Book Marx: Invincible - Perfect Strangers

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In the summer of 2000, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley were given the chance to rewrite the story of Spider-Man.  This was an idea Marvel attempted periodically, usually with dismal results. But from the moment Norman Osborn said, “You a fan of Greek mythology, Justin?” in the first panel, Ultimate Spider-Man felt different.

Bagley quickly proved he was a talented illustrator, with a crisp style and an instinctive gift for narrative artwork.  Bill Jemas, the controversial President who saved Marvel and was then crucified for it, helped create a story that resonated far beyond typical comic book origins.  The biggest surprise, though, was Bendis.  It’s possible Ultimate Spider-Man might have worked with a different writer.  With Bagley’s skill and guidance from Jemas, it’s hard to imagine the series not being at least a moderate success.  But Bendis made the words sing.

For the first time, it seemed, people talked and reacted like real people.  Bendis gave readers a reason to care deeply about the characters he scripted.  When Uncle Ben was murdered after four issues, readers were devastated, even though they knew it was coming. Bendis redefined Spider-Man for a new generation.  But for all his skill and talent, he wasn’t able to catch the pure magic and joy that permeated almost every page of Stan Lee’s classic Spider-Man stories.

So two years later, Robert Kirkman did.

The concept for Invincible was very different from Spider-Man. Mark Grayson’s father was a superhero with almost unlimited powers, and as a senior in high school, Mark began developing similar powers.  But the feeling, the sense of wonder that made the Amazing Spider-Man series so much fun, that was there from the first issue.

Like Bendis, Kirkman had the help of an extremely talented artist, Cory Walker, who also had a clean style and a natural ability to tell a story graphically.  But while Bendis made his protagonist a moody, extremely complex young man, introspective and intelligent, Kirkman made his main character an average but likable guy with few problems, a care-free kid who loved having powers and enjoyed his life.  Bendis created the “ultimate” version of Spider-Man.  Kirkman recreated the light-hearted version, the one that made Peter Parker such a great character to begin with.

And of course it had to end.

The first collected trade paperback edition of Invincible, “Family Matters”, is everything you could ever want from a traditional superhero comic book.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s worth the rather high price ($12.95 for a collection of four issues).  The second book, “Eight is Enough”, continues in the same vein.  The opening sequence of issue seven in particular (“Saturdays are an excellent time to catch up on your sleep”) is understated and funny.  But then things take an unexpected turn.

Invincible began as a mixture of “Super Friends”, Mad magazine, and the “Naked Gun” franchise.  But without warning, the story abruptly changes into a graphic bloodbath.  Obviously, Kirkman relished the fact that no one could have seen what was going to happen.  What he didn’t seem to understand, though, was that no one would have wanted to see what was going to happen.  Kirkman effectively killed his series at the end of issue seven, then gave it a funeral in issue eight.

Which brings us to “Perfect Strangers”, which collects issues 9-13 of the series.  Although Kirkman continues his likeable tradition of naming the Invincible trade paperbacks after old television shows, in actuality, this is the beginning of a new series.  The characters have fallen into a dark place that only promises to get uglier.  It’s not a good sign, then, when the volume starts off with a lazy and uninspired skit satirizing “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.

In Ultimate Spider-Man, Uncle Ben dies.  This has a profound effect on Peter Parker.  Brian Michael Bendis sets a somber tone that allows people to feel the weight of Peter’s loss.  Bendis injects humor and compassion into his story, but he understands that the tone has to be consistent with what’s going on or the whole story falls apart.  He makes sure to maintain the delicate balance between portraying a complex mix of emotions and respecting his characters and their integrity.

Robert Kirkman doesn’t seem to have that particular talent.  Imagine if, instead of being killed by a man breaking into his house, Uncle Ben drove to the local police station that fateful night.  In cheerful Technicolor, with buckets of blood splashing everywhere, imagine that he decapitated two officers with his bare hands, broke a female officer’s neck, eviscerated another officer, and killed three more officers before strolling off.  Then imagine a scene a few days later where he smiles, hands Peter Parker a videotape of “Day of the Dead”, and they bond over a zombie movie.

