Monday, June 9, 2014

Comic Books You Should Be Reading: All-New Invaders

Hello! I’m not dead! Wow, I say that a lot.

This week’s blog is both another installment in CBYSBR and the start of what I hope will be a semi-regular tradition—Bottom of the Stack. Check the end of upcoming blog entries for an informal list of comic series I’m really enjoying at the moment. I won’t post everything I buy—just the two to five series at the bottom of my monthly comic stack. (I read in reverse order of preference, so the best stuff is at the bottom.) I hope it’ll help those of you who are contemplating getting into comics to find a way in. Not everything I read is for newbies, but my very favorite comics are usually well-written and all-around fun, so if you’re not too picky about needing to know all the continuity in advance, they should all be a good read.

Cool? On we go!

I’ve agonized over whether to add All-New Invaders to Comic Books You Should Be Reading. It is, hands down, my favorite monthly comic book at the moment. Hell, even Flatmate’s gotten into it—she asks me every couple of days when the next one hits the shelves, and complains loudly that she’s gotten so sucked into the plot and characters that she wants a new installment every week, like a TV show.

On the other hand, I yet cling to the last shreds of my journalistic objectivity, and I know that All-New Invaders, for all its virtues, is not going to be everyone’s favorite comic in the universe. I buy it for specific reasons, I love it for specific reasons, and some of those specific reasons are personal to me rather than universal to comic readers, or even general to the readers of my blog.

But what the hell. It’s my blog, and you wouldn’t be reading it if you couldn’t stand to hear my opinions now and then.

Here’s the SparkNotes version: All-New Invaders is a standard Marvel superhero comic, done extremely well, with a strong flavor of Band of Brothers and just a touch of Joss Whedon about it. If that sounds good, buy it. Seriously. Go buy any or all of the first five issues. I’ll wait here until you come back.
Captain America and the Human Torch will have coffee while they wait for you.
Here’s the backstory for the uninitiated: back during World War II, there was a superhero team called the Invaders whose membership included, among others, Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch. (There were also other members who came and went but don’t much matter right now.) The group broke up around the end of the war, and the heroes mostly died or disappeared. In the present day, the core team has been resurrected and/or recalled from obscurity in various Marvel books, and now they’re banding together again to handle stuff they can’t trust anybody else with. That’s where the Band of Brothers homage comes in—the core of this book is the relationships among the team’s central players and the fact that they trust and understand each other in ways that are utterly alien to most modern superheroes. 
"Don't worry, Jim." "We've got your back."
-Scene from My Little Invaders: Friendship is Explosive.
So while the main plot of All-New Invaders is standard superhero fare, the engine that drives the story is the friendship between four extraordinary men. I’m a big fan of this kind of storytelling, not least because I think the Western world would be less screwed up if there were more cultural space for intimate platonic male friendships. And the fact that writer James Robinson manages to balance excellent World War II flashbacks and present-day action with the complexity of those relationships bodes well for the future of this series.

Robinson is best known for his series Starman for DC, which itself balanced the legacy of a Golden Age superhero with a hip modern sensibility and beautifully delineated family dynamics. It’s no surprise, then, that he can turn that knack to a new family—a group of superpowered freaks and loners who essentially adopted each other in the middle of a world war, and have found those bonds unexpectedly resilient despite their decades spent apart. Robinson has also gotten lucky in his artist, Steve Pugh, whose work incorporates both gorgeous anatomy and action shots that make the book a smooth read and distinctive, expressive faces that add another layer of meaning to Robinson’s dialogue.

Don’t believe me? Take this panel, which takes place after Captain America has spent several pages insisting that another World War II hero, Aarkus the Vision, will help the Invaders out just because they palled around with him during the war. Nobody has believed Cap because Aarkus was always kind of weird and now he’s fully off his nut. But when asked, Aarkus basically says, “Of course I’ll help—you guys are my brothers,” and this panel happens:
See that wry, slightly smug smile on Captain America’s face? That’s how the nicest guy on the Avengers says, “I told you so.” It’s not easy to get that kind of expression out of a face that’s 75% covered, but Pugh does it.

