Review: Infinity Inc.: Luthor's Monsters trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

When I think of Peter Milligan, I think of Doop. I never actually read X-Statix, but the image of those Mike Allred-rendered mutants is near seared in my brain, along with the idea that Milligan is a writer of not-quite-traditional superhero comics. And that's what I found in Infinity Inc.: Luthor's Monsters, the first volume of the series -- a meta-interpretive take on superheroes through the lens of pop psychology, profoundly creative but likely too smart for its own good.

Milligan takes Infinity Inc. as an opportunity to critique our culture's predilection for analyzing -- or perhaps over-analyzing -- ourselves. Late in the book, in a moment maybe too on-the-nose, one character muses "maybe the whole business about ... talking it all through is a passing fad" and "we're the most psycho-analyzed ... behaviorally readjusted people ... so how come there are more crazy people out there than ever?"

Milligan populates the book with characters in need of, and being failed by, therapy. Those teens recently released from Lex Luthor's defunct Everyman program include the self-replicating Nuklon, diagnosed with "pathological narcissism," who dreams of posing naked for himself, and also the shape-changing Fury, who struggles with a predilection for his mother's clothes (the abandonment issues faced by Natasha, niece of the hero Steel, seem mundane by comparison). It's only when each of the characters leave therapy and come together in a shared apartment that they find an aspect of normalcy; this suggests an anti-therapy theme that the only people who can understand one another are those with specifically shared experiences.

I won't argue here the benefits or drawbacks of talk therapy here, but I will say Milligan's story doesn't quite convince me of what it suggests. Certainly Milligan writes a brainy superhero comic (where else would you find an explanation of "negative hallucination?"), but it relies too much on standard tropes -- the therapists are all stodgy adults who "just don't understand" where the kids are coming from. The debate isn't even-handed -- there's no protagonist on the side of therapy -- so the discussion never rises above basic ideas of good/bad and right/wrong.

My sense of Infinity Inc. (cancelled after the second volume) is that it probably needed an art team like Mike Allred to attract the audience it required. Max Fiumara and Matthew Southworth's art is perhaps only slightly moodier than what you'd find in a standard issue of Teen Titans and suggests traditional teen superhero fare, when perhaps the real audience of this book is instead those who might've enjoyed Milligan's Shade, the Changing Man or Animal Man, and the art doesn't set the book apart in that way. Also, that these characters make up a new Infinity Inc. might've been important in 52, but here it might lead the audience to expect a kind of teen Justice Society, when really these characters would better lend themselves to the Doom Patrol.

I did enjoy that Milligan accomplishes what writers of teams like Outsiders and Extreme Justice have tried for years -- that of a super-team which is indeed not a super-team, but rather just a desultory gathering of heroes. Though the book is called Infinity, Inc., what we find is actually the remnants of the team, and they're not teammates here so much as roommates. The book evokes Smallville's "meteor freaks" in that the characters don't formally fight bad guys, but rather reunite with other Everyman cast-offs and ward off attacks from their own as they go.

I'm also pleased to see (even for a short time) Steel appear again in what's essentially his own title; Milligan portrays John Henry Irons just right as both doting uncle and resident mechanical genius. Milligan also picks up on a loose thread from the early 2000s Superman titles, spotlighting Lex Luthor's bodyguards Mercy and Hope, the latter of whom defected from Luthor roundabouts the "Our Worlds at War" storyline. The characters' appearance is random, to be sure, but I appreciated that Milligan didn't forget the totality of Steel's Metropolis roots.

It doesn't surprise me that next volume ends Infinity, Inc., and the brevity of the series hardly gave it room to become required reading, but I imagine fans of Peter Milligan won't be disappointed with these collections that demonstrate not quite business as usual.

[Contains full covers.]

We'll look at the second Infinity Inc. volume coming next week.
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