Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Incredible Hercules: Dark Reign

Incredible Hercules: Dark Reign
by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Rodney Buchemi, Ryan Stegman, and Dietrich Smith
Marvel 2009

Hillary takes a break this time as Paul DeBenedetto and I live down to almost every fanboy stereotype. You can check out the first of our guest appearances here.

Garrett Martin: My interest in monthly superhero comics has flagged tremendously the last few months. Homeownership hates hobbies. My pull list is down to ten comics, and I’m at least one issue behind on all of them, except Incredible Hercules. It doesn’t get me into the shop on a Wednesday anymore, but it is the first thing I read whenever I do empty out that folder with my name on it. This is Marvel’s best monthly book, and that’s been true almost since it began. It’ll probably only get truer now that Agents of Atlas is being added as a back-up. Hercules is pretty much everything I look for in a superhero comic: it’s funny but epic, acknowledges the past while creating something new, and weaves mandatory references to characters and stories from other comics into its own story without disrupting or unsettling anything. Most important though is the relationship between Hercules and Amadeus Cho. I called it “oddly poignant” in my best of 2008 post, adding that it’s “one of the most believable depictions of male camaraderie” from a mainstream superhero comic. 2009’s made my brilliant observations even more spot-on. Herc and Amadeus have a classic Marvel friendship in the vein of generic kung fu guy and charmingly racist stereotype, or obvious gender-reversed copyright squatter and random X-Man shoehorned onto another team in order to keep his profile high enough for that guy from Frasier to one day play him in a shitty movie. In twenty years unhygienic old fans with big beards and bad breath will bore younger readers with stories of how great this friendship was. Or at least they would if anybody younger than 50 were still reading superhero comics in 2029.

Anyway, Incredible Hercules is awesome, and I’m glad you’ve started to read it. The particular issues in question today tie in to a story I have no interest in, the big Dark Reign crossover, wherein a character that died before I was born has somehow returned as a three-for-one rip-off of Nick Fury, Tony Stark, and Jafar. But like I astutely noted above, instead of being thrown off-balance by the interruption, Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente seamlessly connect Osborn and his dull Avengers to the overriding story they’ve been building for months. It helps to have Ares on Osborn’s team, of course, and to have a millennia-old heavy in Hera to go nose-to-widow’s-peak with Osborn. It just works.

This is your first time reading Hercules, right? What did you think? And what took you so long?

Paul DeBenedetto: To answer your last question: ignorance? Stupidity? I have no idea. I remember hating World War Hulk, and Incredible Herc seemed like such a dumb, temporary move that I dismissed it altogether. Then one Wednesday, during a slow week, I randomly decided to pick it up because I needed new material to review. After finishing it I was floored; I mean, you're right, how could I have slept on this series for so long?

On another note, I share your feelings on Dark Reign. It's thus far been a poor idea executed poorly, and the company-wide banner makes it so that even Matt Fraction can't write a book I give a shit about these days. But Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak apparently can, and as much as I loathe the fact that they were forced to play into this "OH NO THE BAD GUYS WON NOW WHAT" nonsense, they've done it with such grace, humor, and emotional subtlety that it's almost unfair to put it on the shelf next to other, "lesser" creative teams.

To start let me just say I love Amadeus Cho. I honestly think he's the best new character to come out of either of the Big Two since DC added VIBE to the Justice League (just kidding kids, but look that one up.) The two writers have such a grasp on what makes him tick, what makes him work for the general public, that I'm sure someone else will take over and ruin him eventually but for now I could read stories about him and him alone. Come on-- the little guy who overcomes corrupt authority by using nothing but his own ingenuity? That story's worked since before the beginning of time, and Pak knew it when he invented the character. Of course it doesn't hurt that they pair him brilliantly with Hercules in a buddy comedy. They're complete opposites, as all the best "buddies" are in the movies and on TV, and there's the right amount of sentimentality there that makes you pull for them every step of the way. I mean, this is definitely a book with a lot of heart.

It takes two issues before actually getting into "Dark Reign": the first issue is a tale of Herc's past and the other, Cho's quest for his missing pet. The former establishes the Greek hero's personality as an impulsive, somewhat foolish, though ultimately brave warrior; the latter paints a picture of Cho as a genius and loyal friend, though ultimately alone. Some might consider these filler but for someone relatively unfamiliar with the characters and the story it helps as an introduction. I'm curious though: as a somewhat regular reader did it feel like throwaway material?

GM: Not at all, especially the Cho backup. The fate of Kirby, his coyote pup, had been teased for months, since it was revealed he'd been replaced by a Skrull. That story is vital and remains one of the book's emotional high-points, at least for dog-loving suckers like me. It's not exactly subtle or original to have the loss of a pet mark a character's maturation, but like you say about David and Goliath stories, it's worked forever. That backup also foreshadows an important development at the end of this storyline, when Amadeus seems to make peace with the fate of his family. Of course that gets chucked out the window by a surprising development we won't spoil her, but that leads directly into the current storyline, which you hopefully are reading. Also I'm always glad to see Tak Miyazawa's art. They should just reboot Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane now that McKeever's no longer DC-exclusive. Or maybe it's time for Spidey and the Black Cat: Just Fuckin' Around?

