time travelers, giant monsters, etc. But Kirkman knows that you’ll care about what happens in the story if the characters feel real and if you start to think of them as real humans. (Even when they’re invincible aliens.) The premise goes like this: Mark Grayson/Invincible is the son of Omni-Man, who is basically Superman (with a mustache) except that it’s revealed (in issue 12 or so?) that he isn’t here on Earth to protect us, but to prepare us for his planet’s conquest and enslavement of humanity. Upon discovering this, Invincible turns against his father and is beaten nearly to death by him, until Omni-Man suddenly decides not to kill his son and leaves the planet.
So INVINCIBLE is fantastical and fun, but sometimes it gets really, really real. And that’s what happens in the 3-issue battle that climaxes in this issue, 64. You remember that Superman vs. Doomsday fight? The one that led to the “Death of Superman”? Try to imagine what such a fight would really look like. You have 2 people who are so indestructible that the only object which can harm each one is the other’s body. One of them is completely intent on killing every person he can, and the other one is the only thing that can stop him. It would not look like a pro-wrestling match. It would not end like the Superman story, where both characters fall over with a few rips in their clothes and slight nosebleeds. It would get very bad and very ugly.
Conquest, one of Omni-Man’s race (the Viltrumites) shows up to eliminate Invincible and kill as many people as necessary to conquer the planet. Their fight stretches over 3 issues, but like any good story, it's not just an extended action sequence. In the first part it's established that Invincible looks to be far outclassed by his opponent's strength, and also that Conquest has no intention of letting up, but intends to kill Invincible and then as many others as he can, mainly because it's what he enjoys doing.
And then I missed an issue! I picked this one up and immediately saw that things had started to get really bad. Right on page 1, Invincible looks severely beaten, one eye swollen shut and with a bone sticking out of one leg. His girlfriend and fellow superhero, Atom Eve, a character who has also been developed since issue 1, lies at his feet with what looks like the entire lower half of her face pulverized. That's exactly what Conquest did to her in part 2 when she showed up to help, then put a hand clean through her body. Yikes! I was surprised by how upsetting this was, but then, Atom Eve had really become a fleshed-out character, and you could really feel for Mark/Invinvible, because he reacts like a real human would: with shock, horror, grief, and rage.
This issue really puts Invincible to the test, and shows us why he's being called a "superhero." Having "powers" is cool, sure, but the heroes who are really compelling are the ones who can accomplish what seems genuinely superhuman. When superhero stories are well-written, they are about the hero overcoming obstacles that are not just tests of physical strength, but mental and emotional strength. It's about events that challenge and change them. Invincible's defeat of Conquest feels like a really superhuman acccomplishment, and goes way beyond what I think most people would be capable of. When the bones break and pop out of one arm, he hits Conquest with the other one. When grabbed in a bear hug, he takes a gruesome bite out of Conquest's shoulder. When his other hand is crushed, he begins headbutting Conquest in the face, again and again and again...
Some of the shock of these events comes from Ryan Ottley's art. Like the stories it's depicting, his work usually looks bright, clean, and slightly cartoonish. It's easy to overlook the level of detail and realism he puts in - until something like this is happening. At the end of this fight we're left with a close-up of Conquest's smashed face that would be suitable for a grindcore album cover. And though I don't want to give away all the surprises, if you pick up new issues you'll find that Atom Eve survived and yes, it does make sense and is based on previously established facts about her abilities. I closed the book and immediately started feeling ill. Afterwards I asked myself if the creators needed to take things that far, but I decided that the answer was "yes." If you accept the fantastic premise, this would be the all-too-realistic outcome. Kirkman wanted to have us feel what Invincible would be going through. That final image of Conquest's smashed face would surely be burned into his mind, which is why we got a big, gory close-up of it.
INVINCIBLE is my favorite superhero book right now and I give it my highest possible recommendation. Even if you're not a fan of gore (and really, I'm not either). Honestly, it only happen rarely in this book, which is smart because then it has the intended emotional impact. It's probably also a good time to start reading, as the story builds from here to the inevitable(?) war with the Viltrumites.