Capes, Conundrums, and Carnage
James Sullivan, ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Everybody loves a superhero. Well, except those who had their sense of fun amputated as a child, and those who bash MCU films on the internet in order to come across as sophisticated. But I’m repeating myself.
When it comes to superheroes‒ in comics or film–there are no bad ideas, just good ideas poorly executed. No comic embraces this ethos more strongly than Invincible, a long-running and now-completed superhero comic from the twisted mind of Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman, with art by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley. With an Amazon Prime animated adaptation of the comic on the horizon, now seems like a salient time to pick apart (and shill for) the source material.
Invincible has a simple premise; what if Superman was Peter Parker? Set in a world filled to the brim with costumed adventurers and four-color comic book chaos, the series follows Invincible (AKA Mark Grayson), the teenage crotch-spawn of Omni-Man, the world’s greatest superhero. The comic is a lighthearted romp through Mark’s initial forays into superhero work, featuring genre-mainstays such as alien invasions:
heinous acts of technicolor violence:
(Not pictured: 60 issues of character development)
Okay, it goes off the rails somewhat in issue 7. In a good way! Like, there’s a plot twist and stuff. It’s one of those annoying ones, where it happens super early but you still want to keep it a secret. Like how Ned Stark dies.
Invincible does not attack the superhero genre the way Watchmen or The Boys does. Invincible is unapologetically a superhero comic, with all the weirdness that entails. Inside of the first few volumes he fights Martians, teams up with a robot named Robot, and almost marries a fish-queen by accident. One of the recurring characters in this an alien named Allen. Another is this guy:
But here’s the thing. When a city gets leveled in a knock-down superbrawl, it’s allowed to have ramifications through the rest of the series, rather than getting swept under the rug in to keep the toybox in order for future writers. When Invincible has a crisis of identity about whether beating up supervillians addresses the underlying social problems that led them to commit crimes, his character development can stick. And, for the most part, the dead stay dead (barring outliers such as the Immortal, who…. yeah, you can guess.) Invincible isn’t realistic, but it is free.
Invincible’s core theme is the difficulty in knowing how far is too far for a person with superpowers to go, and whether it’s better to try and solve problems with force or to try and talk them out. If that sounds familiar, it’s because every single superhero comic written since the 1980s has tried to deal with these themes. Invincible isn’t doing anything transformative when it broaches these topics, it’s just following through in a way that the shared universes can’t. Sandman will never be allowed to go straight for his daughter’s sake because Spidey needs a punching bag. Dr. Octopus’s latest attempt to go straight and patent his technology to make more than he ever could as a supervillain (that’s his arc right now) will never pan out in the long haul. The worldbuilding implications of the death of Superman will never be allowed to play out in full. Invincible’s greatest selling point is that whatever piece of comic book insanity on the page in front of you is going to be allowed to play out without any retcons or editorial slap-fights over what’s considered canon. The insanity is grounded.
What really helps Invincible stick the landing on all of the above, though, is the art. Oh god, the art. Seven issues in, the series switches from Cory Walker’s sleek, minimalist linework to the much more detailed and animated work of Ryan Ottley, which only gets better and better over the course of the book.
Let me tell you about Ryan Ottley. Ryan Ottley has more talent in his pinky than I do in my entire pinky collection. If you punched Ryan Ottley in the gut, he would puke up fully realized character designs for things like this:
Ryan Ottley could outdraw any man, woman, or child alive today. Especially the children. Children are easy to outcompete at most things. Speaking of children, I would sacrifice any number of them for a tenth of Ryan Ottley’s artistic talent, but the devil would not consider that an equitable trade.
I really like the guy’s art is what I’m saying here.
Okay, I’ve reached my gushing quota. It’s a good comic, you get it. What are the problems? Because there must be problems.
Let’s start with the pedantic and subjective. The book is violent, and it very abruptly becomes violent as part of that issue 7 plot twist I alluded to. Prior to this, it spends the first six issues lulling the readership into a false sense of security. If you don’t like violence, leave. Like, now. Ryan Ottley has a favorite color, and it is Red.
Moving on to structural stuff. Story structure, that is.
The series is long. In an era where the stunt du jour is to reboot series every 30 issues or less, Invincible ran for 144 issues and a couple of specials and like four spinoff miniseries. One of the great logistical challenges of my youth was figuring out how to store all this crap. Actually, one of the great logistical challenges of my youth was figuring out how to store any of my crap. But I digress.
Invincible is not a focused book. Not only is Invincible long, it’s the kind of long that happens as the result of the creator knowing in general terms where they want to get to, and not necessarily how to get there. It suffers from some wonky pacing. There are false starts There are character arcs that add flavor without advancing the main plot. There are characters that sort of just vanish when the writers run out of things for them to do. There are fights that exist basically to pad out an issue with only one real plot point. Early in the series run, when Invincible is still in high school, the stakes are low enough that the slice-of-life tangents add to the charm. At a certain point, though, it starts to grate.
Right before the 12-issue grand finale, for example, there’s an inexplicable four-issue time travel arc where Invincible gets to take a shot at righting all the wrongs of his early career. It happens and then it’s gone, and it never comes up again, but you still had to pay for those four issues. In some ways, Invincible’s self-contained nature works against it here. When stuff like that happens in a Marvel book, it gets chalked up to the accepted behind-the-scenes editorial messiness of a universe that large. When it happens in an indie book it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Go read Invincible. Give the first 13 issue compendium a shot, at a minimum, because Kirkman does a great job of setting the tone for the rest. If you fall in love, you won’t fall out of love until you’ve blown through the whole run, pacing issues be damned. When you’re done, you’ll quietly, ruefully ache for another superhero comic of its caliber. But you won’t find one. Invincible is in a league of its own. You will die unfulfilled.
Though let’s face it, that was pretty much in the cards anyway.