There was also nothing throwaway about the Hercules story in that issue. That combination of mythology and superheroics is one of the many things this book does well. This particular story doesn't just reveal a bit of Herc's backstory or establish some of his more obvious traits, it also emphasizes his liminality between Godhood and humanity while reinforcing the family dynamic that plays a large part in the following Dark Reign storyline. He also punches a lotta dudes really damn hard.

What was your impression of Hercules before reading his book? Had you ever cared about the character before? Ever read The Avengers back when he was a regular? Also, have any other Marvel creators written Osborn half as entertainingly as Pak and Van Lente?

PB: I had absolutely no impression of Hercules. He was a character I didn't care to learn more about, and never had any desire to read about. I didn't even care much for any of the main Avengers: Cap, Iron Man, Thor; they were all terribly boring to me when I was younger. Why would I want to read about the third string? I think that was another thing that bothered me about the move from Hulk to Herc; why do it? The Hulk book itself appeared to be doing well, and then seemingly out of nowhere they replace it with Hercules and a book written by Jeph Loeb? Bah! Of course, I later learned that Hulk was going to be cancelled anyway, and that Pak and Van Lente actually pitched this unorthodox idea with that in mind, but at the time it was a head scratcher, and I don't make enough money to go buying every book on the shelf. But I'll be honest, after reading Incredible Hercules I've become much, much more open-minded in my comics choices. It really speaks volumes for Marvel's current crop of writers that now each of those books featuring the characters I mentioned above has become as compelling as any other on the rack, and none more so than Herc.

As for one of this story's main antagonists: the only person who has come close to making Norman Osborn this enjoyable was Joe Casey in Dark Reign: Zodiac, and even that was only because he was made to look like a dick, who loses at the end. Brilliant! Seriously, there are a lot of reasons why it's a horrible decision to make Norman Osborn the big bad, not the least of which was brought up by Tom Spurgeon over at the Comics Reporter, but when you work in a shared universe sometimes you have to toe the line. Nonetheless, Pak and Van Lente do a great job, and I think it has everything to do with their complete disregard of Osborn's position. He may be in charge of the largest military espionage force on the planet but that's small potatoes to a god-- as Hera says, he stands atop "the tallest dung heap." Admittedly, even when he is being written with some bravado they find a way to make it work. That line as he busts into the fight between Herc and Hera (he refers to it as "Greek organized crime) is priceless. Regardless the gods seem, at most, merely annoyed by the Avengers' involvement in the matter: Pluto's comment when Daken stabs him-- "You really don't know who I am, do you?"-- was a laugh out loud moment for me, and a hilarious sound effect let us know that Hercules simply tosses the Sentry "n-tu-DA SUNNN!"

Ah, yes! Those sound effects! Such a clever way to revitalize a silly concept: rather than always using random nonsense words the creators have decided to use the "sounds" as part of the narrative. I think "nu-KRAK" as Herc gives the Sentry a shot in the marbles is my favorite, but I watched a lot of America's Funniest Home Videos growing up. I wonder, is that a technique that's been done before? It seems fresh but it must have come from somewhere.

I don't want to jump ahead since I know we've only discussed the Avengers stuff, but how do you think Dietrich Smith's art matches up with Ryan Stegman in the next part of the story? I think it's the one complaint I might have about issues 127 through 129; sometimes it looks a little awkward to me. Do you agree? Am I just looking for something negative in an otherwise great read?

GM: There’s been some great art on Hercules (I’m digging both ends of the currently alternating team of Reilly Brown and Rodney Buchemi), but it is the easiest area to criticize. Smith and Stegman are both capable of the occasional glaring panel, with jarring transitions or action that’s hard to parse. Smith’s pretty good at facial expressions, though, and that’s vital to a book like Hercules.

And yes, the sound effects are fantastic. I’m sure this gag has been done before, probably in a hundred different comics, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Pak and Van Lente are officially the best creators of sound effects since Walt Simonson. I know there was a recent book where the sound effects spelled out editors’ names, but that might’ve been written by Pak, too. Maybe Jeff Parker? Anyway, they’re great, I love ‘em, and it’s a much better revival of a beloved and deeply missed comic convention than Bendis’s half-assed thought-bubbles.

