Investigating Invincible: I WILL TURN YOUR FACE INTO A JELLY!!!

    

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You won the Jello wrestling match Mark, but at what cost to your soul?

As I read through Invincible, I find it amazing not only how many tones the book pulls off, but also the number of superhero tropes the plot is able to accommodate organically. In this set of issues, the love triangle between Mark, Amber and Sam (Atom Eve) comes into heartbreaking focus. We also witness Mark’s first “kill.” Plus, on the Guardians of the Globe front, a long simmering plot comes to a boil.

   When you have a well-trodden plot device like the love triangle there’s very little you can do to make it feel fresh. Robert Kirkman goes the route of making Samantha the one with the unresolved feelings for Mark. While, yes, making the girl the one who gets “friendzoned” is, at this point, as fresh as five- day-old unwashed underwear, it’s the earnestness of Samantha’s feelings, which she’s had since the early issues, that make make the audience’s heart ache for this girl who can rearrange matter on a molecular level, but can’t get a cute boy to notice her. Sam doesn’t tell Mark of her feelings directly. Rather, he learns of his friend’s feelings for him from a far future version of her. God, I love comics sometimes. On Mark’s end of things, this storyline shows that even though Invincible may be an extremely competent superhero, Mark Grayson is still a dumb teenager oblivious to when a girl has feelings for him. It makes him look like an absolute doofus and is, overall, highly enjoyable, even if he does make the decision to continue dating his uninteresting girlfriend Amber.

    One thing this book is very adept at is foreshadowing. Anytime Mark has revealed his extracurricular activities to a civilian, somebody, usually Mark’s mom, brings up the fact that a super villain could use one of Mark’s friends to get to Invincible. This is exactly what happens in issue 33 when Angstrom Levy, whose super-science experiment Mark interrupted a handful of issues ago,  uses his knowledge of different dimensions to take Debbie and Oliver, Mark’s little brother, hostage. This pisses our hero off something fierce. When he gets to the house where his mother and brother are being held, after a classic super villain monologue of intent, Angstrom uses his powers to send Invincible quantum leaping through different dimensions. The villain does all this while threatening the well-being of Mark’s family. At one point, Debbie gets too confident and tries to clock the intruder with a blunt object; she ends up with a broken arm for her trouble. When Invincible sees his mother harmed, he flies into a murderous rage. Levy gets a classic case of bad guy bravado and tries to go toe-to-toe with the superhero. Mark punches Angstrom until he’s not there anymore. Mark finds himself stranded in a deserted dimension covered Angstrom’s blood, his costume torn to shreds. The weight of Mark’s actions hit him like a sledgehammer to the skull. He just killed somebody, which makes him more like his father than he is comfortable with.

     The other major bit going on in this group of comics pays off a long-running thread. Guardians of the Globe member and winner of the most original superhero name of all time, Robot, has been sneaking off to some unknown room in Guardians Headquarters that has a person that can only be described as Kuato from Total Recall in a fluid bath. It’s played as something very mysterious, but as it turns out, that deformed human is Robot, and the robot we have known up to this point was just a way for him to interact with the world. He gets a nice, young clone body for himself and transfers his consciousness into his new body. Sometimes comics can be bonkers as all hell.

     It’s rare that a comic stays as great as this one has for three years. That is something to be applauded.

My Top Ten Favorite X-Files Episodes

The following list is in no particular order:

10. Monday

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He just needed some checks!!!

Monday is an episode with the same cyclical premise as Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day. Mulder finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery. He dies at the end of every cycle until something breaks the monotonous routine.

9. Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

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Contemplating your sins…

This is a story that simultaneously deepens the audience’s empathy for the series’ big bad The Cigarette Smoking Man and makes him a more imposing force. Of course, there’s a chance that the tale of one man pulling the tigger on the two most famous political assassinations in modern American history (JFK and MLK) is bullshit.

8. Improbable.

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(Insert Archer reference here)

It’s Burt Reynolds as a Hawaiian-shirt-clad God. What’s not to like there?

7. X-Cops

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Scully don’t do cameras

Another out-of-format episode that finds our heroes in front of Cops cameras. Written by Vince Gilligan, who would go on to create Breaking Bad. It’s shot like an episode of Cops but with a spooky monster instead of a meth head.

