The Uncredeemibles

Here’s a strange trend: Mark Waid + adjectival noun = excellent comics.

Covers to collected editions of Irredeemable, The Incredibles, and The Unknown

I guess it’s not all that strange, given that 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. (You could argue that last one’s a plain old adjective.)

Boom! came along during my reluctant hiatus from the comics life, which I should address in an Empaneled post soon. Mark, 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 there was a knock on him 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 his afterword to Irredeemable #1.

Irredeemable #1 cover featuring Plutonian
Cover A of Irredeemable #1, drawn by John Cassaday and
colored by Laura Martin, © 2009 Boom! Studios.

Mark’s admirers would be quick to point out that he did write DC’s Kingdom Come, whose very tension between a simpler era and the modern age — a struggle echoed not only between him and Alex Ross, the project’s initiator and artist, but also within each of them — is responsible for its success. He built his name on The Flash not by bringing back Silver Age icon Barry Allen but by having Wally West, former Kid Flash, grow up. He wrote hilarious dialogue for Marvel’s Deadpool before Joe Kelly did. He edited the infamous “Five Years Later” run of Legion of Super-Heroes, quite a break from the past (and recently wrote just as different a spin on the group). He oversaw the inauguration of Morrison’s delightfully mad reign on Doom Patrol. He co-created in Impulse the best superhero sitcom since the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League, but more charming and sustainable in its brand of humor. He showed us what happens when the supervillain wins in Empire. And he definitely 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 concepts beyond variations on such legends up his sleeve.

Even with all that, I admit to surprise reading Waid’s current Boom! boomlet,
especially having missed his crime story Potter’s Field during my time away from the comics world. These books share adjectival nouns, yes, but one thing really threw me for a loop when I got ahold of his Superman: Birthright miniseries. I don’t hear Mark’s voice in them. His dialogue never had the idiosyncratic cadence of, say, James Robinson, Chris Claremont, or Brian Azzarello, yet the lack of familiarity is evident.

Kaidan and Plutonian in front of mass of all-white buildings, saying how beautiful the city is.
A flashback to Kaidan and The Plutonian in Sky City on Pg. 4 of Irredeemable #2
© 2009 Boom! Studios. Script: Mark Waid. Pencils, Inks: Peter Krause.
Colors: Andrew Dalhouse. Letters: Ed Dukeshire. [enlarge]

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 new 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 — down 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.

Figure of Plutonian flying out of explosion surrounded by corona of fire.
“Tony” gone dark on Pg. 7 of Irredeemable #1 © 2009
Boom! Studios. Credits as above. [enlarge]

In the opening pages of #1, the Batman-style Hornet pleads with The Plutonian —
who has 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; 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 (maybe, from the perspective of self-preservation, required by) the human condition.

Tony removing glasses and shirt while sayiing 'Dan Hartigan *is* the Plutonian.
Alana reacting indignantly to Plutonian's double identity
“Tony” revealing his secret identity to Alana Patel on Pg. 12 [enlarge] and Pg.
13 [enlarge] of Irredeemable #2 © 2009 Boom! Studios. Credits as above.

Although there are certain inevitable parallels, 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.)

The closest Superman correspondences so far may come 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 “Plutonian’s girlfriend” and learns of a secret identity he uses. Mark gets to the heart of an aspect of Superman that became increasingly curdled over his publishing history until recent decades, that’s always kept me from completely embracing many of the widely beloved, largely 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.

Plutonian ending a warning that he could be anywhere by saying that this has been a precorded message and 'Sleep tight'.
Plutonian addressing the people of the world on Pg. 4 of Irredeemable #5
© 2009 Boom! Studios. Credits as above. [enlarge]

Irredeemable is drawn by Peter Krause and colored by Andrew Dalhouse, whose art
is generally effective but not ideal. Krause’s work is perhaps appropriately evocative of Superman pencilers Curt Swan, Dan Jurgens, and Jerry Ordway — just not all at the same time, unfortunately, and still other styles emerge at points, giving both the layouts and the character renderings a disappointingly disparate look 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 occasional interior penciler. Krause’s inking style is more blunt and gritty than I’d have guessed, 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 days. 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, albeit not nearly as egregiously as most.

Six covers each showcasing different characters and single letter spelling out I-R-R-E-D-E
Jeffrey Spokes’ retailer-incentive variant covers to Irredeemable #1-6 © 2009 Boom Studios.

You can read a 7-page preview of Irredeemable #1 at the Boom! website [bad link]. Even better, #1-4 have been collected in softcover for only $9.99 — quite the bargain, given that the single issues were priced at $3.99 a pop; the issues’ variant covers are reproduced as well. And there’s also the matter of #1 and #2 being sold out from the publisher. (Copies may still be available from retail comics shops.)

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; that’s ultimately advertising, however. 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 plus slow-burning mysteries, Irredeemable is easily among the best serialized fiction out there now.

Cover A of The Unknown #1, drawn by Paul Pope and
colored by Cris Peter, © 2009 Boom! Studios.

