Here's a strange trend: Mark Waid + adjectival noun = choice comics.
I guess it's not so strange, really, since Waid's body of work in general is enough of a recommendation, but he's currently writing three darned good projects for Boom! Studios that share a peculiar part of speech — namely, The Incredibles, The Unknown, and Irredeemable. (That last one might be a plain old adjective.)
Covers to the Unknown hardcover, illustrated by Erik Jones, and the Incredibles: Family Matters
collection, illustrated by Sean "Cheeks" Galloway, © 2009 Boom! Studios and Disney/Pixar, respectively.
Boom! came along during my reluctant hiatus from the comics life, which I really have to address in some new installments of Empaneled. Mark, who is now the publishing house's editor-in-chief, is someone I'm glad to say I knew in that life as a generous friend, eager teacher and sharer of knowledge, lifelong comics fan, and top-notch creative mind. If he had a downside in the collective consciousness of the marketplace, it was likely that he was too known as being of a fannish background, too associated with takes on Silver Age superheroes at DC and, to a lesser extent, Marvel; Grant Morrison addressed this head-on in an afterword in Irredeemable #1 earlier this year.
Mark's longtime admirers would be quick to point out that he did write DC's Kingdom Come, whose very tension between simpler times and the modern age — a struggle echoed not only between him and Alex Ross, the project's initiatior and artist, but also within each of them — is what made it successful. He made his name on The Flash not by bringing back Silver Age icon Barry Allen but by having Wally West, former Kid Flash, not just get older but grow up. He wrote hilarious dialogue for Marvel's Deadpool before Joe Kelly did. He edited the infamous "Five Years Later" Legion of Super-Heroes, quite a break from the past, and wrote just as different a spin on the group not long ago. He oversaw the inauguration of Morrison's mad reign on Doom Patrol. He co-created in Impulse the best superhero sitcom since the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League (but more charming and more sustainable in its brand of humor). He showed us a world where the supervillain won in Empire. And he really changed up expectations with the detective series Ruse. The guy has long been willing and able to deconstruct or reinterpret the costumed cohort of comicdom, and long had more than variations on such legends up his sleeve.
Yet even with all that, I admit to surprise reading Waid's current Boom! boomlet, especially having lost touch with him during my time away from the comics biz and missed his crime story Potter's Field. These new titles share adjectival nouns, yes, but also something that threw me for a loop when I sampled his Superman: Birthright miniseries in the bookstore a few years back. I don't hear Mark's voice in them. His dialogue never had the idiosyncratic cadence of, say, Chris Claremont, Brian Azzarello, or James Robinson, but, if this makes any sense, the lack of familiarity is noticeable.
Cover A of Irredeemable #1, drawn by John Cassaday and
colored by Laura Martin, © 2009 Boom! Studios.
Waid described the premise of Irredeemable, which debuted in April, better than I ever could in an editorial for Boom!'s monthly hype page. The series, he said,
"... revisit[s] a theme I've written about before: the path of villainy. Kingdom Come was about the ethical price of heroism. Empire was about a world where heroism just flat-out didn't exist. Irredeemable is, in a way, my third and most complex chapter on the cost of superheroics — a pulp adventure tale of horror about how the lessons we learn about right and wrong as children can become warped and twisted when challenged by the realities of the adult world. Irredeemable is the story of a man who was the greatest and most beloved superhero of all time... and how he became the world's greatest supervillain."
Not that the series' central figure, The Plutonian, necessarily considers himself a villain. What's been published to date is far less than the whole story, but it seems clear that a large part of what's driven "Tony" — as his friends called him — to take this dark path is the almost defensive embracement of amorality that resulted when the crushing responsibility felt by a nearly godlike being who still has very human emotions became too much to bear. The balancing act of his never-ending battle as Earth's protector depended on a certain reciprocity from the people he watched over. His love interests, his allies, and even his enemies had to play their parts lest the clockwork break down, exposing what a frustrated mind might suddenly see as the absurdity of the whole endeavor.
In the opening pages of #1, the Batman-style Hornet pleads with The Plutonian — who has just vaporized his wife and son — not to hurt his daughter, who's "only a little girl." Tony's response is reminiscent of Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan, but with more malice than indifference. "I know exactly what she is," says the hovering man with glowing eyes. "She's a carbon bag of atoms and electricity." Upon first reading, the line is merely chilling, but in light of later chapters it's a willful reduction of sentient life to unemotional components; The Plutonian is all too familiar with the guile, greed, and guilt inherent in (even, from the perspective of self-preservation, required by) the human condition.