6. Fight Club

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Wonder how high Rob was here?

While it’s not the best episode, it does include famed character actor Tex Cobb and pro wrestling is a plot point. So it makes the list.

5. Hollywood AD

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Speaks for itself really

The X-files cases are adapted into a move and Mulder and Scully get brought in as consultants. This episode includes one of the best bits of visual comedy I have ever seen (as illustrated above).

4. Home

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Here’s a dead incest fetus

The show’s  southern-fried horror episode a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This episode was so gruesome that it was only broadcast twice.

3-1. Darrin Morgan’s episodes

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This is Darrin Morgan’s IMDB photo

Darrin Morgan penned three episodes of The X-Files. All of them funny, poignant, and weirdly philosophical. It’s three hours of some of must-watch TV

Investigating Invincible:What to do When Your Dad Marries a Bug

    

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this is quality bonding time for the Graysons

     Anytime a comic book that is, for the most part, terrestrial goes to space for an extended arc it’s a real crapshoot. This is due to the fact that not only are you taking your characters into unfamiliar surroundings, the writer brings the audience along with them. Now, this is not the first time that Mark Grayson has been to the black; he had a nice chat with Allen the Alien on the moon all the way back in issue five, and he’s been to Mars on a bodyguard mission for American astronauts. Beginning with the end of issue 25, however, he agrees to help an unknown alien race after an emissary comes in the form of Mark’s favorite comic book character, Science Dog. (It’s like the end of Contact, but instead of Jodie Foster’s dead dad, it’s a 6 foot tall anthropomorphic dog with a jet pack.) After attacking this horrifying abomination, because who wouldn’t, Mark agrees to help the insectoid race called The Thraxan—after all he is a hero. After a six-day journey to the alien planet, a bored-out-of- his-skull Mark can’t wait to get to work. The young man’s enthusiasm is greatly tempered upon finding out that the leader of The Thraxan is none other than his disgraced father. After an extremely emotional reunion between the two superheroes, we learn that Nolan brought Mark to the planet to defend it from Viltrumite soldiers looking for the elder Grayson. He needs his son’s help to keep his new Thraxan wife safe along with the child they share together. Mark is understandably upset by the shocking development that his father moved on so quickly from he and his mother. After an info dump about Thraxan lifespans (they’re only nine months long), a trio of Viltrumite soldiers attack.

     The next sequence of pages is quite thrilling as Invincible is at a disadvantage for the first time in a long while up against the far-stronger Viltrumite interlopers. He finds that he hasn’t been pushing himself in regards to his powers like he should be. Once Omni-Man shows up and injects himself into the fray, it turns into what Jim Ross would call an absolute slobberknocker. Seriously, the blood spilled in these issues is something to rival the goriness of the filmographies of Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah. Skulls are getting pulverized left and right. Here’s where Bill Crabtree’s use of bright colors really comes in handy, the swaths of bright red blood really pop on the page. Also, the way that Kirkman is able to convey the power of the people of Viltrum without ever really saying a word about it makes the kryptonian-like aliens all the more imposing.

     While her son is off gallivanting in space, Debbie Grayson has put her shattered life back together, at least partially. She’s gone to real estate certification classes while our hero has been away at college. Unfortunately, the last time Mark sees her before he goes off-world, she has found comfort in liquid courage, causing her son to be concerned.

     None of the other major supporting characters really get much screen time in this arc. Although, as consolation, the version I’m reading has collected the various backup origin stories that appeared after the main story of several issues when the singles were coming out. These mostly serve to flesh out the backstory of the newer Guardians of the Globe members.

     This arc closes with Mark helping the Thraxan people rebuild their destroyed society. He’s also asked by his father’s alien wife if he can take her child with him to be raised on earth, otherwise, due to its Viltrumite heritage, it would outlive generation after generation of Thraxan. Mark obliges.

      When Invincible gets back to earth, he gets chewed out by his government liaison for going rogue. The way Mark stands up for himself in this conversation by defending what he did as completely necessary and the right thing to do, shows that Mark is growing both as person and as a superhero. You don’t see this type of character development in mainstream superhero books published by Marvel or DC. Invincible is a true gem.