The Unknown is a detective series, begun last May, with a possibly supernatural twist. Whether I qualify that description just to avoid spoilers or because the explanation of certain events is still genuinely debatable after six issues is for you to discover — and it’s a journey of discovery worth taking.

A 5-page preview of The Unknown #1 is available at the Boom! website [bad link]. It opens with a woman in bed, staring at a ghoul who sits by the window, an unauthorized biography of famed investigator Catherine Allingham on her night table; she pops a few pills, the ghoul disappears, and her cell phone rings. She is Catherine Allingham. By the end of the first miniseries’ first chapter a murder has been solved in short order and the rest of the premise has fallen into place.

Pg. 1 [enlarge] and Pg. 2 [enlarge] of The Unknown #1 © 2009 Boom! Studios. Script: Mark
Waid. Pencils, Inks: Minck Oosterveer. Colors: Fellipe Martins. Letters: Marshall Dillon.

Catherine has six months to live, she tells new assistant James Doyle, due to a brain tumor. She can’t always believe her own eyes with the tumor causing hallucination, and so Doyle is to keep pace with her mentally and physically as she tries to solve perhaps the greatest mystery of all: What really happens to us when we die? Allingham seems to need an explanation that is empirical rather than based on spirituality or even scientific theory, which is why she and Doyle travel across Europe for a case involving the theft of a machine built to measure the human soul.

Although it’s a tad unbelievable that she “figured out Stonehenge and found D.B. Cooper” (quite different magnitudes of difficulty there, or at least different intellectual disciplines), it’s still a fun detail. Catherine’s fashion sense is also enjoyable, to a degree — I like the mix of sensible sneakers and signature red scarf, but her constant, extreme décolletage strikes me as more a gratuitous eye-grab than a statement of self-confidence. Erik Jones’ covers to #1 and #2, in particular, use the scarf to great effect, and they’re all visually arresting; I’d love to see what he and a dozen other artists who spring to mind as good fits for the material would do in an Unknown anthology.

The interior art from Minck Oosterveer, colored mostly by Fellipe Martins in the first miniseries and in the next, subtitled The Devil Made Flesh, by Andres Lozano, is unfortunately as inconsistent as Irredeemable’s. It strikes me as European, somehow — not unusual, since Oosterveer is Dutch, but strange to say since the continent is home to illustrators as diverse as Lewis Trondheim, Milo Manara, and the multifaceted Jean “Moebius” Giraud — and in that cultural context what I perceive as shortcomings might instead merely be style. Yet while the layouts are skillful and the machines impressively drawn, characters are often identifiable from panel to panel only by their accoutrements; proportions and facial features vary wildly. It’s as if the price paid for the appealingly casual ink lines in folds of clothing was a loss of precision and consistency. And while the palette is appropriate, the color rendering in the first miniseries especially is too showy by a mile, often directly at odds with Oosterveer’s expertly placed blacks. Maybe worst of all, the recurring ghoul of Catherine’s visions is just barely more creepy than goofy, resembling a wizened Herman Munster with the grin of the Grinch.

Cover A of The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #2,
illustrated by Erik Jones, © 2009 Boom! Studios.

The Unknown appears to detour midway through into the realm of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — on the short list of my Favorite Comics Ever — but Allingham has Sherlock Holmes’ deductive mind and The X-Files’ Dana Scully’s ardent skepticism poured into Jennifer’s Body’s Jennifer’s body. She explains away what Doyle calls “the magic ghost ninja guard whose touch turns people to dust” as a hired killer who uses “high-decibel ultrasonics” or “a weaponized high-speed necrotic disease”. Which still places her in a world that’s a mite fantastic, granted; thankfully, Mark has at once grounded the characters successfully in the brilliant-sleuth tradition and primed the reader from Page One for potentially eerie forces at work, so at least for my money the twists are fair.

I won’t pretend that it was easy for me to plunk down that money, $3.99 each (less my subscriber discount at the comics shop, plus tax) for the four issues of The Unknown and two more to date of The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh. The Unknown #1-4 have so far been collected in hardcover only at a steep $24.99; no softcover is in sight, although one may yet be announced before the release of the DMF hardcover next year. Even if it’s among my last flings with periodical comics, sadly, there’s no way I’m not devouring the last two issues of Devil Made Flesh as soon as they hit the racks. I wasn’t sure how Catherine Allingham would be reintroduced, but the surprises have nearly given me whiplash.

Cover A of The Incredibles: Family Matters #4, illustrated
by Sean “Cheeks” Galloway, © 2009 Disney/Pixar Studios.

Boom! wisely keeps cover prices on its all-ages titles, including The Incredibles, at $2.99. That’s still ten times what comics cost me three decades ago, but at least it’s a buck below what may be the industry standard in the near future, and I can’t see parents or kids shelling out any more for what’s usually going to be just one chapter in a multi-part story. I hope that Boom!’s release of its first Incredibles miniseries, Family Matters, in simultaneous $18.99 hardcover and $9.99 softcover collections proved a valuable experiment for both the publisher and purchasers.