Top: A flashback to Kaidan and Tony in Sky City from #2. Bottom: Plutonian
addressing the people of the world in #5. Script: Mark Waid. Pencils, Inks: Peter
Krause. Colors: Andrew Dalhouse. Letters: Ed Dukeshire. Images © 2009 Boom! Studios.
While there are certain inevitable correspondences, Irredeemable benefits greatly from not casting The Plutonian as an exact equivalence of Superman. They share the status of most trusted and most powerful man apart, but Tony falls somewhere between the one-level-up generic that Kurt Busiek tried to establish with Astro City's Samaritan and the sideways reinterpretation of Superman lore that Alan Moore brought to Supreme. (I don't mean to impugn Busiek's abilities; I'm just not sure there is a one-level-up generic when it comes to Superman, as opposed to increasingly clever analogues of origin, arch-enemy, etc.)
One of the closest Superman parallels is seen in #2, when Kaidan of superhero group The Paradigm — a collection of characters with impressively unique abilities, not at all a carbon copy of The Justice League — tracks down the woman popularly known as "The Plutonian's girlfriend" and learns of a secret identity used by Tony. Mark gets to the heart of an aspect of Superman that became increasingly curdled over his publishing history until recent decades, one that's always kept me from completely embracing many of the otherwise brilliant Superman stories written by Elliot S. Maggin that Mark so admires, including the prose novels Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday: Clark Kent as less an escape or a method of identifying with the people of his adopted home than a grand joke at their expense.
Irredeemable is drawn by Peter Krause and colored by Andrew Dalhouse, whose work is generally effective but not ideal. Krause's art is perhaps appropriately evocative of Superman pencilers Curt Swan, Dan Jurgens, and Jerry Ordway — but, unfortunately, not all at the same time, and at some points still other styles emerge, giving both the layouts and the character renderings a distractingly disparate look (most disappointingly when very impressive pages are followed by the mediocre). There's nothing inherently wrong with inspiration or even imitation, but the end result has to hold up. Ordway's influence was so strong in certain panels that I wondered while reading #1 if Jerry weren't providing breakdowns for his former creative partner; Krause was previously best known for penciling DC's The Power of Shazam!, on which Ordway served as writer, cover artist, and sometime interior penciler. Krause's inking style is more blunt and gritty than I would have guessed from his past penciling work, reminiscent in places of the great Michael Lark — especially in the present-day scenes, with more feathering and fewer black spots in the flashbacks as befits less overtly troubled times. Those flashbacks are kept appropriately bright by Dalhouse, who tones down the palette severely for the contemporary gloaming brought about by The Plutonian's conversion; throughout, he employs the sort of over-rendering common to colorists today, but not nearly as egregiously as most.
Pivotal scenes from #7 at left and #6 at right, the latter displaying some of the best and
worst features of the series' art on the same page. Script: Mark Waid. Pencils, Inks: Peter
Krause. Colors: Andrew Dalhouse. Letters: Ed Dukeshire. Images © 2009 Boom! Studios.
You can read a 7-page preview of Irredeemable #1 at the Boom! website. Even better, #1-4 have been collected in softcover for just $9.99 [ISBN 978-1-93450-690-5] — quite the bargain, given that the individual issues were priced at $3.99 a pop; if Boom!'s Cars and Incredibles collections are any indication, a gallery of the issues' variant covers will be included as well. And then there's the matter of #1 and #2 being sold out from the publisher. (There may still be copies available at comics retailers, and variant-cover editions can be ordered from Boom! at $9.99 each.)
Should you follow the series monthly? That depends on whether you're strictly a graphic-novel reader or have the periodical habit, and if the latter is the case whether you're one of those who's drawn the line at $2.99. Irredeemable does supplement its standard 22-page story with previews of upcoming projects; ultimately, though, that's just advertising. I'm trying to be judicious with the periodicals myself, but #5-8 have each had stunning revelations and they won't be out in collected form until March, during which time I'll probably have re-read the series to date more than once. Full of startling action and slow-burning mysteries, Irredeemable is easily among the best serialized fiction out there today.
To be continued with examinations of The Unknown and The Incredibles!