Investigating Invincible: Mark Takes the Good, he Takes the Bad

    

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Two nerds talking about branding

     The thing that this chunk of issues (0,20-24) of Invincible is really about is Mark Grayson, college student, marching slowly toward responsibility and adulthood. It’s worth noting that this section of the story only covers about a month of in-universe time. There’s a “The the Story So Far” recap issue where Mark reveals his secret identity to his girlfriend Amber. About the only thing that goes on in this issue is that we see Mark’s careful, strong façade crumble slightly when he talks about his father’s actions. There’s also an Allen the Alien stand alone issue in there, so we’re only getting four issues of main plot development this outing.

      On a practical level, the book makes a few interesting stylistic choices. The most important being the way the author chooses to lay out one-on-one conversations by using about a dozen panels on a page. This does a couple of things: First, it puts the focus on the face within the smaller than average panel, so the emphasis is on a character’s emotions. Second, the panel size really helps these pages  read quicker and more conversationally. It’s a cool technique. A less important stylistic choice is the one Kirkman makes in issue 23, the Allen the Alien issue. Here he takes on a more classic Stan Lee style omniscient narrator approach, which really pairs nicely with the story’s alien protagonist. The reason I want to single out these choices is because I think they are emblematic of what sets Kirkman apart from other independent creators. Most independent comic writers write using a very specific style which gives any book they do a similar tone and sometimes that doesn’t fit with the story they’re trying to tell.  It’s the comic version of the phenomena where all Aaron Sorkin characters sound like Sorkin himself. Kirkman, however, really knows what he’s doing and avoids that common pitfall.    

     Obviously, Mark Grayson’s transition from high school to college is going to invite a lot of comparisons with Peter Parker’s similar change in the 60s. Things like this can’t be avoided. However, in Spider-Man’s life this change coincides with the legendary John Romita taking over penciling duties— large changes like this detract from the story initially. Also, these changes to any comic present a natural jumping off or on point, breaking up the story. The Invincible creative team is nothing if not scarily consistent. This makes the introductions of two possible arch-nemesises feel all the more important and weighty.

     The one thing that Invincible has lacked up to this point is a consistent threat to our protagonist. That all changes with the introduction of two new threats into Invincible’s life. The first is a teenage goth mad scientist, D.A Sinclair, who’s making reanimate zombie robots that have now attacked the campus of Upstate University—Mark’s school— twice. The other villain who is truly introduced in these issues is Angstrom Levy, who made his first appearance at the end of the last set of issues. We now see that Angstrom’s plan is to absorb the knowledge of all the other Angstroms from other dimensions by constructing a machine that would suck the knowledge out of their heads and into his own. He does this with the help of the Mauler Brothers, a pair of supersmart alien brutes that have been in the book since the beginning, but haven’t really warranted mention up until this point. Just as Angstrom is having all this knowledge downloaded into his head, Invincible shows up to muck things up. Mark brawls with several sets of Mauler Brothers—thanks to Levy’s dimension hopping abilities, there are several different sets of the twins for our hero to contend with.  Of course, the battle compromises the massive knowledge-downloading machine, so it’s understandable when Angstrom removes the helmet that is funneling knowledge into his head. Unfortunately, removing the helmet causes a great energy backlash destroying the machine and the building housing the machine. It also leaves Angstrom Levy grossly deformed with a large part of his body turned into brain matter. Mark Grayson, do you want arch-nemesises? That’s how you get one.

     Overall, this set of issues is relatively light on plot, but it’s heavy on style which makes it just as readable.

Investigating Invincible: Our Hero has his Soul Crushed for the First Time

    

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Hey, where did everyone go!?!? I am alone in white nothingness.

Over the course of the third volume of Invincible it’s interesting to see both the characters and the creative team find their groove. Mark is getting more comfortable in the superhero world and, at the same time, the visual look of the book is getting sharpened to what it will become for the remainder of the series. There’s not much difference between Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley’s artistic styles in terms of broad strokes, but I have to say I like Ottley’s faces better as they are better at conveying emotion.