I can understand not having interest in Hercules. I’ve always loved him, but if you didn’t read the Avengers back in the day you probably wouldn’t realize how enjoyable the character is. But man, are you really saying that Cap, Iron Man, and Thor seemed third string to you when you were a kid? I read X-Men for a time, and loved Spider-Man, but the Avengers titles were always my favorite. Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, the family of Avengers titles, and more peripheral stuff like Dr. Strange and Daredevil composed the true, central Marvel Universe to me, that entire NYC-centric territory in which heroes and villains regularly popped up in different series, not necessarily crossing over in an official manner but still acknowledging each other’s existence. The X-titles always felt a little distant, removed, like their own perplexing and overly grim little pocket universe. I read Uncanny for a few years, but it never hooked me like Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America or Roger Stern’s West Coast Avengers. But then I was also a big fan of history and learning, read the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe semi-religiously, and had an innate respect for old-ass shit. I guess I developed a bias towards classic ‘60’s Lee/Kirby/Ditko characters almost as soon as I got into comics. That’s probably why I liked the original X-Factor more than Uncanny X-Men when I was ten.

PB: I wasn't being clear enough: what I meant was, I was never even interested in Cap, Iron Man, and Thor, so why would I care about Hercules, who to me seemed like third string Avenger.

GM: Okay, makes more sense! I'd be more charitable and say he's second-string, about the same level as other Avengers lifers like Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Black Panther, etc.

I'm pretty sure I've turned this into the most fanboyish Shazhmm post yet.

So are you reading Hercules regularly now?

PB: We don't have Hilary's grounding influence! Our conversation is eventually going to devolve into "who would win in a fight?" arguments.

I am definitely reading Hercules regularly, and now that I bought this collection I'm even trying to catch up on some of the stuff I missed. Like you touched on earlier, there's a lot of stuff toward the end about Amadeus Cho's family that I wish resonated more with me. In fact that might be my only complaint besides some of the art: even for a Marvel comic some of this is way too referential. I thought the idea of a casino "limbo" was a funny idea but without knowing who some of those characters were would that scene work? I know that was just a small scene, maybe a little wink to longtime readers-- but what about the climax of the story? Hercules' battle in Hades didn't really mean much to me beyond a smartly written fight scene, and frankly that's all I need, but for a lot of other readers this might prove alienating: why do I care? I don't know that Pak and Van Lente sufficiently answered that question.

That turned out more damning than I intended. Let me just reiterate that I love this book, and I think the kind of people who need everything to be pointed out to them about characters that are over sixty years old are so-- I mean come on, guy, you're never going to catch up! Read a fucking Wikipedia entry! It's 2009! But, you know, that's part of your audience, and they need the Geoff Johns approach. They need every story to start with a caption that says "MY NAME IS HERCULES" and then have him explain his backstory every issue. And if you are going to get obscure you better damn sure fool me into believing it's the most important thing to ever happen to comics, ever.

That's why it's surprising that Amadeus Cho, and this book in general, sells. All the creative team is doing is putting out fun, well written comics, and history has shown that this formula is counter-intuitive to what works: hero porn like Flash: Rebirth and overcomplicated event comics like Blackest Night seem to rule the charts. But here's Herc, chuggin right along for like thirty issues with no signs of stopping. It's somewhat inspiring.

GM: I agree that superhero comics can be too damn self-referential (and reverential) these days, but that's not really happening with Hercules. All you need to know in the limbo scene is that those characters are almost totally dead. It's not like the plot itself hinges upon recognition or intimate knowledge of any of these characters, which is often a problem with Johns' work. It's not even important to realize that it's also a clever explanation of the laughably impermanent condition of death in superhero comics. Your enjoyment might be enhanced by picking up on these points, but your comprehension's unaffected either way. Also it's nice to see pointlessly discarded characters like Puck and the Wasp again. Not to go off on another fanboy tangent, but what the hell do the guys in charge there have against the Wasp?

Also, I have a problem with the common argument that superhero comics are too confusing for new readers. I do think that's true a lot of the time, but less because writers reference old storylines too often than because the industry has largely jettisoned the tools traditionally used to educate newer readers. Footnotes, recap pages, and letter columns helped new readers catch up for decades. I'm sure the first superhero comic you ever read confused you as much as it did me, but that only increased the excitement of discovering this weird new world full of fantastical bullshit. Hercules uses footnoes, though, and has one of the best recap pages in the business. It's not a confounding chunk of continuity porn. But then I'm a long-time comic fan who spent most of elementary and middle school memorizing the Marvel Handbook, so maybe my outlook is skewed.

Anyway! Yeah, Incredible Hercules, you're pretty damn great. Thanks! And thank you, too, Paul, for making time for our silly site.

PB: And thanks to you and Hilary for allowing me to sully up an otherwise legitimately enjoyable blog!

Paul DeBenedetto writes about comics at Wednesday's Child and about music at AVERSE.


Anonymous said...

"Spidey and the Black Cat: Just Fuckin' Around"

I got a good chuckle out of that one.

hillary said...

I love recap pages!

DB said...

Herc never really interested me either, but maybe I'll give it a shot.