When the Boom! Kids line was inaugurated in March with projects based on the Muppets and Disney/Pixar films, it made perfect sense for Mark — among the very best at character interplay and domestic-superhero yarns — to be writing The Incredibles. As a fan of his stuff, of the Incredibles movie, and of comics that can be freely shared with the next generation, I signed up right away.

Helen and Bob Parr out with the kids and back at home on Pg. 4 [enlarge] and Pg. 9 [enlarge]
of The Incredibles: Family Matters #1 © 2009 Disney/Pixar Studios. Script: Mark Waid.
Pencils, Inks: Marcio Takara. Colors: Andrew Dalhouse. Letters: José Macasocol Jr.

Despite my not getting the Mignola variant cover to Family Matters #1 and missing
#2, the miniseries was satisfying. Lacking the second issue and discovering that I was still able to follow the action was in fact a reassuring indicator that the ongoing Incredibles series and other Boom! Kids titles could do well in newsstand distribution; spinner racks are far from the cornerstone of the industry they once were, but it remains true that every issue might be somebody’s first.

Family Matters finds Bob Parr at a loss to explain the disappearance of the powers
that made him Mr. Incredible, resulting in greater demands on wife Helen’s time just as the family has finally clicked with new “civilian” neighbors — including a romantic interest for Violet. Artist Marcio Takara and colorist Andrew Dalhouse interpret the computer-animated cast perfectly on the page, bringing them full circle to the medium that inspired the film; the lettering looks slightly too perfect, always a hazard when using prepared computer fonts) but the size of the type and generous white space in the balloons should help younger readers. The softcover collection is a fabulous deal, offering a complete story plus the plethora of variant covers, which include lovely work from Sean Galloway and nifty Jack Kirby homages from Tom Scioli.

Mr. Incredible talking his problems over with Frozone on Pg. 5 of The Incredibles:
Family Matters
© 2009 Disney/Pixar Studios. Credits as above. [enlarge]

If you do want to give a child in your life a single issue either as a stand-alone treat
or to kick off a collection, July’s The Incredibles #0 is perfect — subtitled City of Incredibles in the indicia because it sets up the storyline of that name recently concluded in the ongoing, monthly Incredibles series, of which a collected edition is already on its way. The issue likewise serves as a prequel to Brad Bird’s film, with Bob and Helen Parr scrambling to get to Doc Sunbright’s clinic in time to deliver Jack-Jack. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl haven’t yet come out of retirement, but that doesn’t prevent them, Violet, and Dash from participating in a battle royale with such inventive bad guys as Dr. Pixel, Tronosaurus, and Cap’n Mummy.

Nifty variant covers from Mike Mignola [enlarge] and Tom Scioli [enlarge] on
issues of The Incredibles: Family Matters © 2009 Disney/Pixar Studios.

Takara and Dalhouse are back for #0 and the ongoing series, with Landry Walker, scribe of the outstanding Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade, joining Waid as co-writer. I plan to keep up with Incredibles in softcover for reasons of both economy and durability. (My young nieces and nephew enjoy their comics so fiercely and repeatedly that a sturdy package just makes sense.)

Walker’s addition to the Incredibles team and the fact that a third round of Unknown hasn’t been announced may be due in part to next month’s debut of a companion title to Irredeemable, also from Waid, lately writing The Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel while still Boom!’s editor-in-chief. Incorruptible is set in Irredeemable’s universe and centers on a supervillain who’s reformed in the wake of the terrible turn taken by the world’s greatest superhero.

Mark Waid + adjectival noun = excellent comics. Smart money says the equation will hold.

Irredeemable, The Unknown, and related characters TM Boom! Studios.
The Incredibles and related characters
TM/® Disney/Pixar Studios.

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  1. Art doesn't matter as much to me as it does to you, I think.
    I'd love to see what he and a dozen other artists who spring to mind as good fits for the material would do in an Unknown anthology.
    Such as...? I'll play if you will.

  2. Such as...?
    I didn't really keep a list of who went through my mind when that was written, but I'll try to find a dozen off the top of my head — without resorting to total superstars (in the sense of comics-reader awareness) like, say, Bruce Timm.
    Jordi Bernet
    Amanda Conner
    Guy Davis
    Paul Grist
    Paul Guinan
    Matt Kindt
    John Paul Leon
    Linda Medley
    Phil Noto
    Stephane Roux
    Nicola Scott
    Jill Thompson

    I almost threw in Darwyn Cooke, but disqualified him on account of his relative celebrity in mainstream comics these days, although I'm not honestly sure if he's better known that some of the above. Milo Manara, whom I mentioned in the review, was tempting, as was Angelo Stano, who kind-of has a better-looking version of the style used on the series now. I'd also throw in a stylistic curveball if I were actually putting together the anthology, like Dan Parent, Chynna Clugston, or even Sergio Aragonés.

  3. Amazingly diverse list, there, without just throwing up all your favorite artists, which is probably my own tendency...