      This arc begins with the fallout of the brawl between Invincible and Omni-Man; Mark was put out of commission for two weeks after the severe beating his father laid on him. What I really like about what Kirkman does here is, it’s clear that Mark’s father’s betrayal has greatly affected the high school senior, but he is much more worried about his mother because during their fight Omni-Man referred to his wife as nothing more than a pet. She’s quite understandably heartbroken and turns to the bottom of a bottle for solace. At the close of issue13, Mark finds his mother passed out on the floor of their kitchen and a drunken Deborah asks her son why he chose to fight his father and consequently, in her mind, drive him away. I should mention this all happens after Invincible has agreed to take over his father’s job of stopping major threats to earth that no one else can. This is Mark’s “Welcome to being a superhero, I hope you survive the experience.” moment. Yes, punching bad guys is relatively easy for the half-alien teenager, but the emotional toll is really where the job gets you.

     Don’t worry, for all is not doom and gloom in the life of our nascent superhero. Due to the tragic death of his novelist father, as far as the non-superhero rubes know Nolan Grayson was a successful writer who died in a car crash. For that reason, Mark has gotten a full-ride scholarship to the college of his choice if he graduates. So, he’s got that going for him, which is nice. His best friend William Clockwell has begun dating Mark’s coworker Atom Eve. Mark’s dating some random blonde girl named Amber, even though he’s clearly carrying a torch for Eve. I’ll be honest, I find the teen soap elements of this book enthralling.

    Reginald VelJohnson High, as well as most of Mark’s town, was damaged by an alien incursion.  Something that the patchwork version of The Guardians of the Globe that was put together after the previous team’s wholesale slaughter at the hands of Omni-Man isn’t very good at stopping. Large world-ending-threats aren’t their forte. In fact, they’re kind of bumbling idiots, even if they’re a team made up of compelling and seemingly competent superheroes who, despite all this, haven’t been able to click as a team. And when you’re a  superhero team being funded by the government, results are important. The struggling superteam presents a fitting counterpoint to the relative ease with which Invincible handles that aspect of his life.

     The next threat on deck for our hero is unknown. Although, issue 18 introduces a new character with dimension hopping abilities named Angstrom Levy, a man who’s going around to different dimensions collecting that dimension”s version of himself. It’s basically an independent comic version of Marvel’s Council of Reeds or Kangs. (Reed Richards of Fantastic Four resident dick fame. You may know Kang from being a time-traveling conqueror of many worlds within the Marvel universe.)  And if you know the history of those groups, you understand that any time a group of like-minded super geniuses are in the same place bad shit is bound to go down. It should be fun.    

In Defense of the Sitcom

  

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It’s the best kind of chuckle

  Recently, the subject of sitcoms has come up in many conversations I’ve had with friends. Mostly it’s just them saying they don’t like sitcoms because of the predictable format most of them follow. I completely understand this criticism and don’t even necessarily disagree with people who dislike the formula. However, those who can only see tired plotting and applause breaks in the shows are really missing the point. In my estimation, the point of a sitcom is not so much inventive plots and interesting characters as it is delivering funny jokes for sensible chuckles. Sitcom is after all a portmanteau of situation and comedy. Poorly written shows likeThe Big BangTheory and Modern Family, both shows that are a little long in the tooth, don’t have decent jokes, or at the very least, the plots tend to focus too much on the wacky zaniness of the characters rather than letting the jokes do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

     For me, sitcoms like New Girl or Brooklyn Nine-Nine are perfect examples of what a sitcom can or should be: something funny to watch while you’re eating a sandwich at lunch. That is a perfect way to view a show like those mentioned above. This is not to say that sitcoms are cheap and disposable and just a way to pass the time. Actually, a really good sitcom is hard to do because it’s a structure based on getting the audience to the next big laugh by guiding them down a smooth river of  character interplay and smaller laughs. In a way, it functions like an action movie except for it’s all very dependent on words instead of actions.

    In the age of prestige television, a decent sitcom is hard to come by because nobody’s out there trying to make them. Everybody seems he focused on the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad, shows that are like movies and make the audience feel smart and sad at the same time—basic exercises in what I like to call misery endurance. What the misery endurance shows seem to forget is the lesson at the  core of a very old adage, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Finding a smart punchline to a joke is much harder than deciding which emotion to manipulate in a dramatic plot turn. A sitcom is like the waltz, sure we know all the steps, but does that does that stop us from standing and clapping when we see it done by the experts?

