14 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 054 - Mash of the Titans

Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign TPB
Writer - Jeff Parker
Artists - Carlo Pagulayan, Jason Paz & Jana Schirmer, Gabriel Hardman & Elizabeth Disadang; Clayton Henry; Benton Jew; Leonard Kirk; Karl Kesel; Michelle Madsen; and Val Staples
Published by Marvel Comics. $19.99 USD

First of all, don't worry overmuch about that exhaustive list of artists. This isn't one of those books where a ton of people were pulled in to do a page here and there to meet deadlines. Well, that could be part of it, but it's really the first five issues of the ongoing (but recently canceled) Agents of Atlas series, which had a different creative team for flashbacks, plus other Parker-written stories from several Marvel specials that featured the Agents.

The Dark Reign storyline is handled with confidence by Parker, bringing any readers up to speed who hadn't read the introductory Agents miniseries or who, like me, weren't that familiar with the new Marvel Universe status quo of Norman Osborn being a powerful "hero" with his own paramilitary group called HAMMER, as well as running his own version of the Avengers. Atlas leader Jimmy Woo has a good idea: get on Osborn's real, dark side by posing as a criminal outfit, offering to build him weapons that will end up not working. They play their hand too early trying to establish their evil cred, which leads to conflict with the Avengers, though handled without much bloodshed. Woven into this is an enjoyable flashback involving dragon scales and time travel and a humorous, harmless retcon centered on Captain America, with nice Hardman art evocative of Michael Lark but lighter and more compatible with the Silver Age tone of the story. Parker sets up some other conflicts including a possible usurper to Woo's leadership of Atlas and some other business, but his emotional scenes are spare and not quite as effective as the crisp, plot-based work, though they're fine.

The bonus stories also attempt to work the Agents into not just the current but the past fabric of the Marvel Universe, with an early brush with Wolverine and a meeting with the time lord, Kang. Parker is He's well suited to writing about heroes with somewhat earlier, more traditional values. Woo is not an amoral tactician--he cares about his teammates and doesn't want them to do anything they don't want to do. I can't comment on whether Dark Reign has made other Marvel titles any grimmer, but I do find the tone of this book refreshing. Artwise, though, aside from Hardman, the various other artists are just okay. I liked them but didn't see anything that stood out.

The Incredible Hercules: Against The World TPB
Writers - Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Artists - Khoi Pham, Paul Neary, Dennis Calero, Eric Nguyen, Reilly Brown, Carlos Cuevas, Terry Pallot, Chris Sotomayor, Bob Layton & Guru EFX
Published by Marvel Comics. $14.99 USD

This series did something that's pretty unusual for modern superhero comics--let another character take the lead. It was Incredible Hulk, and that transitional issue is included, as well as the first storyline under the new banner, and a Hulk vs. Hercules one-shot that's basically a flashback to an old fight. Now that story is guilty of the deadline/don't care problems mentioned above, where there are several different artists doing a few pages each, with the regular Pham/Neary team only providing a framing sequence. It's cool to see Bob Layton, who up to this point had done the only real work on Marvel's Hercules, a couple pages, but that's about all I can say for this one. Just another link from the sausage factory.

The regular series, though, there's something there. Or, again, there was something there, as I believe this is another of Marvel's acclaimed series not featuring A-list characters to get the ax. Van Lente is working from the other side of the table from Parker, but towards similar goals. Hercules is not the lusty, grinning adventurer of the Layton era, a flagon of mead in one hand and a wench draped over his shoulder. He's more in line with the Hercules (or Herakles) of myth, the one with the berserker rage that end up costing his wife and son their lives. He's haunted by this, especially when his half-brother Ares, now on Osborn's team, reminds him of it, to gain psychological advantage.

Herc is joined in this buddy action story by young Amadeus Cho, so-called one of the seven smartest people on the planet. It's a good match, as Cho is very smart but too young to have found his moral center yet, and that's something Hercules has struggled with, or willfully ignored, for three thousand years. But as fun as they've had, running from HAMMER and the new SHIELD and all that, it's time to grow up, while still retaining their dignity and freedom. Although a darker book than Agents of Atlas, it's still about people (including demigods) trying to do the right thing. Hercules is flawed, but not evil, like Ares, and he feels remorse. It's an interesting dynamic, seeing him find the balance between being a kind of cool uncle to Amadeus while still forcing the two of them to make the harder and more responsible choice.

It's all too easy, even for a fairly hardcore Marvel fan, to miss out on some gems like these, that have some solid storytelling along with a fair amount of humanity. There are so many books hitting the stands week after week that you can't blame someone for only being able to follow a few core titles. I'm not going to say my life has been immeasurably richer for following the word of mouth and tracking these books down, but at least I can say with certainty that Marvel's output isn't as dire as I thought it might be, and that they still manage to put out some good books. Now if they only knew what to do with them.

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