This is the world that Invincible has become.

“Perfect Strangers” is a book with major problems.  It often feels unhinged, pounding from scene to scene like a pinball, changing emotions with no sense of consistency or build-up.  There are times when it’s clear Kirkman is a very talented creator.  His knack for finding humor in the strangest places is fantastic.  I especially loved the scenes in the Night Flight comic book store, and Monster Girl was fun also.  And issue twelve is easily one of the best, most intense fight scenes I’ve ever seen in comics.  Kirkman is a gifted writer.  But there are times when you have to wonder what the hell he was thinking.

Recently, the lead singer of U2 led an “all-star” group of singers and entertainers in a rendition of the Beatles song “Across the Universe”.  It was a charity event to raise money for Tsunami relief, and it was the most horrifying attempt at making music since Roseanne Barr decided to sing the National Anthem.  The words didn’t fit the situation, the delicate melody wasn’t written for a group sing-along, and the range and muted tone of the song continually worked against the talents of the eclectic but amazing group of performers.  It was a noble effort, but it didn’t work.

Again, this is the world that Invincible has become.

The first chapter is a light-hearted affair.  Skipping past the pointless Star Trek gags, most of the issue is devoted to auditions for the replacement members of the Guardians of the Globe, and there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.  The second chapter starts out the same way (“damn beeper”), but just like in the previous collection, “Perfect Strangers” takes a dramatic turn for the worst and things quickly go downhill.  It’s hard to maintain a light-hearted tone when Mark gets to witness his father literally tear a man in half and then, with blood dripping from his arms, tell his son, “We need to talk.”

In yet another change of tone and pacing, Kirkman then devotes sixteen pages of the third chapter to painfully detailed exposition.  It seems that Mark’s father, Omni-Man, plans to conquer the world.  Page after page of frequently unnecessary background reveals that his plan evidently is to bore humans to death, starting with his own son.

And then chapter four comes, and what was an annoying and disappointing middle section erupts into a brutal battle that rivals anything Grant Morrison or Mark Millar could pull off.  Ryan Ottley replaced Cory Walker as the illustrator in the second collection, and while I loved Walker’s style, Ottley is a better artist.  He draws scenes that boggle the mind, with buildings collapsing and subways piling-up that give this fight an epic feel.  But it’s Kirkman’s talent that is most on display in this penultimate chapter.  His script gives the fight a sense of horror and awe that most writers couldn’t equal.

Chapter five quickly returns the collection to mediocrity, though, with more pages of exposition and clunky dialogue like “I’m so far above the head of the CIA he doesn’t even know I exist.”  There are still glimpses of genius (the final page sums up in five words the enormity of how much Mark’s life has changed and how unfair that burden is), but for the most part, most of the promise the series initially had is gone, wasted in a misguided attempt to surprise readers.

The television show “Perfect Strangers” was a sweet and often funny situation comedy about a neurotic man named Larry who ends up allowing his immigrant cousin, Balki Bartokomous, to live with him.  It was the typical “Odd Couple” situation, but Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot gave it an unmistakable charm and compassion.  Most fans of the show, though, would have probably stopped watching it if the producers had abruptly revealed in the second season that Balki liked to rape and kill nine-year-old Asian girls.  There’s a difference between introducing a plot twist and completely destroying the initial concept, tone, and appeal for a cheap shock.

Marvel will continue trying to recreate the Spider-Man legend.  Since Ultimate Spider-Man, the company has given us the collective yawn known as Marvel Age Spider-Man and the needless retread titled Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man.  Other companies will also try to recapture the magic of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s golden creation.  It’s inevitable.  And eventually, someone is going to write a comic book that gives us the same sense of wonder and joy that Spider-Man once made us feel.  In the process, they will hopefully resist the urge to have the character’s father rip out a superhero’s intestines while blood splashes everywhere.

At this point, though, we can only dream.

- Tommy Marx

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