Investigating Invincible:Perfect Strangers or “Son.” “Yes Father?” “I Want to Kill You.”

    

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Man, Mark’s napping really hard. What’s that?  He’s what!?!? Oh man. That can’t feel good.

     Invincible does a lot in the second volume. It introduces the series’ major antagonist and introduces us to new artist Ryan Ottley, who is still with the series to this day. It also really codifies its form which helps the reader know what is truly important in the book.

     With issues 7-12 Robert Kirkman puts the focus on Mark Grayson and not Invincible. This is a book about a kid growing up and trying to find his place in the world. That kid just happens to have powers. I understand that this argument could be made for any superhero book, however, the fact that this book has maintained the singular authorial voice for so long makes it a bit different.

     Issue seven is the series’ most important issue up to that point and our titular hero isn’t even in it other than as an exhausted sleeping face on the first two pages. Throughout this issue we meet the Guardians of the Globe, this world’s foremost superhero team. They’re a thinly-veiled ersatz version of DC Comics’ Justice League. The six members we meet in this issue get three introductory pages with the exception of the Invincible universe versions of Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern; those two sub A-listers have to share page space. Each member’s intro is drawn by a different artist giving each of these new characters a distinct feel. This also functions as a good way for Kirkman to give different artists some exposure. The one thing that unites the episodic sets of pages is a distress call to get to the Guardians of the Globe headquarters where all the members are blitz attacked by an unseen force and killed. On the final page of the issue the murderer is revealed as Omni-man, an ersatz Superman and Invincible’s dad.

     The majority of the rest of this set of issues is spent deepening Mark Grayson’s relationships and his understanding of the superhero side of his life. After his Teen Team teammate Atom Eve discovers her boyfriend Rex Splode is cheating on her with fellow teammate Dupli Kate (She can make multiples of herself, hence the name.) she lies sobbing with her head in Mark’s lap and in walks Mark’s mom thinking the girl has her head in her son’s lap for an entirely different reason. It’s a great visual gag…(PUN!!! ) I’ll admit that I brought this scene up entirely for the pun, but it does also speak to one of the main tenants of any superhero book, which is building relationships between characters. That is the most important part of any comic because if a reader can’t get behind the relationships between the characters they’re not going to continue to read the book.

     The running plot thread through this set of issues post issue seven is Omni-Man’s struggle to tell his son what he did to his former teammates. This keeps Nolan from being a completely unreasonable character until the reasons for his actions are revealed.

     It turns out that the elder Grayson’s alien race, The Viltrumites, aren’t a race of benevolent scientists as first presented, but rather a race of bloodthirsty conquerors seeking to subjugate every planet in the universe. Noncompliance with them earns any given planet total and utter destruction. It turns out that Omni-Man was sent here on an infiltration mission to weaken earth’s defenses.  Nolan just happened to get sidetracked by the whole having a kid and living as a human thing. Who can blame him? I mean, really. When he gives his son the “we can rule the galaxy side-by-side” speech, Mark, shall we say, vehemently disagrees to this proposal and fights his father. Mark gets his ass handed to him. As his father wails on him they argue over the merits of humanity. The thrust of the paternal Grayson’s argument is that their kind live so much longer than humans, so it is irresponsible to get attached to humans. It’s the Highlander argument. After all, who wants to live forever? Issue 12 closes with a bloodied and battered Invincible making the argument that, even if he lost everyone else he cared about, he’d still have his dad. His father flees the earth in tears.

   The second volume of Invincible begins to shape the larger world and plot in which the story takes place. Our hero is confronted with his first true personal tragedy. Kirkman’s storytelling acumen should be commended here, the build to the Omni-Man reveal made him telling his son his true origin all the more of a gut punch. A lesser writer would’ve made this story the first arc, but Kirkman is nothing if not confident in his own abilities as a writer. Closing out the first year of this new book so strongly means that the longer with these characters, the story can only get better and better.