Here’s the casting rundown, with what makes each character distinctive and interesting:
Pictured: not Johnny Storm
Jim Hammond/The Human Torch. Jim was one of Marvel Comics’ first hit characters, way back in 1939. He’s a “synthetic human”—android? robot? accounts vary—who, thanks to a design flaw, can burst into flame and fly. In this comic, he’s a sweet and slightly world-weary Frankenstein’s creature who likes people but doesn’t really understand them and is on the brink of giving up on ever being one himself. By the end of the first arc, he’ll be reconsidering his lost quest for humanity, and wrestling with the question of what kind of man he wants to be.
"Arrogance! Stupidity!" Namor's life words.
Namor the Sub-Mariner. Another classic, Namor is a human-Atlantean hybrid (his parents were Romeo and Juliet with more salt water involved) who’s strong, tough, and able to fly and breathe both water and air. He’s also the most arrogant, imperious character you’re likely to meet thanks to the fact that he’s the honest-to-God king of Atlantis, with a lot to prove to his people because of his half-breed status. Oh, and he’s technically a mutant—among Marvel’s first. All of that translates to a massive chip on his shoulder that he removes only for the guys who knew him before he was king. In the first story arc, his customary arrogance takes a real blow when his stubbornness gets him captured and results in the death of one of the few people he genuinely likes.
"So this is like the old days, gentlemen." Cap's favorite thing to say.
Steve Rogers/Captain America. If you don’t know who this character is, why are you reading my blog? There have been a lot of interesting interpretations of Marvel’s super-soldier, but Robinson chooses to strike a delicate balance between Cap’s military training and his feelings for his friends. Cap is the team leader, the team strategist, and also the guy who always believes his pals will come through for him just because they’re his pals. Captain America is great at reading soldiers and figuring out how they’ll handle a situation … but he tends to see only the best in his closest friends. The unspoken question of the series is who will be the first to let him down, and how he’ll cope.
Falling off a roof while shooting at aliens.
Must be Tuesday.
James “Bucky” Barnes/Winter Soldier. Rounding out the main team roster is Cap’s former sidekick, now a Marvel star in his own right. Of all the team members, Bucky is the most personally loyal to the group (or at least to Cap), but also the most problematic. He is legally dead and supposed to be keeping so far off the radar that even his former allies in the Avengers don’t know he’s still walking the shadows rather than pushing up daisies. The first story arc will leave readers questioning Bucky’s psychological stability even as he puts his life on the line for his team.

The comic has just wrapped up its first story arc, “Gods and Soldiers.” The plot involves a Kree device called the Gods’ Whisper, which can control the actions of deities—Norse gods, Eternals, pretty much anything in the Marvel Universe with god-level power. The Nazis got hold of it during the war, but three Invaders took it away from them, broke it up, hid the pieces, and then had their memories wiped so even the Allies couldn’t be tempted by the possibility of controlling the gods themselves. The story begins when the Kree decide they want their doohickey back and go after the three Invaders in question, kidnapping one of them (Namor) in the process. Once the boys realize what’s going on, Captain America leads the team to the Kree homeworld, Hala, to destroy the Gods’ Whisper and rescue Namor. They’re after the Gods’ Whisper because they don’t think anyone should have it, but they’re rescuing Namor because almost nobody else on earth actually likes Namor, which means he’ll literally die of being a jerk if they don’t do something.
Captain America delivers the team's mission statement.
Also, "Namor being Namor" is going to be that guy's official cause of death.
If that sounds a bit Whedonesque, that’s because it is. This story revolves around a group of veteran heroes (and actual veterans) being there for each other—including lots of shooting, face-punching, and death’s-head humor—because they know nobody else can or will do the job. Oh, and they’re also saving the world for pretty much the same reason. It’s a cross between a war comic, a superhero adventure, and a slightly metafictional family drama.

Meta? Oh, yeah, it’s meta.

Here’s an example. (If you can’t abide spoilers, skip down seven paragraphs RIGHT NOW.) At a key moment in the fourth chapter of the story, the heroes have been captured by the Kree and are being told the fates in store for them—imprisonment, dissection, etc. Now, because this team includes the Winter Soldier, I got to this chapter assuming that he would completely lose his composure at some point because the central macguffin is a device that controls people’s minds. Bucky does not cope well with the prospect of mind control, and the mere suggestion that he’s going to get his head messed with again is usually enough to make him go postal.

And he does go postal, in spectacular fashion—
Leap BEFORE you look!
What, AGAIN?!
I was laughing right up until the body hit the floor. Then I started wondering whether such a popular character could be killed off with so little fanfare. It had to be a fake-out, right? Even though if Bucky were going to get killed on an Invaders mission, that’s exactly how it would happen …

But it turns out, of course, that he isn’t dead, that it was a fake-out, and that this is, in fact, all part of Captain America’s plan.
Note the bodies on the floor.
Because Bucky Barnes.
Let me be clear: Captain America planned to have Bucky completely lose his mind, get shot, and die—because it was exactly what everyone, including readers, expected of him.
"Why can't JIM die this time?" Because he lights himself on fire, that's why.
This may be the best piece of metafictional humor I’ve seen in comics in a while.
All told, All-New Invaders is a wonderful blend of action, humor, and personal drama. The writing is crisp, the art is both lively and technically proficient, and there’s very little continuity that requires actual explanation—you don’t need to know precisely why these guys are friends to understand that they are friends, and very good ones. Sadly, the book is on the publishing cusp right now, not selling enough copies to be a breakout hit but not an obvious failure either. If it’s going to live up to its excellent potential, it needs some more readers. (Hey, editorial! Would it kill you to slap Cap and Bucky on the cover more often? Maybe pull in some movie fans?) It suffers a bit from not being a high-concept book—I can’t sum up its appeal in one sentence that actually appeals to people who haven’t heard of the Invaders. But every issue is like a visit with old friends, combined with a really good action movie, and that’s a rare feat in a comic these days.

If you’ve got the budget for it and you’re in the mood for space adventure, superheroics, and arguments about why it can’t be Jim who fakes his death this time, this is the book for you. A new issue hits the stands this Wednesday.

Bottom of the Stack:
All-New Invaders (Marvel)
Loki: Agent of Asgard (Marvel)
Winter Soldier: The Bitter March (Marvel)
Original Sin (Marvel)
Daredevil (Marvel)

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