Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

25 February 2011

Incredible Hercules, v. 1: Against the World

Collects: Incredible Hulk #112, Incredible Hercules #113-5, and Hulk vs. Hercules: When Titans Collide (2008)

Released: September 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785125334

What is this?: After helping Hulk during World War Hulk, Hercules and his genius sidekick Amadeus Cho go on the lam from Ares and SHIELD.

The culprits: Writers Greg Pak and Fred van Lente and penciler Khoi Pham

Incredible Hercules is an Internet darling — the kind that reviewers love, but comic book buyers do not. A large measure of credit has to go to the co-writers: Greg Pak and Fred van Lente also pop up in very positive reviews for their work other than Hercules. I myself certainly enjoyed Pak’s Planet Hulk, a sweeping, emotional comic-book epic about the Hulk as a gladiator. I had mixed feelings about the only non-Herc work I’d seen from van Lente, Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK’s 11, but I have not read his most praised work on Marvel’s all-ages lines.

Although I was unimpressed by the first TPB in this series starring Hercules, Incredible Hercules: World War Hulk, I gave it a pass because it was part of a massive crossover and because van Lente wasn’t involved. I figured Incredible Hercules, v. 1: Against the World was the book I should base my opinion of the series on.

Incredible Hercules: Against the World coverThe good news is there is nothing about Against the World that is as forgettable or regrettable as World War Hulk. Pak and van Lente make Hercules and his sidekick Amadeus Cho into memorable and fun characters. There is a lightness to their dialogue and interaction occasionally cut by the darkness of the characters, giving them some depth. Hercules’s history, both classical and Marvel, are mined to help the story along; Wonder Man and Black Widow get a few good lines as well. And the villain, Ares, got the only laugh-out-loud lines in the book, ranting at and doggedly pursuing Hercules and his sidekick (but mainly Hercules).

Despite the humor, despite the somewhat standard superheroics, Against the World is more morally complicated that standard superhero fare. (Especially if you take it for granted that Iron Man in Civil War was a cryptofascist trampling on basic American rights.) Hercules is a Greek god who doesn’t share exactly the same ethos as modern Americans — or at least he didn’t when he was in the business of myth making. He is, as Ares calls him, the god of bad decisions. He drinks, he sleeps around, and he has a proclivity to rampage blindly. He makes a poor role model, to say the least; if there is a more competent hero to play watchdog, then he can at least be aimed in the right direction. But Herc’s sidekick is Amadeus Cho, the seventh-smartest person on the planet and a teenager. Frequently he’s too smart for his own good, blind to his own irrationalities, such as his unstinting admiration for the Hulk and Hercules and his own vengeful side.

Van Lente and Pak play with Hercules’s classical mindset, using his “mythological” exploits as the basis for Hercules’s hallucinations or as parallels to his modern adventures. I appreciate not only using those stories to fill out the character of Hercules — generally portrayed in the past as a two-dimensional, good-natured brawler — and to give a reason why he uses that name rather than his Greek name, Herakles. But changing the reasoning and chronology of Herakles’s twelfth labor makes me uneasy … yes, it helps make Hercules more morally ambiguous, but if a writer uses the myths selectively (and has Herc equivocate about whether the story he tells is true), then it weakens the totality of the myths. That is, if the reasoning behind why Hercules engages in his labors is flawed, then can we trust the stories of the labors themselves? I don’t like classical literature undermined in this way.

I’m not sold on the art by Khoi Pham, who draws the first four issues. I wanted to say positive things about his work, and I like his overall style. But at some moments in the story, he seems to focus in too far — on a face, on a certain character — and loses the overall storytelling of the scene. The final issue, Hulk vs. Hercules: When Titans Collide, has art from four different pencilers: Pham, Eric Nguyen, Reilly Brown, and Bob Layton. Pham’s work is a brief framing sequence. Nguyen does a five-page sequence that gives the background to the story and looks nothing like the rest of the book; it definitely is reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz, although the colors are washed out. Layton’s two pages are of Hercules wrestling the Thing and other Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation contenders in a charity match; I didn’t realize Layton was so closely associated with the UCWF, but perhaps I just wasn’t paying enough attention. The bulk of the issue is by Brown, who draws in a clear, dynamic style.

I wanted to like Against the World more than I did. It has a few jokes, but it’s not often laugh-out-loud funny; it succeeds at amusing. The characters are endearing, except when they show their dark sides. The myths are nicely integrated into the story, except when they hold up a sign that directs the readers’ attention to how they aren’t supposed to be integrated into the story. It’s better than serviceable, better than average. It is frequently, but not always, entertaining. But it if I hadn’t had two other volumes of the series waiting on my bookshelf, I don’t know if I would be reading more.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (3.5 of 5)

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